The situation has never been better for engaging young people in the arts. But how do we ensure that current education and marketing initiatives are securing diverse arts audiences for the future? Michelle Wright draws some conclusions.
It is hard to articulate what constitutes a really valuable experience with the arts for young people. Take the example of ?Sonic Postcards?, a large-scale education project run by Sonic Arts Network, which has taken engagement with the arts right back to the beginning. Using interaction with everyday sounds as the basis of creative composition, primary and secondary school pupils are taught to use music technology to manipulate sound created from their own environments and then to exchange sound postcards with other schools via the Internet. This is a multi-layered project that benefits many different curriculum areas, particularly focusing on e-learning and the environment.
And the legacy of such a project? Project Co-ordinator Rebecca Laurence says, ?Often this is pupils? first experience of concentrated listening and they surprise themselves with what they hear. Suddenly, they are tuning in to everyday sounds that are often taken for granted, significantly developing their aural perception? but, perhaps most importantly, this project stimulates pupils to become curious creatively.?
Practice makes perfect
Clearly, developing creative awareness and listening skills can help pave the way for pupils to engage in other areas of arts activity but is it really this practical, ?hands on? experience that is the hook for young people to connect with the arts? At Youth Music all work is based on the concept that practical, active, musical experience is vital when working with under 18s. To date, the charity has made over 1,300 awards to arts organisations, benefiting nearly one million young people who would not otherwise have had the opportunity to participate in music making.
The benefits of a ?hands on?, musical experience are clear. Youth Music?s evaluation process reveals that music-making has raised the personal aspirations of a significant proportion of participants ? a significant factor in their motivation to become further involved in arts activities.
Another motivating factor for young people new to arts activities, is ownership of the way a project develops. Many Youth Music-funded programmes are built specifically around the needs of the community, as well as developing musically from the interests of the young people involved. A development programme for young bands run by the Fellowship of St Nicholas in Hastings, is a good example: the participants decide the music they will play and how the sessions will be organised ? even how the bands? kit will be arranged.
Placing a significant amount of trust and responsibility with these young people has worked exceptionally well. Some of the bands have now secured gigs in well-known venues in the local area, which is a huge step forward for these participants ? many of whom had not done well at school. They now have an impressive knowledge of the creative options open to them in their area, and have a strong group identity that makes them more likely to attend similar arts projects. However, a key personal achievement for these young people is that the project has elevated their status amongst their peers: they are now the official authority on what is cool musically ? a giant leap forward in terms of their self-esteem and their developing personal identities.
This effective consultation with young people is fundamental, bearing in mind that a key challenge in any education project is keeping young people with no history of engagement with arts activity interested and committed. ?Big About Music?, the Youth Music Action Zone in Corby and Kettering, has taken this to another level, involving a young marketing team called the ?Big it Up Crew? who influence the whole process from recruitment to marketing and project initiatives. This really makes this project about the young people involved.
Similar initiatives, supported through the Arts Council?s New Audiences Scheme have been equally successful. The youth part of this scheme represents an investment of £5m, funding nearly 400 projects that are all focused on engaging young people in the arts. A diverse range of initiatives has benefited, from young promoter?s schemes to youth advisory panels. One obvious area for arts organisations to consider is taking outreach programmes into venues that have greater relevance to a younger audience. The Asian Music Circuit, realising that over six million young people attend dance clubs across the UK every weekend, took the ?Sitarfunk? programme into clubs and delivered Indian classical music to a completely new audience.
Too much, too young
Similarly, attracting younger audiences requires a different approach to marketing ? a fact borne out by research. For example, a large-scale research project commissioned by Sheffield Theatres entitled ?How Much?? aimed to test the impact of programming, price and promotion on young people's theatre attendance, with significant results. It showed that young people are notional risk-takers, more influenced by word-of-mouth recommendation from their peers than by price, programming or promotion. Responses to direct mail in this age group were 25% lower than that of the theatre?s core audience. This has led to other organisations experimenting with youth-oriented marketing, such as the ?Txtm8? project run by South West Arts, which used text messaging as a way of promoting 31 events to a youth audience, resulting in a small but significant take-up of between 0.5 and 16% per event.
There are no easy answers to building audiences for the future but effective consultation with young people and making sure that opportunities are relevant to individuals and communities is vital. Most importantly, making opportunities accessible through new approaches to marketing is essential for this fickle market. Through education work we are not going to inspire more than a small percentage of young people to form a lifelong commitment to the arts, but if future opportunities are made accessible and relevant then the chances of success are far greater.
Michelle Wright is Executive Officer, Marketing and Communications at Youth Music. t: 020 7902 1086; e: email@example.com