So You Want to Be AN IMPRESARIO?


IN STEPHEN LEACOCK’s Boarding-House Gardening, the instructions for growing one particular crop begin: “Go out six weeks ago and dig deeply.” In similar vein, the aspiring concert-promoter might well be advised to “go out last year and get a million dollars.” Of course, if you already have the million dollars, you can go right ahead and start your concert series. You can hire whatever help you need, book the best artists in the world, and not worry about losing out financially.

But will you even then be guaranteed a successful concert series? No. Money is only one of the prerequisites for achieving that. Another, of course, is an audience, and not only as an indication of your financial success: there is nothing more dampening to a musician’s spirits, and to the spark of communication which ideally enlivens his performance, than playing to a half-empty hall, which brings up your third necessity: the hall. And with this you are about at the end of your Basic Requirements: some money to start the ball rolling, a building to house the concerts, and people to fill it with.

At this point, perhaps, a word of encouragement may be appropriate. Don’t feel that because you’re not Mr. Hurok the organization of a concert series is beyond you. Far more amateurs than professionals are involved in concert management around the country; and many of the series chairmen I have spoken with are doctors, teachers, lawyers, housewives, and other private citizens, and most of them, till they set out on their concert ventures, were quite unconnected with what is often rather materialistically referred to as “the music business.” Maybe this is why running concerts can be so much fun: it’s a remarkably satisfying way for those who have loved music from outside to get on the inside, to develop contacts and often real friendships with great artists from all over the world, to make a valuable contribution to the country’s musical life, to attain the position of a recognized benefactor to the community.

But enough of the rewards. Let’s come back to what you actually have to do.

Most communities possess a hall of some kind suitable for music-making. If you have a choice of several, the factors to be taken into account are the obvious ones of cost, convenience (including parking facilities), size, and acoustical properties. The last-named, which might be among the most important considerations in a big city, will be a relatively minor one in a small town; and similarly the capacity of an auditorium will be important principally in relation to the question: “Can you sell enough subscriptions to cover booking fees for your artists?” It may be necessary to put on solo recitals in halls which, artistically speaking, are larger than they ideally should be, simply in order to balance the budget.

If no auditorium presents itself, don’t despair. There must at least be a school around with a gymnasium that would be adapted for concert use—all you need is a few volunteers to bring the chairs in and clear them away again afterwards. Joan Sutherland’s first recital in the New York area took place in a gymnasium in Englewood, New Jersey.

Let’s assume that you now have your auditorium lined up. Before actually launching out on the first season, you may feel it would be a good thing to acquire a financial cushion to guard against the possibility of a disappointing public response. The Marion (Ohio) Concert Association regularly does this by selling patron memberships at $25.00. Dr. Thomas Quilter, who was president of the association for several years, said: “We’re able to get about 100 patrons without much difficulty. We go to local industry, banks, professional people with an interest in the cultural life of the community. We find that most of them are willing to help.”

Even those whose interest is social, political, or mercantile rather than strictly musical may be induced to lend their names and their valuable dollars, especially if they’re aware that the names of patrons will be prominently listed in the program for all the community to see. You may have to be shamelessly pragmatic about this. The belief that this country is presently witnessing a gigantic “cultural explosion” is both true and grossly exaggerated. But you can make use of it: convince your quarry that the explosion is taking place, and it will be relatively easy to persuade them that they ought to be part of it. And Marion is only one community among many that has found industry a useful support. Mrs. Sonya Moskowitz, a one-woman musical dynamo in Jersey City, has found the public relations departments of large firms “very sympathetic to the idea of supporting a cultural enterprise, both for the good of the community and for the good of its own image in the community.”

ONE OF THE best-proven ways of insuring against financial loss has been to get a local college, or the city authorities, to underwrite the series. The city fathers in Montclair, California, didn’t even have to be persuaded into the idea—they came up with it themselves. These benevolent bureaucrats finance free concerts in a convenient open-air theatre. Not all local authorities are so enlightened, but most will respond to a little prodding, and colleges too can often be persuaded to lend a hand, especially if they have musical faculties of their own to benefit from a link-up with community resources in bringing first-class musical performances within reach. Catawba College, in Salisbury, North Carolina, presents an Artists Series in collaboration with the community, and Northeast State College at Monroe, Louisiana, similarly underwrites a concert association which benefits both town and gown.

One of the best methods of borrowing in advance for a concert series is to draw up bonds which provide for the return of the loan in, say, two or three years if the money has been recovered from receipts; if it hasn’t, then the loan is written off. This was the technique employed by Daytona Beach’s Florida International Musical Festival, about which more later.

Having given thought to these matters, you, as an individual, may want to organize the whole thing yourself, or you may decide to assemble a committee to help. If you decide on a committee, make sure that one person has full executive powers. The committee should be there to advise and to help, not to decide: however well a concert series is organized it is one kind of enterprise always liable to last-minute emergencies. An artist’s manager may call up at midnight the day before a concert and say that soprano such-and-such has laryngitis, will you accept bassoonist so-and-so instead? You have to be able to say yes or no on the spot.

At the same time, don’t be intimidated by the professionals. One Midwestern community, which had a signed contract with a touring ballet company, was told at the last moment that the company’s itinerary had now worked out in such a way that it would be unable to appear. But the township stuck to its guns and the recalcitrant artists simply had to reorganize their subsequent obligations.

Provided powers of immediate decision are kept in one pair of hands, a committee can be a useful source of at least moral support. Obvious sources for committee members are, again, local government and the music faculty of the nearest college. Of course, it would be helpful to .have two or three members who can help financially as well. In Saratoga, California, one member of the Music Festival committee, a keen amateur musician, is a printer—a great help in putting out flyers, programs, and the like.

Representatives of the local newspapers and radio stations bring big advantages with them as members of a committee. Davis Bingham, who runs the concert series in Monroe, heads a committee that includes “all kinds of people—ministers, teachers, doctors, housewives”—but he also has the local reviewer, which helps to keep the newspaper interested; and in Marion the local radio station often provides “spots” to draw attention to the concerts.

WHETHER YOU DECIDE to be a committee or a one-man show, you will have a further decision to make: whether to arrange the details of the series locally, or to enlist the services of an organization that provides packaged series. Three organizations that do this are Community Concert Service, Civic Concert Service, and United Audience Service. Far the biggest of the three is Community, run by William Judd of Columbia Artists Management Inc., of which it is an affiliate. This outfit will provide suggested lists of artists, draw up a complete schedule for the season, and also send an expert into the field for the period immediately preceding the opening of the series to take charge of publicity, advertising, and other promotional and organizational matters. In return for this, the total fee charged will naturally be somewhat higher than you would find yourself paying if you put together the same list of artists yourself. At the same time you will be relieved of much of the hard work, and protected from the possibility of making big and expensive mistakes.

Civic, which also has many years of experience in this field and draws on the special resources of Eric Semon Associates’ artist list, provides a service along similar lines. It should be emphasized that the Community and Civic schemes are not restricted to artists handled by the managements with which these services are associated—both will provide artists run by any management in the country. The emphasis of United Audience Service, booking director Lois Brannan points out, lies more specifically in the direction of independence. “We’re not associated with any artist management, and we don’t manage any artists ourselves. We simply contact the management direct and book whatever artists our clients want. Then we send a representative down for two weeks to organize the campaign, and we furnish all campaign supplies—including programs—free.”

Thus, with all three organizations, the term “packaged series” is a somewhat unfair sobriquet: a high degree of flexibility is available to meet local needs and interests. Whether or not you want to run the series this way will depend simply on how much creativity you are prepared to forgo in order to salvage time and labor.

SOMEWHERE BETWEEN COMMUNITY, Civic, and United on the one hand, and the ordinary managerial facilities open to those who want to run their own series on the other, are several enterprising managers who have come up with special offers that may well prove fruitful either in collaboration with them or in usurping their ideas. Norman Seaman has experimented with individual concerts for which he provides all services at an inclusive fee. And Ann Summers Management has devised an “extended engagement plan” that offers a number of musical ensembles on a particularly interesting basis. Closely geared to the needs of colleges, but adaptable as well to community requirements, a five-day engagement includes two regular evening performances with different programs, an informal seminar or symposium, a workshop or coaching session, and a reading of student compositions.

Miss Summers has been an early proponent of contact between artists and audiences. “You have to think in terms of the audience,” she insists. “Concerts aren’t things that happen in the abstract—you have to put on a particular concert, and bring particular people to it. We’re far too liable to put on concerts without having a clear picture of the audience we want to attract.” Similarly, Jay Hoffman, whose presentations have had a stimulating effect on the New York concert round during recent seasons, emphasizes the importance of giving a concert or a series a face of its own. Among his ideas have been “Primavera,” a pair of concerts devoted to Italian baroque concertos, and this season’s “Tiny Telemann Festival” at Carnegie Hall. A title, he has found, “always helps; it captures the imagination and it doesn’t involve any reduction in the dignity of what you are offering the public.” At the opposite extreme from the plans offered by the three “organized audience” services is the series put together entirely by its instigators. You may well decide that the stimulation of “doing it yourself” compensates for the effort involved and for the rather alarming sense of treading unknown ground. With few exceptions, any artist can be booked by going directly to his management, and the manager’s interest will help make things as smooth as possible for you, even if he is not concerned with the running of your series as a whole.

The two main problems specifically involved in the “self-determined” series are the selection of artists and the mobilization of the audience. Strikingly successful among such series are the John Harms Concerts, currently traversing their nineteenth season in Englewood, New Jersey. “You might imagine,” Mr. Harms says, “that Englewood would be a bad prospect for a local concert series, with the attractions of New York City so close, but I’ve had little difficulty in keeping the hall filled.” One reason for this is the very sensitive finger he keeps on the pulse of international musical life. A well-informed musician, a music teacher, and an experienced choral conductor, he has brought off some remarkable coups, such as the aforementioned Sutherland “gym” recital (he has since graduated to the high school’s auditorium) and a concert with Fischer-Dieskau when the baritone was still little known in the States. All this he does at the price of a ten-dollar subscription for a series of four concerts, with one concert added each year on a non-subscription basis.

A good subscription series will incorporate a balanced list of attractions to provide variety for the subscriber: a series of four concerts, for instance, might include one orchestral concert, one string-quartet concert, one piano recital, and one vocal recital. The balance will have to be not only musical but financial. Big names may well be a factor in drawing an audience, though this depends partly on the size of your hall. Marvin Wigginton, chairman of a series in Salisbury, North Carolina, finds that “the big name will help to bring people in, but then the price you have to pay for an artist of star caliber will sometimes still put you in the red.”

Artists’ fees are not completely inflexible: the biggest names are not necessarily beyond your reach. Sometimes they may even be available for a comparatively modest sum. Recently, one community was delighted to find this true of a particularly illustrious chamber orchestra whose management wanted to fill a gap on an already planned itinerary. They got the group at half the usual fee.

IN A BALANCED list the big names will carry the small ones. “Robert Merrill was coming to a nearby town,” said one New Jersey opera buff who is now busily engaged in starting a series in her own town. “We couldn’t get tickets just for that concert, so naturally we took a subscription for the whole series.” Putting in a few lesser-known artists to avoid an over-all loss should not result in inferior concerts. At least not if you intend to continue the series in more than one season. For each series, you should make a careful selection of promising young artists, and your best bet will be through reputable managements, whose own criteria for any artist they decide to handle are at least as stringent as your own. After all, it’s their livelihood. You will then usually find that the musical results are scarcely less exciting than those of the more star-studded occasions.

As for estimating the relative popularity of various kinds of attractions, the only point of general agreement among artists’ managers and local organizers seems to be the spectacular rise of public interest in what are known as “group attractions” not only big ensembles like symphony orchestras, but also chamber orchestras, string quartets, wind groups, and even specialist ensembles like the New York Pro Musica, the New York Chamber Soloists, and the Krainis Baroque Trio. The solo recital, currently, is the step-child of the concert circuit. “We put out a questionnaire every year,” says Marvin Wigginton of his Catawba College-Community series, “but we always know what the results will be, and they’re always the same: the popular things are the large, expensive ones—symphony orchestras, bands, choruses, and dance groups.”

How to sell tickets? The commonest and· most successful method is probably that described by one manager in the South: “We send out flyers by mail, and then we have an official campaign. I have about sixty or seventy women helping. I choose the campaign chairman, a particularly well-known woman in the community. She then brings in a few friends. Then each of these brings in a few more—the organization’s like a pyramid—and then we start the ball rolling with a big party to get them all enthused.”

A different picture was painted by a series chairman in Florida who said, ruefully: “Oh, yes, I had about two hundred volunteers right away, but two hundred and one dropped out before we got started.” It will be wise to be prepared for this, and to be prepared to do most of the work of selling by yourself. However much advertising you do, there’s no substitute for personal contact. When John Harms sent out flyers publicizing his first series, the response was tiny, “so I simply sat down and started calling people on the phone. I’ve done it that way ever since. I just tell them what they stand to gain by subscribing, and I get a pretty good response.” The personal touch can be preserved even in a large-scale campaign: one Midwestern series uses the same sellers to bring in the same buyers every year, and the sense of continuity ensures that very few subscribers fail to renew.

Once you have aroused people’s interest, the best way of keeping it is by stimulating, or at least simulating, real contact between artists and audience. The most important supporters of your series should be invited to a post-concert party at which the artist will appear. In this way concerts become experiences in which people feel truly involved, instead of occurrences at which they happen to be marginally present and to which they have no particular reason to want to return. The very concerts can help project a feeling of intimacy: New York has a series of “concert-parties” at which the audience sits at tables during the performance and meets the artists over coffee afterwards.

Musician/audience contact was a prime factor in the success of one of the most exciting socio-cultural events of 1966: the first Florida International Music Festival at Daytona Beach. Here, the concert series assumed the form of a highly concentrated festival, but the principle remained the same. Daytona Beach has only about 40,000 residents, but the organizers were audacious enough to borrow the incredible sum of nearly $200,000 on three-year bonds. With this, they were able to import one of the world’s finest orchestras, the London Symphony, and in their first year they sold over $145,000 worth of tickets for a four-week program of sixteen orchestral concerts and three chamber concerts given by members of the orchestra.

Interest was stimulated socially by large numbers of parties and receptions for the orchestra; journalistically by daily coverage in the local newspaper; musically by weekly open rehearsals, attended sometimes by over a thousand people; and educationally by the participation of the orchestra’s members in training a student orchestra assembled with the administrative help of nearby Stetson University. The result was a feeling of personal commitments among local and nearby residents. And the further result is that the London Symphony Orchestra will be back at Daytona Beach in 1967. A festival of this scope is an ambitious undertaking. But if Daytona Beach can manage it, your home town can surely achieve at least a healthy concert series.

A few last details: find out what piano your pianist wants. If he’s famous enough, he’ll probably arrive with his own, but otherwise make sure the right one will be available for his concert. Make sure also to have it tuned. And don’t forget to put flowers in the artist’s dressing-room. Musicians, after all, are only human beings too. If they think you cared enough for them to send the very best, they will care enough for you to give their very best.




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