Breaking the Rules Can Be Very Profitable

Imagine a business in the where customers pay for the privilege of having someone purposely turn his or her back to you.  That only begins to describe the problems that symphonies around the world have faced over the past thirty years.  Classical music has been a victim of a generational split around the world.  As other music genres from rock to rap have captivated younger fans, the allure of the symphony has faded.  To put it bluntly:  what do you do when your audience is gradually dying off?   

In Europe, where the symphony was born, it’s been a tough sell to entice younger people to purchase a ticket.  Look at the obstacles.  If you were to consider going, you must pick a performance from obscurely named symphonies from composers deceased for hundreds of years.  Even if you know of a particular symphony you would like to attend, there’s little chance that your local symphony will be playing it when you would like to go, as they often develop their programs a year or more in advance.  In the event you decide to attend a performance a series of obstacles face you.  You’ll need to proper attire because that’s the tradition.  That can mean renting a gown or a tuxedo.  Since most European halls are in the center of the city, you will need to hire a car because parking is very difficult.  Once there, you will have little familiarity with the music, the composer, the conductor, or any of the members of the symphony.

This situation is in sharp contrast to attending a rock concert where you probably know intimate details about every member of the band.  At intermission, you will often be surrounded by much older ‘symphony snobs’ who speak in hushed tones about various details of the performance.  Worst of all, the overall performance is usually long and boring.  This is not a winning formula; going to the symphony is expensive, unfamiliar, and boring.

As the entire classical music industry saw despair, one man saw an opportunity.  Dutch classical violinist Andre Rieu has built what he calls his Johann Strauss Orchestra into a multi-million-dollar global empire including sold out stadium performances, CD’s, videos, and television.  Rieu is so popular that he is ranked as the number one male touring artist in the world of all music genres.  The odds are that you have never heard of him.   In fact, his own staff refers to him as “the most popular unknown artist in the world.”

Instead of rock star, Rieu is a waltz star.  With a warm smile, magnetic stage presence and flowing long hair he has disrupted an entire industry by letting people break all the rules of the symphony.   He performs at outdoor stadiums to sellout crowds up to 40,000 per concert.  That’s a long way from a typical symphony hall that might seat a maximum of 2,000.  Instead of the boring symphony atmosphere, Rieu has created a spectacle full of thousands of falling balloons and beautiful flowers.  His concerts often feature the unorthodox:  a hundred bagpipers outfitted in kilts playing Amazing Grace, horse drawn Cinderella style coaches, skating rinks and sets that look like genuine castles. A typical Andre Rieu performance features over 250 total performers including a 50-member orchestra.  The production requires 250 support staff, 80 truckloads of sets and 12 tons of sound equipment.  This is not your grandfather’s symphony.

Imagine taking a virtually dead genre and reinventing it into something entertaining and fun.  That’s what people come for: to be part of an epic experience, where thousands of strangers can share a joy filled evening of music, color, humor, and entertainment.  From a business point of view, Rieu carefully crafts his offering.  He features much more familiar—and shorter—musical pieces, mixing well-known waltzes, pop, and movie themes or as he says, anything that touches the heart.  His audiences are very casually dressed which removes the stuffy symphony environment.  The large venues are an opportunity for audience participation with sing-alongs, swaying and dancing. 

Rieu said, “I want to give classical music back to the people, where it belongs. Mozart composed his music not for the elite, but for everybody. He was a fantastic, lively guy; he was drinking and having fun in life and being a genius at the same time. But now you see people playing Mozart with faces as if they are already dead. Why?” 

But why the waltz?  Rieu said, “The waltz is a very important part of my life. It’s a very important way for me to express my positiveness, bringing humor to the world. The waltz can be sad and at the same time uplifting. You must see life from both sides, and the waltz encapsulates that. If you’re in my audience, you give yourself to me and the waltz will grab you.” Rieu is also the consummate showman who connects with his audience on a one-to-one basis.  “That’s what I do every single night on stage: I communicate.” 

Many classical music purists and critics are not big fans of Rieu’s formula.  I have used his story as a case study in workshops for several years showing how even obscure industries can be turned around by gaining fresh insight from potential customers.  Numerous people have complained that he doesn’t understand the authentic classical music experience and that he is ruining the industry. 

Rieu’s response is to just smile and cry all the way to the bank.  It is estimated that the Rieu enterprise sells over one million tickets a year, grossing over $100 million in the process.  He sells hundreds of thousands of concert CD’s and DVDs on top of that, plus merchandise.

It seems that giving people a way to break the rules can be extremely profitable.