Stepping out of the concert hall

A review of Sarah Robinson’s new book on taking classical music to alternative venues

by Kristen Toedtman

Take a look at the websites of orchestras in any major city and you’ll see various ways in which venerable institutions are attempting to bring not just new, but specifically younger, audience members to the concert hall. (We looked at this issue at bit here.)  Most of the tactics employed are not directly filling seats of their home halls (YouTube videos, family-friendly “instrument petting zoo”-style activities), but intended to lead indirectly higher ticket sales. That classical music institutions need to court younger audience members is certainly not new news:  the landscape of classical music has changed. The landscape of consumer music has changed, and classical music presenters know that this fact cannot be ignored for long.

Just as the major shifts in the music industry as a whole have created vast opportunities for independent musicians (do you know anyone who hasn’t released a CD?), so has the mandatory shift in classical music performance opened an exciting and inspiring land of opportunity. This land is not altogether uncharted, and Sarah Robinson’s new book, Clubbing for Classical Musicians: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Working in Alternative Venues does a fine job of cultivating the practical wisdom learned by the pioneers before us – those classical musicians who have ventured outside the concert halls.

Robinson’s book was adapted from her doctoral dissertation, which makes for a thorough and highly organized study of her topic, but she still manages to avoid dry textbook language. This allows the book to function well as a valuable reference as well as an informative read:  it is both easy to navigate to specific topics (“Choosing Your Space,” “Book Your Venue,” “Managing Money,” etc) and leaves one with a confident sense of preparedness to take forward steps. While the information is particularly good for those living in the certain cities she mentions (LA, Portland, NYC), it is undeniably full of practical and excellent advice which could be applied anywhere.

Before diving into the practical, Sarah combines the knowledge gleaned from many interviews and data research to present compelling reasons to play in alternative venues in the first place. Though short, I find this first chapter (“Why Play in a Club?”) to be of utmost importance. It is the reason and the inspiration source for the entire book and something to be considered by any classical musician today hoping to make relevant art, a living, or even both. By the second chapter, we’re into the details (“Choosing Your Space”), as she defines the various types of venues, from cabaret bars to galleries, living rooms and public spaces. This, specifically, is how the book can be useful no matter where you are. Robinson takes us to the step of booking shows (including checklists to help you prepare for the initial contact), but not before a chapter about the most important element: the content of your show (“Shows That Rock Clubs”).

disco-ball-442247-mThough she does cover playing as gentle background music, that is decidedly not the point of this book. Nevertheless, Robinson doesn’t ignore the truth of the matter, which is that there is an inherent challenge to getting — and maintaining — the focus that an imaginative and well-prepared classical program deserves, while playing in a space not designated for silent and rapt attention.  Another current and interesting take on this issue was recently presented on the Sybaritic Singer blog by Judah Adashi, long-time curator of the Evolution New Music series in Baltimore, who began a subsequent “Extended Play” series at a nearby coffee shop for patrons who want to hear more music, but in a different setting.

Ms. Robinson returns to the driving force behind this movement at the end of the book (“Into the Future”). By pointing to real and recent examples (Philip Glass and Steve Reich, now concert hall giants, started in art galleries and loft concerts in the 1970s; Missy Mazzoli has quickly traced a trajectory from tiny NYC punk clubs to Carnegie Hall and our own Walt Disney Concert Hall) and suggesting that the musicians playing in such alternative venues today are key players in the shaping of the audiences and aesthetics that will dominate the scene ten to twenty years from now, she sends the reader off with practical and impassioned inspiration.

Clubbing for Classical Musicians is a great book, a concise study of the current state of our classical music audience, and an excellent resource that includes all the facts needed to start booking yourself at alternative venues today.

Get the book

More about Sarah Robinson


Kristen Toedtman is a classical and most-every-other-style singer living in Los Angeles. She sings with the Los Angeles Master Chorale, has appeared recently as soloist on the Corona del Mar Baroque Festival and in vocal chamber works across the city. She is wrapping up her second studio album of all original songs, due out in the spring of 2015. To hear samples of her bluesy pop side and get news of upcoming concerts, visit www.kristentoedtman.com.

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