drucken Bookmark and Share

by Gina Emerson

What Do Audiences Want? Data-Informed Curation for Diverse Audiences in New Music

Debates around diversity in the field of new music tend to focus on figures such as the composer and the performer. Less consideration has been given to the people who come to receive their work, those taking in the concert from the audience’s perspective. New music or ‘contemporary classical music’ as I typically prefer to call it,[1] can be considered to have a particularly strained relationship to audiences. In a recent interview study with contemporary arts attendees, new music was viewed as the most isolated contemporary art form, with audience members finding little point of reference for the genre, in comparison to film, visual art, and theatre.[2] In their study on new music audiences at three European festivals, Katarzyna Grebosz-Haring and Martin Weichbold report that these institutions “reproduce social inequality”, in that it is predominantly an educated elite that attends and that educational concerts or similar efforts do little to re-shape the composition of the audience.[3] In 2015, 62% of CCM institutions in the UK who participated in a survey on audience development (N = 36 institutions) reported that their audience numbers had either remained the same or declined in the past year.[4]

Knowing more about existing audiences’ experiences with new music and what they value about it is an important step in healing this rift and bringing new audience members to this music. In this article, I outline a concept of data-informed curation, proposing how curators and institutions can use audience data to help them understand how audiences approach new music and to develop more open, inclusive atmospheres around attendance. I report an overview of findings on tastes, demographic factors, and concert experiences from a recent new music audience study, conducted as part of my doctoral research at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Hamburg. The study is the first of its size specifically on the audience experience of new music. I conducted surveys at twelve new music concerts in collaboration with the Ulysses Network for contemporary music.[5] 1,428 audience members took part in the survey across ten different European countries. The overall aim of the study was to offer a multidimensional view of audiences’ experiences, covering a range of aspects including demographics and motivations to attend new music concerts, perceptions of the genre, and audiences’ aesthetic experiences in the concert hall, as well as institution-audience relationships and classical music audiences’ views of CCM (via a smaller survey of three classical music audiences with 670 respondents).

Audience Demographics

The core audience for new music across the European contexts in the study is from an elite, highly educated sector of society, one with a very high level of general cultural participation. Over a third of audience respondents attend more than 21 live music events a year. Within this core audience, however, there are several different forms of engagement with new music taking place, from very committed attendees with a professional interest to more occasional, socially motivated visitors. The average age of the sample was 48 years, older than that for most pop audiences and younger than the typical average for a classical music audience. There is also often considerable heterogeneity in age in comparison to other musical genres: findings from the present study and from existing research point to a mix of younger and older audience groups for new music.[6]

Musical expertise was a key divider between the twelve concerts, with some audiences being comprised almost entirely of new music experts (most likely composers and performers of this music) and other contexts in which non-musicians and amateur musicians were strongly in the majority. Musical expertise furthermore emerged as a significant predictor of frequency of new music concert attendance; this means that the higher someone’s level of musical expertise, the higher the number of new music concerts they attend. This result expands upon existing findings that have tended to emphasise the importance of general education and its relationship to new music concert attendance.[7]

Audience Tastes and Perceptions of New Music

As mentioned above, unlike other musical genres, new music appears able to appeal across age groups. Its often ‘classical’ forms and instruments attract older audience members familiar with that musical heritage, whereas elements of how it is presented and its connection to electronic music or experimentalism in other genres was found to be of interest to younger attendees.

At the event with the youngest average age in the sample, an installation at the Ultima Festival in 2018 (average age = 33 years), audience members listened to pop/rock, hip hop, electronic dance music alongside classical music and new music. In general, under 35s were more omnivorous in their musical tastes, not only reporting that they listen to a greater number of different genres regularly (4 to 5 different genres as opposed to 2 to 3 for over 65s) but also more readily crossing traditional ‘high/low’ boundaries in their tastes.

Respondents were asked for their associations with the term “contemporary classical music” and were offered a list of fifteen words to choose from, along with the option of adding their own free-from associations. The audience members largely reported positive perceptions of new music, associating the art form first and foremost with experimentalism (the term “Experimental” was chosen most frequently, accounting for 13.2% of all responses to this question), but also with unpredictability and as a source of inspiration.

Newcomers to new music (respondents who indicated that the survey concert was their first new music event) chose the words “Difficult”, “Strange”, “Different”, “Boring”, and “Unpredictable” more frequently than returning attendees. The 18-24-year-olds in the sample more frequently chose the term “Elitist”, indicating an impatience with the current status of new music among younger audience members (who are in general also more likely to be new music professionals in this sample). The 201 free-form responses to the association question brought many additional dimensions to light. In particular, associating new music with newness and innovation or with the purpose of rethinking and pushing boundaries was prevalent among the free associations. It was furthermore apparent among these responses that new music is a musical form that has developed contrasting views around itself. Many sets of opposites were found among the 201 terms: “relaxing”/“tension”, “valuable”/“meaningless”, and “non-emotional”/“moving”, to name a few. Contrasts in the perception of the complexities of new music emerged alongside this. For some, such music is “cerebral”, “rigorous”, and “profound”, for others this complexity comes across as a “dissonant cacophony” or is associated with incomprehensibility and even being “exhausting”. These differing views on the same facet of new music indicate how there are tensions around the meaning of new music and whether it should be created or presented with a broader audience in mind or whether artistic experimentalism should always be prioritised.

These insights into perceptions and tastes around new music led me to describe this musical form as a “high art subculture”. Younger listeners combine it with or come to it via musical genres more clearly related to subcultures (e.g. hip hop or electronic dance music); it has evident insider-outsider dynamics between audience groups, and it is relatively frequently associated with being critical or “different”, existing in contrast to the classical music “mainstream”. However, it clearly still operates within the structures and institutions of high art.

The Audience Experience: Receiving Different Repertoire and Concert Formats

Existing research on new music audiences has tended to omit discussion of the actual experience of live new music in the concert hall. Exceptions to this include studies that have worked closely together with composers to analyse audience members’ understanding of new works and research that has looked at audience participation in new music,[8] as well as a small number of music psychology studies that have explored the reception of live atonal or improvised music.[9] The results from the Ulysses Network study develop a number of these ideas. This looked at audience experience in general and by musical expertise, at the aesthetic experience of works of new music and at the reception of different concert formats. While first-time attendees did report positive experiences at new music concerts, they felt significantly less informed about the music and less communicated with by the performers than returning attendees, providing mean ratings for these dimensions that were below the sample average. New music experts displayed a tendency to be significantly less satisfied than groups with lower levels of musical expertise, reporting below average satisfaction. This marks out their status as connoisseurs who feel comfortable expressing dissatisfaction. That less experienced audience members perhaps do not feel able to critique a new music concert experience speaks to how this is often considered a specialist genre. Making concert experiences more welcoming for newcomers could mean creating an atmosphere in which expressing criticism or discomfort does not feel intimidating.

Four patterns in aesthetic experience across all the works surveyed emerged. Pieces with some form of extramusical element (audiovisual feature, audience participation) or for which the performers were known to be familiar to the audience were received more positively than other works, or more intensely, depending on the atmosphere of the piece. This points strongly to the importance of the 'framing' of musical content: the reception of new music is evidently very context-dependent, a similar finding to Jutta Toelle and John A. Sloboda.[10] Secondly, tonality as a musical feature was perceived as enjoyable and emotive but less of an aesthetic innovation. Thirdly, new works by young composers were perceived as more original than those by more established composers. Finally, more complex, denser works fared poorly in terms of enjoyability and creating an emotive experience. This point connects these insights to the debates on whether composers have pushed musical language too far, beyond the limits of audiences’ music cognition, and whether this matters.[11]

Data-Informed Curation and Building Democratic Relationships with Audiences

The data on audience tastes, perceptions of new music, and experiences discussed here provide many insights that can feed into the curation and planning of new music events. I propose that institutions and actors in the field of new music could benefit from listening to audiences through practising data-informed curation. Whilst more common in the fields of health and education,[12] data-informed decision-making is becoming more prevalent in the arts.[13] Forms of participatory decision-making are also receiving greater attention. Research on theatre and dance audiences by Jennifer Radbourne, Katya Johanson, and Hilary Glow has assessed the impact of practices such as programming via audience polls, offering ‘work-in-progress’ showings of new productions, and gathering feedback on them and building an “artistic counsel” of audience members and cultural experts.[14] The authors illustrate how these forms of democratic curation allow novice audiences to have their opinions on the quality of artistic work listened to, rather than prioritising and valuing the views of the expert or critic.[15]

Which data or feedback sources are potentially available to curators of new music, and how can they be usefully implemented to inform decision-making? Data sources could include audience research carried out by academic institutions as presented here, booking data from ticket sales, insights from social media and newsletter subscriptions, as well as data or feedback collected directly by organisers from their audiences. All of these enable curators to gain a clearer picture of their audiences’ behaviours (e.g. do they book early or late and do they attend with others?) and interests (e.g. what other types of music or other art forms are of interest to them?). However, the option of collecting audience data as an organisation is the most informative and most likely to be applicable. While longer online or in-concert surveys will be able to provide more detail, postcards handed out to audience members after a performance or short, informal interviews can be sufficient to gain a sense of the audience’s perspective. Offering any type of forum for exchange alters the usual dynamic of the audience as the silent receiver, democratising their contact with new music. Since knowing more about audiences is the key to engaging more fruitfully with them, it could become an aim in the field of new music to systematically pool audience data within specific cities or scenes (see, for example, cross-art form “Audience Finder” function from the UK organisation, the Audience Agency[16]).

As for the curation of new music specifically, I wish to sketch out two more specific ways in which audience data could be used effectively. Firstly, data on audiences’ tastes and the extent to which these represent omnivorous taste patterns could lead to innovative ways of combining genres in curation. Curating across genres is likely to bring new, curious audience members to new music via other musical forms that are more familiar to them. Collaborating with institutions that present other forms of contemporary art (visual art, dance, theatre, film, etc.) would be another means of bringing together different groups based on data on cultural interests. Such data could be used as the basis for an “audience exchange”,[17] in which collaborating institutions ‘swap’ audiences for an event, offering a ticket discount or other form of incentive to encourage participation. The experiences can then be talked about in a guided discussion between audience members and curators or artists.

In a second model, more continuous audience feedback could be used to reduce the risk of trying out more ambitious, larger, or more unconventional event formats or programmes that might be aimed at attracting an audience group new to new music. Behind-the-scenes experiences, such as the work-in-progress showings described in Radbourne, Glow, and Johanson’s work,[18] could be a way of testing the waters with this production or this new audience group, allowing organisations to assess whether they are likely to come along to the final event or recommend coming to friends and family. Opening up the creative process in this way has been viewed favourably by audience participants in other studies.[19] For unconventional formats, for example, set-ups that do not involve seating, it is also important to consider aspects of accessibility and whether there could be potential physical barriers to participation.

Whichever strategy is being applied, when implementing data, curators should aim to map out a plan of how the data will inform decision-making. At which steps in the process of curation will audience data or feedback be most useful and relevant? If working in a team, there also needs to be clarification over who will be responsible for inputting, managing, and processing data according to the relevant data protection guidelines.

Final Thoughts

The concept of data-informed curation for new music that I have sketched out here is intended to open up a conversation on the value of the audience perspective in this musical form. I do not wish to suggest that audiences’ views and tastes should be the only influence on programming decisions, nor that ‘fulfilling’ audiences’ needs should be the aim of new music programming. Considering the audience response could simply lead to more sustainable and egalitarian relationships with listeners and could even offer more precise ways of breaking expectations of an artistic experience in some instances. Being intentional about curation and about using available audience research and data can only serve to strengthen organisations presenting new music. It does not always have to be ‘about’ the audience but, given that a lot of new music is created and performed in publicly funded contexts, it is definitely time to create room for dialogue and exchange with the wider public.

Gina Emerson is a researcher, writer and project manager/dramaturg in the field of contemporary music. She is a PhD candidate in Musicology at the Institute for Cultural Innovation Research (IKI) at Hamburg University of Music and Drama. She has been working with the Ulysses Network since November 2016 and recently completed her doctoral thesis, Between the ‘Experimental’ and the ‘Accessible’: Investigating the Audience Experience of Contemporary Classical Music, as part of the Network’s Audience Research project. For this, she conducted audience surveys at twelve contemporary classical music concerts from a range of institutions across Europe, including IRCAM, the Darmstadt Summer Course for New Music, Snape Maltings and the Ultima Festival. As of May 2020, she has been working as a  Project Coordinator for Ensemble Quillo, the ensemble for contemporary music in Brandenburg.

Her research interests include audience experience, cultural participation, empirical aesthetics and the reception of contemporary music and new music technologies.


[1] I follow musicologist Sarah Collins in finding that terms such as “new music” and “contemporary music” have “a pretence of neutrality while in fact being intensely ideological,” in that they imply that newly composed music in the Western art tradition can be the only truly new music. I find that this undervalues the contemporaneity of pop music and other styles, but I will adapt to terminology used in this special issue and use the term “new music” here. See Sarah Collins, “What was contemporary music?: The new, the modern and the contemporary in the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM),” in The Routledge Research Companion to Modernism in Music (London: Routledge, 2019), 57.

[2] Stephanie E. Pitts and Sarah M. Price, Understanding Audiences for the Contemporary Arts Sector Handbook (Sheffield: University of Sheffield, 2019), http://www.sparc.dept.shef.ac.uk/uaca/handbook/.

[3] Katarzyna Grebosz-Haring and Martin Weichbold, “Contemporary art music and its audiences: Age, gender, and social class profile,” Musicae Scientiae 24, no. 1 (May 2018), https://doi.org/10.1177/1029864918774082.

[4] Sound and Music, The Audience Development Survey 2015, January 2015, http://www.soundandmusic.org/ads2015.

[5] Formed as part of the European Union’s Creative Europe programme in 2012, the Ulysses Network is a group of the following thirteen new music institutions: Impuls (Graz, AT), the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (Tallinn, EE), Snape Maltings (Aldeburgh, GB), IRCAM (Paris, FR), Opus XXI (DE/FR/AT), Gaudeamus Muziekweek (Utrecht, NL), IEMA (Frankfurt, DE), Flagey (Brussels, BE), Divertimento Ensemble (Milano, IT), Time of Music (Viitasaari, FI), Darmstadt Summer Courses (Darmstadt, DE), Royaumont Foundation (Royaumont, FR) and the Ultima Festival (Oslo, NO). The pilot survey took place at the Impuls Festival in February 2017, the twelve surveys were conducted at each of the remaining institutions in 2017 and 2018.

[6] Grebosz-Haring and Weichbold, “Contemporary art music and its audiences”;

Deutsches Musikinformationszentrum, Themenportal Konzerte & Musiktheater, s.v. “Konzertpublika – Sozialstruktur, Mentalitäten, Geschmacksprofile” (Concert audiences – social structure, mentality, taste profile), by Hans Neuhoff (2008), http://www.miz.org/static_de/themenportale/einfuehrungstexte_pdf/03_KonzerteMusiktheater/neuhoff.pdf.

[7] Henriette Zehme, Zeitgenössische Musik und ihr Publikum. Eine soziologische Untersuchung im Rahmen der Dresdner Tage der zeitgenössischen Musik (Contemporary music and its public: a sociological examination in the context of the Dresden contemporary music days), (Regensburg: ConBrio, 2005).

[8] Melissa C. Dobson and John Sloboda, “Staying behind: explorations in post-performance musician–audience dialogue,” in Coughing and Clapping: Investigating Audience Experience, eds. Karen Burland and Stephanie Pitts (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2014), 159–74); Jutta Toelle and John A. Sloboda, “The audience as artist? The audience’s experience of participatory music” Musicae Scientiae (April 2019), https://doi.org/10.1177/1029864919844804.

[9] Examples of such music psychology studies include Gina Emerson and Hauke Egermann “Gesture-sound causality from the audience’s perspective: Investigating the aesthetic experience of performances with digital musical instruments,” Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts 12, no. 1 (February 2018): 96–109; Roger Reynolds, “Epilog: Reflections on Psychological Testing with The Angel of Death,” Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal 22, no. 2 (2004): 351–356.

[10] Toelle and Sloboda, “Staying behind.”

[11] See Fred Lerdahl, “Cognitive Constraints on Compositional Systems,” Contemporary Music Review 6, no. 2 (1992): 97–121; David Huron, Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006).

[12] See, for example, Nutley et al., “Moving data off the shelf and into action: an intervention to improve data-informed decision making in Côte d'Ivoire,” Global Health Action 7, no. 1 (2014); Young et al., “Adopting and adapting: school leaders in the age of data-informed decision making,” Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability 30, no. 2 (May 2018): 133–158.

[13] Audience Agency, Data and Insight Reports, n.d., https://www.theaudienceagency.org/products/data-and-insight-reports; Leila Jancovich, “Great art for everyone? Engagement and participation policy in the arts,” Cultural Trends 20, nos. 3-4 (November 2011): 271 – 279; Price et al., “Spontaneity and planning in arts attendance: insights from qualitative interviews and the Audience Finder database,” Cultural Trends 28, nos. 2–3 (2019): 220–238.

[14] Jennifer Radbourne, Katya Johanson, and Hilary Glow, “Empowering Audiences to Measure Quality,” Participations 7, no. 2 (November 2010): 360-379.

[15] See also Sabine Boerner and Sabine Renz, “Performance Measurement in Opera Companies: Comparing the Subjective Quality Judgements of Experts and Non-Experts,” International Journal of Arts Management 10 no. 3 (2008): 21–37; Abigail Gilmore, Hilary Glow, and Katya Johanson, “Accounting for quality: Arts evaluation, public value and the case of ‘Culture Counts,’” Cultural Trends 26, no. 4 (November 2017): 282-294.

[16] https://audiencefinder.org/, last accessed 1 July 2020.

[17] Stephanie Pitts and Jonathan Gross, “‘Audience exchange’: cultivating peer-to-peer dialogue at unfamiliar arts events,” Arts and the Market 7, no. 1 (May 2017): 65–79.

[18] Radbourne, Johanson, and Glow, “Empowering audiences to measure quality.”

[19] Jonathan Gross and Stephanie Pitts, “Audiences for the contemporary arts: Exploring varieties of participation across art forms in Birmingham, UK,” Participations 13, no. 1 (May 2016): 4–23.

Go back