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REPORT | Five Ways Classical Music Is Pivoting

By Michael Vincent on February 15, 2021


The term “pivot” has become the buzzword of the year. It is used to describe a significant shift in strategy or business model. Sounds simple enough, but it’s the how and the why where things get more complicated.

Some famous examples pf pivots include a check-in app pivoting into to social media (Instagram), an online dating site pivoting into video (YouTube), or an espresso machine store pivoting into coffee shops (Starbucks).

But COVID-19 has forced a vastly different kind of pivot — one triggered not by a lack of music worth paying for, but an entirely external and sudden upheaval.

The pandemic has changed the global landscape, and the classical music world has realised it needs to change with it.

A complicating factor is that no one knows how long the pandemic will last. Do arts organizations press pause and wait it out, or do they pivot to something else?


According to Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, there are ten different kinds of pivots. At least six out of them are relevant to classical music.

Zoom-in Pivot: A single theme or event of the original season becomes the focus of the entire season.
Audience Segment Pivot: An event is a better fit for an audience outside the core audience, requiring a new audience segment.
Business Architecture Pivot: A venue or arts group switches from a low-volume/high-margin to a high-volume/low-margin model.
Value Capture Pivot: A venue or arts organization changes how it collects revenue from customers.
Channel Pivot: A venue or arts organization identifies a better way to reach its audience.
Tech Pivot: A venue or arts organization uses different technology to reach its audience.

Applying Ries’ framework, let’s look at five case studies that show some of the ways classical music organizations are pivoting.


National Arts Centre
Photo courtesy of the National Arts Centre.

• The Arts Organisation/Venue: National Arts Centre, a Canadian centre for the performing arts located in Ottawa, Ontario
• The Challenge: Maintain the mandate of developing and showcasing the performing arts across Canada
• The Pivot: Business architecture

Ottawa-based venue National Art Center (NAC) was one of Canada’s first venues to pivot over the summer of 2020. With artists touring to Ottawa once a year, it helps keep ticket prices high and the bills paid. The pandemic changed everything overnight. The NAC reacted by reversing the model and removing barriers to entry with free music events (both live and prerecorded). They also partnered with Facebook, which offered funding to help to pay artists to perform online. We can see this continuing once in-person events open up, leaving the NAC with an entirely new way to reach people beyond Ottawa.


Photo: Tafelmusik/Daniel Banko

• The Arts Organisation/Venue: Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Choir, Canada’s premier early music orchestra and choir based in Toronto, Ontario
• The Challenge: Maintain its core-audience and develop season
• The Pivot: Zoom-in

While livestreaming was once auxiliary to in-person concerts, it has become the core experience, and in some cases, the only experience.

A classic example of a Zoom-in pivot, the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra cancelled its in-person season and focused on their Passions of the Soul season, which was salvaged digitally. Amongst their online concert events was a series called Tafelmusik At Home. While the results have been modest, it has allowed Tafelmusik to move forward and maintain its connection to fans.

Download Tafelmusik’s deck HERE.


Against the Grain Theatre
Photo courtesy of Against the Grain Theatre

• The Arts Organisation/Venue: Against the Grain Theatre/ Messiah/Complex
• The Challenge: As a local opera company, they are geographically limited
• The Pivot: Audience Segment

It’s no secret that innovation tends to come from smaller arts groups. The reason is that they have less to lose. Being smaller, they can turn the ship around much faster. A case in point is Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre. They responded by doubling-down on Against the Grain TV, a direct-to-consumer platform that became the home for snack-sized content, including Opera Pub: Quarantunes, bi-weekly interviews, and community-driven watch parties.

“As we roll out new content, we know it can’t replace the in-person intimacy that we excel at, but hope that it may brighten your day, make you smile and show that we’re all in this together,” they write on their site.

With a talent for growing communities, AtG founder Joel Ivany organized a national version of Handel’s Messiah that included segments filmed across Canada. The move served as an audience segment pivot taking them from local to national. Messiah/Complex gained the attention of such news outlets as the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, helping them solidify an entirely new audience segment that would have otherwise been out of reach.


Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit
Photo courtesy of Show One Productions

• The Arts Organisation/Venue: Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit /Show One Productions & Starvox Entertainment
• The Challenge: Maintain live concert model amid indoor venue closures
• The Pivot: Value Capture

Just before the pandemic, Show One Productions teamed up with Starvox Entertainment to bring Paris’ Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit to Toronto. The timing could not have been better. With indoor venues shut down, they pivoted to combine drive-in elements, social-distancing circles, and other smart measures to ensure the show could move forward. The shift in value capture resulted in a near monopoly for live events in Toronto. According to the producers, the exhibit sold over 200,000 tickets in 2020, making it the top-selling cultural event in North America.


Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall
Photo courtesy of the Berliner Philharmoniker

• The Arts Organisation/Venue: Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall
• The Challenge: Capitalize on investment in digital infrastructure, including seven high-definition video cameras and extensive video archive dating back to the 1960s.
• The Pivot: Channel

Berliner Philharmoniker was one of the first to pivot to a subscription model using a custom-built platform called the Digital Concert Hall. First launched in 2008, they are now entirely online. We expect them to return to in-person concerts eventually, but they will also likely continue to grow their audience worldwide online through subscriptions. They bet right, and are now years ahead of their competition.

Key Takeaways

1. Once thought to be a supplementary product, digital media is now a core part of the fan experience.
2. Streaming Video is overcoming streaming audio as the biggest growth area in the music sector.
3. Artists and fans have embraced direct-to-consumer distribution, bypassing live music venues.
4. Social music tech is exploding. Musicians are hungry for new products that can help them reach their fans, and play together with other musicians.
5. The subscription model is king. What makes high-quality subscription events work so well is that it employs the same scarcity effect that drives touring. This helps attract paying subscribers while differentiating from free streams on social media networks (Tik Tok, Facebook, YouTube).


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Michael Vincent
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