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Audience Development: Cheltenham Jazz Festival, Musical Encounters and J-HIVE

Taking the concert hall paradigm as a starting point, and turning the concert hall’s conventions and customs on its head, Cheltenham Jazz Festival’s three year Musical Encounters programme actively seeks to develop a specific sector of its audience.  The UK’s Audience Agency defines this sector as ‘experience seekers’ – young, highly active, diverse, social and ambitious singles and couples, they are younger people engaging with the arts on a regular basis and with disposable income, digitally confident and are ‘mostly in search of new things to do’. Representing some 14% of Cheltenham Jazz Festival’s audience – its third largest segment – the Festival sees this group as representing a fantastic growth potential for jazz audiences.
The Festival’s Emily Jones believes that jazz is behind classical music and theatre in pushing the boundaries and experimenting with different contexts and approaches to their work, exemplified in other artforms by initiatives such as Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s Night Shift, which has attracted younger audiences to classical music by creating a club night experience, and a new way of talking about and presenting the music (   As Emily says: “In the UK, immersive companies such as Punchdrunk have successfully developed audiences for an entirely new way of experiencing theatre.” Cheltenham’s approach has been to develop a range of events designed to take jazz out of the concert hall and to reflect its musical experimentation in its presentation: “In a festival we are able to take risks, and to use curatorial twists – we should take that opportunity, in order to push both artists and audience development. Musical Encounters came out of a recognition that everything we presented was in the same format, and we wanted to present contemporary jazz by using technology and new contexts as a way of drawing people in.” 
As well as trying to increase the Festival’s audience of ‘experience seekers’, a key challenge was to encourage some of the core audience of single event attenders to engage with more events, and to explore non-headline and more challenging music. A range of Musical Encounters events were promoted by the Festival in 2015 and 2016, including pianist Kit Downes performing Jazz in a Box – a 5 minute 1:1 concert experience in a shipping container - or 2016’s Dinner Games, an interactive collaborative installation at Parabola Arts Centre, which enabled audience members to generate music by playing with objects in the installation. For 2017, Sam Underwood created ‘sonic vending machines’, which dispense little musical instruments as toys for anyone to play.
In terms of measuring the impact on audiences, it is clear that the experiential nature of the series has been successful in attracting larger audiences to contemporary jazz than other events or initiatives. The Festival’s own evaluation has shown how far it can successfully develop future events in the series, as Jones explains: “The most successful of our 2015 and 2016 series were concert-style experiences with a twist. This takes the audience a little out of their comfort zone, but not so far that people are put off attending.  However, our experience has highlighted the importance of working with an artist who is fully engaged with the concept, otherwise they can be slow to buy into the idea. Pairing a strong-selling artist with a simple concept is the key, which is what we will look to do with 2018’s artist in residence.” Future plans, subject to funding, include an ambitious immersive perambulatory experience taking audiences on a journey through jazz and a digital toolkit for use in live settings to show audiences what happens inside a band during a gig. 
The Festival’s ongoing collaboration with the EU-funded festivals and cultural heritage project, CHIME ( has enabled the development of additional partnerships, shared resources and ideas.  The J-HIVE project for International Jazz Day in 2016, led by Birmingham City University’s Nicholas Gebhardt, saw the piloting of a digital interface, designed to capture real-time audience reaction whilst at Festival events. Through the interface, participants could follow their own posts as well as those of others participating in the project.  As Nicholas explains: “Ultimately, J-Hive will create a collection of different festival encounters and memories that will offer insights into the festival experience, how festivals are navigated and understood, and the relationship of music to the places and spaces of the town.” A weekend ‘hack day’ in February 2017 brought together researchers, students and practitioners to help visualise the data gathered in Cheltenham, with the challenge of building a prototype within 24 hours.  The results will be added to further data to be gathered at the GMLSTDN festival in Sweden and the Netherlands’ ZommerFeitsFest later in 2017. Watch this space!

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