Classical Music Learns to Sell Itself by Taking a Page from the Sports Playbook

As the classical music industry emerges from the pandemic, the issues of allocating resources to sales and marketing and making serious commitments to R&D could well determine an orchestra’s future.

By Laurence Vittes | From the July-August 2022 issue of Strings magazine

Orchestras in the United States offer a unique selling proposition. They enjoy exclusive use of their city’s best halls, just as professional sports franchises enjoy exclusive use of their city’s best stadiums. They provide an exclusive nexus between the movers and shakers of the art world. Their soloists and conductors are the world’s finest and well paid. Unions and lawyers maximize ensemble and individual artist benefits and protect their media rights. Orchestras also give great concerts and use outreach to connect with both local and global communities in transformative ways.

And this has all been accomplished without the benefits of fully funded sales and marketing departments. Nor do orchestras benefit from a unified national message about what orchestras are and what they do, and they have suffered by being consequently isolated from popular culture. And yet the large-scale opportunities that orchestras provide for listening play right into the appetites of younger, more genre-neutral music listeners who represent such a large new potential audience for classical music that Apple Music acquired Primephonic in part to create a dedicated classical music app built on Primephonic’s classical-music user interface.

For orchestras to act with similar bold initiative, they’re going to need serious investment. Kim Noltemy, CEO of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra states the problem, “Yo-Yo Ma sells out, but in general, orchestra programs are related to mission, not based on market demand… which means having to sell a product to people who aren’t as familiar with the product as they were 20 and 30 years ago. Some orchestras don’t have enough resources to do it. Some don’t even commit to giving the marketing folks input. We also need people,” Noltemy adds, “who can have ideas and create stories customized by audience and designed to make the orchestra kind of a viral marketing thing.”

The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s former CEO Mark Volpe believes that the time is ripe for a person who “can put together a business plan, handle the rights negotiations, and be prepared to make some mistakes. For the person or institution that does that well, watch out!—especially if they have already have an international brand.” Volpe cautions, however, that “the one thing classical music doesn’t know how to do is to sell itself.”


“I fully agree,” says Simon Eder, a Primephonic co-founder who recently moved from the Pentatone label to the London-based creative agency Intermusica.  “Classical music does not know how to sell itself. As an industry, we put ourselves in a golden cage. And sometimes we take a rather judgmental view of things.”

Sean Hickey, Eder’s successor at Pentatone after almost 20 years as vice president at Naxos of America, very definitely agrees. “I’m not one of those people that feels that you need a PhD to understand, appreciate, or like this broad art form we call classical music. For my 17-year-old daughter, who’s grown up with streaming services, genre means almost nothing.”

Hickey emphasizes that “more people are listening to classical music than at any point in history. Maybe they’re listening to jazz or hip-hop or rock or whatever—but all they have to do is end up in classical once and like what they hear.” Hickey thinks “the next horizon for orchestras encompasses the things that can be done to generate revenue when the house is dark, when the season is over.”


Albert Imperato, founding partner of the 21C Media Group, points out that “the most underestimated aspect in our field remains prioritizing new listeners. It doesn’t rank as high in priority in a lot of organizations as it probably should.” Imperato, who created the Vivaldi Four Seasons video that catapulted Gil Shaham to fame on the Weather Channel in 1995, extols the virtues of social media as “opportunities to find people with very large followings who have had zero experience with classical music, bring them into the conversation, and take them to a show,” he says. “Suddenly, you have people talking more about classical music than they are about other topics. You have to do that kind of grinding game to make sure that you are winning the battles for hearts and minds.

“One of the reasons I was so eager to talk [about this],” Imperato continues, “is that it’s almost 35 years to the day from when I first heard Leonard Bernstein live conducting Mahler’s Second Symphony. I took Glenn Petry [founding partner of 21C Media Group], and we had a total life-changing experience in so many ways. I have never been more moved at a concert.” The next day, Imperato sent his resumé to Deutsche Grammophon, and the rest is history. At 21C Media Group, “we have to tell our story over and over again,” Imperato says. “Our press releases have to tell stories that don’t make people ask, ‘Why are you talking to me?’”

As the industry emerges from the pandemic, the issues of allocating resources to sales and marketing and making serious commitments to R&D could well determine an orchestra’s future. Beyond ticket sales, marketing works through the media to convince school superintendents to return arts to their curricula and politicians to provide funding. The NEA support of $170 million pales in comparison to the more than €3 billion that European governments spend on culture, so orchestras in the U.S. need to make every lobbying dollar count.


Mark Volpe reminds me that “at one time, professional sports thought no one would ever go to a game again if they broadcast them live on TV. They eventually saw the error of their ways, and now they do a phenomenal job of talking about a game for two hours before, an hour after, and for the next few days.”

At the time I was speaking to Noltemy, CNBC’s Tom Huddleston Jr. had written that Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban had bought the team in 2000 on the spur of the moment for $285 million, “because he felt the Mavericks needed to do a better job not just on the court but in terms of marketing the players to excite and grow the team’s fan base… From prioritizing the marketing of the team’s best players to recruiting stars and always being an outspoken advocate and courtside cheerleader for the Mavericks, Cuban helped turn the team into one of the NBA’s top franchises.”

Sounds like the kind of an owner any orchestra would like to have. Perhaps, we joked, Mr. Cuban would like to endow a marketing chair at the symphony.