Sonic Youth: How Symphonies Are Reaching Out to Millennial Audiences

As symphonies struggle to attract—and retain—millennial audiences, orchestral nightlife programs shy away from playing it safe 

The audience queues up for SoundBox at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. Photo by Stefan Cohen
The audience queues up for SoundBox at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. Photo by Stefan Cohen

It’s a Thursday night in April in San Francisco, and SoundBox’s second-to-last show of the season is titled “Their Own Devices.” Sam Adams, the show’s curator, has taken to the mic.

“Composers,” he says with a sly smirk, “people generally try to avoid us until we’re . . . 250 years old.” Self-described as the “watered-down millennial guy,” Adams goes on to introduce the bevy of performers and contemporary-classical repertoire.

Outside Davies Symphony Hall on Franklin and Hayes streets, clusters of people slip into the backdoor of the San Francisco Symphony’s converted rehearsal hall, home to SoundBox, entering a room illuminated by a fluorescent cerulean haze. A long corridor weaves into the main room, which is accented with high, exposed concrete beams and minimalist-inspired furnishings—black leather cushions of various lengths and sizes are sprinkled throughout the floor, with bar tables and stools flanking the edges of the performance space, leaving ample room to stand, listen, and mingle.

The program for the evening consists of Tristan Perich’s “Observations,” which includes two percussionists with a one-bit electronic accompaniment; Clara Iannotta’s “Aphones,” performed by a 17-player ensemble under conductor Chris Rountree; Sam Adams’ “Shade Studies,” a solo piano performance with an electronic accompaniment, and Daniel Wohl’s “Saint Arc,” performed with a solo cello and electronic accompaniment. The first two pieces captivate the sold-out room, before the lights go up, welcoming the first intermission. “You got good seats,” a white-haired man, with his 22-year-old brother in tow, says as I share a table wedged in between the right-cornered stage and the bar. “You got seats—that’s what’s important.”

Performance of Nicole Lizee’s Kool-Aid Acid Test #17 Blotterberry Bursst.
Performance of Nicole Lizee’s Kool-Aid Acid Test #17 Blotterberry Bursst.

A CODA post-concert party held after the Beethoven & Strauss program at Walt Disney Concert Hall’s BP Hall in Los Angeles.

The 22 year old, from Santa Rosa, California, about an hour’s drive to the north, admits to tagging along to support his cousin, one of the percussionists performing this evening—he’s not a classical music fan, he says, nor does he play an instrument.

Throughout the night, SoundBox shifts back and forth between a performance space and bar atmosphere—punctuated with music and mingling and snack-sharing. At the first intermissions’ cue, musicians, conductor, and curator join the sprightly crowd.

At the bar, anchored to the rear of the room, concert-goers are treated to assorted drinks—the “Electric Kool-Aid” cocktail (flavored with gin, prickly pear puree, cucumber, lemon juice, and simple syrup, and drawing its name from the LSD-spiked punch that was served during San Francisco’s hippie heyday) and the “Jam Session” (rye whiskey, blackberries, honey, topped with freshly squeezed lemon juice).

There also are bar bites that nod to the “foodie” movement piquing millennials’ interests and taste buds, with plantain chips doused in lemon-mashed avocado, dukkah spice, and smoked paprika and a rosemary-roasted mixed nut offering topped off with grey sea salt.

A young couple sharing drinks, snacks, and the edge of our coveted table, praises SoundBox for its “uniqueness.”

“You don’t get this at any bar—and I’ve been to every bar in [San Francisco],” says the 20-something man, who shared that a friend of theirs who works for the San Francisco Symphony’s public relations department mentioned SoundBox was looking to bring in a younger demographic and asked him to try it out.

An ostentatious air permeates the hall—from the overly thoughtful finger food to the impressive Meyers sound system (which includes 25 microphones and 85 speakers operated by a sound-mixing processor remotely controlled by an iPad) to the, at times, challenging avant-garde presentations, complete with waving pieces of tin foil behind a 17-player ensemble. But, the scene, chatter, and experience itself appears to have grabbed the attention of the millennials present—a generation suffering from the notorious “fear of missing out,” (FOMO).

So why is the San Francisco Symphony—and other major orchestras across the nation—actively recruiting 20-somethings while experimenting with programs like Soundbox?

It has been fascinating to see the audience and the musicians finding their way together through the new vocabulary of the space.

—Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony

“We’re not even in their vocabulary,” says Brent Assink, executive director of the San Francisco Symphony, when asked about patronage of the millennial generation.

That’s the predicament symphonies across the nation are facing, leaving no major metropolitan area unscathed—how do cultural organizations so steeped in tradition attract the succeeding generation of symphony-goers.

In recent years, audiences for traditional performing arts have declined at an increasing rate, and the average age of attendees has increased by nearly two decades since 1982, according to a 2012 survey conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). In an earnest effort to engage a younger audience, symphonies across the country are crafting experimental programs—including San Francisco Symphony’s newcomer SoundBox, Chicago Symphony’s resident MusicNow series, American Composers Orchestra’s SONiC Festival, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s CODA series, and a triple threat of offerings from the Seattle Symphony—full of variation and versatility.

While garnering a new generation of orchestra devotees is crucial for any symphony-affiliated institution moving forward, such efforts increase the awareness of the divide between what was and what will be. The solutions are not simple and transitions not always smooth: Programs and series aimed at millennials run the risk of alienating the symphony’s core audience, and for orchestras hoping to thrive in the future, a balancing act of sorts is necessary.

And it’s that tired, stuffy, buttoned-up stereotype associated with symphony-goers that the SFS is trying to challenge with SoundBox.

Audience members seated on the lobby floor at the Seattle Symphony’s [untitled] program during a world premiere of Trimpin’s symphony-commissioned pieces Above, Below, and In Between.
Audience members seated on the lobby floor at the Seattle Symphony’s [untitled] program during a world premiere of Trimpin’s symphony-commissioned pieces Above, Below, and In Between.

SoundBox aims to lure the younger generation to a venue that provides a significantly different takeaway than a typical evening spent at Davies Symphony Hall: The concert starts late, around 9 pm, there are two intermissions, no assigned seating, multiple stages, multimedia projectors, people can drink during the concerts, and it’s located in a casual space.

Also, the programs are focused on a range of repetoire, from contemporary to centuries-old. The nontraditional symphony experience caters to a younger generation, along with the hashtags projected onto the walls of Zellerbach Rehearsal Hall, strategically placed with hopes of makng the program trend on social-media platforms—Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—which are SoundBox’s primary means of marketing.

What drove SoundBox’s younger crowd to the performance is yet to be determined. The event organizers have sent out a post-performance survey to all its attendees, and are still harvesting the data, according to the SFS PR department.

Founded by revered SFS conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, or MTT, SoundBox was inspired by a project he collaborated on in 2011 at the Frank Gehry-designed New World Center in Miami Beach, Florida, home to the New World Symphony, for which MTT serves as artistic director, and the innovative late-night PULSE, a millennial-focused program where orchestra meets nightclub.


With high-concept and versatility in mind, MTT became determined to fashion a similar project in San Francisco. He and SFS’ Brent Assink forged ahead to transform the rehearsal hall into a cutting-edge musical experience. “[Milennials are] a huge segment of our population that orchestras typically have not ignored, but have sort of not figured out what to do with,” Assink says. “That slightly younger demographic [has been] left to their own devices, which is not doing them a service or us a service.”

To their own devices, literally. For a generation that is typecast as consistently plugged in, SoundBox offers an intimate social space for millennials who are culturally curious to experiment with music in a device-free way. “You can move around and change positions and perspectives,” Tilson Thomas writes via email. “One set you may be on an ottoman five feet from a solo cellist playing a brand-new work. The next set might find you next to the bar taking in a Monteverdi choral work.”

The SoundBox programs are led by different curators, MTT says, all of different generations and priorities. “I hear a lot of conversations centered around the idea that classical music and classical-music organizations are losing touch with younger audiences,” MTT writes. “It does not matter if [millennials] are already interested in classical music or if this is their first time setting foot in the symphony building. I believe that music has the power to affect all of us, regardless of our age or background. It’s about the personal, emotional connection to what we hear. Our goal with SoundBox is to facilitate that connection.”

CODA Los Angeles Phil

Fostering a culture that attracts the younger generation is a problem nearly all live arts organizations are grappling with. That’s a subject that was addressed in 2012, when the NEA, in partnership with the US Census Bureau, announced the results of a survey titled “Survey of Public Participation of the Arts.” The study revealed that arts audiences were not only progressively getting older, but were shrinking in size. The survey suggests that audience numbers of the subsequent generations will not match the current rate, and a decline in the future of grand concert-hall attendance is inevitable.

While attendance is lower than before, that doesn’t necessarily mean that an interest in building a relationship with the live arts does not exist with the millennial generation. Rather, organizations should consider the framework they employ when trying to appeal to younger audiences, and think experimental.

In July 2014, Eventbrite, an online ticketing service, and Harris Poll surveyed 2,000 US millennial consumers from the site in a survey titled “Millennials: Fueling the Experience Economy,” which revealed that millennials actually value experiences more than possessions.

“We certainly see the advent of social media gathering together online to then gather offline,” says Julie Hartz, co-founder and president of Eventbrite, in a video for theWall Street Journal, “and millennials are craving that offline experience.”

According to the survey, 60 percent of millennials had posted, tweeted, or shared about their events or experiences in the past year.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) faces the same impasse—how to create an offline experience that appeals to millennials. The CSO’s MusicNOW program aims to do just that with a pair of curators: DJ, composer, and techno-artist Mason Bates; and London-born composer Anna Clyne, whose electro-acoustic musings and curated programs readily attract younger patrons.

Located in the Harris Theater, the CSO’s home, MusicNOW can entertain around 1,000 people, but can expand for larger events to hold 1,400. But this is no new venture: MusicNOW, in its first iteration, was founded 25 years ago. It’s spent 15 years operating in the Harris Theater, and has evolved with many different “test runs” over the years, according to Liz Madeja, CSO’s director of marketing. Performances range from soloists to 15 to 20 players onstage, which allows the series flexibility in its programming. Concerts run about an hour, and afterward, concertgoers can find complimentary pizza and beer in the lobby.

“It’s one of the things that gets people to stay around and talk about the concert,” Madeja says over the phone from Chicago, noting that having the musicians and conductor mingle post-performance with concertgoers has sparked interest in attendance.

“It’s very much a conversation, and people are extremely opinionated—as they should be—it’s the arts and that’s kind of why we do what we do,” Madeja says. “There are definitely programs that spur a lot of intense conversation, but it’s all in good fun. People are really happy to have that opportunity to talk about and experience something really, really unique.


Composers-in-residence Anna Clyne (left) and Mason Bates (far right) pose with next season’s composers-in-residence Eilzabeth Ogonek and Samuel Adams during a MusicNOW program at the Harris Theater. Photo by Todd_Rosenberg
Composers-in-residence Anna Clyne (left) and Mason Bates (far right) pose with next season’s composers-in-residence Eilzabeth Ogonek and Samuel Adams during a MusicNOW program at the Harris Theater. Photo by Todd_Rosenberg

“The best thing we have are people who go and experience [MusicNOW] and say, ‘Oh, I wore jeans—it’s not a big deal.’”

While MusicNOW draws a large younger audience, Madeja says the program also lures Gen X and Baby Boomers just as frequently. “Our average audience is around 49 years old,” Madeja says of the CSO, “which is on the younger side.” The CSO boasts one of the younger audiences in the country, she adds.

“We’re pretty realistic that we want people, especially millennials, in the end to have a relationship with classical music,” she says. “We want people to know that we’re an orchestra that serves our community. I think the goal is in relationship-building.”

The end goal is a return patron—someone “who might come back as a ticket buyer in their 20s or 30s, maybe even with kids someday,” Madeja says.  While MusicNOW remains a forefront effort in bringing millennials through the symphony’s doors, Madeja notes that CSO has another alternative that brings in a variety of audience members. The concert hall hosts an additional 80-plus presentations that are non-CSO concerts, but include chamber music and pop concerts, Madeja says.

“We have the opportunity to engage different types of artists and a younger audience in other forms,” she says.

According to its most recent data, the 2012–2013 season, 20 percent of CSO’s concertgoers are between the age of 31 and 45, with 3 percent of audience members under the age of 30. “What’s interesting is it doesn’t necessarily need to be new music for people to try us,” Madeja says.” We find that it’s the concerts, not necessarily with the new [music], but the more standard repertoire, that will bring nearly as many, if not more students, new, and younger people into our hall.

“A lot of people assume that just because something is new that you’re automatically going to get a younger audience, and that can be a factor, but it’s kind of an assumption that we’ve found to be untrue. If you’re new [to the symphony], you might not have heard Beethoven played, but you know the name, so you might feel more comfortable trying that out. No matter what audience you’re marketing to there’s going to be a lot of different avenues of how people get involved and get comfortable, so it’s very important that we have all of those avenues available, and don’t just make assumptions that they want this or that.”

For the American Composers Orchestra’s SONiC Festival (Sounds of a New Century), new music is not to be overlooked as a driving force, says Derek Bermel, artistic director of ACO and its festival.


“Audiences are drawn to the ideas of their own generation—because those are the ideas that they are engaged with,” Bermel says over the phone —he’s just been brought on for a residency at the University of Michigan.

The SONiC Festival, a city-wide series in New York, focuses on works by composers under the age of 40. “It’s very eclectic,” Bermel says. “It’s all over the map, but there’s a very strong focus on the music of this generation and what they have to say.”

But it often feels, for many in the live entertainment industry, that the millennial generation has more to tweet, ’gram, or post than to experience—and combating the effects of a nonstop, Internet culture, where the notion of “unplugging” is met with a unanimous scoff, is challenging.

“It’s the problem of a culture that races faster and faster,” Bermel says, “We’re constantly busy doing this or that, so it’s hard for people to make time to do something for their own cultural enrichment.”

Offering a world premiere, or a work that can’t simply be redirected from Google to YouTube, is a way to increase interest, he says. “Something they can’t see any time of the week—that this is going to be something unusual, and very relevant for them and their generation,” Bermel says of featuring new repertoire, especially from young composers around the world.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic has crafted a curated experience of its own with CODA, a membership affiliation for music enthusiasts in their 20s and 30s that offers access to special ticket prices for select concerts and an after-party with drinks, food, and music.

This year was CODA’s first season, complete with three concerts, all taking place at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, home of the LA Phil. CODA has 2,000 members, and each concert typically attracts 100 to 200 people, depending on the after-party location.

Soundbox Symphony San Francisco
Soundbox San Francisco


At press time, an additional summer CODA concert was in the planning process at the Hollywood Bowl, an atmosphere that should be a big draw for millennials, notes Shana Mathur, the LA Phil’s vice president of marketing.

Engaging and connecting with millennials through programs like CODA is critical, Mathur notes, for symphonies to understand what draws this demographic to the symphony experience moving forward.

Despite programs, like CODA, cropping  up at the nation’s leading symphonies, arts administrators say a general misconception about the symphony and classical music remains, and there is still work to be done to convince millennials otherwise.

“What it boils down to is lack of knowledge about the art form, and changing consumer behavior driven by a plethora of choices. Schools do not value music education anymore. “People have a lot on their minds—including what’s blowing up their smartphones—and it’s hard to sit still and listen to the music,” Mathur notes.

“At the same time, orchestras like the LA Phil are being more creative than ever before. We are reaching more people, we are inventing new formats—we are engaging new artists and constantly building the future. There has never been a more exciting time to work in the orchestra business.”

Still, all of this experimental programming carries a risk. Offering a surfeit of choices and varied symphony experiences is a concept that the Seattle Symphony recognized in 2011.And it’s not necessarily about reaching millennials, Simon Woods, CEO and president of the Seattle Symphony, says on the phone. There’s a danger, he says, in catering to specific age demographics.

“There’s a risk that you treat all millennials the same,” Woods says, “and I think that’s a mistake that most organizations make.”


Many, for example, assume that the young man who wants to go on a laid-back date is the same concertgoer who is interested in listening to edgy avant-garde contemporary music.

The Seattle Symphony has bypassed stereotyping millennials by offering an assorted mixture of programs—Untuxed, Untitled, and Sonic Evolution—each conversely different in principal than a regular symphony experience. Untuxed is a Friday-night informal presentation of classical repertoire—including Beethoven and Brahms—complete with musicians dressed down and addressing the audience from the stage. Untitled appeals to a slightly different audience, Woods says, due to its “late-night, edgy, and unapologetically avant-garde” repertoire with a heavy focus on contemporary classical. Sonic Evolution, he says, draws on a contingent of millennials who are avid consumers of contemporary culture.

The three programs were dreamed up when Woods and Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot, arrived in 2011 and realized that the orchestra felt slightly paradoxical. “The orchestra felt relatively conservative in this very progressive city,” Woods says, “so one of our very first commitments was to change up the profile of the orchestra, and to really make it the orchestra of Seattle, not just inSeattle.” And change up the profile the duo did—a video of the June 2014 Sonic Evolution performance with rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot went viral.

The video, which has more than 3.2 million views on YouTube, brought headlines to the symphony and its innovative programming.

The three programs only total ten concerts per year (three Untitled, six Untuxed, and two Sonic Evolution), but the limited offerings are not to be diminished.

“They generate a disproportionate amount of buzz, which I think is flowing over into our main season,” Woods says. “It’s beginning to create this aura that the symphony is not just for our grandparents.”

The Seattle Symphony will be conducting audience research within the next year to see if audiences align with what Woods and his colleagues have noticed anecdotally—that over the last three of four years, the increase of programming aimed at millennials has augmented the number of millennials attending standard symphony programming. That, in part, Woods credits to understanding millennials’ preferences.

“We do know millennials value curated experiences that are surprising, different, and interactive,” he adds. While the Seattle Symphony in particular is interested in looking at the success of its three programs and what it is about them that has drawn younger people to attend, Woods notes, that symphonies should be wary of alienating their core audience.

“It’s a bit of a tightrope walk because you don’t want to isolate the core audience, who is 80 percent of the donors,” he says.

It’s about positioning the symphony as forward-thinking and developing a philosophy that appeals to audiences of different tastes, Woods says.

“I’m always a little bit nervous of saying that the sole purpose of these programs is to bring [millennials] into our core classical programming because that’s not really the goal,” Woods says. “I sort of regard that as a collateral goal—the main goal is to broaden our program so that there is something for everyone, and so that we’re inclusive to all tastes and preferences. We are gradually infiltrating our traditional style of programming and presentation, and that’s something that a lot of organizations are going to look at over the next ten years or so.

“A lot of orchestras are doing a lot of interesting things like us, and I think we’re all going to be [looking at] what we have learned about how this changes our core offerings.”

As for SoundBox, the San Francisco Symphony has been pleased with the response. “We didn’t know how the audience would react to a space where there is no assigned seating,” MTT comments.

“When the music starts, they completely tune in. We have a focused and responsive audience. Because it’s an experiment, there are no preconceived rules. It has been fascinating to see the audience and the musicians finding their way together through the new vocabulary of the space. One young person came up to me at the end of Monteverdi’s Magnificat and said, ‘I’ve never heard of Monteverdi, but this is now my favorite piece.’ It’s extraordinary to think that something that is 400 years old can have that kind of powerful effect on someone in the 21st century.

“It just goes to show how transformative music can be in our lives.”