Dumbing Down or Smartening Up?

It’s been an exciting week!  Since my article What Professional Orchestras Should Learn from YouTube was posted, many conversations have erupted, debating the question of whether initiatives embraced by YouTube’s Symphony Orchestra are appropriate and helpful for professional groups.

As is the case when any significant institutional change is proposed, reactions ranged wildly.  Many were enthusiastic about suggestions; others dug in their heels, insisting that alterations to the current paradigm are merely capitulations, disgraceful, or even apocalyptic.  Wherever you stand, engaging in the conversation marks an important step. 

One recurring question is whether adopting my suggestions compromises artistic integrity. For example, Evanston Symphony Orchestra conductor Lawrence Eckerling wrote this thoughtful response to the suggestion that a greater variety of shorter works be programmed on some concerts, possibly including individual movements:

While in principle I agree…this is an apparent “dumbing down” of the art. The “greatest hits” mentality is akin to iTunes and tracks vs. albums. Performing just favorites or the most accessible movements is fine to do on an occasional concert, but when done as the regular diet is not doing the art form any service.  

To frame my views on the issue of dumbing down, here is an excerpt from a chapter in The Savvy Musician called “Artistry and Relevance”:

It seems that many musicians are squarely positioned on one side or the other when it comes to music and audience. Are there just two extreme, polar-opposite options: interactive user-friendly formats with shallow expressions, or intimidating academic presentations with depth? Whether musicians offer profound statements but fail to connect with their audience, or dumb down their product in order to attract one, they are making sophisticated music less relevant.

A third archetype exists—one that seeks a happy medium between accessibility and integrity. The more foreign, complicated, or out of the comfort zone an experience is for observers, the more essential audience-engaging tactics become. On the other hand, when extra-musical elements and accessible formats are embraced, programmers should not cower at the incorporation of profound adventurous musical offerings. Perhaps this hybrid can engage proponents of both sides, submitting a middle ground that can be embraced by both the musical bourgeoisie and the masses.

In response to Eckerling’s concern…Suggesting that some events embrace the variety show model in no way implies that works chosen should be limited to the most accessible and well-known. 

Au contraire.  This model permits programmers the option of incorporating more adventurous programming than typically occurs: lesser known works, obscure composers, new music, even the avant-garde.  When the goal itself is eclecticism, many contemporary audiences are willing—even eager—to explore new terrain. At least for a few minutes.  This structure actually provides a vehicle for smartening up programming.

Whether we like it or not, we live in the iTunes Era.  Many people buy tracks, not albums.  Selling only albums scares off potential fans. Which brings us to someone else’s comment:

I don’t agree that other orchestras should take this approach. YouTube is interesting fluff, but not comparable to a real, live concert experience. As for performing parts of pieces, would you read parts of novels, see parts of plays or movies, eat part of your dinner, and call it a complete experience?

The analogies here are interesting.  Let’s explore:

  • Food.  Restaurants specializing in tapas are all the rage.  My favorite, Café Tu Tu Tango, serves only appetizers from around the world.  (Incidentally, they also display/sell work by local artists, with the catch phrase “Food for the Starving Artist.”) 
  • Love. Since speed dating was introduced in 1998, hundreds of thousands of singles have participated.
  • Travel. Just about every travel company offers tours featuring a wide variety of experiences and locations in a short amount of time.  These packages are exponentially more popular than those limited to the same city or activity for extended periods.
  • Education. Every university offers survey courses.  Typically, students only enroll in specialty classes after completing the survey. 

The assertion that no professional orchestra should consider a variety show format is just as preposterous as one arguing that every event must adopt this approach.  Some audiences today are drawn to deep and consistent encounters; others prefer to spend their valuable time experiencing an assortment; still others are excited by both models. 

And let’s not forget, the YTSO did offer a “real, live concert experience.”  It was sold out, and viewed 33 million times worldwide.  How can that possibly be a bad thing?

Another comment:

It is indeed true that we face a short attention span…But the reason why is sad – a simple lack of education. America is growing dumber by the hour and taking the whole world with it.

We could certainly debate this claim.  But for now, let’s assume the statement is true.  What if Americans are, in fact, getting dumber?  Orchestras have a choice. Should they:

  1. Spend time and energy bitterly complaining about how dumb the world has become?
  2. Dismiss anyone who isn’t interested in the “smart” work they do, continuing business as usual and appealing only to the elite few who “get it”?
  3. Work pro-actively to find new solutions that engage the larger population, creating innovative, appealing offerings that meet people at their level while smartening them up?

What do you think orchestras should do?  I know my choice.


In a week where the Syracuse Symphony disbanded, New York City Opera suspended its Fall season, and Detroit Symphony remains on life support, it is apparent that most arts organizations have little choice but to change in significant ways to remain relevant, impactful, and fundable.  Denying this is the surest path towards extinction.  Please don’t wait until it’s too late.

The question, then, is how to best evolve.  I believe that the YouTube Symphony Orchestra provided some possible clues. 

When modifications are implemented, however, artists/administrators have a responsibility to ask whether they dumb down or smarten up offerings.  Proposed initiatives themselves could go either way; it will take savvy visionaries to ensure that better engaging audiences doesn’t mean cowering to them.   Consider the potential:smart person

  • Building relationships between players and audience.  When trust and personal relationships are strengthened, audience members become more invested, willing to stretch, and experience even the unfamiliar. 
  • Varied programming.  Including more works on a given concert provides the opportunity for adventuresome programming, at least for some pieces. 
  • Visual elements.  Visual elements that support the music (as opposed to superficial gimmickry with little artistic meaning) provide audiences with an entry point, allowing for more sophisticated music to be showcased.

Maybe, just maybe, the affect of modifying symphony orchestra models will do more than attract new interest.  Perhaps savvy visionaries can find solutions that smarten up our fans and offerings as well.

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