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Orchestra Smaland
What a Swedish mega-retailer can teach classical music about building a customer base.

by Holly Mulcahy
March 1, 2010

That old saying, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, applies to classical music audiences now more than ever. Everyone remotely involved in the orchestra business is already aware that audiences are looking older and it is becoming harder to get younger listeners into the hall. And not only is there difficulty of pulling in patrons under 40, there is the ongoing challenge of keeping children educated about classical music so we can have some idea that there will be an audience for future generations.

I've made a point to ask my non-concertgoing, under 40 friends what is keeping them from coming to a concert. Ticket price was one concern, but almost all of them mentioned the added bother of babysitting and parking expenses seemed to make the entire evening more of a huge inconvenience than not. Yet these same friends have no trouble going furniture shopping at IKEA for several hours with their kids in tow.

Anyone who has been to an IKEA on a weekend or Friday evening knows that navigating through bottlenecked suburban streets, navigating the super-sized parking lot, and fighting crowds is just as inconvenient as the same items mentioned that keep the under-40 set away from concerts.

So why do people still go to IKEA? Well, IKEA seems to have found solutions to these problems by putting into place an otherwise costly option that ultimately contributes to their bottom line, they offer free child care so parents can shop without worrying about whining, complaining, and most important, boring their kids.

For those unfamiliar, IKEA has a service, called Smaland, that allows parents to drop their kids off at a supervised play room. Parents can leave children for up to an hour, and they are given a beeper so employees can contact them if there are any concerns about the children. What this buys IKEA is undivided time to sell to parents, all while keeping kids entertained with the latest toys IKEA has for sale (building future shoppers).

There becomes a tradition for families to go to IKEA not just to shop, but for the kids to play and the parents to grab some coffee and "us time" away from the kids. Even the New York Times acknowledged the strategy in an article about Smalland last June. I know people that have had a weekly or monthly trip with the family for years and now those kids are taking their own kids.

Even though the costs of implementing something like a "Musicland" facility would be an enormous and expensive project, what is stopping orchestras from offering this? If we're all terrified that the audience is bleeding away and there are no measures in place to replace it in the here and now (not to mention the next generation) why not invest the time and effort to secure donations and grants to start a pilot program that, if successful, can be used as a guide for programs throughout the country?

Orchestras offer a special concert series with earlier start times where patrons could drop off their child and enjoy an early concert, all while their child is entertained with other children by certified care givers who also have music education training. Could you imagine the educational possibilities that this service could offer? Maybe a closed circuit TV to see what Mom and Dad are enjoying; complete with little sized seats and a coloring book program. Perhaps an instrument buffet where kids could try various instruments of each instrument family. A rhythm dance game, a story about a famous composer….the list is endless.

The point is, orchestras could kill two birds with one stone. They would be able to offer parents a fun learning environment for their children while they got to enjoy some us-time at a culturally fulfilled orchestra concert. Traditional family concerts are great, but now is the time for bold ideas and we need to offer a new type of family concert in the IKEA model where parents can enjoy time to themselves. In twenty years, we'll see if the first generation of kids begins to bring their own children because after all, kids copy what their parents do.

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