Composing a New Orchestra Audience – Making New Orchestral Music Old

Composing a New Orchestra Audience (CANOA) is an initiative intended to help American orchestras engage, excite, educate and grow their audiences.

CANOA’s goal is to use the performance of at least one work from a living composer on every orchestra concert to help build symphony audiences. 

Such an approach can educate existing subscribers, reinvigorate the canon, and engage with new audiences.  CANOA’s goal is not to advance contemporary music per se, but rather, to offer a tool to help ensure the long-term viability of orchestras.  New music would change from being a high risk endeavor, performed in ‘special’ concerts by smaller ensembles in intimate settings, to being an everyday reality on the mainstage for ‘traditional’ symphonic audiences.  In the process, new music, which can be challenging to audiences and performers alike, and – at least during the last century – was deliberately aloof and off-putting, could become similar to ‘old classics’ – familiar and desirable, even if not always comfortably reassuring,  

CANOA is not intended to be the single solution to orchestral vitality.  It should be viewed as one important element of a broader approach that includes outreach, education, and vigorous experimentation with new concert hall experiences.

CANOA addresses the entire process needed to ensure the success of putting new music in the mainstream, including

  • ensuring a steady flow of new, high quality works using workshops, readings, and residencies as incubators;
  • increasing familiarity with new repertoire via easy availability on digital channels and repeat performances;
  • making new music ‘events’ using highly visible premieres and community involvement;
  • mitigating risk for orchestras via cost-sharing and development support.

Marketing techniques that allow orchestras to design and advertise programs for discrete audience segments have the unfortunate side effect of isolating new music from the mainstream orchestra audience.  These approaches can shrink demand for mainstage orchestra performances as the old audience ages out.  CANOA’s goal is to bring the actively engaged new music audience to mainstream concerts, while simultaneously helping existing audiences, who might be more conservative, learn to love the new, and make it more familiar.  

The following elements form the core of the CANOA model:

  • Incubation: Pipelines and Premieres
  • Performances: Blending and Building Audience
  • Community: Education and Outreach
  • Availability: Making the Exotic Familiar
  • Collaboration: Pooling Resources

The Plan

Incubating: Pipelines and Premieres

1.  At least one composer-in-residence should be part of every orchestra’s roster.

2.  Resident composers should not only create new works, but help curate concert programs and conduct education and outreach.

3.  Orchestras should help create composing consortia with compatible orchestras, music schools, semi-professional and youth orchestras, and other ensembles to help identify and provide the most talented composers opportunities to hone their orchestral-writing craft in a supportive environment.

4.  Orchestras should use their pipeline partners to offer every composer from whom a new work is commissioned the opportunity to workshop and read new pieces well before the premiere.

5.  Orchestras should market premieres as ‘events’, celebrated as highlights of concerts or even the season.

6.  Every premiere should be captured to video and made available indefinitely and at no cost online through a convenient digital channel.

7.  Orchestras should collaborate as frequently as possible on commissions to mitigate risk but also offer more exposure to the new repertoire.

Performing: Blending and Building Audience

1.  Repeat performances of the best new pieces should be the norm and an explicit goal when a new piece is developed.

2.  ‘Traditional’ concerts with contemporary works should be cross-promoted to new music audiences.

3.  If possible, a composer should be present at every performance, even if it is not a premiere.

Building Community and Continuity

Orchestras should:

1.  Continue to cultivate audience segments to build an enthusiastic new music community.

2.  Increase education and community outreach using new music as well as traditional repertoire to educate and stimulate excitement.

3.  Encourage the entire community to see themselves as creative partners with the orchestra.

Making the Exotic Familiar

Orchestras should:

1.  Seek ways to make new music an everyday experience for their existing audience.

2.  Include new music in all their education and school outreach programs.

3.  Hire guest conductors and soloists who enthusiastically embrace the new repertoire.

4.  Emphasize inclusiveness rather than exclusivity.

Collaborating: Pooling Resources for Common Good

Orchestras should

1.  Partner with like minded organizations to develop best strategies.

2.  Pool resources to create and sustain the highest quality work via robust pipelines.

3.  Gather and share information widely about what works (both individual works and general approaches).

Composing a New Orchestra Audience

Current Status

During the two years since CANOA was first conceived, a number of individuals and organizations generously provided valuable feedback and direct support for its goals.  We are grateful for their insights and support.  This document represents the shared wisdom of these people.

Presently, there are two trial workshop-reading-premiere pipelines just starting that will result in the creation of at least four new works for orchestra that will premiere over the next three years.

One orchestra is actively trying to craft a CANOA season with a piece by a living composer on every concert program.

Since CANOA started as a wish by a single audience member who simply wanted to ensure that live symphonic music would continue to be available,  the activity and wide support is incredibly gratifying.  But in order for CANOA to have a real effect on the orchestra business in the US (and possibly beyond), much work needs to be done.

What CANOA Needs Now

CANOA’s scheme has been developed over two years as an ad hoc project by one individual.  In order for it to actually influence the fabric of American symphonic life, five important needs must be fulfilled.

A Home and a Champion

CANOA needs a home and an evangelist who will promote and guide the activities associated with it.  While word-of-mouth and ad hoc discussions have served so far, a permanent home with a dedicated steward will better enable CANOA to reach its goal.  CANOA would do best in a sympathetic organization with related goals and activities.  There is no need for yet another non-profit to be created just to support CANOA.  A home would provide CANOA with an institutional identity, a consistent spokesperson, and an organizational framework for gathering and disbursing resources, as well as a single source for information about the project.

A Business Model

CANOA could accomplish its goals in a variety of ways.  The range of approaches possible are defined by models at the outer limits of this continuum – from a simple service/support model all the way to being a ‘co-producer’.

Evangelizer, Information Clearinghouse, and Facilitator

In this lower-key model, CANOA would help orchestras and composers who are attempting to accomplish one or more CANOA goals.  CANOA could gather and share best practice information, sample contracts, models of engagement, and project metrics.  If the parent organization was so inclined, CANOA might even even able to provide limited financial assistance for such activities as composer travel and box office risk mitigation.  CANOA staff would regularly meet with orchestra leaders to promote CANOAs goals, regardless of whether the orchestras care to use the support that CANOA could provide.  

Project Developer and Co-Producer

In this more proactive model, CANOA would actually develop commissions and shepherd them to completion, using the best practice approaches that have been refined over time.  It could also provide management, or at least a management template, for composer residencies.  CANOA could either do this at the request of and under contract with orchestras, or, with sufficient independent funding, capitalize and develop these projects independent of any particular orchestra and then offer them (with commissioning rights) to orchestras around the country.   


In the long run, CANOA should help increase both earned revenue and gifts for orchestras who use its approach.  In the short run, there will be costs and some financial risk connected with programming contemporary works.  Some orchestras may face real financial risk as they educate their audience and shift their programming, and require assistance.  Administering pipelines, workshops, and readings for new works will also require funding, as will gathering and distributing performance metrics to any interested orchestras.

All of these elements point to the need for either an endowment to support CANOA, or a means of soliciting and processing gifts, as well as mechanisms for disbursing funds.  These could piggy-back on the fundraising of the host organization.

Pipelines, Workshops, and Readings

Two composing pipelines are now underway, but in order for there to be enough high quality scores available to music and artistic directors for CANOA to take hold, many more will be needed.

The pipelines that are now starting are focused on emerging composers.  There should also be more resources available for mid-career composers who may need readings and workshop opportunities.

The need for workshops and readings is immediate and pressing.

Measuring Results

While the goal of CANOA is straightforward, measuring the success of CANOA related efforts will not be trivial.  Collecting and sharing these results is essential to:

  • guide the development and refinement of the program
  • encourage orchestras to use CANOA techniques by identifying clear benefits
  • identify positive outcomes for donors and orchestra boards

The data gathered and reported should include both subjective and objective elements:

  • quality of works produced, measured by reviews and audience feedback
  • audience growth
  • changes in audience makeup, especially related to age and underserved populations
  • direct box office impact
  • satisfaction of key stakeholders (audience, musicians, composers) in outcomes