20 things from ABO 2023

I haven’t attended a useful conference for a long time – usefulness meaning timely storytelling, insights that make me want to reach for my notebook, and thought-provoking questions. I’ll feel I’ve got value for money if on the return journey my reflections lead me further into a subject.

The ABO conference has certainly met these fairly low-level requirements. Those presentations built on data explaining audience behaviours provided something tangible, in turn highlighting how easy it is to get lost in aspiration. Those that were low on content and big on personality were a comparatively empty experience. I’ve captured some of the things I found myself responding to in a list at the end of this post.

What dominates my thoughts heading home is how I’ve heard a lot of people talking about the classical music ‘experience’ in a bid to illustrate that an individual’s love of live music consisted of more than what was going on in the auditorium. Where that experience begins – on the journey to the venue, as you walk through the doorway, or when you obtain your pre-concert drink – is up for debate, but its good to see people in the industry beginning to make the obvious a little more explicit.

A few snippets from various events that really stuck in my mind:

  1. “We need to articulate the way music connects with humanity.”
  2. Music plays a critical role in the well-being of society.
  3. How do we tell the most compelling story to the widest possible audience?
  4. Audience behaviour has been negatively impacted by the cost of living crisis.
  5. UK orchestras contributed £4 billion to the UK economy in 2021.
  6. 4 million people enjoyed 3600 concerts across the UK in 2021.
  7. It’s possible to measure someone’s emotional response to music through their sweat.
  8. Don’t assume that concert/operagoers also listen to their favourite genre on the radio.
  9. 83% of respondents in a Global Radio survey said they were mindful of the cost of living crisis in their decision-making even if it didn’t noticeably impact them.
  10. According to Global, Classic FM’s listeners are seeking more than just companionship or mood-driven distraction. Listeners are curious and seek opportunities to explore.
  11. Commercial radio listening is up, but listener needs have shifted from companionship to exploration.
  12. How can the industry steepen the curve of older people returning to the concert hall?
  13. Concert-goers habits have changed – some feel travel is effort (hardly surprising)
  14. 22% of respondents in LIVE’s survey showed choice was being made based on artist.
  15. What changes need to be made to formats and access to persuade latent classical fans?
  16. Data gathered by Dr Sarah Price (Liverpool University) reinforces the view that some cultural curious potential concert-goers seek presentation and contextualisation to alleviate perceived disconnect between themselves and regular concert goers. (There’s a book in this, probably.)
  17. (Dr Sarah Price) There remains a significant proportion of the population for whom access to arts institutions is difficult, impossible or even cultural unpalatable.
  18. Is the change in audience behaviour a reflection of the core audience not missing the live experience as much as we all assumed they would?
  19. The ‘still and silent’ concert experience amounts to a small proportion of activities.
  20. Are we here to serve the artform or the audience?

I was especially impressed with Global Radio (Classic FM’s parent company) strong clear messaging post-RAJARs (industry survey into listening habits for those who don’t know of it). Classic dominates the classical radio listening landscape with 5 million weekly listeners, compared to its trying-ever-so-hard competitor Scala Radio at 300K weekly listeners. Radio 3’s 1 million compares well given its product is editorially distinct, but Global highlighting a shift in audience interest towards ‘education’ hints that the BBC’s commercial competitor might be shifting its sights.

A conference at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds.

Thoroughly Good at ABO2023

It’s the ABO Conference this week. Many of the UK’s orchestras, ensembles and arts organisations all convening to chew the cud (and masticate on a conference dinner). In between various sessions on recruitment, touring, fundraising and audiences, there will be the inevitable networking opportunities too.

Heads up. I hate networking. I’m not very good at it. At least I don’t think so. I despise small talk (never ask me how I am because I promise you I will tell you and you’ll wish you hadn’t asked). And I’m always concerned I’m wasting your time and will as a result bring the conversation to an end as quickly as possible.

Surprised? Offended? Don’t be. I just figure it always helps others to be completely transparent. And I think it’s always nice to have something specific in mind to talk about. Questions. Things to dig in deeper about. Consider this a helpful pre-brief.

So with that in mind, here’s a primer on Thoroughly Good’s recent activities and future plans, just in case like me you’re stuck for things to talk about (assuming we bump into each other at all).

And just to bring you fully up to speed too, I’m very much an Earl Grey tea drinker now and am trying very hard (and succeeding) in cutting back my alcohol intake, so if you’re offering to go to the bar I’ll just have a Virgin Mary. Thanks.

Ten things from Thoroughly Good’s 2022

Yuja Wang at Royal Festival Hall – a 2022 Thoroughly Good Highlight
  1. Trained international war reporters on digital content publication best practise including digital content strategy, copywriting, video production and metadata.
  2. Facilitated individual coaching programmes for arts administrators, students, and producers in further education, orchestras, schools and the independent recording industry.
  3. Digital content strategy and production work for Wigmore Hall. Supporting phenomenal people working for the much-loved brand enjoyed by passionate appreciative audiences. My appreciation for chamber music has deepened as a result. I fear spelling composers’ names, in particular Dvořák and Lizst Liszt. Have also done a little script-writing and promotional film producing.
  4. Digital Consultancy for Ulster Orchestra over the past 18 months developing a content framework, supporting recruitment, and developing thinking and skillsets.
  5. Executive coaching at Coca-Cola, Channel 4, Netflix, Mastercard, General Electric, Sony, Costa, HSBC, Thomson Reuters and Talk Talk. Working with senior leaders on a one-to-one basis on leadership, creativity, innovative thinking, prioritisation, presence, and communication.
  6. Sharing digital content best practise with the 2023 RPS Composers and RPS Awards Panellist.
  7. Sharing digital content storytelling techniques and creative thinking withBath Festival Orchestra.
  8. Digital content marketing services for soloists, composers, and chamber music ensembles.
  9. Visited Elb Philharmonie to see Bamberg Symphony Orchestra and was floored by the experience, beginning a research process for A Big Writing Project (see below). Had a fabulous time at the Aldeburgh Festival last year and have now booked up for the entire first week in this year’s festival in June. 
  10. Wrote for some industry publications.
The Red House at Aldeburgh displays many Britten artefacts and seeing some of them was partly what made Aldeburgh Festival 2022 so very enjoyable. Appreciation of classical music sometimes goes beyond the core content.

Thoroughly Good is on the lookout for …

  1. a publisher. Do you know of any you can introduce me to?
  2. introductions to scientists, thinkers and performers (plus audience members) to explore the psychology of audiences and the science of the listening experience.
  3. …. authoritative voices on the subject of music education in the UK, publications that document the history of music education, in addition to some recommendations as to current thinking.
  4. digital content strategy opportunities and specifically partnerships with artistic directors to programme seasons of content that have digital outcomes at the heart of the planning phase. (If you’re looking for evaluation, best practise, recommendations and training, that’s also good too.)
  5. coaching programme opportunities from arts organisations or private individuals.
  6. travel opportunities – especially destinations which are part of the concert experience.
  7. … ad-hoc paid writing opportunities.

If you’re at ABO this year, be sure to say hello and be sure to share what you’ve been up to over the past year too. Find me on Twitter @thoroughlygood and Instagram @thoroughly_good

Speaking to Gillian Moore ahead of ABO22

Southbank Music Director Gillian Moore CBE chairs a discussion with ‘Poverty Safari’ author Darren McGarvey on the opening afternoon of the Association of British Orchestras 2022 (9-11 February) conference on her home turf of Glasgow.

If you haven’t attended then I’ll get in early here and sway your opinion with a partisan view: the ABO Conference is a bit of a special thing. It’s where I reconnected with some kindred spirits, the event where I secured the first coaching work I didn’t actively pursue, and where I received my podcast commission too. All on the same day. Boom.

And, like all good conferences, it’s where I’ve experienced a shift in my thinking. This largely down to the sense of occasion implicit in a conference. Travelling to a different location brings about an enlivening of the senses. We’re more ready for new ideas. Hungry, perhaps.

Sadly, by virtue of managing the unexpected benefits of a coaching and consultancy service delivered largely remotely, attending the conference was difficult and foolhardy. I would have spent money to travel and stay in Glasgow only to conduct my unmovable work via Zoom.

But in anticipation of the first day of the conference I did get a chance to speak to Gillian Moore about the session she was leading.

During our half hour conversation earlier today I deliberately asked her about her musical upbringing. In responding she conveyed passion, confidence, and resolute determination about her position on class and classical music. The story she tells about her amateur musician father turning pro with the RSNO chorus provided me with a framework for her own aspirations for the next generation of music lovers.

She will, I fear, be disappointed that I haven’t reduced the content of the podcast down more than I have. I did sort of promise I’d break it up a bit more when we parted company earlier today. The reality is that I wanted her words in their entirety to be heard in full. It is these words that help shape my future thinking around the kind of work I do in the arts in the years to come.

Persuasive as she is, you probably won’t be surprised that I’ve already bought and started reading the book she’s exploring in the ABO session she’s chairing. That’s what a good conference (and a good leader) does: they bring you back to first principles.

Listen on Spotify

#ABO21 BBC Radio 3’s Alan Davey responds to dismay about BBC Proms recruitment advert

The BBC Proms recruitment advert has come in for a bit of stick over the past few days. And during the Association of British Orchestras conference this week there was a question which was bound to be asked by delegates: was the BBC Proms really apologising for classical music? Was it embarrassed about classical music?

For context, the video – a message seeking to recruit young seasonal comms professionals to support to production of this year’s Proms season – spotlit two existing comms staff talking about the range of events in the season. The video led with a reference to classical music in the context of “its not all Mozart and Beethoven” before pulling in clips from crossover, pop, and world music themed evenings. The video also sought to demonstrate the BBC’s values regarding diversity and inclusion.

Some have interpreted the comparative lack of classical music illustrations and the opening line of the video as the BBC Proms apologising for classical music.

BBC Radio 3 Controller Alan Davey was asked about the advert at the ABO conference.

“This advert was about appealing to a a wider range of people who might normally think about applying for jobs at the Proms. There are seasonal jobs there. Every year, we want to put a plea to as wide an audience as possible.

“The advert is not saying classical music is dull, embarrassing or only for old people. What is says is that the BBC Proms is more than more than you think. When we do things like the Ibiza evening, you get an audience who’ve never heard an orchestra before. Then they want to hear an orchestra again.”

And you know, that that’s what we do. never apologize for classical music. Classical music is bloody marvellous.”

As someone who is familiar with the way in which different types of content are produced and by whom at the BBC, I am happy to throw my weight behind this.

First, the advert has understandably triggered emotions. Those who love the genre (I count myself as one of those) often rail against the seemingly willful mis-representation of the music. Celebrating and advocating the genre has to be done in an inclusive, authentic and respectful way that connects with core listeners and newcomers. That is no easy feat. More people get it wrong than get it right.

I worked in corporate communications producing digital content for a range of different BBC ‘brands’.

Corporate messaging needed to fit broad goals by articulating organisational values. Corporate messaging was produced by a different production team who would be working to a different editorial brief, targetting a different audience with different goals. Recruitment videos (the kind of content which would have been hosted on the BBC’s Careers website ten years ago) would be produced by the corporate comms team who saw the goal as encouraging recruitment and driving applicants. Recruitment content is different from consumer content. I’m a consumer of the BBC Proms, I’m not someone who wants to work for it (I did once, but that’s another story.)

There are plenty of media and arts organisations who actively seek out applicants who assume they either know nothing about classical music, or who actively don’t. The thinking being that these individuals bring a fresh perspective to storytelling, and help challenge conventional thinking which might be embedded. The recruitment of such individuals is not an articulation of how the individual brand sees itself in relation to its current audience, more a manifestation of the wider organisation’s core values. Corporate communications storytellers would understand that as the driving force of the content.

The problem has occurred because a piece of recruitment has been placed on a channel that is perceived as consumer facing, when the content really should have been placed where the sought-after applicants currently occupying their time in the social sphere.

Neither the advert nor the error is a sign that classical music is being apologised for. Its a demonstration that people are looking beyond the bubble to gain much-needed perspectives so that they can reach out to untapped audiences.

#ABO21 Arts Council England Nicholas Serota speaks on diversity research

Arts Council England Chair Nicholas Serota joined the ABO21 conference to talk about ACE’s vision for rebuilding the arts and delivering on the Let’s Create strategy.

“For the Arts Council, our response will be shaped by our 10 year plan: Let’s Create. We’ve spent the last few months refining how we should respond to what one could describe as the biggest stress test or strategy that you could possibly imagine. We should be publishing our detailed plan for the next three years in two parts at the end of this month, and in late June.”

“The only stable foundation for a sustained recovery for classical music lies in an art form that reaches more people nurtures talent wherever it is found, and finds inspiration for every from every quarter. Classical music will never appeal to everyone. But everyone should have a chance to discover it and make a life in it if they have the talent.”

Serota used the opportunity at ABO to reveal early results from a piece of research into diversity commissioned by Arts Council England.

“The arts as often struggle to be a welcoming and inclusive to every social demographic, every community and every ethnicity. That has been a challenge for us for decades. Indeed, it was part of the reason for the establishment of the Arts Council in 1946.

“And the challenge remains because the research clearly illustrates that black or black British musicians are underrepresented at every stage of the training pipeline, as well as in the classical music workforce.

“Deaf, disabled and neuro diverse musicians are also underrepresented, underrepresented, with evidence that while some musicians are willing to disclose their disability, some organizations are unwilling even to inquire about the presence of disability in their midst.

“Around half of all black, Asian and other ethnically diverse, deaf and disabled, and LGBTQ plus musicians in the sector, feel that they have that they face or indeed have faced barriers restricting the opportunities available to them.”

“For The Arts Council, and for me, understanding diversity in its widest context, is both a matter of fairness and integrity to the future of culture in this country. And in that future, we want to make sure that the return on public investment in the art is ambitious, high quality audience performance is available to the widest audience through a sector that finds talent wherever it blossoms.”

One delegate sought clarification about the challenge facing diversity drawing on yesterday’s symposium on diversity where contributors stated that there wasn’t a pipeline issue, but one of bias in hiring, where ACE considered there wasn’t.

“I think the answer is it’s both,” explained Serota, “I mean, there are issues about hiring. But I think that we really do need to concentrate and we must draw, you know, we must really pay attention to those. But I do you think that the building the pipeline, through teenage and effectively Conservatoire years student years is absolutely crucial. And we need to find a way of doing that. Hiring is clearly an issue. And there was a lot of debate yesterday about hiring and does someone fit in? Do they not? Are they on trial? For how long? Those kinds of questions are clearly very important, and the determination of the management of the orchestra plays a crucial role in that. But I do think we need to address the pipeline question and nurturing young talent and nurturing talent that doesn’t necessarily attend independent schools have the support of parents who have higher education and so on.

On digital streams, the question was asked whether there is a risk of the market for digital orchestral content becoming saturated

“I think at present, people are, as I said, have such a hunger for live performance,” responded Serota. “To be in a concert hall, the moment we’ve probably reached a point where we may well be somewhat saturated. I continue to believe that actually, content presented online available at all times, or indeed streamed will be an in a lot will form a larger part of our
general engagement with classical music and music of all kinds in the future. So I’m sure that there will be a market for digital online content that I think we’ve we’re all desperate to get back into into into a whole world, aren’t we?”

#ABO21 Caroline Dinenage MP shares some surprising Culture Recovery Fund figures

The Association of British Orchestras conference 2021 is underway and has started with its customary address from the ABO Chairman, principal supporters (Classic FM), and a 20 minute or so spot from Caroline Dinenage MP, Minister of State for Digital and Culture in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

In a fairly safe piece to camera delivered live (and a little later than originally scheduled), Dinenage thanked the ABO and membership for their collaboration in helping DCMS respond to the challenges faced by the arts and culture sector amidst the pandemic.

Talking specifically about the Culture Recovery Fund Dinenage said,

“I was very proud to have been part of the team that helped deliver the Cultural Recovery Fund. It’s an unprecedented sum of money, £1.57 billion pounds, the biggest ever one-off cash injection into UK arts and culture. And it is providing support right across the cultural ecosystem. I was delighted that last week, the Treasury announced £300 million of additional funding for that as part of the Spring Budget, and that will continue to support our key cultural organizations. It will continue to bridge the sector as audiences begin to return it will continue to ensure a really vibrant future for the culture sector as the nation recovers from the pandemic.”

“So far, we’ve only released the details of the very first round of the Cultural Recovery Fund, the second one has just concluded.

“And of that, just from that first round alone £117 million has already been awarded to 690 music-based organizations. The music sector will be further supported through the second round of funding, and there’s so many orchestras right across the country that will receive funding in that, in that section.

“The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra received over £8.8 million. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra received over £3 million. The Paraorchestra and friends in Bristol received over a million, and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra received over £10 million, all incredibly worthwhile recipients of that money. And I’m also delighted that the self-employment income support scheme has been extended until September 2021.”

The Culture Recovery Fund data issued by Arts Council England confirms that the Paraorchestra received £156,000, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra received £843K. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra received £996,702. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra did not apply for funds from the Cultural Recovery Fund.

The ABO confirmed in a tweet following her appearance of the “need to clarify the numbers quoted by the Minister for CRF grants to ABO members were wrong her briefing, and she is mortified. We have informed DCMS.”