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Evolving audiences in the arts through experience design

A few weeks ago I listened to a radio programme that explored a wonderful example of experience design in action in the arts and its role in helping to develop their audience.

The programme was BBC Radio 4’s Behind the Scenes, focussing on the amazing work of Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Whilst the programme covered a range of issues, from the challenges of a male dominant industry to the social challenges of inner city Baltimore, the parts that really resonated with what we do here at Beautiful Everything was the work Marin has done to change the experience the orchestra delivers to its audience.

In a world where the relevance of orchestral music experiences have been lost in a flurry of social media, Apple music and the latest meme, Marin works to redefine perceptions about the orchestra’s role within Baltimore’s ever changing urban and social landscape.

Working with the local Peabody conservatory, where Marin spends her time helping the next generation of conductors, and the BSO to create a series of orchestral outreach programmes such as pop-ups in public spaces such as the train station, Marin and the orchestra are working hard to change these perceptions and bring orchestral experiences to a new audience.

This hard work and passion is driven by Marin’s belief in the importance of music in people’s lives and the role that the BSO can play in the local urban environment. When Marin joined the BSO, it was running up debts, its audience was growing older and was suffering from ever shrinking attendance figures. Now, bucking a nationwide trend, the BSO audience is growing and attracting a younger and a more social diverse demographic, reinventing itself and the role of orchestral music.

The talk of “citizen artists” takes an ownership of the role the musicians have beyond that of playing chamber or conservatory music. The musicians have been empowered as passionate advocates and tasked with going out into the community to find and activate the audience.

They discuss the challenges and tensions of broad access and still achieving artistic excellence, but Marin talks about being the best that you can be in front of a more democratic audience – “playing to people that respond to you, that’s what musicians strive for really”.

“I don’t think creating an atmosphere of accessibility and inclusion takes away, at all, from one’s artistic excellence, in fact I believe it adds to it. I believe that diversity in every form and collaboration creates depth of experience and richness of experience, and this is the change.”

In terms of objectives and targets Marin states “Occasionally, we will put human experience and human interaction at the top of that list”. Creating human social interactions, rather than always striving for artistic excellence.

Implementing change.

One of the initiated programmes, The Rusty Musicians, encouraged musicians from the community that might have previously played an instrument to become part of a playing group with the professional musicians of the BSO. Empowering and creating a new experience for these music lovers that turned them from past musicians to enthusiastic and keen BSO fans.

A series of young people’s programmes such as Orchkids and other barrier breaking ideas are evolving the role played by the BSO in Baltimore. The BSO isn’t sitting on its laurels, it isn’t dying quietly, it’s addressing its problems head on and it feels like it’s creating a platform for the city as a whole to do the same. Take a look at their website to get a feel for what else they’re doing, it looks great, I want to go.

Whilst it’s a completely different type of experience in the music sector, it takes me back to the sluggish response from the likes of HMV to the rise of online music and their arrogance that online music represented no threat to their position in the market.

Audiences and customers evolve, your product and services need to evolve to with them. Identifying your audiences’ needs and your current service or product capabilities can help you match them to those audience needs. This not only applies to what you might see as your core audience now, but also what your audience might need to evolve to be in the future, in order to survive.

Listen the BBC Radio 4 programme and be inspired about change, take a moment to think about your audience and the role your organisation has in delivering its service to your existing audience. But also how that audience might need to change and evolve in the future to ensure it and your organisation survives. There’s a moment at the end of the programme that should grab anyone running an organisation as an inspirational and transformative moment to be proud of, whether in the arts or not. These moments only come if you reflect on where you are, embrace change when needed and be bold in your actions.

Behind the Scenes – BBC Radio 4 – January 31st 2018 

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