Sydney, Australia

Orchestrating New Audiences

Sydney Symphony Orchestra

March 31, 2014

Striking the right chord with multicultural audiences makes smart business sense.

Sydney Opera House - istockphotoIn the late 1990s, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (SSO) recognized that although their musicians reflected Australia’s increasing cultural diversity, its audiences continued to be comprised mainly of Anglo-Australians and Australians of western and eastern European origin.

As Sydney had become an increasingly multicultural city, it meant the SSO was not attracting new audiences. Other than English, Cantonese and Mandarin were among the top six most commonly spoken languages along with Italian, Greek, Arabic, and Vietnamese. From television to movies and mainstream concerts, all of these language groups were regularly engaged in a variety of cultural entertainment from outside of their community but the orchestra was not among them.

In 2000, the SSO decided to actively break this trend by deliberately engaging with Sydney’s significant and long established Chinese, Japanese and Korean communities. The strategy was to both cultivate these markets and use their feedback to help shape the SSO programme.

The result was an 18-month promotional and communications campaign designed to better understand the interests of these communities.

The SSO discovered that the local Chinese, Japanese and Korean communities were well disposed towards classical music, with the increase of Asian western classical musicians on the international stage attesting to the success of Asian musicians in the genre. These local communities were also inclined to take a more active role in the Symphony’s programs, particularly when an ethic soloist was featured in a programme.

The SSO further learned that many members of these communities had:

  • already participated in educational programs and concerts centred on classical music
  • an educational and economic profile that provided them with a reasonable amount of disposable income for entertainment
  • a strong focus on cultural maintenance
  • invested heavily in the next generation’s economic and professional ascendance
  • a well organised community, business and media communication infrastructure.

The SSO also realized that these communities had limited awareness and access to its products and that a strategic marketing plan was needed to promote existing programs more widely.

A new approach, new success…

With this in mind, the SSO used a successful multi-layered strategy to encourage more participation by Asian audiences. They began by reaching out to ethno-specific media, hotlines, and booking agents to directly reach this market.

One example is that they linked the orchestra’s website to, a popular local community bulletin board. Other strategies included ethno-specific media launches and interviews by musicians in their own languages. Editorial coverage and endorsements of the SSO in local ethnic media successfully captured reader interest as they were both familiar and credible in the eyes of the community.

The SSO also worked hard to increase its visibility within the Asian community.  Engaging people on the ground wasn’t too difficult either as Chinatown forms one of the largest ethnic concentrations in Sydney’s central business district. This meant that distance was not a major challenge and the message could be concentrated effectively in association with regular daily life. And it worked! In the first nine months, sales to Chinese and Japanese speakers in the community moved from 127 tickets in a year to 1,250. In the first month of the bilingual ticket sales telephone line, annual subscriptions for the orchestra season went up by 200%.

As audiences from these diverse communities continues to grow, it’s an encore for the SSO all the way.

Making it Work for You:

  • Know your audience! Not only who, what size and where they are, but also what are their interests? Barriers to access? Financial resources?
  • Identify cultural preferences and protocols to ensure a greater level of cultural sensitivity as well as credibility and effectiveness.
  • Find out what, if any, initiatives are underway in your community to engage diverse audiences in the arts and culture.
  • Talk to other arts organizations which have been successful in attracting audiences from these groups.
  • Establish a good relationship with local ethnic media and learn how they can help you develop channels to ethnic community markets.
  • Be flexible: have translation services available and be ready to modify promotional plans and activities along with programming styles.
  • Cross-promote and build long-term audiences and patrons for the future using partnerships with the right ethnic businesses, communities and service providers.