Whether you’re at a smaller region orchestra with a budget of a few hundred thousand dollars or at a large top 20 orchestra with a budget well in the tens of millions of dollars, at some point you will likely be asked to discuss or even help select Pops programming for your orchestra. Pops concerts play a major part of the successful financial formula for many orchestras in this country. Not only do they contribute to the financial wellbeing of an institution through ticket sales but they also offer an invaluable opportunity to diversify the reach of your institution by exciting potential audiences who might otherwise never step foot in an orchestral concert hall.
The world of Pops, however, can seem vastly mysterious and hard to navigate for those who have trained and studied exclusively in the classical music vein. While this article by no means aims to provide you with all the answers on how to select or build your Pops season, it should, at the very least, offer a glimpse into some of the initial considerations and options. Hopefully this will give you a more informed position from which to begin those discussions.
Know the options
Though Pops as an orchestral genre has only existed for a fraction of the time that orchestral classical music has been around, the repertoire and product options are incredibly abundant and diverse. Remember, though we speak about Pops as being a singular category of programming, it in fact encompasses dozens of genres each with decades (or even centuries) of their own history and repertoire. So it’s not surprising that it can feel like a daunting task combing through the options and possibilities for your orchestra.
The good news is, as a conductor, you often don’t have to do this work alone! If your institution has an Artistic Administration department (sometimes called Artistic Planning or sometimes falling under the General Manager), these highly versed and experienced coworkers should have a wealth of knowledge pertaining to the different repertoire or even packaged show options that exist. It is not uncommon for their Monday morning inboxes to be flooded with advertisements from different companies who specialize in creating, packaging, and distributing Pops content to orchestras around the globe. If your orchestra does not have an Artistic department, have a conversation with your Executive Director/CEO who themselves may have experience in selecting or presenting Pops content. Either individual will hopefully bring forth some new ideas or, at the very least, some institutional knowledge about what programming has been successful at your orchestra in the past.
Generally speaking, I like to think of Pops concert options existing in one of three (well actually three and a half but we will get to that later) categories. These three categories serendipitously happen to also fall into respective cost categories that might also be a key factor when selecting programing. So let’s break these three categories down:
1. Orchestral Pops
Now of course every symphonic Pops concert should include the orchestra, duh! So what do I mean by orchestral Pops? By Orchestral Pops, I mean a show primarily focused on the orchestra and repertoire they are playing. This means outside of having a potential community collaborator, local singers, dancers, narrators etc., the primary content of the show is the orchestra.
Orchestral Pops shows come in many shapes and forms. They can be repertoire driven, for example a concert featuring The Music of John Williams. They can be thematic in nature, for example a show all about music related to outer space. A very popular type of orchestral Pops show (which most orchestras employ each year) is a Holiday Pops! Though some orchestras will bring in name artists as featured singers or hosts, many orchestras are successful by simply keeping it about the orchestra and the repertoire of holiday favorites.
As you may have guessed, Orchestral Pops are some of the most affordable Pops concerts to put on. Outside of music purchases/rentals, potential local guest artists, and normal production costs, these shows often require very little additional expense for the orchestra and can be very financially successful. That makes this category of show ideal for orchestras of smaller budgets as well as orchestras looking to balance higher cost programming on a season with something financially conservative.
2. Music Of…
One step higher in the cost category are “Music Of “concerts. Shows in this category tend to be either genre driven or artist driven (in name only and not with the actual artist i.e. a beatles tribute band). Shows in this vein might include The Music of Queen, Beatles Revolution, or Disco Fever (all of which are actual shows available from a variety of different production companies). Although The Music of Queen doesn’t include the actual band Queen, many of these production companies use fantastic cover bands that do a wonderful job of bringing to life the music of these artists and genres.
These shows can of course offer even more financial success (as your marketing department will happily mention to you) by attracting audiences who have an established connection to the artist or genre. Now, in addition to drawing from a market of established symphony patrons, you may begin to see outside interest from new patrons within your community who simply like a particular artist or genre of music without having an established connection to your orchestra.
These shows do tend to come at a higher cost than a self produced Orchestral Pops concert. One benefit to having the option to purchase these programs from packagers is the “ease of assembly.” Packed shows will typically include everything you need to be able to put on the concert (minus the orchestra of course). These shows travel with their own cover band and singers (sometimes even conductor), musical arrangements for the orchestra, and even marketing materials so that your organization doesn’t have to worry about those aspects. With all of these elements conveniently packaged together, these shows typically range in the tens of thousands of dollars. Though these shows can of course be self-produced and created in house by an orchestra, it is far less common given the significantly higher costs associated with their creation. Costs when self-producing can include fees for guest artists needed to serve as the singers and performers in the bands, additional rehearsal and preparation time for the band, plus the commissioning of musical arrangements. Additionally, self-producing these shows requires increased staff and conductor labor time. For this reason and many others, it is much more common for orchestras to seek out production companies and agencies which provide prepackaged concerts ready for the stage. As a result, these shows tend to be more accessible to the mid to large size orchestra, though it depends again on the packager and orchestra budget.
3. Name Artists
Cover bands are great and sometimes do a wonderful job of keeping decades of music alive and enjoyable for audiences. But, what if you really want to bring in that star from Broadway or that incredible band from the 80s? That’s where ‘name artists’ concerts come in to play. This category can offer the potential for tremendous ticket sales and can be a fantastic way to introduce new members of your community to the orchestra that may otherwise never have even known of your existence. ‘Name artist’ shows tend to depend on the artist’s brand and following for the majority of their sales. The bigger and more famous the artist, the higher the ticket prices and sales potential will be. But fair warning: these shows can also come with major price tags. A good reference point will be to speak with your executive director or artistic team who can provide more information about artist fees and budget parameters. These types of collaborations may not be right for every orchestra (as fun as they may sound).
Much like the previous category, Name Artist shows can also be self produced or created in-house through collaboration with an artist directly. Many orchestras (typically those with a larger budget and production capability) have successfully created symphonic shows for fantastic artists in every genre of music. As a result of their hard work, time, and money, there are dozens of incredibly talented artists who then go on to perform their music with orchestras around the country. Artists with orchestral shows exist in nearly every genre of music and range from singers like Leslie Odom Jr., Kenny Loggins, and Trisha Yearwood, to bands like Pink Martini or The Mavericks.
As previously mentioned there is an additional “half category” which is ‘films in concert.’ I call this a half category because some orchestras include films on their Pops series while others choose to present them as stand alone concerts or even create an entire movie series dedicated to these types of performances. Much like previous categories, these can be tremendously successful concerts but once again can come with high price tags, and higher production expenses, depending on the film.
How do I Choose?
Now the million dollar question… how do you choose? The first thing to keep in mind is that this is likely not only your decision. As we’ve seen, finances, scheduling, revenue potentials, and/or some other external factor may very well dictate much of your decision. But an even more important question to contemplate and discuss is: What is right for your audience?
Pops are a great place to expand the reach of your orchestra’s brand but you should always be sure to balance that with not alienating your core subscribers. The best thing to do is speak with your marketing or communications team and get a better understanding of your audience. What do they like? What types of shows sell best? What sort of surveying has been done to gauge the interest in different genres of music? All of these questions can help lead to a better-informed decision about what products you should bring to your stage.
Lastly, speak with your colleagues at other orchestras. Ask fellow conductors or arts administrators about Pops programs they’ve presented or production companies with which they have worked. Did they enjoy the experience? Were the guest artists and materials of high quality? How did the concerts sell? The more information you gather from those experienced with the products in the market, the better equipped you will be to choose what is right for your orchestra and audience.