Flash Mobs

Need An Audience? Look To The Flash Mob.

How are we to express gratitude to our audiences? Think beyond saying “thank you for coming to our show.” What if, instead, we were to practice something you might call pre-emptive gratitude? 

This isn’t a fancy idea – it’s just the act of considering our audience’s needs, well ahead of the downbeat – especially when we consider the effort they put into seeing us perform. 

…ultimately, it is our obligation to articulate the value of our art.

We can start by acknowledging that ultimately, it is our obligation to articulate the value of our art. A “build it and they will come” approach doesn’t make sense in our world. Why not? There are endless reasons, one of which is that people today have access to a much broader range of entertainment opportunities than at any other point in history. 

Of course, there are positive outcomes from the instant availability of so much art and media. People are growing up accustomed to the habit of devouring music from a wide spectrum of traditions. And they do still choose to come to our shows – just maybe not as often as they once did.

Still, when we see our audiences dwindle, the hardest truth about it is that the fault may be ours: that we aren’t as giving and as welcoming as we need to be in order to court a new generation of concertgoers. And although I think that many musicians are doing a much better job of engaging their communities, on the whole we still disproportionately invest in traditional concert presentations, expecting our audiences to come find us.

I want to suggest, if not an antidote, then a practice that might provide a considerable amount of guidance: pop-up concerts. Or, as they’re otherwise known, flash mobs. 

Flash mobs are unannounced performances, usually in public spaces, that pop up, grab the attention of an audience amidst the busyness of the day, and, just as quickly, dissipate. They happen in train stations and airports, school cafeterias and shopping malls, public squares and private weddings – just about anywhere you find a crowd. 

These performances can be more than playful media grabs. They can be thoughtfully curated programs that reflect the spaces in which they emerge.

These unsolicited moments of cultural immersion inspire folks to become chorus members, try out their latest dance moves or explore their own chops as a conductor when these ready-made opportunities appear and, frequently, invite them to join in.

I remember the first flash mob I ever saw. Admittedly, it was through a YouTube video, but it still had an effect on me. It took place in the bustling atrium of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, and it still makes me laugh when I watch it. It begins so believably: a solo saxophonist playing Christmas carols is soon joined by a single vocalist, and then another and another. With the addition of each chorister, the arrangement becomes increasingly complex, but it’s only when the security guard joins in that bystanders realize they’ve stumbled across an incredibly well-planned pop-up performance. And then, it ends as quickly as it began, with all the markings of a successful opening night: a moment of silence as the audience absorbs what just happened, followed by roaring cheers and applause. 

These performances can be more than playful media grabs. They can be thoughtfully curated programs that reflect the spaces in which they emerge. This was certainly the case on a January afternoon in 2014 at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. When you watch this video, you first see a bustling crowd of art-seekers weaving among more than sixty large-scale marble and bronze sculptures in the museum’s magnificent Charles Engelhard Court. 

Then, a man wearing a black hoodie lies down beneath Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s gilt “Diana.” He’s soon joined by another horizontal patron, then another. It is only when cellist Stefan Freund and violinist Courtney Orlando join their Alarm Will Sound bandmates that the early fog of confusion lifts, and the din of the booming atrium gives way to their passacaglia. 

The music – “Cliffs” by Aphex Twin – is in perfect conversation with the space and the moment. To me, it even gives new meaning to one of the sculptures, Randolph Rogers’s “Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii,” as she lifts her hand to her ear. But perhaps most inspiring of all is the absolute focus of the audience: school-aged children, mouths agape, gather close to the performers, while intrigued 20-somethings quietly capture the performance on their phones. My favorite audience member is the young boy chilling out by the wall with the trumpet player. He looks perfectly at home, immersed in this moment. These are precisely the audiences we seek. 

Have you witnessed a flash mob? Whether you’ve seen one live, participated in one or watched videos of them online, I think we can agree that the reactions of passersby within the orbit of the performance are fascinating. You rarely see someone walk away, right? Presumably, these folks are going somewhere (likely not a concert) and have things to do, but they stick around, even if just for a few moments, to make art part of their everyday life. Bystanders film these fleeting moments and, delighted, share them with their friends and family, becoming citizen marketers for artistic careers. Online viewers of these videos can find themselves equally enthralled and motivated to share. 

DePauw Pop-Up Concert with Yo-Yo Ma

DePauw musicians perform a pop-up concert on campus with Yo-Yo Ma.

Interested in the effect it could have on our own community, DePauw musicians recently organized a pop-up concert on our campus. Held on a beautiful fall day with the oldest building on campus as a backdrop, DePauw’s chamber orchestra was joined by one of the world’s most beloved musicians, Yo-Yo Ma. I’ll never forget the look on people’s faces as they realized who was playing in the last chair of the cello section. And how open the unsuspecting audience was to stay, listen and soak up the moment. 

The joy and surprise of these unknowing concertgoers should tell us quite a lot about the power of our art, as well as their openness as audience members. That, in turn, should inform us on how to shape concert experiences that are truly for everyone, but especially for those just beginning to fall in love with our music. These kinds of concerts remind us that our music has not faded in its ability to move people; rather, we have fallen asleep to our obligation to do what music historian Joseph Horowitz calls for: making our music an occasion again.

Our audiences want to feel surprised, captivated, swept off their feet. And yes, our music can do this. But only when we place our audiences center stage, and welcome them into inclusive musical experiences.

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Mark Rabideau

Mark Rabideau is a cultural entrepreneur, busy re-imagining how we must prepare musicians to thrive within the shifting marketplace and cultural landscape of the contemporary moment. …more 

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