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Research into an app that encourages students to attend classical music has elicited some unwelcome responses, reveals Garry Crawford.

Photo of young person with phone

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu once wrote that “nothing more clearly affirms one’s social class… than tastes in music”. In particular, live classical music audiences in the UK have for some time typically reflected a very narrow demographic, one that journalist Stephen Moss described as “getting on in years, retired, white [and] middle-class”.

Therefore, the challenge for many classical music orchestras is how to engage a new generation and wider audiences with live classical music.

Many of the research participants questioned whether the orchestra should be attempting to broaden its audience at all

When looking to engage a new, and in particular younger, audience, the ‘go-to’ response for many cultural organisations has been the development and implementation of mobile apps. And probably for good reason.
Mobile phone ownership in the UK is now ubiquitous, with smart phones and other mobile devices having been quickly and eagerly adopted by the majority of younger people. Research suggests that most users are now comfortable searching for and purchasing products using their phones.

Hence, when exploring new ways of selling tickets and engaging with its student audience, the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) successfully secured Digital R&D for the Arts funding to work with the app developer Kodime and a research team from the University of Salford to develop, implement and evaluate a new mobile app called Student Pulse.

Primary aims

The main aims of the app were two-fold. It was primarily designed as a ticketing service. It allowed student audiences to directly and simply purchase discounted student-specific tickets, which cut out the additional costs and levels of complexity of going through a traditional box office.

The app also included information about the orchestra, its programme, a map to its venues, short music clips, plus the ability for users to post from the app into social networking sites (specifically Facebook and Twitter), and a reward scheme that allowed users to collect points and trade them for various items or services,

It was hoped that by employing an informative, easy-to-use and accessible technology, popular with a broad youth demographic, this might encourage new attenders to live classical music.

Certainly, in its primary aim the app did prove to be successful. For time-pressured customers the ability to simply and easily purchase discounted tickets was highly appealing. For the orchestra, the app allowed it to sell tickets directly to customers, removing intermediaries and their added costs. Since its launch, the app has been significantly expanded to cover the student ticketing of the majority of the bigger (and some of the smaller) classical music orchestras and venues across London.

Negative responses

However, many of the features that the app developers and the orchestra thought that students might want were not necessarily of interest to their customers. For example, from the research conducted with users, very few stated that they had listened to the sound clips or used the social networking links.

In particular, this research found little evidence to suggest that the app engaged a wider demographic beyond the orchestra’s traditional audience. All of the app users surveyed already had an interest in classical music, and in most cases, already regularly attended the LSO.

Moreover, many of the research participants questioned whether the orchestra should be attempting to broaden its audience at all. They emphasised that an understanding of patterns of appropriate behaviour, knowledge and appreciation of the music at a live classical music event are important and necessary prerequisites to attendance. And sentiments were often expressed that this should not be in any way dumbed down in order to attract a wider audience.

This is important, as an app aimed at serving both an existing audience, as well as being a mechanism for expanding it, may be conflictual and reduce the usefulness of the app to both markets.

While new audiences might want added levels of information, guides and links into a supportive community, the research suggests, at least in this case, that most existing customers did not value or necessarily want these features, and some appeared happy (if not keen) to keep their interests exclusive and even ‘exclusionary’.

Garry Crawford is Professor of Cultural Sociology at the University of Salford.
E: g.crawford@salford.ac.uk
Tw: @cultsociologist

Comment from Deborah Bull

While mobile technologies have been rapidly adopted, adapted and evolved throughout the commercial industries, it’s understandable that cultural organisations have been less quick to get on board – not least because of the big budgets and specialist skills that exploitation of digital technologies require.

What Garry Crawford’s work reveals is that the arts sector may need to be even smarter in how it uses these smart technologies, recognising that there is a potential mismatch between the interests of existing audiences and the appetites of those ‘hard-to-reach’ target segments.

The study also found a mismatch between the anticipated and actual needs of the target audience (in this case students), which points to the need for cultural organisations to engage even more effectively with the intended end-user during the development phase of any digital application.

Importantly, the study adds to the existing knowledge about the ways in which users want to interact with cultural organisations via mobile technologies and will support the sector in connecting more effectively with new audiences on what are now accepted as mainstream platforms.

Deborah Bull is Assistant Principal of King’s College London.

This article is a summary of research prepared for CultureCase, a resource from King’s College London to provide the sector with access to academic standard research. The summary of this academic paper is available on CultureCase.

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