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Why live streaming is not a solution for orchestras in a digital world

The tipping point for classical music

Photo by Arindam Mahanta

In the twentieth century, people went to concert halls to hear the greatest classical music performed by orchestras like the New York Philharmonic or Boston Symphony. My parents are Baby Boomers and many of their friends, upon hearing I’m a musician, tell me their parents took them to orchestra concerts as kids like it was some sort of ritual. In that time, going to hear an orchestra play was a unique experience that many people seemed to value. But now with the National Endowment for the Arts reporting declining attendance at classical music concerts over the last several years and the looming threat of scrapping public arts funding altogether, we really should be asking ourselves: is there a meaningful future for live classical music?

the evolution of music listening

thanks B

About 100 years ago, the home radio enabled many people to hear live broadcasts and recordings of all kinds, including classical music performances. It was surely nowhere near the sound quality of a place like Carnegie Hall and not at all visually stimulating. In the 1950s, the TV arrived, on which people could watch orchestras play live on PBS, perhaps with a bit better sound and a visual component, but still nothing like the real thing. By the time my parents were born in the 60s, the experience of engaging with music was evolving even more rapidly.

Between then and now, we’ve seen eight-track, cassettes, CDs, DVDs, MP3s, YouTube, and most recently, live streaming. Alongside those advances in recording technology, we’ve witnessed a rapid advancement in the capabilities of listening equipment, including personal headphones, portable bluetooth speakers, and professional-grade speakers that put out sound with lifelike quality. Video has gotten to the point where the human eye can no longer pick out a single pixel on a computer or TV screen, not to mention the immersive experience of virtual reality.

The possibility of sitting at home and getting a superb sonic and visual experience is very available. Of course, any musician will attest to the fact that the sonic experience of music in a great concert hall — the energy of crisp bows contacting strings, the ringing of an incredible wind sound, the visceral feeling of low frequencies moving through your body — could never be fully recreated by sound equipment.

poor Dolores

However, technology has advanced so far that the experience of listening to recorded music is close enoughfor many people to get the same satisfaction as a live classical music performance, and we have a rising generation of potential audience members who LOVE technology. We musicians know the unparalleled experience of hearing music performed live, but the longstanding value of live classical music in our culture can no longer be assumed. And in today’s America, organizations have to clearly demonstrate their value in order to survive. Although it might sound like a doomsday forecast, there is a methodology we can borrow from other fields to tackle this issue creatively (addressed in “taking a step back” below).

But first we need to ask ourselves — how does the value of the live classical music experience exceed listening to recorded music in isolation? If we don’t, we might be looking at a future of live streaming concerts performed in empty concert halls, which is not a solution.

the human element

The need for creating a unique live concert experience has led to some incremental solutions, like allowing audience members to bring drinks into the hall and playing in non-traditional venues, which are no doubt good steps toward making the experience more enticing. But in the end, we need to go beyond these things to approach the ultimate impact we want our music to have on people. I’d be interested to know how many concertgoers tell their best friends, “You HAVE to go hear ________ Orchestra. They let me bring my wine into the performance! I’m forever changed.” or “I saw all of the Mozart String Quartets performed last night…in a warehouse. I finally get classical music!”

the full orchestra VR experience

Some orchestras with extensive resources are getting more creative than that, like the LA Phil with its immersive Reykjavík Festival last year and technologically innovative Van Beethoven. New World Symphony has created the WALLCAST, which is an entirely new way to experience classical music. But budget size aside, all performing classical music organizations have a combination of two extremely valuable resources at their disposal: (1) a space to bring people together (whether owned, rented, or borrowed) and (2) live performers who deeply understand the human and emotional nature of music. So, in maximizing the impact of these resources, performances should be about bringing people together, musicians and audience members, to explore the complex worlds of human triumph, sacrifice, joy, loss, humor, uncertainty, and love through the equally complex world of classical music. A strictly traditional concert experience doesn’t really foster this sense of community — our audiences act as witnesses rather than participants and the environment surrounding the music can be exceedingly formal and removed from emotion.

But even the briefest humanizing moments can change the impact of an entire concert. In early 2016, I attended a concert at the Milwaukee Symphony conducted by Jeffrey Kahane in which he spoke between pieces. At one point, unexpectedly, he made a subtle reference to the recent cases of police violence toward African American people, a very poignant topic at that time, especially in Milwaukee, which is considered to be one of the most racially segregated cities in America. He made the point that sharing in music together has the capacity to help us transcend differences. You could have heard a pin drop. I felt my combination of grief and guilt moving through the space and connecting me to dozens of people who were feeling the same. In the span of a few seconds, not on any grand scale, Kahane had given human purpose to the music. The connection grabbed our attention and seemed to implicitly unite us in having a shared emotional experience that we could not have recreated at home. And in that moment, there was no advanced technology, no huge grants for innovation, no lavish marketing campaigns.

It just took one musician being bold and vulnerable — stepping in front of an audience and saying, classical music is human…and we are here to build community around exploring what that means.

Every piece of music is a living, breathing expression of human experience produced in real time by human beings. Listening to Spotify with bluetooth noise-cancelling Bose headphones on my head does not give me community. Concerts have the potential to be one of the most human things we have left in a world that is becoming increasingly tech-driven, digital, and virtual.

what a jolly guy

Even if people don’t get the workings behind music, they can feel it. In a recent episode of NPR’s TED Radio Hour called How Art Changes Us (highly recommend listening to the entire episode), conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and brilliant speaker Benjamin Zander recounts when in his TED talk he demonstrated the emotional impact of Chopin’s Nocturne in E minor. Zander says to the audience, “Would you think of somebody you adore who’s no longer there…a beloved grandmother, a lover…somebody in your life who you love with all your heart, but that person is no longer with you. Bring that person into your mind, and at the same time, follow the line all the way from B to E and you’ll hear everything Chopin had to say.” If you want to get a taste of this incredible moment, watch the talk (go to 12:35 for this demonstration).

Music is a universal language because it speaks to a part of us beyond words, and it’s our responsibility as musicians and artistic leaders to tell a story of human experience through music in more subtle ways than lectures and more impactful than cool but irrelevant venues. We don’t want to tell our audience what to think, but we want them to walk away and tell their friends how moved they were by the experience. So how do we get them there?

creative constraints

We might be tempted to think that in an effort to not be prescriptive, we should tell people to just sit back, relax, and enjoy the beautiful music. To somebody who isn’t well versed in classical music — even for me — that’s sort of like saying, “okay you have 45 minutes to create something new, without any restrictions and using every resource on Earth. Go!” Sound fun? Maybe in theory it sounds liberating, but in practice, this would not be so compelling. The challenge is so vague that I won’t be inspired to engage.


But what if I tell you — you have 45 minutes to write a letter to your childhood self. Or to draw what your city will look like in 50 years. Or describe the fake sea creature that lives at the deepest point in the ocean. Still creative and open-ended, but personal, intriguing, relevant…and maybe even fun.

Engaging with music as an audience member is a creative activity that fires the imagination (I’m actually starting to imagine entire musical experiences surrounding the above three ideas), and people generally enjoy creating much more if they have some constraints — check out how this video from TED-ED explains the concept. Zander used his interpretation of Chopin to give his audience constraints that empowered audience members to personalize their listening experience. He allowed people to create their own path without being overwhelmed at the outset, which is essential with something as abstract and complex as classical music. People were able to discover the complexity of Chopin through their own experience as complex beings.

We had a lot of positive responses when we gave audience members a framework within which to experience classical music at an experimental concert I conceived, produced, and hosted as a fellow at the New World Symphony. Six musicians from the orchestra got up individually and told stories about pieces they had chosen to play that revealed how they personally related to them in their own experience. The musicians avoided using technical terminology in their presentations and got straight to the heart of it — why they wanted to share it with people. We set up an environment to foster an emotional connection with the music and then asked audience members to tell us how they responded on an emotional level.

the concert was more fun than group therapy, I promise

Among the positive responses after the concert, we did get a few negative ones, including a survey comment from one person who left at intermission and said that this concert was like “group therapy.” I thought about this comment for a while and got down on myself about it, but then I thought…why not?!Music can be healing. That’s a reason we love it. Of course going to concerts should be healing and life-altering — that’s a unique experience that is more than worth our time and money.

holistic experiences

When I walk into a Starbucks, I don’t turn around and say, “$4 coffee? I can make that way cheaper at home. I’m leaving.” I’m there for a reason. Say what you want about their product, they have created a holistic experience that makes going there worth spending much more on coffee that one should ever spend. It may be the streamlined ordering experience, the comfortable environment, the predictable quality, or the convenience of ordering from the app. They have figured out a way to make me care about their product so much that I go out of my way to engage with it.

The issue for us nowadays is that we’re competing with innovative companies like Starbucks and Netflix for people’s time and attention. If people, especially people in their twenties, are going to be willing to get off their couches and stop watching Netflix, it’s going to have to be significantly better than Netflix (I’m writing this with Portlandia season 6 paused on my TV right now).

Surely, there are simple reasons people won’t go to concerts — I have to take an Uber there, the tickets are expensive, I have to get a babysitter. But successful companies have learned how to overcome such objections and motivate people to buy their products and services. If an audience member is sure they’re going to have a personally valuable concert experience, they’ll make the effort to attend.

So what does a holistic experience for a concert look like? Let’s say I wanted to develop an orchestra concert called Letters to a Childhood Self. I could weave an entire experience that incorporates a diverse set music written for, about, and by children (yes, by children, AKA early Mozart…also check this out); opportunities for the audience to actually write to their past selves in response to the music; and an informal way of speaking to the audience that invites them to reminisce and share with each other while exploring the complex narratives they create in direct response to the music. We’d be engaging an audience in super high quality music written by great composers, old and new, through a relatable thematic experience. Just an idea.

taking a step back

If you’ve read some of my most recent articles, you’ll know I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but businesses and nonprofits outside of music are using a problem-solving method called design thinking to better serve customers based on their needs and desires. When you walk into an Apple Store to buy a new computer, the entire layout of the space, the interactions with employees, the placement of products, not to mention their entire brand, has been carefully designed to convey a certain message. As a result it feels completely natural and rewarding for us.

We all need to take a step back and ask ourselves — what do we want our audience to get out of this live experience? If our answer is vaguely “to be inspired” or we don’t know at all, then we shouldn’t be doing it. There are plenty of easier ways to get inspired and with the number of options people have for filling free time nowadays, so they’re not going to engage unless they feel an experience will directly benefit them.

I won’t deny the fact that just listening to music for some audience members is enough. But if we’re looking to increase the impact our music has on our current audiences and inspire them to bring new people along, then we must think of how we can tap into our unique resources as live performers.

— —

NWS Creative Director and I are creating a series of online resources for musician-entrepreneurs called Design Thinking for Musicians, to be released in Spring 2018. Click here to sign up for our email list, and we’ll send you a message when info is available. You can also check out my website to send me a note!

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Zach Manzi

Zach Manzi

classically-trained, future-oriented | Service Designer at GoDaddy | former Knight Foundation fellow | alum of Juilliard and New World Symphony

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