Symphony Innovation

by Scott Bowden

Symphony InnovationI recently attended a performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony by the San Francisco Symphony at Carnegie Hall in New York City.  I had never been to Carnegie Hall, and since I had failed to follow the well-known advice of “practice, practice” as a response to “how does one get to Carnegie Hall,” my entry fee to the venue was merely the price of a ticket.

The facility was stunning and the performance was flawless, but I was struck by seeing for myself the graying of the symphony audience. I had read over the years that the typical symphony crowd was getting older and older as the performances failed to attract new devotees, but scanning the room I was struck by how real this problem was, at least in the case of this particular event.  I am middle-aged but I was by far one of the youngest members of the audience.

Although nearly every seat was filled, the symphony clearly needed to address the fact that in a decade many of their subscribers would no longer be able to attend the performances and amazing ensembles, such as the San Francisco Symphony, would play to nearly empty halls.

As a practitioner of innovation, I allowed my mind to wander during the performance to think about ways the symphony could increase its appeal to a broader audience.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Ben Kesling highlights techniques used by symphonies around the country to increase their appeal to a new generation, and some of these techniques provide interesting concepts that students of innovation.

Venue Transformation

Venue Transformation can entail either radically transforming a current location or choosing an entirely new location for an event.  The Chicago Symphony recently held a performance at the trendy and modern Harris Theater at Millennium Park instead of its usual home at the more staid venue of Symphony Hall.  The bar at the Harris Theater served pizza and beer, which was definitely not the traditional wine and cheese fare that one would find at Symphony Hall.  Another Venue Transformation technique involves reconfiguring a traditional concert hall to give it a very non-traditional feel, with the goal, according to Jesse Rosen of the League of American Orchestras, of creating an “ersatz night club complete with drinks and mingling,” which can attract a younger audience.

For the innovation practitioner, the Venue Transformation approach goes beyond the well-known concept of getting colleagues out of a familiar setting to inspire more creative thinking, such as running an innovation workshop outdoors or at an entirely new location, such as on the factory floor or at an inspirational offsite setting.  In many cases time or budget constraints prevent the innovation leader from moving a session to a new location.  For these occasions, the leader should consider following the model of the symphonies and transforming a boring conference room into a more engaging environment.  Although the night club motif may be frowned upon at some corporations, there are other ways that the innovation leader can create a different mindset for a colleague entering the room for an innovation session, from lighting to sound to posters on the walls or even creative attendee attire.

Low Ticket Prices

The innovative pizza- and beer-enhanced performance by the Chicago Symphony at the modern Harris Theater was further enabled by a very affordable $25 ticket price, which included the pizza and beer.  Although the event was not likely a money-maker for the symphony, the low entry fee improved the attractiveness of the performance to a broader audience.  This example has two implications for the innovation practitioner.  First, if we are seeking to increase the attractiveness of one of our sessions, food and drink never hurts.  Second, we should think about affordability in terms of the projects we target as we seek a balanced portfolio of innovation initiatives that include some quick win, low-cost endeavors that are easy and/or fast to implement and can demonstrate results, even if the net dollar impact is relatively small.

“Parties of Note”

The Phoenix Symphony, which is led by a former executive from the video game company LucasArts, has instituted a hyper-local initiative called “Parties of Note” which sends musicians to private homes to perform in intimate settings alongside gourmet dinners.  This concept, derived from the political campaign tactic of holding small-scale fundraisers at the homes of wealthy donors, provides a way for audience members to interact with the symphony on a more personal level.  “Parties of Note” precisely target a small and influential audience.  For the innovation, the parallel could be small sessions with key executives in a firm to drive new thinking and identify new challenges for innovation practitioners to solve.

New Content

Another innovation from the Phoenix Symphony involves the use of a promotional “tie-in,” as demonstrated by an upcoming NASCAR tie-in with Phoenix Raceway’s 50th anniversary.  This concert will include NASCAR drivers conducting the national anthem as well as car-themed content for the performance.  The tie-in takes advantage of something that is top of mind for many of the participants in an area and links it to another effort.  This notion is a relatively common practice in promotional marketing, but its application to the symphony represents a true innovation.  Other new content-related innovations from the Chicago and Cleveland Symphonies include Disc Jockeys spinning records alongside the symphony as well as the inclusion of “hip guest artists such as banjoist Bela Fleck.”  An innovation practitioner can use a similar approach to find attractive, unintuitive content to bring attendees to an innovation session or could tie-in to another major theme at the company or in the city to draw participants.  An innovation leader could also align innovation work to a larger corporate initiative, such as a cost-cutting or transformation effort.

“Beyond the Score”

Another innovation from the Chicago Symphony is the “Beyond the Score” program which integrates “video, theater and graphic design to better explain compositions.”  In a world of ubiquitous mobile devices, this approach provides the audience with a rich multimedia experience that is more in line with the high amounts of screen time of the younger audience members.  As I was enjoying the San Francisco Symphony at Carnegie Hall last year, this was one of the ideas that crossed my mind as I thought about how a mobile application that followed the music and interspersed interesting information about the symphony and performance could engage the younger audience in a more intense manner.  At the same time, though, I thought about how wonderful it was to surround myself with the experience and absorb the sights and sounds of the symphony without the intrusion of and electronic devices.

For the innovation practitioner, this example may actually operate in reverse from how it works at the symphony.  Innovation for the symphony is integrating electronic devices and multi-media into a previously analog experience.  In an innovation session in most corporations, the opposite is true and perhaps we should thing about how to bring analog experiences into our sessions.  After all, most of the participants in our sessions spend the majority of their days staring at screens all day (laptops, phones, projected presentations), so one way to get their attention would be to make the innovation workshop into a more tactile experience, such as actually building something with one’s hands.  This will exercise different parts of the brain than yet another digital experience and may, in fact, lead them to more creative thinking about how to solve problems or improve the performance of a product.

One 30-year-old attendee to an innovative Chicago Symphony performance stated that he went from being in a position where he couldn’t afford symphony tickets to the point where he admitted to being “hooked for life.”  Praise such as this from colleagues would be music to an innovator’s ears.


Ben Kesling, “Orchestras Raise Baton to Beer, Pizza and Bach,” Wall Street Journal (December 27, 2013), A6.

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Scott BowdenScott Bowden is a Project Executive, Innovation Program Leader at IBM Global Services.

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