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  • Writer's pictureJulian S. Scott

Time for some honest conversations …

Updated: Nov 15, 2022

I’ll be the first one to admit I am still learning (and still so much to learn) about the classical music and the performing arts—but—and a big BUT—I am confident in one observation:

We’re not having honest conversations about why things are the way there are—which makes it very hard to embrace and enable change.

As an example, going to classical concerts or events are simply not an enjoyable experience for the general public. They’re not showing up for a reason and we can blame the pandemic, the economy or whatever, but the bottom line is it doesn’t mean they are all at home waiting for something to do. If a million people arrive hours ahead of time to watch a 20-minute fireworks show over the summer here in Vancouver or are willing to pay the average ticket price of around $100 for a typical non-classical concert, I can only conclude people are willing to go out and spend money—just not with us.

We tend to fixate on ticket price or programming resulting in prices that are often too low from a cost-management perspective and programs that cater to a very specific crowd and routine. On one end are the smaller venues and performances where sitting in a church in the middle of nowhere on a Friday night with at best a cup of water is simply not going to cut it anymore for anyone except the diehard fans. On the other end are the larger venues and performances that are often intimidating and unfriendly to many for a multitude of reasons such as our unspoken “court” etiquette rules that treat each performance like a sacred event—who would want to come back after getting nearby death glares for clapping at the wrong time?

Don't get me wrong, I am probably one of those people who I'm poking fun of here. I love dressing up, the formality and the grandeur of it all. That said, I also like sold-out shows and a thriving local performing arts scene so if "finding my happy place" while someone whispers to their neighbour or the person in front of me holds their phone up to take a photo to likely share on social media (which is really a win for the artists and organisations involved) then that's a small price to pay to make the performing arts more accessible and enjoyable for all in attendance. Of course, better food (or even some food) at any performance would likely work wonders as most don't want to eat before at 5pm and there are few options still open afterwards (at least here in Vancouver.) For the few venues that serve something, as delightful as KitKat bars or Pringles are at the city-owned venues, they're not cutting it either. Anyone who has ever been to a performance in Europe can testify decent snacks and food, if not totally healthy, at least tasty and brand experience-aligned are possible.

We twist ourselves into knots justifying this or that—but if people are telling us, if not through words, but clearly through their actions, that the current classical experience is not appealing to them—what will it take for us to listen? Audiences down to a trickle? Individual donations reduced? Grant funding cut in half? The bottomline is that in most cases, it is not our product per se, but the experience. Here is a great article that dives into this more (and thanks, Nancy, for sharing!)

Another example is our universities are outputting far more artists than most economies can functionally support resulting in a cycle of ongoing education to fill the employment void. It’s a disservice to encourage these artists to invest in a life in the performing arts without better preparing them for what their life will likely look like and the financial ramifications of their career choices. We're often selling the dream, but not the tools to make it a reality. Yes, continued training and education are absolutely worthwhile pursuits, but many would also probably benefit from learning how to develop an entrepreneur mindset and how to apply this mindset to their chosen career path—not to mention helping them better prepare as future mentors and arts leaders.

It’s amazing how many “successful” artists and arts leaders I know who live in a basement flat or share a place with a roommate. That’s okay in your twenties, but come your fifties, probably less so. I bring this up because if the very people who need to embrace change and often in the position to facilitate it, are also the ones who tend to be the ones who are most vulnerable and likely to be impacted by any change. If you work multiple jobs or gigs to make ends meet or you finally land a position that finally pays “enough” then taking risks is risky!

All this to say, some days I feel overwhelmed by where to focus or how to best make an impact, but then it occurred that in order to do anything meaningful, we all have embrace one fundamental truth, which really starts with our government at all levels then onward to the business community and finally the public-at-large:

The performing arts needs to stopped being viewed as a luxury and instead mandated as a necessity for everyone’s mental well-being in addition to providing financial stability for thousands of people and driving economic growth for entire communities.

This would be the most honest thing we could do. Once this happens, I suspect we could then get real about our challenges and how to tackle them.

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1 Comment

Nov 16, 2022

You've asked all the right questions, and I'm not sure what the answers are. The reality is that we have to evolve quickly or perish. Beginning the discussion is the best hope. Thanks for this.

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