How many times have we heard cultural organizations lament that they are competing with Netflix?
Entertainment options have become ubiquitous and cheap: a trend generally seen as a huge threat to arts and culture.
The big opening of a film is a non-event when it arrives online at the same time it appears in the theaters. Great theater, opera, ballet and music can be experienced in movie theaters across the world at a fraction of the cost of the live version. YouTube provides free versions of an endless variety of recordings of cultural events.
Is this the end of the road for culture? I think not.
Yes, there is an unprecedented amount of easy access to great culture and entertainment these days. But this has created a strong counter-current that is starting to course through our world. The ubiquity of entertainment options means that the “specialness” of these very experiences evaporates, giving rise to a new phenomenon: the experience economy.
The experience economy is the business of providing unique and memorable experiences to the many people (especially young people) who aren’t satisfied with the same old thing that their friends are consuming. These experience economy consumers even have their own unofficial phobia-turned-motto: FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).
Could FOMO be the future of arts and culture?
It just might be.
I was recently having a great visit with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in London, when the topic of the experience economy came up. The conversation didn’t start there. But as chats sometimes do, it wended its way from the unique name of the orchestra, to something called “Mozart’s Naughty Notes,” to a wholesale unpacking of the experience economy and the arts.
Left to right: David Pearce, Tessitura Network; John Holmes, Helena Wynn, and Marina Abel Smith, OAE; Claire Zammit, Tessitura Network; Carly Mills, OAE; and me.
First: about the name.
The Age of Enlightenment is the era between the mid-1600s and the end of the 1700s that saw a dramatic rise in scientific and philosophical inquiry. While the Orchestra’s music is not limited to those dates, their overall approach is inspired by the age. The Age of Enlightenment celebrated the unique contribution of original human thought and reason above monarchies or other higher powers. It was the age of Isaac Newton and other thinkers challenging religious norms with scientific discovery. It was the age of Thomas Jefferson and other American colonists challenging the autonomy of King George.
As a musician-led orchestra with no permanent music director, it is this individual spirit of inquiry and expression that is most important to them as an ensemble. Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” The OAE would perhaps respond with, “We think, therefore we play.”
The ensemble is made up of curious intellectuals. A small, rotating committee of musicians chooses their programs and leads rehearsals. They don’t have a permanent conductor, don’t want one, don’t need one.
Members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
And they don’t only play music from the Age of Enlightenment. They perform on the instruments specific to the age of whatever music is on the program that night. It could just as easily be 15th-century or 20th-century works.
They are small, independent, a little quirky — and also world-renowned. They are resident at the Southbank Centre in London, partner with Glyndebourne Opera, tour around the world and work frequently with such artists as Sir Simon Rattle and Sir András Schiff.
Still, because they have no music director or specific time period in the classical canon, they have a tremendous amount of latitude to program concerts however they find appealing. And it is this very freedom that brings us all the way back to the experience economy.
Mozart’s Naughty Notes?
Without the shackles of a specific repertoire or format, these eccentric musicians are able to have some fun with their programming from time to time. One day they were digging through some Mozart manuscripts and happened upon something curious. They found that in the score of one of his famous horn concertos, Mozart had annotated the soloist’s part with a running commentary of silly jokes and insults. It turns out Mozart had written the concerto for a good friend of his and was clearly trying to crack him up.
The OAE musicians thought this was such fun that they created an entire concert around this horn concerto and took the added step of projecting translations of Mozart’s insults on the back of the stage during the performance. Mozart’s Naughty Notes.
Mozart’s Naughty Notes, photo by Mark Gascoigne
This was not just another performance of the Mozart Horn Concertos. This was not even the more special Horn Concertos performed on period-specific instruments. This was the Mozart Horn Concertos performed on period-specific instruments, with the silliest aspect of Mozart’s personality on display in real time. Not a gimmick, although it was kitschy. Not pandering, although it was genuinely fun. It was actually illuminating great music using instruments of the era, adding a whole extra dimension to the story. Weaving Mozart’s personality into the heart of the performance.
It was, in short, a unique and memorable experience. And was a huge success with a wide variety of audiences both young and old. An audience looking for a unique experience in the experience economy.
Not a traditional crowd for a period instrument performance. Photo by Mark Gascoigne.
This is one example of many at the OAE. Because they are free to program what strikes their fancy, each performance is quite different from any other — whether it is playing in a pub, a Baroque performance with period dance, or a staged version of Bach’s St. John’s Passion.
Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Orchestra in a rare staged performance of Bach’s St. John’s Passion.
And they have captured the essence of how culture can harness the experience economy. Each performance is engineered to tap into the culture of FOMO. How refreshing to see a group of period-instrument intellectuals successfully appealing to the Instagram age.
Not just refreshing.
This post is part of my Small World Tour: My round-the-world trip focused on the innovations of small Tessitura organizations. I’ve made it two-thirds of the way around the globe. Now it is time to return to the USA and make one last stop before heading home…
Top photo by Belinda Lawley