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Orchestra Smaland

What a Swedish mega-retailer can teach classical music about building a customer base.

by Holly Mulcahy
March 1, 2010

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Orchestra Smaland

That old saying, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, applies to classical music audiences now more than ever. Everyone remotely involved in the orchestra business is already aware that audiences are looking older and it is becoming harder to get younger listeners into the hall. And not only is there difficulty of pulling in patrons under 40, there is the ongoing challenge of keeping children educated about classical music so we can have some idea that there will be an audience for future generations.

I've made a point to ask my non-concertgoing, under 40 friends what is keeping them from coming to a concert. Ticket price was one concern, but almost all of them mentioned the added bother of babysitting and parking expenses seemed to make the entire evening more of a huge inconvenience than not. Yet these same friends have no trouble going furniture shopping at IKEA for several hours with their kids in tow.

Anyone who has been to an IKEA on a weekend or Friday evening knows that navigating through bottlenecked suburban streets, navigating the super-sized parking lot, and fighting crowds is just as inconvenient as the same items mentioned that keep the under-40 set away from concerts.

So why do people still go to IKEA? Well, IKEA seems to have found solutions to these problems by putting into place an otherwise costly option that ultimately contributes to their bottom line, they offer free child care so parents can shop without worrying about whining, complaining, and most important, boring their kids.

For those unfamiliar, IKEA has a service, called Smaland, that allows parents to drop their kids off at a supervised play room. Parents can leave children for up to an hour, and they are given a beeper so employees can contact them if there are any concerns about the children. What this buys IKEA is undivided time to sell to parents, all while keeping kids entertained with the latest toys IKEA has for sale (building future shoppers).

There becomes a tradition for families to go to IKEA not just to shop, but for the kids to play and the parents to grab some coffee and "us time" away from the kids. Even the New York Times acknowledged the strategy in an article about Smalland last June. I know people that have had a weekly or monthly trip with the family for years and now those kids are taking their own kids.

Even though the costs of implementing something like a "Musicland" facility would be an enormous and expensive project, what is stopping orchestras from offering this? If we're all terrified that the audience is bleeding away and there are no measures in place to replace it in the here and now (not to mention the next generation) why not invest the time and effort to secure donations and grants to start a pilot program that, if successful, can be used as a guide for programs throughout the country?

Orchestras offer a special concert series with earlier start times where patrons could drop off their child and enjoy an early concert, all while their child is entertained with other children by certified care givers who also have music education training. Could you imagine the educational possibilities that this service could offer? Maybe a closed circuit TV to see what Mom and Dad are enjoying; complete with little sized seats and a coloring book program. Perhaps an instrument buffet where kids could try various instruments of each instrument family. A rhythm dance game, a story about a famous composer….the list is endless.

The point is, orchestras could kill two birds with one stone. They would be able to offer parents a fun learning environment for their children while they got to enjoy some us-time at a culturally fulfilled orchestra concert. Traditional family concerts are great, but now is the time for bold ideas and we need to offer a new type of family concert in the IKEA model where parents can enjoy time to themselves. In twenty years, we'll see if the first generation of kids begins to bring their own children because after all, kids copy what their parents do.

Comments (7)

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Frank M from Fairfax VA writes:
March 1, 2010

THIS is a dynamite idea. It's good on multiple levels. First, it could really work, especially for matinees. Think about families with kids - for whom organizing a trip to a live concert involves extra expense or complications. Next, it gets people's heads out of staying in the U.S. for ideas, and utilizing the experience of other advanced nations. Finally it encourages people wishing to encourage public interest to put themselves into the shoes of potential audiences, an approach that has unlimited potential.

For example, what's to prevent utilizing the baby-sitting to engage the kids in music-related activities, letting the concert venue build children's interests in music as well as entertain adults.

justin locke from Boston, MA writes:
March 1, 2010
fabulous idea, and is a heartening trend toward seeing the concert experience from the point of view of the customer. not a usual thing in classical music culture.

Loretta G from Chicago, IL writes:
March 1, 2010
Fabulous ideas Holly! An orchestra wouldn't even have to do it for every concert. One concert per series or even a special subscription package of 4 or 5 concerts would be a good start. There are so many possibilities :-)

Erin H from Chicago writes:
March 1, 2010
This is a great idea - in theory...it's been a topic of discussion at some Symphony League conferences I've attended, and the orchestras who do this rarely see any return on it. The cost and logistics of running a daycare during a concert would be worth it if it would bring in a significant number of patrons, but it just hasn't appeared to work.

I think the low attendance at classical concerts has less to do with convenience of attending a concert with familie and more to do with a general societal trend. Attendance is lower in general for all types of live events - including sporting events and movies. There was a really good article in this month's Symphony magazine about this.

I don't know what the solution is, but I think it's far more complex than offering babysitting services, even if educational programs are offered as an added bonus. I would be curious to know how Ars Viva's program Music for Life, which is similar to what you described, has fared over the last year. Maybe I'm wrong and it's incredibly successful, if it is, then I'm all for finding out more about it because I agree we need to do something to get in a younger audience!!!

Chris Blair from Milford CT writes:
March 2, 2010
I think this is a lovely idea, and I think with some inventiveness in developing an appropriate presentation format might work.

The main thing that IKEA provides the parents in the scenario described above is not just "us time" but "us time with opportunities to talk with each other" while being entertained in a non-structured way (with additional attraction of perhaps purchasing something they need).

A concert where you sit in the dark for 20 minutes at a stretch does not meet the same socialization desires for a couple that shopping at IKEA does. However a program of interesting short pieces where it is easy to move about or out of the room (table seating?) might be able to provide a similar sampling experience.

And occasionally you might consider bringing the kids with you.

justin locke from Boston, MA writes:
March 3, 2010
well 2 items hopefully not too off topic,

1) re eric's comments, perhaps it's time for pro orch musicians to rethink policies re: TV and electronic transcription fees. how often does a little kid see an orchestra on sesame street? orch musicians dmeands to always be paid for such things means no ringtones, no free stuff on the net, a lot of marketing ops lost.

2) family concerts are difficult in that they have strict time limits. why place a severe time limit (in some locales, 45 minutes) on a prime marketing event?

3) younger audiences are nice but there is a horde of about-to-retire boomers on the horizon, more of them than there are of little kids whose attention is so much harder to get in part because of the competition. easier path is possibly the older audience, which perhaps has had enough rap.

also maybe time to rethink whether orchs are in the music biz or the event biz. i say the latter.
-- jl

Chuck Myers from Farmington Hills, MI writes:
March 11, 2010
While the "Ikea" approach is one avenue worth considering, I do underustand the logistics problem. Maybe symphonies need to broaden their outreach to local community orchestras and bands. Take a similar approach as they did in Baltimore with a "Rusty Musicians" concert, invite local groups to perform as an opening segment of a concert (what musician wouldn't jump at a chance to perform on the same stage as the symphony?) or maybe fantasy camps similar to the ones that many Major League Baseball teams do every Spring.

We are finding more and more adults in their late 40's, 50's and even 60's returning to music. Many are empty nesters and have the disposable income. They have had the musical background in the past and are looking for a way to get involved again. I believe this is the real "untapped source" for many orchestras and symphonies.


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