Multiculturalism & Orchestras: It’s Not About Serving Mexican Food to Mexican People

And How We Are Leaving Revenue on the Table

This season, the California Symphony began a process to test a hypothesis that our core repertoire could appeal to multiple cultures if we make our product more inviting to and accessible by them. Clockwise: composer Gabriela Lena Frank (on the Symphony’s 2018/19 season), California Symphony Operations & Education Director Sunshine Deffner, Composer-in-Residence Katherine Balch, and Music Director Donato Cabrera. Plus ads in English and Spanish.

“Food is the best example of intersection of cultures,” said Salvador Acevedo, Scansion VP of Cultural Strategy, at last summer’s conference for the Association of California Symphony Orchestras. He went on to give examples found at L.A.’s Grand Central Market, just steps away from where the conference was held. “There you see Korean people eating Equadorian pupusas, Mexican multi-generational families eating sticky rice, and Latino and black construction workers eating chow mein,” he said, “Even Sushirito is a blending of cultures in the food itself.” That alone was enough to make me pause and think, as I had always sort of laughed at the kitschiness of Sushirito rather than stopped to appreciate that it’s a very popular merging of two very different cultures, let alone appreciate how amazing it is that food really is a striking example of multiple cultures informing greatness in my belly. But then the example he gave next about made me fall over: Despacito. Yes, that Despacito. “We’re not talking about food anymore; we’re talking about music,” he said.

This speaker was talking about a song performed by Justin Bieber and two Puerto Rican singers, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, that while admittedly at the top of the charts, felt about the furthest music away from the genre I serve. And just as I’m rolling my eyes at the thought of this song taking center stage at my Saturday morning plenary session, Acevedo reminded us that regardless of what we think of the song, or Justin Bieber, or pop music, Despacito was not only the most streamed song in U.S. ever and just as popular in several other countries as well, thus making it a world-wide phenomenon, but in fact the previous record holder for most-streamed song was also a globally known intersection of cultures: Gangnam Style by Psy. Acevedo challenged us to think about how — just like food — the intersection of cultures in music is time and again proving it can appeal to a larger swath of the population than one dominant culture alone. This turned out to be my favorite session of the entire conference.

“The intersection of cultures in music is time and again proving it can appeal to a larger swath of the population than one dominant culture alone.”

How This Applies to Orchestras

Currently, the general approach in classical music to multicultural programming is to offer culturally specific concerts, such as Día de los Muertos concerts or Chinese New Year concerts, for example. This is not inherently bad, and in fact many orchestras have gone to great lengths to reach out to their community to authentically and successfully create these programs. Acevedo, the conference speaker who is a native Mexican in addition to his leading role in Latinx arts research, even helped a major orchestra develop their Día de los Muertos program, bringing highly credible insight and genuineness to this orchestra’s offerings, and these concerts have proven tremendously effective at attracting the intended demographic because of it. Nonetheless, as many arts administrators know, in our ongoing quest to grow our audiences, the challenge lies in getting those attendees to come back for regular programming, e.g. our traditional concerts featuring mostly Western European repertoire. When this question came up at the conference session, Acevedo answered, “Right now, it’s all ‘Mexican food for Mexican people.’” He went on to push us to question if there’s a way to weave other cultures not just into, but throughout what we do. In other words, can we be more like Grand Central Market in our cultural institutions?

During that talk I formed a hypothesis that the California Symphony would begin to test over the 2017/18 season: if food can appeal to multiple ethnicities and cultural groups other than those of its origin, then classical music — specifically our core product in the Western European tradition — can appeal to multiple ethnicities and cultural groups if we properly set people up to feel invited and to understand and enjoy it.

Research backs this up. Later in 2017, Scansion released a new report called the LatinXperience Study about Latinx engagement in the arts in California, led by none other than my newfound favorite conference speaker, Salvador Acevedo. On this very topic, the report findings state:

“There have been many different approaches to Latino engagement in the arts over the years, but all of them have something in common: they are based on the notion that ethnic identity is the most effective engagement tactic: ‘if you identify as Latino you’d want to engage with my arts program,’ is the underlying assumption. Consequently, most strategies designed for Latino engagement rely on culturally-specific content and cues [i.e. Día de Los Muertos concerts] …
While many of these solutions have been successful in the past, mostly among low acculturation Latinos, we think that they are limited. A person’s ethnic identity is a very important part of his/her identity, but it is not the only one. People are complex, and our identities include myriad different categories, including our occupation, family role, sexual orientation, interests, and many other identities besides our ethnic one.”

On a blog that talks a lot about how getting new audiences isn’t the right answer and how we need to focus our efforts on patron retention, this post is about both: how a strategy shift can lead to more audience members from an underrepresented segment, more revenue when we keep them coming back, and ultimately more inclusion from a group that orchestras have been collectively finding our way to attract but struggling to retain.


After the conference, I went back to the office and ran the numbers on our audience demographics. Baseline data (before the current season) showed that 71% of our audience was white and 2% Hispanic, compared to 51% and 25%, respectively, overall for Contra Costa County where we’re based. While the California Symphony has seen significant success in growing our audience and attracting younger patrons — over the last three seasons our audience has grown by a sizable 70%, our average age has decreased, and in response to majority sold out concerts last year we have added more concerts this season creating a 33% increase in seat inventory — our growing audience is not representative of the ethnic breakdown of our Contra Costa County home. And then I realized: if our audience were actually reflective of the community we serve, we’d grow our patron base by an additional 23% with Hispanics and another 15% with Asians and have every one of those newly added seats filled with need to add more. There is tremendous opportunity here, not just because diversity matters to fulfilling our mission, but because there is revenue on the table.

“Most strategies designed for Latino engagement rely on culturally-specific content and cues… While many of these solutions have been successful in the past, mostly among low acculturation Latinos, we think that they are limited. A person’s ethnic identity is a very important part of his/her identity, but it is not the only one.” —LatinXperience Study

What We Are Doing About It

If the hypothesis is that our core product can appeal to all cultures and backgrounds, what are we doing to test that theory? In the 2017/18 season, we began implementing a four-step experiment:

1. Develop a policy that helps incorporate multicultural programming — both works performed and performers — into our subscription season. This led to the diversity commitment we published last fall. If we are ever going to attract and retain a more diverse audience, then they need to see and hear people on stage that look like them. This also matches our Orchestra X findings. The results of that policy begin showing up in the 2018/19 season recently announced, and this small commitment resulted in programming ten times more women and composers of color than the national average for orchestras [Source: Baltimore Symphony and Adaptistration]. While there is plenty more to do towards diversifying the artists performing and composers performed, the point is we are now more aware, thoughtful, and deliberate about this than we ever have been before, and we know this is just the first step.

2. Run digital ads in English and Spanish. We decided the easiest, fastest, and cheapest addition to our single ticket marketing was to create and run ads in both languages, and with digital we knew we’d be able to 1) target different ethnicities with the appropriate ads in their respective languages (yes, both Facebook and Google Display Network let you do this), and 2) roll this out almost immediately so we could begin measuring results in the current season (unlike the diversity commitment where we are having to wait over a year before we see any impact on audience demographic makeup). In other words, this is/was a pilot test to see if this one minimal investment will move the needle at all. Is it enough? Once again, no. Is it an intentional, strategic start that outpaces most other orchestras across the country? Yes. Will we have revenue to show for it? That’s the data-driven bet we’re taking, and the results are below.

In 2017, the California Symphony began running ads in Spanish in a step to better welcome Spanish speakers to our concerts.

3. Provide multilingual adult education before the ticket purchase. Most orchestras offer a fair amount of adult education after the ticket purchase through pre-concert talks and program notes, for example. And most orchestras offer substantial childhood music education programs. But very few orchestras (us included) offer much to educate smart and curious adults who are simply new to or unfamiliar with our art form before the ticket purchase, which is kind of backwards we realized, given that as an industry we preach that the decline in public music education over the last few decades is one of the top reasons for a declining attendance. In light of this, we had already begun moving our entire single ticket marketing strategy towards content marketing, meaning we are intentionally helping customers and potential customers learn more about the music we perform as a vehicle to increase engagement and ultimately sales. Simultaneously, we applied for a grant this past fall (which we received and just publicly announced — thank you to the League of American Orchestras’ Futures Fund!) to begin an adult education class in English and Spanish. Called Fresh Look: The Symphony Exposed, the four-week class will be fully marketed in both languages with bilingual workbooks and live translation on site through assisted listening devices. Launching this summer, all participants will be in class together, and all participants’ $25 registration fees will become $25 vouchers they can then use toward any concert purchase of their choice in the coming season. We are beyond excited for this next step in our multicultural efforts, and if successful, other languages are to follow.

4. Launch a new website that supports this work. From a laundry list of remaining Orchestra X findings of which our current site infrastructure has limited capability to implement, to needing bilingual site content if we’re going to keep running Spanish ads, to a CRM that’s not powering the back-end the way our smart, data-driven staff needs, it’s time for a new California Symphony website. We are in the early stages of the project now and the new site is slated to launch before the end of this year (famous last words). More than any one language or culture, the overriding principal guiding this mammoth and costly project is that feeling invited matters. If you read this blog regularly, you know that just about everything we do at the California Symphony is designed to put the patron at the center. And making that patron — whether existing or potential — feel welcome, unintimidated, and invited is among the most important things we can do.

Recently I was at a board meeting for the Association of California Symphony Orchestras, and Simon Woods, the new CEO of the L.A. Philharmonic, said it this way, “The orchestra field has a long history of unintentionally creating barriers between our work and the people who might find it inspiring — by the language we use, and by our assumptions about how much they already know about what we do.” We must find a way to serve different ages and ethnic groups with our core repertoire, and if this four-step test is successful, its findings are applicable to orchestras of all sizes and a breakthrough in developing new audiences.

How Is This Playing Out So Far?

I mentioned above that our baseline data shows that only 2% of our audience (before any of this work took place) was Hispanic. Next season (fall 2018) begins the programming that is more intentionally diverse and intercultural, along with the adult education work, and at the end of this year, the more inclusive website experience launches. That means that over the last six months (September 2017 — March 2018), the test of running digital ads ran in isolation. On one hand, rolling out one tactic isn’t the best way to drive results, especially in marketing, but on the other hand, adjusting only one variable reveals whether or not it was effective:

After six months of running digital ads in Spanish, the California Symphony is seeing some *slight* change in audience demographic composition.

What this graph doesn’t show is that the actual number of Hispanic attendees grew by 50% over the year prior (!!!), but because our overall audience size has also been growing significantly — in other words, because the overall pie has gotten larger — the percentage of Hispanic attendees is still small proportionately. Nonetheless, even as the overall audience base has grown, the growth in the Hispanic segment this past year outpaced everyone else, and that is an indicator to me that we might be on to something. Another indicator is that Spanish-speaker traffic to our website has grown by 34% during this same time period, so those ads are definitely driving an increase in Spanish-speaking visitors to our website. I suppose the conclusion is that a tiny investment will produce tiny results, and for its role as a pilot test, this cost us almost nothing to glean a little bit of insight. Think of how much more effective this engine will be when those visitors click on the ad in their language, then are directed to a webpage in their language, and then come to a performance where at least one of the composers programmed has a name like theirs. Oh, and if they really wanted, they could learn more at an adult education series that’s designed specifically for newcomers and also offered in their native tongue.

More Research, More Data

National data also supports the idea that this untapped Latinx segment is ripe for invitation to our concert halls. The latest NEA Survey of Public Participation in the Arts shows that of all US adults who attended at least one “benchmark activity” (defined as jazz, classical music, opera, musicals, ballet, and arts museums or galleries) per year, white audiences are declining (no surprise there); however, over that same time period, attendance among Hispanics increased (from 6.5% in 2002 to 9.4% in 2012) — another indicator of opportunity.

The aforementioned LatinXperience research gives a reason for this increase in Hispanic and Latinx participation: “Latinos reported that being exposed to the arts is an important part of being ‘educated’ and a ‘well-rounded’ person. The arts is a human endeavor that touches every aspect of society and they feel the responsibility to get that knowledge and be informed about it.” That sounds like just about every one of our typical audience members, and that gives me hope that we can indeed find a way for our core product, what we do best, to be welcoming to this group. The report goes on to suggest that the way forward is made possible by what they call “unified engagement,” a combination of marketing communications (“I feel invited”), the organization’s cultural competence (“People who look like me”), and programming (“It’s relevant”). If that sounds redundant to the four-step experiment the California Symphony is implementing, it’s because it kind of is, and I’m even more psyched for this work now that I know the plans we developed matched what the research is suggesting before we even knew the full breadth of this research existed.

From the LatinXperience study: An Experiential View of Latino Engagement in California, led by Scansion and released in 2017. The report recommends a “unified engagement” strategy across the organization for maximum impact.

Lastly, the final fist-pump-I-think-my-theory-stands-a-chance moment in the LatinXperience report is, “Programming that was not associated with Latin cultures was also of interest and respondents mentioned frequently an interest in learning about art movements, other cultures, and/or contemporary art.” Say it with me now: classical music — namely our core product in the Western European tradition — can appeal to multiple ethnicities and cultural groups if we properly set people up to feel invited and to understand and enjoy it.

A Few Final Thoughts

All throughout this season as we’ve begun implementing this work, I’ve noticed that California Symphony Music Director Donato Cabrera and Education & Operations Director Sunshine Deffner, who are both of Hispanic descent, exemplify this theory in that they are both living proof that classical music can appeal to multiple cultures — to anyone — when they feel welcomed and unintimidated. It also occurred to me that in the last year alone, Donato has conducted orchestras in Mexico, Spain, and Chile. Did those Hispanic orchestras perform only Latin music? No, they performed pretty much the same stuff we do: Carmina Burana, Pines of Rome, Verdi, Puccini, and Mozart were all on those programs with the occasional addition of a Latin composer. “It’s not about Mexican food for Mexican people,” I’m time and again reminded. Our art form can and does have broad appeal.

All of this is not about diversity for diversity’s sake. It’s not “we know being really white is bad.” It’s knowing that our organizations are more whole when we serve a better representation of our community, and that we’ll be making more money when that happens, which means we’ll be better executing and better funding our mission. And there’s a lot more room for growth where that came from.

About the Author

Aubrey Bergauer, Executive Director, California Symphony
 
Aubrey Bergauer defies trends, and then makes her own. In a time when most arts organizations are scaling back programs, tightening budgets, and seeing declines in tickets and subscriptions, Bergauer has dramatically increased earned and contributed revenue at organizations ranging from Seattle Opera to the Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival to the California Symphony. Her focus on not just engaging — but retaining — new audiences grew Seattle Opera’s BRAVO! Club (for audience members in their 20’s and 30’s) to the largest group of its kind nationwide, led the Bumbershoot Festival to achieve an unprecedented 43% increase in revenue, and propelled the California Symphony to expand its audience by 70% and quadruple the size of the donor base.

A graduate of Rice University with degrees in Music Performance and Business, for the last 15 years Bergauer has used music to make the world around her better, through programs that champion social justice and equality, through marketing and audience development tactics on the forefront of trends and technology, and through proving and sharing what works in the rapidly changing landscape of funding, philanthropy, and consumer behavior. If ideas are a dime a dozen, what separates Bergauer is her experience and record of execution and impact at institutions of all sizes. Praised for her leadership which “points the way to a new style of audience outreach,” (Wall Street Journal) and which drove the California Symphony to become “the most forward-looking music organization around” (Mercury News), Bergauer’s ability to strategically and holistically examine and advance every facet of the organization, instilling and achieving common goals and vision across what are usually siloed marketing, development, and artistic departments, is creating a transformational change in the audience, in the office, on the stage, in the community, and is changing the narrative for the classical music industry.