Selling Out (second-guessing the audience)

Last week, I took part in two events which featured my music, and did not sell out to capacity.

The first event – a 10pm concert by the Montréal-based string quartet Warhol Dervish, at the University of Toronto, featured my music, as well as pieces by Nico Muhly and Richard Reed Parry (of Arcade Fire).  Tickets were $26-31 (Canadian dollars), and included free food — drinks could be purchased separately.
Earlier in the evening in Toronto, as part of the same festival, I caught an exceptional concert by The Nash Ensemble, featuring the chamber music of Franck, Ravel and Debussy.  It was a brilliant performance, and illustrated plainly just how much French music grew between Franck’s time and Ravel’s, how deeply the younger composers were influenced by jazz and gamelan music.   That concert was almost sold out, and received a standing ovation. Tickets were $26-54. The reasons behind an underwhelming turnout at the Warhol Dervish show were largely organizational — I would rather not get into it now..
But two days later, my ensemble Ljova and the Kontraband played a show on Brighton Beach, at the Shorefront Y. Tickets were $17-25, and we were probably 50% sold, in a hall that seats 250.   In this case, everything was done excellently to maximize publicity — there were posters and flyers plastered all over the venue, in English and Russian, and I made an appearance on Russian Television to speak about my work and plug the show. A video of our performance was shown at an earlier concert on this series, and there were videos on their website as well. There was a Facebook invite for the show, sent out to 2,000 people. (Did you RSVP?)  True, it was a 6pm show, on a Sunday evening. You can blame the start time, the weather, the location… however, in this case, I am more inclined to blame the appeal of our music to the community.
But should this count as my own failure?
— Is it that I’ve failed to help promote this event? (No — I emailed & tweeted about it as much a I could.)
— Is it that I’m not well known enough in the NY Russian community? (Not really — many Russians came out to our performances at Lincoln Center & Joe’s Pub.)
— Is it the price of tickets? (Possibly. Though if I were a bigger celebrity, ticket prices would never be a question.)
Could it be the music itself?  Should I learn from this, and change the music we play, to be more immediately appealing to audiences, from the poster or the description? Heart says no.
Ljova and the Kontraband has performed for a variety of audiences, as part of contemporary classical, world, Jewish, jazz and folk festivals, and as part of the Sundance Film Festival @BAM.  We’ve played on stage with films, dancers, and other wonderful collaborators. I feel that our music is a healthy blend of entertaining and innovative, blending elements from tango & Gypsy music with free improvisation, classical counterpoint and an intimate vibe.     By no means is this a checklist — it’s just a point of departure.
I fully realize that what we do is not classical enough, jazzy enough, avant, worldly or folky enough to satisfy any hardcore genre fanbase or funding criteria. We do not aspire to be “the future of” anything, but merely the reflection of where we are now as musicians, as a sound, as a set of hearts. If we have played at such diverse venues and festivals, it is all a testament to the many courageous curators who have booked us and took a chance.  (If there is anyone to single out, it is without question Bill Bragin, at Lincoln Center, who has championed our music strongest, from the very beginning.)
Sure, it would help if we played more covers, or I wrote more overtly Klezmer- or Tango-inspired fare, if we wore suits, or — then again — really hot jeans.
The truth of it is that we do not actually serve the audience, or the box office, but the music itself.  The muses, their magic, and our evolution at their mercy.  I know this may sound arrogant, somewhat like a copout, like I’ve learned nothing from the experience, or that I don’t take responsibility for the success of my own music. But it’s the strongest defense I can give as a composer leading his own band.  It may be different for ensembles led by performers, those who choose to specialize in a particular genre or repertoire..

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