Barbara Eifler explores how the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s unique approach to live events in non-traditional venues could inspire Making Music members to attract more and newer audiences to their concerts. 

Brixton Blues Kitchen is pretty cool and popular with a young crowd. It is here that I finally managed to see one of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's (OAE) Nightshift shows - chamber music concerts in pubs - in my quest for classical music that doesn't take place in the usual halls or standard formats. 

This is with Making Music members in mind: 70% of them perform or present classical repertoire. So clearly thousands of leisure-time music groups love it – and all the players and singers and volunteer promoters that are part of them, including me - and this musical genre is also popular on Spotify and other online streamers. So why don’t live classical events attract more classical music lovers, why are we having to worry about live audiences? 

Personally, I don't subscribe to the view that this has to do with a lack of music education. As others have noted, grime, soul or rap don't often feature in music education, yet somehow gigs are popular. 

I’m also going from my own experience: even though I had a classical music education, I am not a fan of classical music concerts. 

Except when they’re not like the ‘usual’ concert-hall, formal type of concerts - which brings me back to the Brixton Blues Kitchen and the OAE. What was different and why did it work? 

  • I met my daughter at the bar, had burgers and cocktails, brought drinks into the performance space where we were sitting at tables, and posted on social media during the show. This felt like a proper night out! 
  • The performers speak to you! Tell you about their instruments, the music they're playing and why, and they do this in plain English. They made us laugh. 
  • This concert highlighted the bassoon and in the break between sets (yes, not an interval), you could find out from the bassoonist why he uses Blu Tack on an 18th-century instrument. 
  • People mostly stayed sitting at their tables after the show, carrying on having drinks and chatting to their friends. 

This is not my first experiment. Another one I particularly enjoy, for different reasons, is any concert at the Piano Salon Christophori in Berlin. Set up by a guy who restores period pianos in an industrial hangar in an unfashionable part of town, concerts include seeing the piano(s) being tuned as you come in, artists talking to the audience and explaining what and why they’re playing that evening, and being able to help yourself to drinks.  

Seats are allocated by the organiser on a ‘do you come here often and do you ever cancel on me at the last minute’ kind of basis. This makes you want to come more, not less, frequently (to get better seats!). 

To return to Making Music members, Sheffield Philharmonic Orchestra started changing some of their concerts – and gained new audiences.  

Part of it, to my mind, is making the most of the Unique Selling Points (USP) of leisure-time music groups’ and volunteer promoters’ events which members themselves often aren’t conscious of: it may be the intimacy of the venue, the possibility of getting closer to musicians, of building what was a ‘hearing some music played at the front there’ into a full evening out, of knowing the players or singers in their ‘non-musical’ life, of eating cake in the interval made by the 1st oboe. 

Expect more experiments from me – and please, members, send in your own, so that together we can learn more about how to facilitate more people hearing this wonderful music come to life in an event. 

We know this is a topic of interest to many of you, as 150+ came to our recent Ticket Selling Strategies event. We will be doing more work with you and for you on this topic throughout this year and next year. 

Meanwhile, here are some interesting thoughts and more reading: at the event, Dr Sarah Price from Liverpool University distinguished two sets of audiences in her research on Classical Sheffield: supporters (i.e. friends, family, colleagues) and aficionados – those there because they love the music you play or sing, the second strongest reason for attending. And do read David Taylor’s blogs on classical music and audiences on his website