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How do you market classical music to people who've never been to a concert? Thomas Kemp offers some practical advice for anyone looking to launch an arts festival.

Photo of Thomas Kemp workshop

Shani Hancock

Music @ Malling was set up in 2011 to promote outstanding music in historical venues in and around West Malling, Kent.

Back in the 70’s, I grew up in the village and had my first violin lessons in the school kitchen through the Kent Music School. The inspiration to start the festival came through a visit to my old school in 2010 where sadly there was virtually no musical activity. West Malling is a town rich in history and in an area of outstanding natural beauty but back then, it had no history of professional concerts and an extremely patchy provision of music in schools - a complex legacy of changing priorities and funding cuts that defined the decades after I began my musical journey next to a vat of bubbling Ravioli!

I checked on Facebook and only nine people in the area “liked” music! Not a promising start but I was convinced it was an ideal place to build a festival - it had lots of interesting and quirky venues, schools that desperately needed high quality engagement projects and lots of potential to develop events that would inspire the grassroots and build audiences whilst putting West Malling on the cultural map. The question was: how to do it?

The team comes first

Getting a team of enthusiastic volunteers is essential to getting a project like this off the ground. Local knowledge and contacts are key to start such an enterprise and we were lucky to quickly establish an enthusiastic board and gain the support of many local organisations. From the start, we got local business on side and encouraged them to advertise and sponsor. Giving the area ownership and a sense of being part of the community through a new festival was crucial.

Think outside the bubble

I have learnt that programming new music is all about the context and what you programme it with. If you get this wrong, it is box office suicide! It is a balancing act.

One of the things I wanted to programme was contemporary music, having worked with a lot of contemporary composers. I also knew that most of our potential audiences would have no idea who any of the artists were – even although they were brilliant musicians – and would listen and enjoy music but would not necessarily know what it was and may never have been to concerts before.

To build a relationship with our audiences, pretty much all of our artists return each year and this has helped develop a core following. We have also marketed our concerts on the marque rather than the artist - for example, in a concert this September, West Side Story is the marque and The Callum Au Big Band are the artists. There are also strands of programming that run through each festival that provide continuity and take the audience on a musical journey. These run through different genres to make links between different musical types and break down generic barriers.

Put schools at the heart of the community

Bringing the very best artists to the area and giving schools direct access to outstanding musicians has had a huge knock on effect. More children are learning instruments and participating in the arts, and we have mentoring opportunities with our artists for instrumentalists, vocalists and composers from across the county. But crucially we are able to market our concerts and events to parents and families and build an audience from the grass roots. Taking families or classes of children up to London – even from a town 33 miles away – simply does not happen much. Bringing the best to the doorsteps of Malling solves this problem!

Developing this has not been easy and sometimes we have had a resistance but the results speak for themselves and the children love taking part, as do the staff and families.

Keep pushing for funding

This is hard work! Do not take no for an answer and keep trying. There are lots of really helpful and supportive organisations out there. Personally, as a performing musician rather than an administrator, the jargon and form-filling were a little bit like learning Esperanto – but with perseverance, totally possible to do. In a way, having a performing background rather than an administrative one is an advantage. Don't be intimidated!

Remember why you're doing this

Music @ Malling has developed organically but has tried to keep to its core values: providing a resource for the local area that resonates across the region and beyond and puts the area on the cultural map.

Thomas Kemp is a conductor.

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