DECEMBER 4, 2019
CONVENTIONAL WISDOM PAINTS a grim forecast for the symphony in 21st-century America. Audiences are shrinking. Ticket sales are plummeting. Orchestras are going bankrupt left and right. Millennials will never learn to appreciate Brahms, and existing subscribers are too old, too white, and too male. In sum, classical music is in irreversible decline.
Aubrey Bergauer has made her career rewriting this conventional wisdom. Only 36 years old, Bergauer served as the executive director of the California Symphony in Walnut Creek from 2014 to 2019. In half a decade, the results were nothing short of a resurrection: ticket sales increased by 70 percent, the donor base quadrupled, and this modest-sized town northeast of San Francisco turned into the unlikely home of one of the most diverse symphony audiences in the United States.
Under her watch, the California Symphony became the first orchestra in the country to make a formal commitment to diversity. Now, they devote one-fifth of programming to women composers, living composers, or composers of color. But the organization also achieved something else: relevance.
This remarkable success derives from a simple formula: approaching old problems with new data. After a yearlong audience survey project called Orchestra X (styled after Google X), Bergauer discovered that many talking points about the industry did not match the numbers. “The data shows that we’re excellent at attracting new audiences nationwide, but 90 percent of first-time attendees never come back again,” she explained, “So we’re actually excellent at acquisition and terrible at retention.” Across the board, Bergauer has a knack for isolating the real problems from the rhetorical ones.
In Silicon Valley terms, the best way to describe Bergauer is as the Sheryl Sandberg of the Symphony. Sure, the Zuckerbergian conductors hog all the headlines. But she keeps the doors open and the operations running. Bergauer has built a business model for the orchestra that works in 2019 — and, most importantly, a model that can be replicated elsewhere. Musical purists may recoil at phrases like “content marketing,” but ideas about business models and website design may be more vital to the field’s health at this moment than the premiere of any new Philip Glass piece could be. To put it another way, Bergauer’s ideas are not just for administrators but for all music lovers who care about preserving the symphony.
I met Aubrey at the Birba wine bar in San Francisco’s Noe Valley. It was a strange moment for Bergauer. Five days earlier, she had announced her departure from the California Symphony to become a jet-setting consultant traveling the country to share her insights with orchestras and operas. “I’m so proud of what we’ve done here, but now I’m eager to replicate these results on a larger scale.” In the five months since our meeting, Bergauer was announced as the Founding Executive Director at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s new Center for Innovative Leadership. Our conversation was charged with that restless energy you sometimes encounter when you catch a leader just as they’ve closed one chapter of their life to embark on a greater challenge.
THEODORE GIOIA: We’ve all heard the apocalyptic diagnoses about the dire fate of the orchestra today. What’s wrong with the conventional thinking about how to fix the symphony in 2019?
AUBREY BERGAUER: Too often in this industry people think the solution is driven by programming. If we program more Harry Potter, then more young people will come. That works in the short term — sure, Harry Potter will sell out any day of the week — but all the data shows that those people don’t come back. This pattern holds whether its movie concerts for younger audiences or culturally specific concerts trying to reach diverse audiences.
Programming is part of the solution, but it’s not the number-one thing. Now, we have over a decade of research showing that it’s not getting people to come back. So many orchestras repeat the truism, “We need to attract younger audiences.” No! That’s not true. The data shows that we’re collectively excellent at attracting new audiences. Nationwide, the statistic straight from the League of American Orchestras is that 90 percent of first-time attendees never come back again. That’s a really alarming statistic. But that means a lot of people are coming once. So we’re actually excellent at acquisition but terrible at retention.
You can convince people to come to a movie concert once. But how do we get them to come back for the traditional repertoire? Sure, programming is one way to address that. But take something like the San Francisco Symphony’s SoundBox venue where they’ve reimagined the experience in an amazing way. But that experience is not replicated in the main hall. These side projects are often successful because they’ve correctly addressed some of the issues. It’s welcoming. It’s unintimidating. It’s fun. You can bring your drinks to your seats, you can have your phones on, but that feeling is not repeated in the main concert hall. Then we’re left scratching our heads, wondering, “Why aren’t they coming?” Well, it’s a totally different experience.
Tell me about the Orchestra X project? How did it start? What type of data did it uncover?
In 2016, I started wondering more seriously about why so many of my peers weren’t coming to the orchestra. So I ran a research study called the Orchestra X project, affectionally named after Google X, the company’s experimental research arm. In short, we asked the question, “Why don’t you come to the symphony?” We put out the call for newcomers — millennials and Gen Xers — who self-identified as smart, culturally aware, and having expendable income — in other words, the people who should be the perfect prospective audience for us but weren’t coming. What did they want to see? What did they have to say?
What we learned was surprising: It’s not the music that’s the problem. All these newcomers thought the traditional repertoire was amazing. They were like, “I had no idea that 70 to 80 people on stage could sound so amazing. It’s so different than Spotify!” These are smart people, but it was often their first experience with the art form. You know what none of them said? “I want more Harry Potter.” They said, “I want to learn about composer X, Y, or Z that I didn’t know before the program.” It turned out everything else about the experience was off-putting, from trying to get information online to figuring out the unspoken rules about when to applaud. That was all from the Orchestra X research.
So what are the problems? My theory is that the chief culprit is the concert hall itself. The design, in a strange way, is the architecture of hierarchy and class distinction — with its towering boxes and balconies. The rich are literally above you. At a more cosmic level, however, I see that the public is moving away from art forms that require passive contemplation (like a symphony) toward formats that favor active participation. Millennials want something that’s experiential and participatory. But in a traditional symphony, you just sit there in silence.
I think some of that transfers to the orchestral experience. I was recently at another major symphony orchestra, and the first thing on the PA system was, “Absolutely no photos. Put your phones away.” That’s not how people consume culture in 2019.
But it’s important to reconsider the digital experience as well. For crying out loud, many orchestra websites aren’t even mobile friendly! That’s just basic. For the digital experience, those Orchestra X participants told us everything from, “Your website reads like inside baseball,” to, “I don’t know what to wear.” Some people didn’t know the names of the instruments, which was really eye-opening for me because I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know the instruments in the orchestra. It just became so clear that the decline of music education over the past decades explains why we’re seeing attrition in our audiences. Yet I realized I had done nothing to change the way I talk about the art form. So I told myself, “You can either bury your head in the sand and ignore the feedback you’re receiving, or you can do something about it.” Drop the technical language. Drop the terminology, like “concerto.” They don’t know the instruments, so they definitely don’t know what a concerto is. Yet we use that word on every single program.
The language of the symphony can be quite stifling. There’s this established vocabulary filled with foreign technical terms and baroque adjectives. “Harmonic.” “Lyrical.” “Soaring.” How have you changed the way you talk about classical music? What have you found to be effective when discussing the symphony with an unfamiliar audience?
On one hand, it’s easy to define a term when we use it. Choosing words carefully is a skill. How to write concisely is a skill. Often in the performing arts you’ll see these long-winded descriptions — and my reaction is, “Can we please condense that to two sentences?” By condensing, you lose a lot of jargon and get to the meat of what you’re trying to say. That’s good marketing. It’s actually lazier to default to writing two paragraphs in an email blast or on a website. By building that muscle for concision and being careful about every word, it makes you consider more direct ways to say what you mean.
It’s important to inject new vocabularies into the dusty symphony lexicon. You need to find ways to speak about the joys of a classic piece in radically contemporary language. I was immediately struck by the names of your event series — Surround Symphony and Cirque du Symphonie — which evoke a fresh set of references and associations.
As orchestras, we’ve got to remember that we’re marketing to smart people. Sometimes skeptics say, “Well, I don’t want to dumb it down.” That’s not what I’m suggesting. We don’t need to dumb anything down. We just need to reconsider our vernacular a bit.
It’s really about education, and specifically education in terms of content marketing. Nobody wants to be sold to like a street vendor: Get your tickets here! That’s not effective marketing today for any brand. But content marketing — providing educational information as a way to incite interest — is proven to work across multiple industries.
Orchestras are sitting on a gold mine of educational information. We have so many stories about the music and the composer at our disposal. There’s so much fascinating information that we could be sharing. But most orchestras provide zero adult education (and if they do, they usually only offer it after the customer purchases a ticket, like a pre-concert talk or program book). Sometimes there are free community lectures that would take place before purchasing a ticket, but it’s usually geared toward the aficionado. I realized there were educational programs happening for a small segment of our audience that we could revamp to have a wider appeal for other groups we were trying to attract.
In other words, marketing, not music, is the issue. Then how do you create marketing about Baroque music that’s accessible and compelling to the general public?
A lot of it is just blog writing. There’s so much you can put in print. It’s easy and cheap content to produce as long as you have somebody who can write on staff.
So blogs are the silver bullet to save the symphony!
Well, let me give you an example. For instance, we produced a lot of content around the detail in Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony that the percussion — the cymbal — only has one note in the entire symphony. We did a video and a social media graphic about this weird phenomenon. You don’t have to read music to look at a side-by-side comparison of the violin part versus the cymbal part and see that it’s quite different. That type of content got people interested.
Content marketing is how we get people to learn, appreciate, and buy. With this type of campaign, we basically sold out that concert of Bruckner’s Seventh (which is usually a box-office dud) and sold out a world premiere by our composer in residence. This stuff doesn’t sell itself. That’s how you know you’re doing something right: when you’re selling out Bruckner and not just Beethoven.
Where did you start your journey with music? Were you the type of kid who has dreamed of being the CEO of the New York Philharmonic since age nine?
My story starts in high school. Growing up, believe it or not, I played the tuba and loved breaking the stereotypes of the girl tuba player. I was really serious and really good. I played in the youth orchestra in Houston, and I won an audition in eighth grade to become the one tuba player in the orchestra for the entire city. When I was a sophomore in high school, the orchestra went through an executive director change. I remember sitting at the back during rehearsal when they brought up this new person, maybe mumbled a sentence about the job, and then introduced her.
Her. That was important in hindsight. It was a lightbulb moment when I realized there is a job managing all this. You can be a crucial part of your organization without playing your instrument. For me, that was the second where it clicked, “This is what I want to do with my life.”
You became the director of the California Symphony at age 31. Were there any particular challenges you faced as a young female executive in a notoriously alpha-male field?
Yeah, I think the industry still suffers from a lot of gender bias. I remember my very first board meeting for the California Symphony, there was a board member who asked, “What do you think your job is, Aubrey?” And I thought: I’m here. I’m not interviewing for the job anymore. Did you not read the bio they circulated when I was hired? I had a decade of prior experience at the Seattle Symphony and the Seattle Opera, and I don’t need to spend my first board meeting proving myself to you. I have a lot of stories about that kind of stuff.
During your tenure, the California Symphony built one of the most diverse audiences and programming repertoires in the nation. How did you achieve those results?
To my knowledge, we were the first professional orchestra to make a public commitment to diversity across every facet of the organization: the programming, the guest artists, the staff, and the board selection process. We tried to incorporate best practices in everything from the composers we program to how we select candidates to hire on the administrative team. Yet some of those conversations have not been easy. There were moments when board members would say, “What about the quality of what we perform? Won’t the quality go down?” Those kinds of statements are so indicative of the problem. Do people understand, when you make a statement like that, you’re saying the quality’s automatically inferior when you diversify? No. That’s wrong. There’s great music everywhere.
So how do you enact diversity in practice? What tactics do you use?
There are different answers for different facets of the organization. In terms of programming, I remember a conversation a few years ago with my music director, Donato Cabrera, who’s been an amazing ally in this endeavor. We were looking at the lineup for the upcoming season, and he thought we were done. But I asked, “You know, Donato, do you want to program any women composers or composers of color?” Then he smiled, “I’ve been dying to program Gabriela Lena Frank and George Walker,” and he started listing all the women composers and composers of color he wanted to perform. Just by asking the question, we opened the door to a new conversation about our programming. This is why having representation among decision-makers is so important. I was more inclined to ask about programming women composers because I am a woman. Donato didn’t do anything wrong; all someone had to do was ask the question and it sparked a million ideas that just weren’t at the forefront before. We need this representation in our senior leadership teams — to ask the questions, to bring ideas into focus that may not be top of mind. Otherwise homogeneous teams make homogeneous decisions.
Later, I asked Donato how he felt about formalizing a commitment: what if we made 20 percent of all our programming underrepresented composers? At the time, the national average was about two percent. He replied, “I’ve got a long, long list of people I’d love to program.” Soon after, we had a formalized diversity policy, including not just programming but commitments for hiring staff, recruiting board members, and selecting guest artists. In this coming year, 45 percent of our season is devoted to women composers, composers of color, or living composers.
And you’ve not seen a dip in sales?
We doubled our audience! Latinx households increased by 50 percent. Sales are going up. But it’s all these tactics combined. It’s not just one strategy. There’s no silver-bullet solution. We’ve been chipping away at a lot of issues.
What do you think about mixing genres in concert? The traditional borders between high and low culture — between Beethoven and Beyoncé — seem to be dissolving for younger audiences. Should we be bringing different types of music into the symphony’s hallowed halls? Or would that alienate the core audience?
Here’s my theory: it’s all good music. At almost every orchestra in the United States, there is siloed programming — and therefore siloed audiences. But why silo that way? Why not just program the different genres together throughout your season? Let’s have pops or movie tunes on a program along with a classical warhorse. We made a commitment to program composers of color throughout the season at the California Symphony, not just during Black History Month. When you do that, you develop an audience that always wants to come — not just attend that one thing and not give anything else a try.
I know I started off the conversation by sort of knocking Harry Potter, but I don’t really have a problem with it. When you hear music from a movie you love, that’s cool, and to mix that with something else more traditional only broadens the public’s view of the symphony. It showcases the breadth of what the orchestra can offer. That’s why I love mixing genres. The audience realizes, “Wow, I came for this one thing and then I also really enjoyed this other thing.” That’s the whole goal. If you only program one genre at a time in a concert, it really limits the audience’s ability to understand the full scope of the orchestra’s ability. We’re talking about professional orchestras that can play any type of music in any style — and that’s difficult. We should be proud of that, and we should showcase it.
Theodore Gioia is a critic living in San Francisco. His work has appeared in The Believer, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Virginia Quarterly Review. He is currently writing a book on California’s changing food culture.