A Layman’s Attempt to be a Concert Agent
Organizing Concerts for an Artist
A Reflection & Biographic Note
2017-03-15 — Original posting
- How it all Started
- Basic Considerations
- “Strategic” Planning
- It All Happens!
- Results & Conclusions
- Addendum — Related Postings
How it all Started
Up till 10 years ago, concerts for me were “big” events, in “big”, public venues. Their budget is way beyond the scope of a private person’s financial possibilities (excluding billionaires and other, wealthy patrons, of course). Just for illustration: for years (’70s and early ’80s) I was a member of the Zürcher Bach Chor. Back then, I noticed that the budget for a choir concert with orchestra grew from 20 – 30 kCHF up to above 100 kCHF. OK, that was in the Tonhalle Zurich, but still…
My wife and I once did attend a very small event at the other end of the scale, though. Good friends of ours celebrated the renovation of their antique grand piano. They had a music student present his diploma recital in a very small circle of some 12 – 15 people. This was clearly a non-profit event, with small donations for the talented music student. I consider this a “just above family level piano recital”.
That scope of experience widened in 2008, and later again, in 2010. One of my wife’s colleagues, owner of a Steinway B-211 grand piano (in the basement of a spacious loft apartment), invited us for concerts at his home. These were private events for an invited audience of 30 – 40 people—again non-profit (donations for the artist). The artist was Yulianna Avdeeva—a pianist I hadn’t heard of before. She was a great discovery to me: just months after the 2010 private recital, she won the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw.
After these private recitals, people gathered upstairs for an apéro. The host offered the wine and non-alcoholic beverages, the attendees contributed the food (cakes, etc.). That was the biggest non-public concert event that I had attended that far. These two events remained well-remembered, but singular incidents for several years. I can’t comment on whether everybody considered these recitals successful (apart from the obvious artistic highlight, of course): all guests came upon invitation, the number of chairs matched the number of accepted invitations, so, the term “sold out” does not apply. More on this below.
A Coincidental Entry into the “Concert Business”
A First Inquiry
End of August 2015, I briefly met the pianist Oxana Shevchenko after a duo recital in Lucerne. We then exchanged a few messages; I met her again for maybe a minute after a second duo recital in Zurich, early in November of the same year. To my amazement, on that same day, I received an inquiry from her. She asked whether by any chance I had an idea how she could present a concert program in a small recital. This was meant to be for a “trial run” for an upcoming tour to Panama and Columbia. I wonder why Oxana asked me! She later told me that the inquiry was purely incidental, i.e., merely because we were exchanging messages already. So, …
Arranging for a Private Recital
I first clarified what she meant with “small recital”—she was indeed thinking of a small, private event. I soon remembered the two private recitals that my wife and I attended in 2008 & 2010. And so, I checked with these friends whether by coincidence they might be able to offer their venue for another private recital (they hadn’t done any since 2010).
As luck might have it—everything worked out perfectly for this recital:
- The hosts were indeed thinking of doing another private recital, but had no idea which artist to ask …
- With 2.5 months lead time, we found one matching time slot (2016-01-16) that suited the host and the pianist;
- the host’s friend and piano tuner (Urs Bachmann, Wetzikon) would be available for one weekend that month—2016-01-16. He would tune and regulate the piano, as well as organize 60 chairs for the audience.
- There was just enough time—considering the holiday season—to invite guests and fill the audience.
- The hosts sponsored the apéro;
- the event was a full success both for the artist, as well as for the audience. Oxana stayed for the apéro, socializing with the guests, and everybody was happy.
- Finally, the financial outcome was (albeit secondary to the artist) better than expected (all donations went to the artist).
My personal contributions in this were
- finding the venue & host,
- coordinating the event between host & artist (not always easy, given that Oxana was traveling a lot and had just moved to Rome at that time), and
- writing up / producing the invitation sheets and the program leaflet, and giving a short introduction prior to the recital.
A New Inquiry
In her first inquiry, Oxana actually mentioned a second thought about a recital a few months later, with piano music by Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971). This was meant to be in connection with a planned recording of that music, with Delphian Records, Ltd. (Edinburgh, U.K.). However, she soon abandoned that idea, as the scheduling for the recording was still entirely in the air. So, I almost dropped that second recital option from my mind, not the least because around May – July I tried giving Oxana moral support for and during her participation at the Sydney International Piano Competition. I briefly met Oxana again in connection with duo recitals in Schönenwerd/SO (2016-09-25) and in Brugg/AG (2016-10-29). In that very brief second encounter she dropped a remark that she wanted to discuss something with me.
The scoop came a few days later. Oxana finally managed to get the scheduling sorted out for the Stravinsky recording with Delphian: it was going to happen March 6 – 8, 2017. Oxana was all excited about this perspective, but had two open issues. Both of these she hoped to resolve through a local recital:
- prior to the recording, she wanted to present the repertoire for these CDs in front of audiences, in order to get some extra exposure & experience (not all this music has been in her solo repertoire so far)
- Delphian expected the artist to contribute around 1/3 to the funding of the project. She was able to raise most of that sum from foundations. However, there was a gap that she was hoping to cover through a small-scale recital, e.g., by offering subscriptions for the upcoming CD set at a premium price.
The above inquiry instantly set off some intense brainstorming between my wife and myself. The first thought naturally was my wife’s colleague. Theoretically (based on the last recital), a private recital with an audience 60 – 70 paying visitors might just about yield the sum that Oxana was looking for. The question might be whether we would find an audience or that size for a pure-Stravinsky program. However, that idea was pointless, as for various reasons that option our friend’s piano and venue were not available this time.
This led us to evaluate the fundamental requirements for satisfying Oxana’s needs:
- we needed an audience of 50 – 70 in order to have a chance to receive the expected amount in donations
- this instantly raises the question of private locations of sufficient size
- a piano of adequate size and quality. An upright piano seemed unacceptable, even a “baby grand piano” might barely be acceptable for somebody who is about to record that repertoire on a Steinway D-274. Renting a piano (e.g., Steinway B-211) is out of question, as this alone blows up the budget by well over CHF 1000
- piano tuning? Even just regular tuning of a piano costs in the order of CHF 250 – 300. Donations would need to cover this as well.
- extras, such as apéro / catering, drinks, etc. (which might help getting a bigger audience) might further complicate the search for venues,
- we had a little over 2.5 months to make all arrangements—and this included the holiday season.
It soon turned out that without our friend’s loft, finding a single venue that satisfies the requirements would be near-impossible in the circles that we have access to. In addition, we had some doubts that we would be able to attract an audience of the necessary size for a Stravinsky-only program.
Multiple Private Recitals?
We soon came to the conclusion that we needed to split this into multiple recitals,
- in order to accommodate enough people, plus,
- as it turned out, Stravinsky’s piano oeuvre is larger than what can be accommodated in a single recital.
The next idea was, to have 2 – 4 small recitals, each “enriched” with music from the classic / romantic period. That turned out to suit Oxana’s needs—she stated “the more recitals, the more exposure, the better!”. However, with every private venue, we would need to deal with the instrument & tuning issue: the more venues, the higher the costs for tuning. Apart from that: we soon realized that finding 3 – 4 private venues with acceptable piano (and each with the capacity to accommodate an audience of 15 – 25 guests) would be outside of our possibilities, especially within our time restraints. At best, we might be able to find 2 – 3 venues, even ignoring the question of whether the available instrument is of sufficient quality, etc.
Given the above restrictions, and the need to generate a minimal financial goal, a minimum amount of income/well-deserved compensation for the artist, we soon turned towards adding in (small-scale) public concerts. This adds in several essential considerations:
- finding a venue that is affordable
- making sure there is an instrument that fulfills the minimum quality criteria
- advertising / finding and motivating audiences
- possibly offering refreshments / apéro for an unknown number of people
The last point is a tricky one! No matter how much time, money and effort we spent on advertising, in today’s competitive world it seemed impossible to predict whether a venue would be nearly full or almost empty. Would there be 100 people, or just half a dozen?? Well, in the aftermath, we have certainly learned a lesson here!
It soon turned out that the costs for a venue & tuning the piano are substantial—to a degree that we could not guarantee that the donations would even just cover the costs, let alone produce a financial result in favor of the artist. This led us to pursue further options:
- Looking for cooperations
- Finding sponsors
My wife and my daughter had the idea of cooperating with local music schools. This might help getting additional audience, and also getting access to venues that otherwise might be expensive to rent. We discussed this with a local piano teacher at the music school, and we ended up with a solution where in two of the recitals (Rüti, Uster) advanced pupils would give a half-hour pre-concert, followed by Oxana’s recital.
In Rüti (see the addendum below), such cooperation with the music school allowed us to use the venue (Amthaussaal) free of charge. In Uster, it substantially helped getting more audience. On top of that, these pupils had all been successful at local music competitions. Now they had the opportunity to test their performance under “realistic” conditions, in preparation for the upcoming Swiss Youth Music Competition (Schweizerischer Jugendmusikwettbewerb). Plus, they (and their parents) all found it very exciting that they had a chance to perform with a “real artist”. I should add that their teacher, who had attended Oxana’s private recital on 2016-01-16, was about as enthusiastic about the perspective to hear her playing again as I was!
Basic Format Decision
For a while, we were holding on to the idea of combining private and public recitals. However, the timing was very tight. We had to arrange for venues before we had a chance to sort out all options for private recitals. And so, partly due to timing constraints we had to stick with the pre-arranged dates and venues for public recitals. We dropped the idea of private recitals entirely. Also, we tried “playing safe”, in that we wanted to avoid not having enough venues. So, we ended up with four recitals rather than just two or three, as per the initial plan. The four recitals were spread over 5 days, with a one-day break prior to the last recital. Two plus two would have been preferable, but Oxana sounded more than happy to accept what we got.
Private vs. Public Concerts — Summary Comparison
The key difference between private and public concerts can be summarized as follows:
- In the case of a private concert you may have a struggle to get people to commit to coming to your concert. But once you have mastered this, you know who will be coming, how many chairs to set up, how much food & drinks to offer, etc.; on the other hand, it will probably be impossible to get sponsors for the event (you may be able to mobilize a wealthy audience, though).
- In contrast, in the case of a public concert, you may invite the very same people, and you will spend the extra effort in advertising in online platforms (see below, printed newspaper ads are essentially way too expensive, ad least if they should be in a decent size to attract people). However, as this is not per invitation, people will feel less committed, and in the end you’ll have no clue about the audience size up to the event itself. This leaves you with the decision of how many chairs to set up, catering, etc…. That’s for a concert with free admission / donations. One level up, you could sell tickets—but that again adds administrative overhead and was impossible to set up in the short time frame that we had. On the bright side, you’ll have good chances for mobilizing sponsors that may help securing the financial success.
What certainly convoluted the planning here is the fact that we were aiming at 3 – 4 recitals rather than just a single one. In other words: for a single recital, one needs to negotiate between available time slots for a venue and the availability of the artist. However, here, we had to find an agreement between the availability of 3 – 4 sites and that of the artist, which may be quite a headache.
The starting point, however, is the availability of the artist. In this case, Oxana had given us the first two weeks of February as possible dates. Needless to say that if we were to organize multiple events, we tried avoiding spreading them over both weeks, such as to minimize the travel requirements. On top of that, it soon turned out that the start of the school vacations (skiing vacations) in some areas made the first week of February (i.e., the days up to and around the weekend of February 4 & 5) look preferable over the second one.
Availability, Instrument, Capacity, Accessibility
- First and foremost: Site availability. With two of the sites (Rüti, Uster) we made provisional reservations for two dates each initially (Feb.1st – 3rd), in order to keep some flexibility with other venues yet to be found and selected.
- Instrument: as renting an instrument is beyond the scope of such recitals (see above), we had a closer look at the instruments:
- occasionally, one hears about decent upright pianos—but these are rare, and I would never even consider one for such a recital;
- among the grand pianos, I would prefer models of at least 160 – 180 cm length (Steinway O-180 or equivalent). The equivalent of a Steinway B-211 would be preferable;
- even if the model fulfills the above criteria, better double-check / investigate whether it is in good shape; if possible, a pianist should try the instrument to assess its condition, unless one has reliable information about the state of the instrument.
- ideally, the piano should have been tuned less than a month ago—otherwise re-tuning should be considered
- capacity of the venue (space, number of chairs); who is arranging the chairs & the instrument?
- accessibility: parking for guests? public transport?
- Do we have local connections that help mobilizing people to come to the recital?
- Decent acoustics cannot hurt: too small a venue may force playing with the lid closed, too big a room, such as a church, may have too much reverberation.
- Is there an artist’s room? a toilet? Some artists may even want to have a shower!
- (particularly in winter): is there a wardrobe for the guests?
- Is the venue available for rehearsals, say, 2 hours prior to the concert?
- Is there a need for extra lighting? If so: where are the power outlets?
- Similarly: extra lighting required for photography or video capture during the recital? Background / possible camera positions for this?
- Tables for programs, CDs, donations basket, etc.
- In case of a recital with apéro: tables for food & beverages?
- How much time is there after the recital for cleaning up the room?
- Tuning arrangements for the piano? Access to location, housekeeper, phone numbers / e-mail addresses?
- Rental costs for the venue? Extra costs for using the instrument?
- Needs for decoration (flowers, stand for flowers?)
- Good acoustics, looks maybe not quite ideal, but an excellent Bechstein concert grand, tuned for concert with local music school the week before.
- Excellent accessibility (minutes from train station, parking, public transport)
- Excellent connections (where we live)
- Low rental costs (CHF 500, including piano and foyer)
- Plenty of space for audiences up to 250
- My wife knows that place because she has performed in this venue together with colleagues, some of which have connections into the area.
- Decent, historic building, hall big enough (60 – 120 guests)
- Acceptable rental—actually no rental if cooperating with the local music school
- Mid-size Bösendorfer grand
- we investigated the status of the instrument. The community administration referred us to the male choir that uses the instrument for rehearsals
- the information we obtained as that the instrument (owned by the community of Rüti) is in horrible shape, unusable for a recital
- we further investigated with Gebr. Bachmann, Wetzikon, who normally tune this instrument once a year. Result: the instrument is not that bad at all. It detunes relatively quickly, but with tuning prior to the recital and some extra regulation the instrument should be perfectly usable for the recital
- finally, we agreed with the community administration that they would pay for the tuning, we would just need to bear the costs for the extra regulation (CHF 240 in the end). Tuning and regulation happened in the morning of the day of the recital.
- Good accessibility (5 minutes from train, car parking, public transport)
- Marginal connections only
Zurich, Jecklin Forum
- Excellent accessibility (downtown Zurich—train, tramway)
- Acceptable rental (CHF 500, all-inclusive: room piano, tuning, setup, even leaflet printing, poster in shop)
- Good instrument: mid-size Fazioli grand, tuned, presumably well-maintained.
- Decent room: 50 – 80 seats, basement / underground, good acoustics (despite a de-humidifier, there is a slight “humid smell”)
- Moderate connections, lots of local concert competition
- This venue will cease to exist at the end of March 2017.
Weinfelden, Church Community Hall
- Provincial setting, but reasonable connections through my brother-in-law (pastor in that community)
- nice room, nice view, excellent facilities, with space for up to 120 people
- marginal piano: a small (160 cm?) Yamaha grand, last tuned in December
- Advertising through verbal announcements and leaflets in church events
- chances for reasonable attendance through loyal community members
Other Venues, not Selected
- a private venue for around 12 – 15 people, maybe — ruled out, the relevant party only just moved in, plus, there is only an upright piano
- a room in a public institution (Werkheim): low rental costs, excellent view (for a matinée type recital!) — ruled out: no piano
- Wagerenhofsaal: ruled out — high rental costs, questionable acoustics, possibly not even a piano
- Musikcontainer: ruled out — high rental costs, piano tuning on top, acoustics more than questionable, atmosphere more for Jazz events
- Dietlikon: excellent, private venue, location of previous recitals — not available, unfortunately
- Dübendorf, Restaurant Obere Mühle, roof hall — decent room, big enough, but piano (Seiler, small grand) is a marginal instrument for teaching at best, not suitable for recitals such as Oxana’s
Other Options, not Further Pursued
- Männedorf, Hall of the local music school — too far, not enough connections
- Mönchaltorf, Mönchhofsaal — connections marginal, piano?
- Grüningen, Schgloss, Saal — connections marginal, piano?
- Winterthur, altes Stadthaus — not enough connections, piano?
- Wetzikon, halls in schools, music school — not enough connections, room lacks atmosphere
- Churches — may have a piano, but high rental costs
- Private venues — low capacity, piano quality & tuning?
With the above catalog in mind, we could start looking for venues and their availability. Within about two weeks, we had settled on the following schedule:
- 2017-02-01: Amthaussaal, Rüti ZH
- 2017-02-02: Gemeinderatssaal, Uster ZH
- 2017-02-03: Jecklin Forum, Zurich
- 2017-02-05: Kirchgemeindehaus, Weinfelden TG
This was maybe not quite ideal, with three recitals in sequence (two groups of two recitals each and a pause in-between would have been preferable), but according to Oxana was a workable option. On the positive side, this allowed Oxana to arrive on the 1st, and travel back early on the 6th. making this quite an efficient “mini-tour”.
Only close to the recitals we found out that all recitals were conflicting with a piano festival (Klavierissimo, in Wetzikon, 2016-02-01 – 2016-02-05) that I completely forgot about, over all the preparations. That festival featured Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano), Evgeny Bozhanov, Lukas Geniušas, and Roberto Prosseda (pedal piano) appearing. I don’t think we took away any of that festival’s audience. Conversely, Oxana’s repertoire in these recitals differed substantially from that presented in Wetzikon, so I also think we didn’t miss too much audience due to this date collision.
However, there would not have been flexibility to shift Oxana’s recitals anyway: even in the aftermath, I have no idea how we could have avoided that date collision. But that’s an issue we would need to watch out for next time.
Programming / Repertoire
Oxana proposed splitting Stravinsky’s solo piano works into three programs, “enriched” with classical and romantic works, with a suitable recital title:
- “Stravinsky as Neo-Classic”
- Mozart: Allegro, K.400
- Stravinsky: Sonate (1924), Les cinq doigts
- Beethoven: Sonata op.27/1
- Stravinsky: Choral, Serenade
- Schubert / Liszt: “Du bist die Ruh“, “Der Erlkönig“
- “Stravinsky as Ballet Composer”
- Tchaikovsky: The Seasons (1, 2, 3)
- Stravinsky: “L’oiseau de feu“
- Chopin: Polonaise-fantaisie op.61
- Stravinsky: Trois movements de Pétrouchka (Agosti)
- “Stravinsky, from Romantics to Jazz”
- Tchaikovsky: The Seasons (1, 2, 3, 5, 11)
- Stravinsky: Scherzo, Sonata (1904), 4 Études, Choral, Serenade, Piano-Rag-Music, Tango
We decided to select the program (I) with Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert for the more provincial venues (Rüti, Weinfelden). We hoped that the classical composers would make the program more palatable. Program II was selected for Uster, program III for Zurich.
Flyers, Handouts, Program Leaflets
Once we finalized the event details (location, time & date, program), I could start producing material for the next phases (advertising, concert handouts). I produced four types of documents—ultimately adding another one in connection with the first recital:
- an overall flyer, without program details, but listing all four recitals (location, time/date, title of the program). This was printed on 180 g/m2 paper, ISO A5 format, double-sided. A PDF version was of course also available.
- one program leaflet per concert, either double-sided ISO A5 (Weinfelden, Zurich) or as 4-page ISO A5 booklet (Rüti, Uster), printed on 120 g/m2 paper. The contents included
- an image of the artist (one per recital, such as to avoid confusion with the four different leaflets)
- Artist(s), location, date & time, title of the program
- detailed recital program
- artist biography with Web references
- references to the artist’s published CDs (booklets only)
- a concert handout (same for all recitals), a 4-page ISO A5 booklet, printed on 80 or 90 g/m2 paper. Content:
- work descriptions (movements, history) for all compositions
- CD order sheets: based on past experience, I assumed that Oxana would not be traveling with loads of CDs, so I felt it would be easier to have a CD order sheet for Oxana’s existing CDs. This way, signing and distribution of CDs could be handled “off-line”. Then, of course, we wanted to give people the option to pre-order / reserve copies of Oxana’s upcoming CD set with Stravinsky’s solo piano works. These were two separate, double-sided ISO A5 leaflets on ordinary paper.
- One day before the event, the pre-program for the Rüti recital underwent a change. So I produced a change leaflet (single-sided, ISO A5, ordinary paper), with the same image as in the main program leaflet.
PDF versions of all these documents can be found via my concert report posts, see the links at the bottom of this posting.
Overall, I printed (and folded) some 1200 documents, some 600 were distributed prior to the recitals, the rest included the concert handouts, CD order sheets, and spare concert leaflets—and I still have some on stock…
We were now working towards four public recitals—concerts with free admission, i.e., no registrations, no ticket sales. With this, we did not know in advance what audience size we would get. But we wanted to try exhausting all options to attract audiences.
It’s advantageous to have a Web page for upcoming events that one can refer to, both in online documents, as well as in printed handouts. So, I asked Oxana to have the four recitals added to the “Calendar” pages in her Web site. Such an event-specific page could be a detailed, full-blown description. Alternatively (as chosen here), merely a simple page featuring event name, time, location, and a sketchy description of the program, complemented with a download link for a PDF document with the full information. The PDF document in this case was the relevant program leaflet that I created and placed in my (anonymous) dropbox site.
Of course, it might have simplified things at my end, if I had just posted such event pages myself (my blog also features an “Events” sub-site). However, I wanted these events to be Oxana’s rather than “mine”. Plus, in the same vein, I wanted to direct people to Oxana’s Web site (for additional promotion of her site and activities) rather than to my blog.
Newspaper / Print
The idea was, to keep the overall budget for expenses below, say, CHF 500 per concert; a single newspaper ad (more than postage stamp size, of course) costs between several hundred and 1000 CHF or more—simply out of question.
There is also the option of having concert leaflets or a flyer distributed in households within the community. Targeted distribution is also a possibility. However, with an estimated success rate of well below 1%, we would need to distribute hundreds of flyers this way—and the pricing is currently at CHF 0.40 per leaflet. Simply too expensive.
One exception here: the concert in Weinfelden was given at the premises of the protestant church, and my brother-in-law posted a note in the monthly newsletter to church members—for free.
- in our area, there is zueriost.ch, Web site that is run by the local newspapers. This offers an “Events” Web portal, where one can place full event information, including image, full program and artist bio—all free of charge. We used this for the recitals in Rüti and Uster, even Zurich.
- a second site, “Zürioberland Kultur“ (natürli.ch) runs in parallel to the above, and also free of charge. It offers the same options as the zueriost.ch; we used this for the recitals in Rüti and Uster.
- The concert in Weinfelden was announced at the Web site of the church community, for free.
- At the very modest end of the scale, I had of course the recitals listed in my “Events” page at my blog site—but that’s not a place that people would look up for upcoming events.
Commercial Web Portals
- In Uster, there is an online event site uster-agenda.ch, offering full-featured events pages (just like the ones above). This is run by a club. The site is free for club members, we paid CHF 50 for advertising the event in Uster (with the idea that we need to gain around 2 visitors through this to get the investment back). As it turned out, “Zürioberland Kultur” took our ad from here and adopted it for their site, without further actions on my side.
- there is a similar site for Zurich, kulturzüri.ch, also run through a club. For non-members, this costs CHF 100 per event entry. I decided to give it a try—though here, we’d need to generate 3 – 4 additional attendees to get the investment back. In the end, it turned out not to be a profitable move—but I think it was worth a try. For major events and club members & bigger organizers, entries in this portal even get posted in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung—as a tiny add, 4 – 5 lines only, but still; that did not apply to my ad, though.
We handed the flyer and the relevant concert leaflets to our acquaintances that we met in person (maybe 2 dozen people); we also attended a church concert in Weinfelden, on 2016-12-03, where we distributed some 50 flyers and leaflets (for Weinfelden) among an audience of maybe 100 people. My brother-in-law also made a public announcement on that occasion. Such an announcement was also done during church service, on the day of the recital.
Personal Invites by e-Mail
We sent around 70 personal(ized) e-mails, mostly to music teachers at the local music schools, with links to the flyer and to the concert leaflets. We had the hope that music teachers would appreciate advanced piano playing and music by Igor Stravinsky. Well—the result was exactly zero: none of the addressees who received only the e-mail turned up at the concert. This tells us that music teachers at music schools have their ears full of music (and usually the same on and on) all day, and after they work they are typically fed up and don’t want to hear any more music at all. Sad, but true. We could have saved that effort.
What we did not do, but maybe should have done: we should have sent one or two e-mail reminders to all potential visitors, during the week prior to the recitals. This way, we would have deprived the invitees of the cheap excuse “Sorry, I entirely forgot!”.
Personal Invites by Letter
In the same vein, we targeted piano teachers more specifically: even if they received my e-mail already, they were also sent the flyer and the relevant leaflets in hardcopy, by ordinary mail. In addition, teachers with advanced pupils received three sets of flyer & the relevant leaflets, along with a personal(ized) letter. The idea was that they might motivate their pupils to come to the concert (as well). The result: sadly, the same as above—none of the teachers (except for a few close friends here in Uster) turned up, neither did any of their pupils. We could have saved ourselves that effort.
Outside of music teachers, my wife Lea and I dug up our past acquaintances, such as members of the choir in Uster that Lea was directing some 35 – 20 years ago, plus selected members from other choirs of hers, and of course Lea’s close colleagues here at the music school, and a number of private acquaintances (we were driving around Uster close to midnight, to distribute envelopes!). We also addressed people who attended Oxana’s first, private recital (2016-01-16). This turned out to be the one, really successful strategy—people that we hadn’t seen or spoken to for over 10 years turned up in Uster!
Leaflet Campaign, Posters
In addition to all of the above, we also had small numbers of flyers and leaflets deposited in teacher’s rooms at music schools—wasted effort, see above.
In Rüti, we distributed leaflets, flyers, and even two posters in the building of the community administration, in various shops, and in the church. The result: essentially zero. Possible reasons include the fact that Oxana is not known in that area, and we don’t have personal connections to that community.
In Zurich, Jecklin (for the Jecklin Forum) is producing a poster and leaflets as part of their service. I received 100 leaflets for distribution, they have a poster in the entrance to their shop, along with a pile of leaflets that visitors can take along. This did yield one or the other extra visitor.
What we did not do, but maybe should have done: we could have taken a pile of flyers (and maybe also leaflets) and hand-distribute them to concert goers in Uster and Zurich. The efficiency of this method is rather low (don’t know the recipients!). In Zurich (e.g., at the Tonhalle) I can’t go to a concert without one or two people handing me a flyer or leaflet. In Uster, unfortunately concerts with classical music have become very rare, lately, so we did not even check whether there were opportunities, i.e., concerts for such actions. Maybe we should have done this at the Tonhalle the week prior to the Zurich recital?
Both Oxana as well as myself are active on social media (after all, that’s how I encountered her name in first place!), so it was only just natural to use this medium for advertising the recitals.
For general (non-personal) distribution Twitter is a low-efficiency medium. I (@rkyburz) have over 1400 followers. However, Twitter is typically only read very selectively, unless tagging is used. I use Twitter mostly to announce any new blog post.
I did not use tagging to address recipients, but a week prior to each recital, I sent out a German and an English tweet per recital, tagging Oxana (@OxaNoches) and including the URL for a relevant event entry in one of the Web platforms described above. For each of the recitals, I repeated this twice, closer to the event. There is a fair chance that Oxana’s and my followers have seen these tweets—but our followers are spread all over the planet. The efficiency is small, but so is the effort (and it costs nothing), and so it is still worth doing.
We did not invest in a paid Twitter campaign (I didn’t even investigate what the costs for such a—targeted—campaign would be).
The number of my Facebook friends is rather small (less than 120 right now, but spread all over the world), the number of followers is even smaller (25, only very few are local). I did not directly post advertisements, but I asked Oxana to create Facebook “Event” entries, which I then shared. I also did invite my local Facebook friends (very few, though).
Oxana has a huge number of Facebook friends, a fair number of followers—these will / should have seen Oxana’s event entries (Oxana also has an artist’s page on Facebook). However, that audience is again geographically very widely spread.
We did not invest in paid Facebook advertisements: as with Twitter, I didn’t even investigate what the costs for such—targeted—advertising would be.
One might state that most of my advertising efforts were a complete waste of time—however,
- Not all of this was obvious at the onset. At least, by now we know what works and what doesn’t—and next time we can avoid most of the wasted time and effort. To me, it is part of a learning curve.
- Most of my advertising did not result in a concert visit (and therefore did not yield any financial return, in the form of donations). Yet, I’m certain that it at least helped through “name dropping”: should there ever be another recital by the same artist, Oxana’s name will maybe “ring a bell”, i.e., sound familiar—and this can only increase the curiosity, and hence the chances for future concert visits!
- Last, but certainly not least: those who did turn up in one (or several!) of the concerts are likely to attend future recitals by Oxana. Not everything went quite perfectly, see below (mostly in the circumstances, not Oxana’s playing). Still, her recital did not fail to succeed with any of the four audiences. So, the recitals themselves are maybe the best advertisement for future instances!
We targeted four potential sponsors. To each of these, we wrote a lengthy (800 – 1000 words), personal letter, introducing ourselves (where necessary), then of course introducing Oxana, her Stravinsky CD project, and why she was going to perform these recitals. We also included the concert flyer and the leaflets for all four recitals. And we invited them to support the project with a sponsorship.
All four addressees did not hesitate to donate, the donations were CHF 200 or more. One of the addressees did not donate personally, but decided to forward the sponsoring invitation to the local section of the Rotary club; in that case, I don’t yet know what they will donate. On top of that, we received almost twice that sum in the form of spontaneous, major donations, on top of the CHF 20 – 50 that each of the concert attendees donated.
We could not have done these recitals without the sponsoring—many thanks to all these donors!
It All Happens!
The months since early November 2016 had been pretty tense—but I hadn’t expected the organization of four recitals in parallel to be easy or simple. And we did this for the first time, so we were learning at the same time. Around mid-January, two weeks prior to the recitals, all invitations were out, we had received the (positive) feedback from the sponsors, and now at last we could (gradually) relax, knowing that we had done pretty much all we could do (or think of doing). In fact, the preparations had been so intense that the recitals themselves seemed surreal, somewhere in the distant future!
Past the Invitations
Now, the focus shifted somewhat, in that my wife started cooking / baking, and we did some shopping for the apéro in Rüti (2017-02-01) and Uster (2017-02-02).
In parallel to that, I prepared and printed (and folding) the concert handouts (work descriptions, see above), along with extra concert leaflets for distribution at the recitals. An inventory list for things to take along (e.g., photo camera, donations basket, pens and baskets for CD order sheets, decoration, etc.) was ready as well. We had visited all sites, checked that we were familiar with the locations, knew whom to check with in the case of problems, etc.
That said, we had been extremely busy all the time—but I don’t think I ever was stressed: I was confident that things would work out. And I did not have the slightest doubt that Oxana would perform well: after all, I have experienced her playing in highly virtuosic repertoire (such as Stravinsky’s Pétrouchka) before.
Maybe I had been a little too confident? I had tried not to bother her too much, i.e., I never checked with her about her level of preparation. After all, I had to pester her with organizational questions often enough. If there is one thing I wanted to avoid, it is being a pain in the neck with unnecessary questions. So, there were some weeks where I had no message / update from her. I did not worry about these silent intervals: I was 100% certain that she would not let me down.
However, as she told me only when she was here, she actually fell ill with pneumonia around mid-December, which affected her for several weeks. This means that she was not quite at the point with her preparations where she hoped to be for these recitals. Her performances were actually good, mostly even excellent, but by the time of the fourth recital, I had the impression that she was getting a bit exhausted (indeed, she stated, she would not do four recitals with three different, full programs again in a row).
As a consequence of this (minor, luckily) limitation, Oxana asked me not to write critical reviews—and I agree: this would be unfair at this stage. Also, she asked me not to publish or otherwise distribute and audio or video recordings from these recitals.
Back to the actual recitals: On January 26th, Oxana notified me that she would arrive in Uster on February 1st, around noon—and that’s when (after all the preparations) it started to sink in that the recitals were real and imminent! I was excited! And no, I personally was not worried, but focused on making everything work out well. Of course, I was secretly hoping for big audiences and lots of donations, but I was well aware of the possibility that there might be very few…
The details about the musical aspect of the recitals are found in my four recital reports, see the links below and in the addendum at the bottom. The following notes focus on the organizational aspects.
It turned out that Gebr. Bachmann, Wetzikon, had done an excellent job at tuning and regulating this Bösendorfer grand! Contrary to what we were told initially, the Bösendorfer proved an excellent instrument, the tuning was excellent and did not audibly suffer in the course of the instrument. Conclusion: in case of doubt, don’t trust hearsay, but always have a piano maker assess the quality & status of an instrument.
I setup chairs for 64 people (there were 120 chairs in store), knowing that this was more than enough. Indeed, the audience consisted of a mere 16 people only, some of these in connection with the pupils who played in the pre-concert. I attribute this mostly to the fact that our connections to Rüti are fairly marginal. Also, music teachers did not turn up at all, despite our intense invitation efforts, see above. Most of the invited teachers were from the Musikschule Zürcher Oberland, which also serves Rüti. However, I did expect a small audience here.
Outcome for the Artist
Oxana stated that the recital was very useful under the aspect of getting exposure & testing her performance under real-world conditions. She told me that she drew a fair number of conclusions for her interpretation.
Financially, we did OK, in that the donations vastly exceeded the expenses—thanks to the cooperation with the music school (the venue was free) and the city of Rüti taking over the costs for the tuning.
My wife had prepared and carried along apéro for the full audience (it’s better to have too much than running out of food or beverages)—needless to say that we transported almost all back home (and saved for the next day, of course). Conclusions: a) use a conservative estimate for the number of guests, and b) better plan for an apéro only if one has a good feel for the expected number of people to serve.
I took a couple of photos during rehearsal. During the recital, I attempted taking video segments. There are several reasons why the latter were partial failures:
- this was my first attempt at taking live videos with my DSLR. I found that I should have trained myself much more.
- I found that giving introductory speeches and operating the DSLR was too much / too distracting for a newcomer
- the lighting was marginal for video, and
- in particular, I focused on capturing the artist, hereby forgetting to watch out for decent background & contrast
- I had to learn that in terms of contrast and color depth, videos can’t compete with photos taken with the same DSLR.
No complaints here at all: the Bechstein concert grand proved to be as good as we were told during the planing, the tuning was still OK—it had been tuned for the recital performed by the local music school a week prior to Oxana’s recital.
For my wife and myself, this recital was (apart from the music, of course) a pleasant surprise! Of course, we only occupied a fraction of the 250-seat auditorium, but there were 38 people—a very attentive audience, for sure! Lots of people we knew from my wife’s local choir, many years back—we were happy to see so many known faces turn up in the recital!
Outcome for the Artist
Oxana did very well in this recital, I think; she spontaneously decided to drop the Chopin (Polonaise-fantaisie, op.61) from the program, in favor of the two Schubert transcriptions by Franz Liszt (“Du bist die Ruh“, “Der Erlkönig“). The transcriptions certainly never fail to impress and move the audience, but I’m sure the Chopin would have been OK as well.
Financially, this certainly was the most favorable recital: apart from substantial sponsoring money, we received considerable donations that again vastly exceeded the costs for the venue.
Apéro: the audience was bigger, and there was much more consumption—but of course, there was plenty of food left that in the end populated our freezer. But the main thing is that there was plenty of social interaction for the hour following the concert. The pupils from the pre-concert (and their parents & relatives) were particularly pleased about the opportunity to talk to Oxana, get further advice from her, etc.: thank you so much, Oxana, for taking care of the youngsters!
Overall, I think everybody went home happy and emotionally enriched after this recital!
Acoustics and the sound of the instrument were OK in this venue. The one minor pitfall was that when Oxana used the shift pedal, occasionally, some keys in the middle of the keyboard were hanging. I did notice rare instances of “missing notes”—but overall, I don’t think the audience notices this at all, or at least, people were not irritated.
As mentioned above, the venue was somewhat susceptible to high humidity. The instrument was well tuned and maintained in general (after all, this facility is part of a piano house & shop!), and it looks as if Oxana was the first one to notice the flaw with the hanging keys, which I duly reported to the gatekeeper at the end of the recital.
Right from the onset, I was skeptical about our possible outreach for a recital in Zurich, and the financial outlook was somewhat doubtful here. Indeed, there were 48 chairs set up, and we had the smallest audience of all recitals: 13 people only. Luckily, there were some people who knew Oxana from the private recital on 2016-01-16, and these made substantial donations. Moreover, one couple among these stated that they would attend the recital in Weinfelden as well: I think that says it all about the impression that Oxana made on the audience!
Outcome for the Artist
A very pleasant aspect about this recital was that Oxana used the opportunity to talk about the pieces she played, and she also told a few nice anecdotes about Stravinsky. So, in this recital, she not only impressed the (small) audience with her playing, but her talking also provided for a nice, friendly and cosy atmosphere in general.
I must confess: this recital was underrated in the preparations! In fact, my brother-in-law was worried whether we would be able to gather even an audience as small as 12 people…
As a consequence of the above; I did not pay too much attention to the instrument. My wife and I had been here to have a look, and I noted the small size of the instrument (a small Yamaha grand), and its moderate quality, but then: how much effort can we spend for a very small audience?
When I arrived to the venue with the pianist, Oxana instantly sat down at the piano, to play / rehearse for around 1.5 hours. When she was done, I took the opportunity to at least clean the keys and the wooden parts / panels around the keyboard (I carried along our cleaning set with a cloth and a little flask of water/alcohol 2:1 mix).
The piano had already been placed in its recital location—and so, we did not pay enough attention… we forgot to secure the wheels, and at some point in the recital, when Oxana played fff, the piano started moving! On top of that, the tuning turned out to be really marginal. And the sustain pedal was noticeably squeaking (I noted this during the rehearsal, but did not pay attention to this during the recital).
In order not to make the room look empty (with an excess of unoccupied chairs), my brother-in-law had set up 24 chairs. To my amazement, we had to add four additional chairs, for an audience of 28! In the audience, there was indeed that couple that already attended the recital in Zurich (and which also had been at Oxana’s private recital on 2016-01-16).
Outcome for the Artist
At this point, I noted that Oxana must have felt somewhat exhausted—not just because of the four recitals and the associated rehearsing time, but probably also as a consequence of the extra strain caused by the pneumonia that bogged her down for several weeks a month before. And the marginal quality of the piano sure did not help! Of course, I know all the music that she played very well, so I noted a number of “dropped notes” (no memory lapse, for sure!)—but I think the audience barely noticed this, if at all. It’s more that she did not seem to be very happy with her own performance in the end.
Financially, this recital turned out to be almost as successful as the one in Uster—not the least of course because the venue cost close to nothing (and—sadly—because we did not care to have the piano tuned!).
My video attempts on the previous recitals hadn’t been prepared well and therefore had not been very successful. So, I decided to position myself in the rear of the hall, in the gap between the two groups of chairs, and just to take photos, which turned out to be a good choice, especially because Oxana’s blouse was an excellent match to the color of the curtains.
Results & Conclusions
This series of recitals was the result of Oxana’s inquiry, and so, the success should primarily be judged from the artist’s perspective. Oxana specified two goals:
- getting exposure with Stravinsky’s piano music, for the upcoming recording. I take from her comments that the recitals certainly served that purpose. Having listened to her rehearsing, I can understand why: I think that the presence of an audience fundamentally changes her playing. At least from what I heard, the difference between rehearsing and recital is stunning!
- covering the remainder of her contribution to the costs of the CD production. I can say that we did indeed cover that sum through these recitals—just about. I was of course hoping to provide some extra income for Oxana—and I have not quite given up on that part yet, as there is one sponsoring contribution still outstanding. We’ll see. At least, I tried my best in keeping her expenses for these 5 days at an absolute minimum.
As a listener who has attended all four recitals, I would say that even though not everything in the recitals was perfect yet, I love that music, even after extended exposure (or maybe because of the extended listening!), to a degree that it sometimes still follows me, wherever I go. I would and could re-listen to all four recitals any time!
Most importantly: by the time of this writing, the recording session (March 6 – 8) has already happened. I haven’t heard anything that would imply that it wasn’t a success: I’m very eager to listen to these recordings!
As stated earlier, these recitals to me were a giant learning exercise. I don’t want to repeat in detail what these lessons were, but merely give a few keywords
- don’t try inviting music teachers
- try focusing on people you know personally, and/or people who you know will be interested in attending
- don’t try organizing concerts in locations where you have limited or no connections
- don’t make assumptions about the quality of the piano
- one should not spend too much effort on the apéro: consider that only when you have an idea about the size of the audience. And then: people want to talk & interact socially, food is of lesser importance, if not a distraction. Just IMHO…
- maybe, four recitals (almost) in a row, with three different programs was aiming a bit high?
The other point concerns sponsoring: we regard our sponsoring inquires successful. However, I realized only on this occasion that it is hard, if not impossible to get sponsorship from companies and institutions, even wealthy individuals, perhaps. These want to be able to deduce sponsoring contributions from their taxable income, and/or their bookkeeping does not allow donating to private individuals. It may be worthwhile forming a registered club, as this might facilitate collecting sponsorships.
These recitals were the result of almost 3 months of intense preparations, requiring extensive interaction with the artist. I tried my best to keep the preparations going without excessively pestering the artist. Oxana, I hope you weren’t losing your nerves over all my messages and reminders! As for myself: I never lost trust in your intent and ability to pull this through as planned. On the other hand, I always had the feeling that you trusted me just as well (why otherwise would you have asked about these recitals in first place?). I sincerely hope that the outcome of these recitals justifies the trust that you put in me—thanks for asking me! Overall: thank you so much, Oxana—it has been such an immense pleasure to work with you on these recitals!
So: Would I do it again? Yes—not for everybody though, but as a service for a friend. And maybe not four recitals in a row. But whatever it would be: with the lessons learned here, I’ll save all unnecessary effort next time, and it all should be smoother and more efficient!
Addendum — Related Postings
The “result” of the above considerations and preparations, i.e., the four recitals with Oxana Shevchenko, are described in the following four blog posts:
- 2017-02-01: Amthaussaal, Rüti ZH
- 2017-02-02: Gemeinderatssaal, Uster ZH
- 2017-02-03: Jecklin Forum, Zurich
- 2017-02-05: Kirchgemeindehaus, Weinfelden TG