The final of 4 essays exploring the evolution in classical music concert design by the 1781 Collective. Part 4 explores gamification of the concert experience and how we can look to other entertainment mediums for inspiration.
Audiences are evolving at a rapid pace. Whilst we are loathe to look upon anything in the artistic realm through a business-minded lens, it is becoming increasingly important for concert and event designers to understand that we as an industry exist within a neoliberal and capitalist social structure, and that if we wish to maintain relevance for people of the 21st century, we need understand what they want. We musicians are producers, the music is the product, and the audience are our consumers.
The traditional classical music performance industry has failed to operate in this way for decades: it still operates on an early 20th-century mentality that relies on the ability of the product to dictate the terms and conditions of the audience’s experience. It steadfastly refuses most social developments in preference of maintaining their stagnant approach to marketing and concert design (see orchestral programming and the format of concerts which has gone largely unchanged since the mid-20th century), and then wonders why younger generations show no interest in purchasing experiences in the exact same manner their grandparents did.
Looking at audience consumption in other entertainment fields, there is a definite trend — the most striking being the rapid disruption in how people consume television and video material. As a child growing up in the 1990s, my viewing patterns were completely beholden to the broadcaster and production companies, who (for example) would release a new episode weekly, often finishing the previous episode with a ‘To Be Continued…’ cliffhanger. Our watching behaviour then was ritualistic and schedule-dictated, with an additional social component through the latter (e.g. the Tuesday morning following a Monday evening premiere of a ‘Lost’ episode would be filled with discussion, aka ‘water-cooler chat’). Fast forward a decade or so, and the rise of streaming technology through Netflix completely broke this model when they released an entire season of House of Cards at once, precipitating the ‘binge watching’ model of viewing now ubiquitous amongst households. Audiences were free now to not only choose when they consumed content, but also how much they wanted.
Then, the concurrent evolution of YouTube, and development of social media technology based on user-generated video sharing led to the rise of the ‘influencer’ — a 21st-century variation on the 20th-century ‘socialite’ (which in itself could probably trace its roots to aristocratic and royal figures of previous centuries), which encourages a very simple premise: that anyone with a smartphone can now be a content creator, someone who contributes to the cultural milieu, and has a voice that is worthy and valuable. Whereas once upon a time, the role of creativity was left to qualified professionals and distinguished amateurs, in our current decade, creativity lives in the hands of every person working on TikTok or Instagram — with TikTok now the favoured entertainment platform for millions of people under the age of 25, and in 2022 was only beaten by YouTube for consumers under 35 in the USA.
Further, the rise of Virtual and Augmented Reality (especially in the gaming world, where Virtual Concerts are already taking place in Fortnite and Roblox) suggests that audiences in the near future will become accustomed to finding themselves situated within their entertainment, rather than separated by the fourth wall of the medium.
So, how does this all relate to the curator of a classical music concert or event? As producers, we need to understand that the society we live in has pivoted over the past decades from people who placed their trust in those identified as authorities in whatever field; and now demand to have a space where the consumer is offered a space within the field itself. This provides a tricky proposition for classical musicians: our field by definition requires an incredible amount of work, so we can’t just get random people from the audience to sit at the piano and perform, but we do need to find ways for the audience to be integrated fully into the event itself, so that they identify their contribution as integral to the success of the performance.
Gamifying the concert experience is one of the most direct methods we can use to incorporate an audience into the event. This can be explored not only through traditional Game Theory, but also in the sense of integrating elements from various gaming sectors (this includes everything from board games, to sporting games and video games) into the concert design. The prevalence of Escape Rooms and theatre works that involve the audience moving around and following the action demonstrates just how much the audience craves being actively engaged and involved with the entertainment, and no longer passively sitting and consuming the material.
In essence, great art always has an element of Escapism to it — whether that be escaping the doldrums of daily life by watching a film, going to the opera, immersing oneself into a Jackson Pollock painting, or reading a book, art and culture at its best allows the consumer to transcend themselves and experience more — and by integrating game/play elements into the concert experience, we can offer alternative options of escape to that which exists in traditional concerts (where the escapist element is purely cerebral). Note: here we’re not advocating for the abolishment of the cerebral traditional experience; we believe our art form (product) is so valuable and high quality that it can be powerful and meaningful across a multitude of different performance methods — not limited to one model, but many.
Claims that any attempt to change the concert model will cheapen the product is the calling card of conservationists that fear a bastardisation of the music will in turn delegitimise it — and in turn, they denounce any attempts at modernisation as sacrilege. What this ignores is the diversity of a population who demand the right to choose how they engage with music, and also the fact that the consumption patterns of people change with time — the way we want to listen to music as a 25-year old is different to when we’re 55, and again 85. Having only one concert model to satisfy this broad range of desires is but one of the many reasons the traditional classical music industry is failing to engage with more people.
So how does this all affect the actual music? I would argue that if done properly, all of this welcomes the audience to connecting on an exceptionally deep level — rather than sitting in the audience and being preached to, they are exploring themselves through the lens of the music, which encourages them to not just passively consume, but actively engage with the music. If anything, this evolution of audience participation is perhaps what can strengthen classical music in the 21st century: out of every genre of music, classical seems to capture the entirety of the human experience and emotional spectrum more succinctly than any other, and as such it requires human connection to fully come to fruition.