Applauding Audiences

From Victorian mega-concerts to post-war housing, how we can put people at the heart of artistic planning?

A concert by pianist Josef Hofmann, at the former Metropolitan Opera House, New York, 1937. Source.
A concert by pianist Josef Hofmann, at the former Metropolitan Opera House, New York, 1937. Source.
Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 12.16.14         By Kate Romano

Around two years ago, from the relative obscurity of a small soap box in a teaching room in Guildhall School of Music and Drama, I announced ‘I’m not going to chase audiences any more. I don’t like this kind of implied arrogance that I programme music and then try to persuade people to come. I don’t want to put on stuff if people don’t want to listen to it’.

A student said: ‘So are you going to make things like X Factor?’

‘No’, I said. ‘But I’m going to look hard at people, about where they go and what they do, how they get there, what they enjoy. I’m going to put audiences at the very heart of what I do’.

It was all very noble, and it turned out to be far less straightforward and far more interesting than I had imagined. ‘Who is your target audience and how will you reach them’? said every funding application I have ever submitted. Who and How indeed? If music is (arguably) organised and contained sound, then an audience is (arguably) organised and contained people. I’m not too attracted to that rather static idea. I’m not too attracted to the word ‘target’ either if I’m honest. But something akin to military strategy is what we seem to have adopted. From the oldest, largest and greatest cultural organisations to the smallest, most innovative start-ups, everyone has a finger firmly on the Audience Development pulse. As my ideas about music expand, so do my ideas about audiences.

How much of a contemporary thing is ‘actively seeking an audience’? I love to think of the packed Victorian Music Halls, the Sunday Band concerts held in London in the 1850s, attracting crowds of 14,000. That same decade, 86,000 people apparently attended an open-air concert held in Victoria Park and 15,000 were at a concert on Newcastle’s Town Moor. An estimated 20,000 heard the Penhryn Choir in 1897 at a charity concert to raise money for striking quarrymen. By 1914 there were over 75 Competitive Music Festivals in the UK with estimates of up to 60,000 musicians taking part, let alone audiences. And it wasn’t just about trailblazing numbers: there were attempts in the 19th century for music to act as a ‘social cement’ and bring together people from different backgrounds. In 1857 the Mayor of Leeds, John Hope Shaw, told the audience at a local ‘People’s Concert’ that it was ‘impossible that all classes of society could mingle with each other week after week as at these concerts without feeling their mutual regard for each other strengthen and confirmed’.

There is no doubting that Victorian and Edwardian Britain was an intensely musical place. But dig a little deeper and you find some remarkably familiar themes.

Audience development and outreach? Those music festivals of the 1900s weren’t all about elite competition: many placed musical education at the forefront believing that their good programming was creating ‘an audience for serious music’. And there was a particular emphasis on taking music into rural areas where Hubert Parry felt the minds of people were too often ‘troubled and dull’.

Education and underfunding? In 1870, the Education Bill excluded music in schools from grant aid and a long-term battle for recognition of music as a subject of any importance began.

And what of inclusivity? Despite the best efforts and persuasive rhetoric of John Hope Shaw et al., it was never possible to engineer rows and rows of perfectly mixed patrons. The poorest were excluded due to a lack of money for tickets and respectable clothes to turn up in. Music Hall audiences in the mid 1800s tended to be male and upper working class or lower middle class. Victorian and Edwardian musical organisations largely reflected class divisions and class tensions.

So whilst I may share and empathise with many of the idealisms of a 19th-century concert promoter, I wonder if aspirations of achieving a large and truly inclusive audience are as much a chimera now as they were then?

‘I’m not chasing audiences any more’ I said to my friend, the composer Nicola LeFanu. ‘I’m going to create musical events that there is genuine hunger and thirst for’. ‘But Kate,’ she said, ‘people don’t always know what they want…’

I grew up thinking that people knew exactly what they wanted, a premise that took root on an estate in a suburb of Sheffield built in the 1960s. I lived in one of around 120 identical bungalows – at least they were identical when the developers conceived of a simple set of sturdy family houses backing onto woodland. My walk to school took me past almost every one of those 120 bungalows and I was fascinated by what the occupants did to them. By the mid-80s, many displayed uneasy cubist extensions protruding from a multitude of flat available surfaces, the unassuming little red brick homes coaxed into some quite startling forms to suit needs and tastes. Others remained more modest with but with quirks of their own: leaded windowpanes, louvre paneled shutters, stone cladding, Victorian conservatories. Truly, no two are alike today. I still love a blatant and carefree display of taste. I enjoy the triumph of human spirit and a demonstration of freedom to choose. The simple message I took away was that people rather liked a framework in which to express their ideas and tastes.

X Factor may be many things, but it is also a framework in which to express ideas and tastes. And even for those not expressing themselves directly in that frame – the audience – there is still ample opportunity to give an opinion and they don’t hold back. Standing ovations and spontaneous mid-performance applause are commonplace. Tears flow freely – usually brought about by big emotional performances of songs with big emotional melodies (often supported by a big emotional back story). In terms of musical content, it is in fact a pretty good display of what Richard Hoggart called the ‘Gracie Fields Switch’  – a seamless and unquestioned freedom of movement between different types of song and genre. My grandfather typified this. An Italian café owner, living in the heart of London, he sang constantly. A typical selection of repertoire would flow without pause from If You Were The Only Girl In The World through The White Cliffs of Dover to an aria from what he loosely called ‘Neapolitan Opera’. They all had lovely melodies, always ‘a good tune’. Emotionally expansive, sentimental, open-hearted, the only cohesion in his eclectic repertoire was constant emotional expression.

But not everyone displays such an ease and confidence in their musical and aesthetic tastes. Richard Hoggart’s masterly book The Uses of Literacy (1957) includes a chapter dedicated to those who made a shift from working to middle classes. He describes them as ‘the uprooted and the anxious’. Artist Grayson Perry recently summed up the middle classes as ‘the class that does not know its place’ and consequently one riddled with the most anxiety about what they do, where they go, what they spend their time and money on. In Perry’s Bafta-winning documentary on taste and class we met Jane who bought the Show Home on the Kings Hill Development because all the choices were made for her. ‘You don’t know what you want ‘til you see it’ she said. She had a fear of ‘getting it wrong’ in a place where taste rules were shared and brands seemed to give some security and clarity of meaning.

Brands are of course available for purchase in music too: Glyndebourne, Grimeborn, Streetwise Opera, OperaUpClose, Opera for communities, for children, for the homeless, for prisoners, for sex workers, Proms, Proms-in-the-Park, Family-Proms, Pop-Proms, Proms-Extra, Late-night Proms. We can select from plenty of ‘aspirational products for an aspirational class’ (Perry’s description of brand culture). We can stick with what we know; tradition, ritual, ‘old’ music. ‘Maybe upper class taste seems like good taste because it is old?’ wonders Perry, neatly accounting for most of the challenges we have in trying to remove the ‘posh’ tag from classical music. Or we can express our individualism through edgier alternatives. Perry notes a further middle-class trend: the desire to be different. There’s something for everyone.

King's Hill housing estate, photo by Hywel Williams. Source.
King’s Hill housing estate, photo by Hywel Williams. Source.

Or is there? In an interview in 1990, Hoggart observed ‘cultural stratisfication’ in society. ‘At the top’, he said, ‘we find finer and finer provision for tastes which are to some degree trained and specialized’. Below this level, ‘the rest of the population are put into a much more coagulated mass’. 120 years earlier Matthew Arnold criticized indoctrinating of the masses; ‘plenty of people will try and give the masses, as they call them, an intellectual food prepared and adapted in the way they think proper’. He argued that ‘culture’, by its very nature should be above this, seeking to ‘do away with classes’ and advocate equality. And in 1934, Lewis Mumford’s penned the much-quoted aphorism ‘every culture lives inside its own dream’. Mumford is widely regarded as the leading 20th century authority on cities — their history, design and communal purpose. He drew his ideas directly from the vibrant network of human relationships that he observed. He put people at the heart of his work by starting from a point of observing where they go and what they do, how they get there, what they enjoy. His influence was profound and his thinking inspired the Garden Cities of Letchworth and Welwyn close to where I now live.

What do post-war housing developments have to do with concert audiences? Well, quite a lot if you are intrigued by the idea of simultaneously exploring two concepts of culture: something to do with the arts and something to do with ordinary ways of living. I have begun to understand my own strong pull towards art and ideas that straddle this no-mans land; one eye on the art itself, one on those who use and receive it. Art that makes the common-place and ordinary seem extraordinary just by looking or listening hard. Art that makes transparent those aspects of society which are ‘difficult’ or that we’d rather keep out of sight. (I first came across this type of work in Orwell’s brilliant 1946 essay Books vs. Cigarettes.) Many of those ground-breaking and thoughtfully conceived utopian post-war towns tackled design-and-function, product-and-purpose head on and simultaneously. They had a symbiotic flow between those who created a culture and those who lived in it and responded to it. The best and most successful models were vibrant, not static, allowing culture to create culture.

We can learn from them too. Sadly, many struggled to maintain or build on their ideals and dreams. Constructing a community isn’t easy. The town designers seemed to go roughly in one of two ways: 1) offering bold, immediate, pioneering new ways of living (Park Hill, New Ash Green) or 2) standing back and allowing communities to evolve in rather more spacious, soporific and neutral surroundings (Harlow, Welwyn, Milton Keynes). Those that stuck out their experimental necks with innovative walkways in the sky, shared balconies, clustered homes and interconnecting pathways seemed to be doing well. Their success was based on a process of continual evolution borne out of a close relationship between designers and residents. Failure eventually came from neglect and mis-management – both of which might have been avoided.

On the other hand, the attempts to create a single-environment-to-suit-all (based largely around gapingly-open neutral vistas) appeared to create an atmosphere of ambivalence and apathy. Welwyn, post-war Plymouth and Milton Keynes have all been variously described as having a type of lethargy: ‘fatefully low-energy with no bustle….the surfeit of space saps energy’ notes John Grindrod, in his superb book Concretopia, a journey around post-war Britain.

Like the residents of a new town, audiences are not a fixed blank canvas. They may come together for a common purpose, but they are no tabula rasa upon which to imprint a single set of pre-packed tastes. Audiences are people who want reassurance and people who want adventures. People who want to be ‘taken out of themselves’ and people who want to preserve tradition and routine. They are people who seek intrigue, escapism, stimulation, challenge, shock, joy, relaxation. They are people who want to be part of a group, to not be part of a group. They may want their aesthetic preferences confirming and they ‘might not know what they want ‘til they see it’. They could be all these things in one person. And they may feel differently from day to day.

Only one thing is clear: people will always take things offered to them and transmute them into terms of their own culture, as I have done in researching and writing this blog and you have done in reading it. This is surely the active process and spirit that we need to embrace and keep alive; a situation that allows people to ‘use ideas as it [culture] uses them itself – freely, nourished, and not bound by them’. To avoid, at all costs, a passive, neutral, bland acceptance of art, of music, literature, where no one ever asks a question or there is never any change. ‘Nothing to engage with’ says Richard Hoggart, describing the impact of the popular literary press. ‘Nothing….to be reacting to. Since nothing is demanded by the reader, nothing can be given by the reader’.

I often end my blogs thinking ‘we’re not doing too badly, actually’ and this one is no exception. I’ve persuaded myself that my long-held instinct to keep choice and variety alive in the arts is vital. And of equal importance is a constant two-way flow and interplay between what we are making and how it is being received. Too right that I don’t have a foolproof plan to bring together the widest, largest and most inclusive audience you ever saw; many far greater minds than mine have tried and failed.

But this is not the job of a single person. I am a cog in the machine of a much broader cultural picture. And collectively, we may in fact be providing a good set of answers for the wrong set of questions: the audience is perhaps not the target. The target is to avoid a dull, passive and static cultural society where a limited amount of art-that-suits-all is delivered and dictated and little attention paid as to how it is received. The target is to create and maintain a world that stimulates, challenges, invigorates and inspires through landscapes, images, words and sounds. I’m applauding not only our brilliant, unpredictable, individual audiences, but all of those in the arts whose vision and determination results in a rich choice of where to go, what to do, how to get there and what to enjoy. And that’s how we can put audiences at the very heart of what we do.

Read more by Kate Romano on Corymbus:

On Neglected Music

‘One of the most versatile musicians of her generation’, Kate Romano is a clarinetist, producer, fundraiser, artistic director and writer. Previously a senior member of staff at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama for 12 years, she now works as a freelancer. She tweets as @KateRomano2 and her website can be found at