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Tamsin Johnston, oboist, Regina SymphonyTamsin Lorraine Johnston on classical music’s hot new thing, its impact, and how orchestras might respond.

 By Tamsin Lorraine Johnston (Regina Symphony oboist and OCSM 2nd VP)

Even if you haven’t performed in a Candlelight Concert, you would have had to go to a lot of trouble to avoid their advertising on social media. These classical-music adjacent experiences engage local musicians using Listeso Music Group, Inc. The similar Italian musical term L’istesso, meaning the same as before, succinctly describes Listeso’s business model of cloning concerts. 

Listeso Music Group runs a tight ship. They are a thoroughly corporate classical music agency  specializing in “connecting top local string quartets directly with clients.” By hiring local musicians to perform in otherwise identical Candlelight Concerts, Listeso takes advantage of competitive regional markets, especially those with talented and motivated pools of symphonic musicians, and applies a glossy uniformity.

Naturally, times are tough and musicians need all the work that comes our way. So why the big deal? The larger concern is how Candlelight Concerts are disrupting the entertainment ecosystem created and defended by non-profit organizations with deep roots in their communities. 

What makes Candlelight different?

Candlelight Concerts are part of what are called Fever Originals. Fever got its start as an entertainment app that describes its mission as democratizing access to culture. “Fever puts the wealth of your city’s events and experiences at your fingertips […] Find local events, secret places, and trendy pop-ups, some of which are available exclusively on Fever.” By collecting data on its users, Fever was able to identify perceived gaps in local entertainment offerings and create content that would assuredly sell. As a result, any geographical region will present carbon copies of a handful of Candlelight Experiences, such as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. 

Candlelight: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons & More is a poor facsimile of the transcendent three hundred-year-old concerto cycle for solo violin. The soloist in the Candlelight version is, in fact, the first violinist in the string quartet hired for the event, and the pay is not comparable to a typical soloist appearance. (Note: A sample contract between Listeso Music Group, Inc. and a performer states unequivocally that no part of the work rendered by the musician will be “subject to the rules or jurisdiction of a labor [sic] organization”.) The baroque orchestra is represented by another violinist, a violist, and a cellist. If it weren’t for “the magic of a live, multi-sensory experience” in an “awe-inspiring venue”, and approximately a thousand LED candles, even a very good string quartet performing an arrangement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons might bring to mind the early days of cell phone ownership and the thrill of choosing a tuneful ringtone. 

Incredibly, it sells. The cost of admission to a one-hour Candlelight Concert is similar to a ticket to a Masterworks series symphonic concert, which is typically twice as long. While orchestras are unlikely to lose their core audience to Candlelight Concerts, what remains to be seen is how occasional and prospective attendees respond to such classical music-adjacent experiences: will it onboard new symphony subscribers for seasons to come, or seduce them with fool’s gold?

Does it scale?

In his book The Black Swan, author Nassim Nicholas Taleb discusses scalability and its impact on the performing arts. Before the advent of recorded music, consumers enjoyed what was available in their region. The artists and presenters were compensated on a basis of time in exchange for money. Once it was possible to sell many copies or downloads of a performance, the performer’s physical presence was no longer required each time they earned income from their music. Thus, the very top musicians were able to benefit from a much greater portion of the demand for music. 

Candlelight Concerts have successfully applied scalability to live music. By tightly controlling  the exportable tech for each event, rejecting name recognition of artists through the use of a  completely interchangeable string quartet model, and shifting focus away from musical  interpretation by employing Listeso Music Group’s specially-created arrangements, Candlelight Concerts can be cloned everywhere. 

Is Candlelight eating orchestras’ lunch? Or showing us a way forward?

Without the resources for the same kind of relentless targeted marketing, symphony orchestras are threatened by Candlelight’s encroaching market share. Orchestras are also not known for their ability to pivot for every hot new thing. Candlelight Concerts may be another flash in the pan, but the orchestral industry ignores Fever’s success at its own peril. Many ensembles have boosted their social media and digital advertising budgets to compete. Some orchestras have invested in new apps, or even ordered LED candles in bulk for future seasons.  

Are we missing the point? Candlelight’s secret sauce is in its ability to understand and connect with casual audiences. As artists, we are preoccupied with repertoire, interpretation, and the minutiae of execution. Infrequent concertgoers purchase tickets for entirely different reasons, and still manage to have a great time. If orchestras delivered a message in their marketing that aligned with community values or emphasized “how” instead of “what”, perceived barriers may fall away. 

Pics or it didn’t happen

Orchestral musicians have all heard management and board members pleading with audiences  to post about their experience at the symphony, now that smartphones have been allowed into concert venues. In today’s highly visual culture, it’s hard to stay engaged in the tableau of most modern symphonic concerts: no matter how expressive the playing is, musicians look small on a faraway stage. Candlelight Concerts have built-in opportunities during the presentation for consumers to create content. By encouraging attendees to post pictures and video of their experiences, Candlelight Concerts has leveraged millions of personal accounts for free advertising. 

Orchestras may never be able to successfully compete with Candlelight Concerts’ money-making prowess. Still, our organizations are taking notes. By observing their success, orchestras can take calculated risks in marketing, programming, and presentation, and over time could see growth in support for what we do.