We’re a pair of classically-trained musicians learning about audience experience from a pop-up bar in a Miami parking lot

And other tales of exploring of the future of performing arts


We are Evan Saddler and Zach Manzi, the Co-Artistic Directors of a musical group called Conduit that is currently designing three performances for millennial audiences in Miami. We will also be producing and performing in these shows. Our challenge is to develop experiences that will meaningfully engage audiences from this age group in the performing arts––AKA they show up, enjoy themselves, and want to come back for more.

Our theory is that utilizing tools and methods from design thinking, an approach rooted in audience empathy, will allow us to make strategic choices about designing the audience experiences. Our process is starting with the question, How can we make audience experience at our shows the most user-friendly? This is of course very broad, but it will guide our specific interests and investigations.

To be clear, we are not using audience data to create music. We are using it to create experiences that uplift music and engage audiences in meaningful encounters with it––the environmental and experiential elements that contribute to a rewarding journey for each audience member.

This project is funded by Knight Foundation, and we are in residence at University of Miami Frost School of Music. We are here on Medium to document and share our exploration. You can learn more about our group and project on our website.

The Why

  1. We love sharing music and want to see more people our age showing up to and enjoying themselves at our shows.
  2. According to statistics from the National Endowment for the Arts (opens PDF), audiences at live performing arts events have been declining for a few decades (see p. 12 of the report). Audiences from within the 18–44 age range have the lowest participation rates (p. 13).
  3. We believe that in order to see real change in audience engagement, we need to incorporate a strategic process that has been proven to improve customer, audience, or user engagement in other fields.

Preliminary research

Our initial research approach is to observe audiences in the context of non-arts experiences with which they are already engaging through “fly-on-the-wall” observation, or non-participant observation. We scouted out three locations where millennials are already going, which we found through recommendations from locals. In this article, we reflect on key observations about each place we visited and its customers’ behavior. We wrap up each reflection with a question that is a possible launching point for our next steps in research (true to design thinking, they all begin with, “How might we…”). This early part of the design thinking process requires divergent thinking, or keeping an incessantly open mind, to stay creative––at this point we’re avoiding drawing conclusions about possible solutions.

Place #1: Wynwood Yard

To get our feet wet, we decided to visit one of the most popular spots in Miami’s increasingly trendy neighborhood. On previous visits, we had seen a strong millennial contingent, so it seemed like an obvious first choice.

Wynwood Yard, from Miami New Times

A couple years ago, entrepreneur Della Heiman and her team transformed a parking lot in Miami into Wynwood Yard, a bustling gathering spot for people of all kinds. With loud music, tungsten lights, dusty gravel, food trucks, and a perfect balance of concrete and foliage, this place is a hip millennial’s paradise.

Observation 1: It’s welcoming to everyone

As we walked in, we were struck by the beauty of this place, in a way that we did not find to be pretentious or intimidating. There is literally no barrier to entry — walking onto the property is as simple as strolling through an open gate. There’s absolutely no obligation to buy anything or stay for a given period of time.

It also blends perfectly into the neighborhood, with geometric shapes and bright colors reflecting the Wynwood aesthetic, which is characterized by large, colorful graffiti murals. It’s as if one day Wynwood Yard sprung spontaneously from the ground.

The clientele was incredibly diverse in every observable way––age, skin color, attire, activity preference, among others. Everyone seemed at ease, as though they were not trying to be anything other than themselves. That being said, the drinks and food are a bit pricey, which could be a deterrant for some people (but again, no obligation to buy anything).

What We’re Asking (WWA): How might we make a show open and welcome to everyone, even when targeting a specific audience?

Ob2: Everyone does their own thing

That leads us to the next major observation––choices. Some people were stationary and others were constantly on the move. Some drank and some ate, while others did both or neither. Some listened to the live music and others moved away when it started. The choices are actually a component of the visit that excited us (“I’ve been meaning to try that mac and cheese truck, maybe I’ll actually do it tonight!”). Here are just some of the choices involved:

Food––a dozen or more food trucks surrounding the bar area

Drinks––full bar, including local beer

Seating––bar seating, picnic tables, high-top bar tables, long barn-style picnic table, comedy club-style two-tops, standing areas with counters

Noise level––loud within the live music area (must use raised voice for conversation), decent within bar area (normal speaking voice), and quiet in outlying areas (can hear whispers)

Movement––stay in one place for the entire visit or move around frequently, either is acceptable and welcome

Duration of stay––no requirement or traps to fall into

With many choices (including others not mentioned here), each customer is able to write their journey as they go. They might want to feel anywhere from comfortable to adventurous, but all are welcome to coexist with the many other customers’ journeys occurring at the same time.

WWA: How might we incorporate more choices for audience members?

Ob3: No screens

We were surprised to notice that the majority of people were not on their phones. There were also no televisions in the space, as if to say: we want you to be here and now. People’s face-to-face communications seemed to be completely uninterrupted by digital technology.

A father sipped an IPA while he played a game of chess with his young son. A couple nestled in the corner seemed to be on a first date. Small children ran around playing in front of the stage while their parents indulged in drinks and conversation a few tables away, possibly savoring the fact that they didn’t have to hire a babysitter in order to have an evening out.

It appeared as though people were there to create memories and strengthen their relationships with people in their lives.

WWA: How might we make people forget about their phones?

Place #2: Tropical Vinyasa

We have both become huge fans of yoga over the years because playing music can be antagonistic to having a balanced body, with hours of repetitive motion and asymmetrical playing configurations. Yoga is a physical practice that has been successful in drawing millennials to classes that cost $20+ per session.

Tropical Vinyasa, located in South Beach

We’ve visited a successful Miami yoga studio called Tropical Vinyasa a couple times in the last two weeks to take part in classes and see what we notice about the experience.

Ob1: Beautiful, quiet space

The scene was set from the moment we walked in––long flowing curtains draped on the inside of a wall of windows streaming 9 AM Miami sun. A few people are set up in the space, which is a rectangular area just large enough to fit about 30 yoga mats in an intimate configuration. The color palate is simultaneously soothing and joyous — white, gray, and canary yellow. The message at the door could be, “welcome to a brighter existence.”

WWA: How might we welcome our audience in a way that inspires them?

Ob2: A community of equal people

People could do yoga at home, but they choose to pay good money to do it around other people. Even though the circumstances sound unappealing––choosing to join 29 strangers in a space that will get steamy and smelly in a kind of activity that will inevitably make everyone look foolish––somehow yoga turns all of that on end.

Neither of us are yoga pros, but throughout the class, we felt like we belonged. From the beginning, each teacher from these two classes made it clear that we are ALL students, including the teachers themselves. The purpose of practicing together is not to judge and form a pecking order, but to connect and support.

We also saw that the yoga students spend a LOT of time talking with one another after class. In contrast to our quiet entrance, the room exploded with life after the session was over. People hugged one another and kissed each other’s cheeks (even in sweaty states).

WWA: How might we make people feel welcome as they are, especially those who know nothing about what we do?

Ob3: A guide––for everyone

In close relation to our observation about community, the teacher acts as a guide for every step of the experience, for people of all levels. The teacher’s role is not to perform for the class, but to facilitate each individual’s journey throughout the yoga practice. From the beginning, each person is asked to center in on themselves and remain connected with the self. Along the way, the teacher provides options for different levels of poses, and students can take and leave whatever they choose, based on their background with the practice. No matter what, the teacher aims to make sure no one feels left behind.

This is another way of facilitating choice. No one in the room is expected to do everything, to pay attention the whole time, or to do exactly what the teacher wants.

WWA: How might we better guide people through a show, in a way that leaves their options open?

Place #3: Venture Café

The third place we visited was Venture Café at Cambridge Innovation Center Miami (CIC), close to Wynwood. Venture Café’s mission is “to connect innovators to make things happen.” Free and open to anyone who is interested, they host a “Thursday Gathering” every week from 4–9pm for local entrepreneurs and innovators to learn and engage with one another.

from Negocia En Miami

Guests must first check in, acquire a name tag, and take the elevator past security to the 6th floor. After passing through these small hurdles, visitors find themselves amidst the activity, and it is difficult to not feel welcome.

Ob1: A comfortable space for exchanging ideas

The space is open, colorful, and full of vibrant energy. As the sun sets through the windows overlooking Miami, upbeat music plays throughout the space, creating a casual and comfortable atmosphere. The central common area is filled with leather couches, chairs, plants, and cafe-style tables; some people do work, while others engage in conversation.

A pop-up bar serves as the social focal point of the space, where each guest is able to have three free drinks throughout the course of the evening. Glass-walled conference rooms line the outer perimeter, all of which house workshops and seminars led by area professionals on a variety of topics. There is a sense of fluidity to the space that allows for movment, energy, and many different kinds of interactions throughout the evening.

WWA: How might we use space and mobility within a show to make audiences more comfortable?

Ob2: A place for everyone

During Thursday Gatherings, CIC is bustling with people. Most people are there to meet others, so it feels quite natural to strike up conversation with anyone within the space. As indicated by a number that tallies visits on each person’s nametag, everyone can see which people are Venture Café veterans and who may be there for the first time. People from all backgrounds and industries are present, and while there is certainly a youthful spirit to the event, people of all ages gather. One could be the CEO of company, or a student fresh out of college; all are welcome! You never know who you will meet.

WWA: How might we facilitate more opportunities for people to interact who otherwise would not?

Ob3: No plan required

Guests have ample choice in creating their own learning experience; this creates a sense of spontaneity about the evening. There is a wide array of new workshops every week, so many people go to Venture Café not knowing what is in store. It is only once they arrive that a person makes a decision about what they want to learn or experience. Some people choose to go to two or three seminars in one evening, while others take a more social route, choosing to spend their time solely on networking, and connecting with other people. Some create a combination of both, but nothing is expected!

WWA: How might we incorporate opportunities for audiences to be spontaneous?

Next steps

As we begin to distill all of this information, we will start looking at patterns and forming our next plan of action for interviewing future audience members. Stay tuned as we learn more, and feel free to reach out on our website if you have thoughts or questions! We recently added a second post, The Thrills and Challenges of Implementing Innovation Process in the Performing Arts.


Co-founded by clarinetist Zach Manzi and percussionist Evan Saddler, Conduit is a musical group focused on creating alternative performing arts experiences. Learn more about them and their project here.