THE role of the promoter in presenting contemporary music is a crucial one, but it is not always recognised as such. Composers need performers, performers need audiences, audiences need concerts, that much is obvious. But the one person none of them can function without, whether they realise it or nor, is the promoter.
The promoter is that individual or organisation who, whether in a formal or an informal sense, ‘fixes’ the concert: sets the date, finds a venue, books the performers, sells the tickets, does the publicity work, and takes care of all the other essential but behind-the-scenes things that make a performance happen.
Rhona Feely, Gavin O’Sullivan, Karen Hennessy and Sarah Searson at the Promoters’ Forum. Photo: CMC.
The Contemporary Music Centre’s half-day seminar on 31 March 2004 brought together an interesting and high-level group of people to look at some of the issues surrounding the role of the promoter in new music. Its particular aim was to identify ways to develop interest and build audiences for contemporary classical music, and also to outline how CMC can support those running such events.
The invited guest speakers were Gavin O’Sullivan, artistic director of the Hugh Lane Gallery’s Sundays at Noon series in Dublin; Aideen Howard, artistic director of the new Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray, County Wicklow; Rhona Feely, chairperson of the Boyle Arts Festival in County Roscommon, and Sarah Searson, arts officer with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council in south Dublin. In the audience were experienced venue managers, festival directors, promoters, education officers, arts officers, composers and representatives of RTÉ, LyricFM and the Arts Council. Karen Hennessy, CMC’s Promotion Manager, chaired the seminar and each panellist gave a short presentation relating to their particular area of activity, followed by questions and discussion.
The first speaker’s presentation was perhaps the most stark. Aideen Howard gave a frank account of her experience as director of a new arts centre, the Mermaid, in Bray, County Wicklow, a town which has had no previous arts focus of any kind. As a municipal facility funded by the local authority it is, at one level, a forum for local and community arts activity. However it also identifies itself as a platform for professional arts events which would otherwise not be available to audiences in the town. Among all the theatre and music performances presented in the seventeen months since the centre opened, audiences for new music have been the lowest of any art form, in spite of special efforts to publicise and promote them.
Results from audience surveys, she said, showed that jazz and world music events were attracting an 85 per cent attendance; a respectable 36 per cent were attending classical music concerts; while only 15 per cent were venturing to the new music events. To compound the situation, she referred to the negative ‘experiential context’ that a low attendance on the night creates for both audience and performers. By contrast, Mermaid’s Monday night Arthouse series, she said, attracts a regular audience irrespective of the film being screened, but this level of trust is not evident with either music or theatre.
In spite of all, however, Howard is undaunted. She emphasised how long it takes to establish a regular audience for a new arts facility and her plans for the future include a new commissioned work from Kevin Volans for the Dublin Guitar Quartet in 2004 and, in 2005, a new work from Ronan Guilfoyle.
Gavin O’Sullivan, programmer of the long-running Sundays at Noon series in Dublin’s Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, had a rather different story to tell. Although he opened by stating that ‘when it comes to attracting audiences, there is no magic formula’, this series at any rate has evidently found the secret. The Sundays at Noon concerts attract an average attendance of 250 each week, irrespective of the programme. In fact the weather and the availability of parking appear to have more influence on attendance than the music being played!
According to O’Sullivan, the success of the series can be attributed, in marketing-speak, to ‘a good brand’. The concerts have been running since 1975 therefore they are well established and consistent; they are free of charge and last for about one hour; and the art gallery as a venue is accessible and inviting, with a pleasant coffee-bar for lunch afterwards.
This raised a point which was generally agreed to be very important: no-one goes to a concert ‘for the good of their soul’. The entertainment aspect of any event, new music or otherwise, must be recognised. People go to concerts just as much to meet their friends and enjoy a pleasant social occasion as to hear the music. Anything that helps to enhance the context of the performance helps greatly in audience-building. In this respect, it was noted that the on-stage demeanour of some new music performers is not always as professional and slick as it might be and this is also a factor contributing to negative perceptions of contemporary music.
The continuity aspect of audience-building is harder to establish in a festival context, but the Boyle Arts Festival is now a very well-recognised summer event in County Roscommon. It is particularly highly regarded for its group exhibition of contemporary Irish art, and its music programme features concerts by young and established soloists, ensembles and choirs. Rhona Feely, chairperson of the voluntary committee which runs the festival, outlined some of the problems in attracting audiences in an area of the country with a predominantly rural catchment which has, up to now, had very little music activity. The programming, she said, has been designed with a judicious mix of conventional and more adventurous performances. Featured composers have included Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, Ian Wilson, Elaine Agnew and John Gibson, and as a result there is now a loyal local base and the audiences’s tastes have broadened. Feely pointed to education work with local schools as a key factor in building attendance at the main concerts.
County Arts Offices
The perspective of a county arts officer in an urban area was conveyed by Sarah Searson of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. This is one of the large local authority boroughs in the greater Dublin area and also one of the first to set up an arts office. With a reputation now for taking on a broad range of cultural events, the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown arts office runs a highly successful international poetry festival, Poetry Now, and a Festival of World Cultures. The borough hosts a leading contemporary dance company, Dance Theatre of Ireland, and in 1998 was the first county to appoint a composer in residence.
Sarah Searson outlined the advantages of residencies, which enable a composer to interact with local, community and amateur audiences, thus bringing new music into a context relevant for those without formal musical training. From the composer’s point of view there are also advantages, in particular in buying creative time to work on a project or commissioned work. Composers Stephen Gardner and Kevin O’Connell have held residencies in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown and this year, composer and performance artist Daniel Figgis is undertaking a six-month residency culminating in a multi-media event.
One of the overall points which came out of a very interesting general discussion was the one-off nature of most new music events. A theatrical production has a run of several performances at least, so if it is favourably reviewed audiences will build up in the course of the run. A concert is usually a one-off and, no matter how good, is over before the word gets around. In a festival situation another difficulty can be encountered: too many performances taking place within a few days mean that even those most committed are unable to attend everything. Ticket cost can also become a factor, and the promoter of a recent high-profile festival commented on the number of people in the new music world who expect complimentary tickets in a situation where box office returns are already minimal.
A number of useful broader points were made. The audience for new music, it was agreed, was a very small proportion of an already small cohort of people interested in music in this country. This can be attributed, at least in part, to the poor music education system in Ireland which leaves many people with no window whatsoever into the world of art music. Promoters must be realistic about this and should not throw new music at audiences ‘out of a blue sky’.
Physical proximity to a concert venue, together with transport problems, were also felt to be a factor in determining concert attendance, particularly in the Dublin area. In this respect innovative practical solutions might be considered: changing the start time of performances for instance, offering ticket discount schemes, and suchlike.
Karen Hennessy, speaking on behalf of CMC, stressed the many ways in which the Centre can support those promoting new music events. Apart from specialised information and assistance with publicity it might, for instance, be possible for CMC to co-ordinate an informal network by which performances could tour to several venues around the country. This would help to counteract the one-off nature of so many very worthwhile programmes.
What’s the Secret?
In conclusion, it was generally agreed that while there is no single issue that defines non-attendance at contemporary music events, there are a number of positive factors that must work favourably together to achieve any level of success. Key among these are consistent timetabling in an attractive and welcoming venue with high standards of programming and presentation, all of which combine to establish a ‘brand’. This in turn leads to trust on the part of the potential audience member. Trust that, in buying a ticket, he or she have a stimulating and enjoyable experience, and will leave at the end of the evening with -- if nothing else -- enough curiosity to want to come back another time.