Aspen Times Weekly: The Age Old Question |

Aspen Times Weekly: The Age Old Question

by Andrew Travers
The 2016 Aspen Music Festival season opened Monday in the Benedict Music Tent with student convocation.
Courtesy photo |

When the Aspen Music Festival and School board of trustees began discussing strategies for bringing younger audiences to its concerts a few years ago, president and CEO Alan Fletcher asked facetiously, “By younger patrons, does that mean under 70?”

The Music Festival’s summer audience indeed skews toward the more mature end of the retired class, but the organization decided to define “young” as under age 50.

This summer, in its 68th season, the classical music institution is launching a membership program for those patrons called The Salon.

Overseen by a board of advisors in the under-50 demographic, The Salon will offer discounted pricing for Festival performances, pre- and post-concert social events and behind-the-scenes tours. It’s launching July 12 with an event at the Aspen Cooking School featuring cooking lessons, wine tasting and live music. After R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills performs with violinist Robert McDuffie on Aug. 11, the festival will host an event with the pair for Salon members only.

“It’s a formula that orchestras around the country have found really successful,” Fletcher says of the initiative. “I think in the future we’ll experiment with shorter concerts. So you would come, network with a group of people, mingle with them, and then have a brief concert rather than signing up for a whole long evening.”

Fletcher said the Salon was modeled, in part, after the Aspen Institute’s Socrates Program, which aims at professionals aged 28 to 45.

The predominantly gray-haired audiences at the Music Festival are not unusual for classical music across the U.S. But cultivating the next generation of audiences, and enticing young people to performances, is an existential necessity for classical music and for all performing arts presenters.

The Music Festival also has a built-in audience, with an average age of 22, in its 600 summer students — a portion of which you can spot at most summer concerts.

Growing a younger crop of patrons has also been a part of the conversation as the Music Festival has widely expanded its presence in local schools — with strings programs in every elementary school between Aspen and Glenwood Springs, guitar programs in middle schools and the valleywide chorus program, along with its Passes and Lessons program, bringing grade-schoolers to concerts.

“Part of the rationale is precisely to get as many kids as possible to love going out to concerts, because that’s going to be the future,” says Fletcher.

Capturing a young or young-ish audience may be a key for arts organizations — and art forms — to ensure their future. But the aging crowds at the Music Festival and elsewhere in Aspen are less about the programming and more about local demographics, many arts presenters pointed out in recent conversations about audience development. The fact is that the crowd in Aspen is old and getting older.

The majority of local visitors and second homeowners are between the ages of 45 and 75 and do not have children at home, according to demographic data compiled for The Aspen Times by the information services company Experion. And the median age of Pitkin County residents, according to the 2010 census, is 44. That’s up from 38 in 2000 and 34 in 1990 (and significantly higher than the national median age of 37).

“That’s who is here,” says Jim Horowitz, president and CEO of Jazz Aspen Snowmass. “When I started Jazz Aspen in 1991 this place was a lot younger. … While a lot of people might be hand-wringing about where the next group of 50-and-older people are going to come from, it’s also true that everyone is programing to the audience that is living here and coming here.”

Jazz Aspen Snowmass has its own membership program aimed at young locals, called The Band, which is hosting its annual Crawfish and Cruisers party at the Aspen Historical Society on June 9.

The organization’s June Experience, in recent years, has programmed toward Baby Boomers and this year’s Benedict Music Tent headliners include Diana Ross (72), Booker T (71) and Smokey Robinson (76). But its biggest annual event, the Labor Day Experience, tends to bring out a crowd that transcends generations, with a mix of artists aimed at young and old (this year’s lineup runs the tween-to-timeless gamut from Corinne Bailey Rae to The Killers to Stevie Wonder). Its JAS Café shows, like most American jazz clubs, skew older but usually include a handful of 20- and 30-somethings.

“We can honestly say, with a straight face, that over the course of the season we touch an audience from 7 to 70,” Horowitz says.

Theatre Aspen and Aspen Santa Fe Ballet could say the same, with their presentations of kids-targeted programs alongside grown-up fare.

Theatre Aspen’s average audience member is between 55 and 60, according to executive artistic director Paige Price, with some 20- and 30-something theater-goers coming out as a result of the nonprofit’s track record of selecting fresh musicals like “Avenue Q” and “The Full Monty” — and this summer’s “Mama Mia!” — over stodgier fare.

The organization’s Aspen Theatre Festival, showcasing new plays and musicals at $20 a ticket and returning for its second year in August, Price says, is partially a bid to draw more adventurous and younger audiences in search of the new.

“If we did ‘Oklahoma!’ I’m not sure if even I would go to that,” Price says. “You just need to keep things relevant. … I think it’s all in the programming.”

The Aspen Santa Fe Ballet gets a similar touch of youth by the nature of its contemporary dance programming and working with hot, young international choreographers on forward-leaning pieces. If they were doing “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty” every season, executive director Jean-Philippe Malaty notes, that wouldn’t be the case.

“We tend to have younger, hip audiences that are interested in new stuff, that want to see new ballets,” he says, adding that its $25 tickets keep the economic barrier to entry low.

In Aspen, an older audience doesn’t indicate an arts organization in poor health. Even as the Aspen Music Festival is beginning its initiative to entice younger patrons, the 2015 audience at the Aspen Music Festival bought the highest volume of tickets in the Festival’s history, and this year has already topped its highest volume of advance sales.

“The big picture is very favorable,” says Fletcher.

Malaty adds that this age old conversation in the arts about graying audiences is nothing new, and probably nothing to fear.

“That story has been written for a hundred years and still we have audiences,” he says. “People go to the theater when they get older, when the kids are out of college or the college has been paid off, when they have the time and the resources, when they need to make social connections outside of Facebook. Everybody has always been writing this ‘gray hair’ story, but that’s when you have money, that’s when you return to dance ­— it’s a natural cycle of audiences.”

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