As legal marijuana continues its assent into the American consciousness, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra recently reminded us that the twists and turns of cultural development are hazy at best. It was widely reported last week that the orchestra would be partnering with legal marijuana industry sponsors for its delightfully-named production, “Classically Cannabis: The High Note Series.”
The symphony’s CEO, Jerome Kern, told The Associated Press, “The cannabis industry obviously opens the door even further to a younger, more diverse audience. In return for sponsorship, marijuana-industry companies get “the legitimacy of being associated with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra.”
No entities associated with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra or its sponsors will sell or distribute marijuana. The shows are strictly BYOC (bring your own cannabis).
An extremely unconventional and new circumstance such as this certainly warrants analysis from the music industry community. So I spoke with the Marketing Director at a well-established music venue in New York City to shine a light on an insider’s perspective. Since topics related to drugs can be a sensitive issue in many professional settings, he asked to remain anonymous.
Eli: What do you think of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra teaming up with the legal marijuana industry, as a vehicle to get young people more engaged in “older” music events?
Classical music has always faced challenges in terms of sales/commercial viability in the music industry. Record sales of classical music, along with jazz and other less commercial, artist forms, accounts for approximately 2-3% of all records sold each year. Further to that point, symphony orchestras all around the U.S. have taken major hits economically because their core business model – selling subscriptions – has waned drastically in recent years. As such, I’m initially encouraged to hear of this development for the Colorado Symphony.
Live music events are all about experiences. Unfortunately many classical institutions have had trouble presenting unique concerts/programming experiences as a sell for their potential customers. This seems to be a unique, creative way to get people in the door. At first, this will attract major interest for the sake of unique experience and novelty. Let’s be honest, it’s not as though the majority of these potential new customers will be coming to hear a specific symphony or piece. They will want to check out what this is all about. But that’s the hard part. It’s getting people in the door. Once they are there, it’s automatic that a percentage – however large or small – of these audience members will take a liking to the experience, but also the music. This is where the program is most effective.
That’s what we call audience development. It’s finding a way to open the door for and cultivate new audiences that could not be reached otherwise. I guess you could say that marijuana may become “the gateway” for classical/artistic music appreciation in CO and beyond. Obviously, if this continues, with time, it will level out – the buzz and the “new” factor will die down. But out of this, there may be a new core niche that develops for the symphony: a niche that takes comfort in enjoying Cannabis with friends, while taking in artistic, intellectual music.
Another note: I’d be very surprised if just young people show up. Of course, this will primarily attract a younger crowd. But young people are not the only smokers. I’d be willing to bet that this attracts an older demo as well – older fans that appreciate artistic music but have had no reason/drive to attend a classical concert. This provides an experience for those contacts as well. This can make classical music hip again.
Eli: Do you feel positively or negatively about arrangements like this – from an ethical and a business standpoint?
I feel mostly positively about this specific arrangement for many of the reasons mentioned already. It’s hard to say if I feel positively about this for “arrangements like this” (future/potential). Each situation is unique to the present circumstances. Given that classical music is a struggling art form, this particular event/ experience makes sense.
From an ethical standpoint, I see this in a positive light. You need to look at the motive. The Symphony’s mission is to sustain and spread the art of classical music – a mission that has been met with dire challenges from a consumer interest level standpoint, thus effecting monetary circumstances. This is a perfectly legal way of looking for new ways to sustain their mission and continue to sustain a genre. It obviously makes total sense from a business standpoint: a very wise, strategic strategy given the framework for which they can work, per CO law.
I do, however, feel slight negatively that it’s not clear how much on-site regulation there will be. This could potentially be an issue. The other concern is that while we all know this is an experience, you need to be careful that certain experiences at a live engagement don’t overshadow the music. The fact that we are discussing this at length means that it has already overshadowed the music. We would not be talking about the CO Symphony had it not been for this development. But on the flip side, it drives awareness and again, creates exposure – especially on-site.
Eli: What do you think the potential is for more live music events to be sponsored by companies within the legal marijuana industry? How do you feel this may impact the culture of the music industry?
I think there is great potential, however it is a mixed bag. For struggling genres like Classical and Jazz, this makes total sense. The audiences are and will be tempered, per the nature of the genres and types of shows within the genre. It’s objective is to bring audiences to genres that are lacking. However for other genres, the weed culture obviously already exists.
What is the objective as it relates to the music? Just for profit? The downside companies need to consider if and when expansion takes place for events like these to other genres: to build a weed component in officially takes some of the rush out of the core traditional concert going experience of fans smoking illegally. For many fans, although it may be legal, it may take the “cool” out of going to a particular rock or jam band show – which could possibly affect attendance negatively.
The other concern is regulation within other genres. Certain rock shows are out of control as it is. Adding a legal weed component may open the floodgates in a way that spells trouble. That said, depending on the state and partner, there are so many options out there for companies within the weed industry to choose from – in terms of genres, sub-styles, festivals, artists. The key dilemma will be where does this truly fit in juxtaposed with the music.
This will certainly get people talking in the music industry. New food for thought as it relates to marketing and audience development. Hopefully it will inspire others to look for unique, outside the box ways to reach fans.
Eli Kurland was formerly the Publicity Director of SSDP at NYU. You can follow him at @eli_kurland.