A Tale of Two Symphonies

By Scott MacClelland

THE 2017-18 seasons of the Monterey and Santa Cruz Symphonies are now published and current subscribers are being actively solicited to renew their subscriptions. This task falls mainly to the marketing staff, which basically comes down to two people: Nicola Reilly in Monterey and James “JD” de Leon in Santa Cruz. Though they are both fairly new in their posts, each brings a considerable depth and background to their tasks and both will be spending part of their summer putting new faces on their respective institutions, most obviously with new websites.

NR (1)Reilly, a violinist who, alas, is too busy to play in the Monterey Symphony, has academic credentials in marketing and administration, served as program coordinator in global health for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was marketing director for the Seattle Chamber Music Society from 2006 to 2012, for the Medieval Women’s Choir during the same period, and, from 2013 through 2015 the Carmel Bach Festival. (Between her posts with the Bach Festival and the Symphony she worked for CSUMB as development director for the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.) Now, she works on targeting new and future audiences and dives deeply into databases past and present. She says most of their subscribers are resident of Monterey County—with very little attendance from out-of-county—including Carmel, Pebble Beach and other Monterey Peninsula communities. As to attendance, she told me, “My hunch is that we’re selling in excess of 75 percent of our houses.” While at the Bach Festival, she says they learned that direct mailing worked primarily as “a reminder” to their subscribers and tickets buyers. Still, “Direct mail is what works.” She also says the Symphony has reached an agreement with KAZU’s to broadcast their concerts on the station’s HD channel. “A long term goal for me is making our content available.” (As an important commitment, the Monterey Symphony now holds its solo artists over in order to play selections from each of their subscription concerts to public school students.)

IMG_3596With a composer/conductor father, de Leon’s life has been full of music. In his youth he learned to play several instruments. At 17, he applied his talents as a graphic artist and designer to creating art for book covers, movie posters, magazines and advertising. At 19, he bought his first house at Pleasure Point where he could indulge his passion for surfing. Soon he made a poster on a commission from Jack O’Neill, the surfing guru whose wetsuits changed the whole game for generations of surfers and others in love with water sports. That led to a long-term position in O’Neill’s art department creating logos, graphics, display ads and packaging. Once promoted to senior designer in product development, de Leon created designs for everything from backpacks, sunglasses, wallets and watches to an entire line of wetsuits plus related accessories. “I was so stoked that Jack decided to provide me with a job doing what I love, including a 500-yard commute to my office and the requirement that I surf every day as a part of the deal.”

Then, in 2000, he founded his own business, 57 Design, with offices in Capitola, and began to enlarge his creative portfolio with branding, websites, advertising and product design. Until he added the Symphony to his clientele, seven months ago, he has done creative work for Nike, Harley-Davidson, Dell, Covewater, Surftech, Santa Cruz Waves and many more.

Expect to see noticeably different outcomes in marketing between the two Symphonies. For example, during the current Santa Cruz Symphony season, de Leon started publishing glossy, full-color, 8 ½ by 11-inch brochures—several of them—promoting the next two or three concerts. (The current one is 8 pages. When we talked I wondered how much such a piece costs. He said about the same as the old 8 ½ by 5 ½-inch post card.) Pursuant to a redesigned website, he has beefed up the current one and uses it as an email blast, including short videos of music director Danny Stewart and concertmaster Nigel Armstrong talking about different composers and artists on the upcoming concert programs.

Meanwhile, Reilly has continued using more traditional marketing strategies and demographic-tracking techniques. These include display advertising in various local media, local corporate partnerships and the inevitable grant-writing. “We use a great level of social media,” she says, pushing their new “Symphony of Flavors,” a preconcert reception held at Sunset Center. “It’s really successful in continuing to spread the word.” Having decided that their run-out concerts in Salinas had become unsustainable, they are now beefing up attendance by Salinas and Salinas Valley residents, including a new $10 student ticket. “Another goal is to provide transportation through community groups in Salinas and South County. We want to eliminate barriers to attendance.” (At a recent Carmel performance, I sat behind two full rows of dialed-in middle-schoolers from Gonzales.)

Obviously, de Leon has his finger on the pulse of social media and has accelerated its use on behalf of the Santa Cruz Symphony. For technical guidance and advice, he turns to ACSO, the Association of California Symphony Orchestras. Having grown his business by constantly designing new but ephemeral glitz and sizzle, he is more at home creating on the fly. “Before you’re done talking about a new trend, it’s over,” he says. “Proven marketing should work across any medium.” Referencing the great success Stewart and his Symphony had with Yuja Wang’s appearance early in the current season, not to mention Beethoven, he says, “My job is make rock stars.”

The Monterey Symphony has an annual budget of $1.8 million and, in addition to other projects and performance events, puts on six subscription concerts per season. Their concert booklet handout, folded to 8 ½ by 5 ½ inches, is updated throughout the season to cover the two most current programs and other current news. The Santa Cruz Symphony budget stands at just under $1 million, and, also with other projects, offers five subscription concerts per season, with performances in Santa Cruz and Watsonville. (Next month’s extra, featuring a return of pianist Yuja Wang, is being promoted separately.) For years, their concert program book has listed each entire season in one unchanging 8 ½ by 11 inch handout. Musicians in the Monterey Symphony are paid better than those in the Santa Cruz Symphony. Both organizations have long-embraced youth programs, including school performances that require busing, and working affiliations with youth orchestra programs.

In their way, both Symphonies offer an excellent product that over recent seasons has only gotten better. Each has a talented music director at the helm. (The Monterey Symphony even has an internal mechanism—a music committee—whose input is constructively embraced by music director Max Bragado-Darman.) Each has something valuable to ‘sell.’ As a man seasoned in the difference, de Leon says, “Fashion comes and goes, style remains.”