Monday, January 23, 2012

No, It's Marketing

It’s not the J word.

Last week, our friend Plastic Sax identified the reason Nnenna Freelon’s Folly Theater show failed to draw more than some 400 people (here). “To a large extent, the barrier was antipathy to the j-word,” he wrote. “The jazz label may have drawn three-quarters of the existing audience, but it repelled even more potential ticket-buyers.”

Jazz the Repeller? Is a new super-villain threatening Gotham?

Is this a job for the Magic Jazz Fairy?

Well, maybe. Because it’s all about marketing.

Plastic Sax opines, “Music lovers of all stripes who appreciate Stevie Wonder, Amy Winehouse, Luther Vandross, Frank Sinatra or Mary J. Blige would have loved Freelon's performance.”

I don’t doubt a word of that.

Now, will somebody let those music lovers know?

With the rare exception of shows starring a name with established crossover appeal, the Folly jazz series seems to draw 400 patrons a show, give or take. That’s what happens when you market to the same audience through direct mail and newspaper ads. You’re reaching your core, and that’s important. But so is expanding your core.

The core is not limited by an act being labeled jazz. Plastic Sax himself proved it, last month, in his alternate guise as mild-mannered Business Manager of The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra (KCJO).

KCJO’s December concert sold over 1000 tickets. How? In part by selling about 400 seats through new media, through Groupon.

There’s good and bad to Groupon. A business forgoes substantial cash in the promotion. And businesses debate how many of those deal-chasing customers will return at regular price. Each Groupon is effectively a non-scientific data collection experiment.

But, more importantly, through Groupon, KCJO marketed beyond the core. They marketed beyond the 4000 people who receive every postcard. They reached beyond we old fogies who catch their ads in the newspaper. They reached out to a younger and broader demographic.

So did that younger and broader demographic realize they were buying a ticket to something called (horrors!) jazz?

They were buying a ticket to see The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra.

Yep, I’m fairly certain they knew this was jazz.

Will all return for another show? No. Will there be some level of stickiness? Yes, absolutely.

This was a jazz concert in Kansas City which sold over 1000 tickets. So don’t tell me a jazz concert in Kansas City can’t sell 1000 tickets.

For December, KCJO’s guest was to be Kevin Mahogany (who, unfortunately, couldn’t attend due to an injury). No doubt many came to hear Kevin. He grew up in this area. Kansas Citians know him. But is his appeal inherently broader than a properly-marketed Nnenna Freelon? Of course not.

It’s incumbent on both her management and the presenting theater to make her appeal known. If she really could attract “music lovers of all stripes who appreciate Stevie Wonder, Amy Winehouse, Luther Vandross, Frank Sinatra or Mary J. Blige,” why doesn’t somebody tell them? Why doesn’t somebody market her performance through new media, with links to song snippets and videos where a potential ticket buyer can hear the appeal for himself? Were there advertisements in media where lovers of Stevie Wonder and Luther Vandross would hear them? Were there efforts to expose an audience beyond the core to Nnenna Freelon’s music?

Was the marketing geared towards telling the core, hey, guys, we’re having another jazz concert, wanna come? Or did anyone try to market Nnenna Freelon, the Event? Because if it’s the former, don’t plan on needing to accommodate more than 400 people, give or take.

This year’s Rhythm and Ribs Festival drew, by my estimation, 7000 fans. Last year’s Prairie Village Jazz Festival was rained out, but organizers claim the 2010 event attracted a similarly-sized crowd. KCJO sold over 1000 tickets to their December concert. And everyone attending all of those events knew they were predominantly (or completely) jazz.

You could argue that festivals are events and are seen and sold differently than a monthly music series, so my comparison isn’t fair. I’ll argue that you pick concerts in your series that can be sold as events and promote them as events to fill the house. And I’ll argue that nearly every show must be marketed beyond the core audience.

Isn’t a street-definition of stupidity doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results? There’s nothing stupid about marketing to your core. Never ignore them. Never take them for granted. But if you market only to your core, why would you expect different results? If you market only to your core, why would you expect a larger audience?

Some jazz products will only appeal to that core. Know which those are and don’t spend marketing dollars unwisely. But others will reach more broadly. Recognize them.

The word jazz itself is no super-villain. But never attempting to reach beyond the base? There’s the threat.


  1. It is my understanding that unlike similar sized venues in the area, the Folly is a non-profit and by the looks of thier web site, they have a tiny staff with no marketing person. With donations being down for all non-profit arts organizations, I would bet they do not have the resources to do what you seem to expect them to do. My family attends many concerts, plays and other types of performances in the Kansas City and St Louis area and this is by far one of the best places to see a show. If we as a community fail to support great venues such as this, then they will no longer be able to even produce shows, much less have huge marketing campaigns. Support the arts!!!

  2. You offer some good points. And I agree completely that this is a great venue and one of the best places to see a show, which is why I want to see them fill the theater when a show has that potential. They do have a small staff. But so does the American Jazz Museum, and they are engaging people through social media as I've suggested. The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra filled a 1000 seat auditorium with one half time staff person running everything. These are not apples-to-apples comparisons, but they suggest additional outreach, when a show warrants it, can happen.


Comments are welcome. If you prefer, you can reach me directly at kcjazzlark(at)gmail(dot)com.