Why you should never buy a concert programme

Why you should never buy a concert programme


norman lebrecht

September 12, 2015

The lengthy programme list, sorry programme notes, did though tell me something about her. It informed me breathlessly that she “has performed at major international concert halls and festivals.” Pass the smelling salts. One of the world’s leading virtuosi has performed at major concert halls. How am I meant to cope with such a startling revelation and concentrate on the music?

The Independent’s David Lister has discovered, rather late in the day that they are full of agent-purpled puffery and contain no useful information. Nothing new about this: I must have written three or four such pieces down the years. But the people who organise concerts pay no attention to what’s in the booklet, or what numbing effect it has on the audience they rip off. It makes one despair of any possibility of progress.

Read David’s piece here.

If you are an artist, tell your agent to cut the crap from your programmes.


bbc proms


  • Holger H. says:

    There are great concert programs with really intelligent and interesting background information about music, composer and other musically and historically related information. But I agree that it’s often the guest artist bios, which are redundant and a waste of the paper they are printed on. These bios are usually not written by the program editors, but are delivered by the artist’s agencies. This is where the problem has to be tackled.

  • Robert Roy says:

    I hate lists of Orchestras a soloist has played with. One soloist listed 22 orchestras! One or two perhaps but no more

    • Max Grimm says:

      What’s not to love about soloists starting a sentence off by “Most recently X has performed with…” followed by a list of every single orchestra he/she has performed with thus far. The best thing I’ve read in a programme in that regard was from a violinist, who listed the names of 42 conductors he had worked with, brazenly ending the list with “among others”.

  • Simon Sullivan says:

    I’m just a member of the public, but I would far prefer to know details of an artist’s career than information about their favourite colour, or their schoolday memories. It’s one step for that to having programmes that tell you how good the performance is before it’s even happened, as they seem to be able to prophesy on BBC Radio 3 these days. I like to see who is doing what where, to compare and contrast other artists. If you don’t want to read it, no one is forcing you.

  • Malcolm james says:

    Such details may well be relevant and welcome in the case of young and up-and-coming soloists, or even established soloists who are not particularly well-known in the UK for whatever reason. Also, don’t forget that there are always people at the concert who are new to classical music and might not know much about well-established soloists or conductors, so it is unwise to take too much for granted.

  • Paul Forman says:

    In the United States – often maligned in these pages – programs are free. For generations the Boston Symphony Orchestra has published lengthy, even scholarly, program notes of lasting value which include the orchestra’s often fascinating performance history with the works to be performed, and suggestions for reading and recorded performances. I wish that artists’ bios ALWAYS stated where the performer was born and educated, facts which tell the most about the artists’ background

  • Stephen says:

    I am ancient enough to remember the Festival Hall and Proms programmes of the 1960s with often very informative notes, especially those by William Mann.

  • V.Lind says:

    I noticed the term “rip off” in the posted article. I am always outraged in Britain at having to PAY for programmes — whether in great venue or small — as it is an unknown practice here in North America (and long may it be so) and in MANY other countries I have attended arts events in.

    Here, Very good quality programmes — full concert descriptives, libretti where appropriate, and artist bios, etc. — are handed out to all attendees on the way in. I assume it is because advertising pays for the programme costs, as well as the courteous notion that you have already paid us the compliment, and the price, of coming to our event — here is something that may illuminate your experience.

    You do have to pay at pop concerts, as the “programmes” are more by way of souvenir books, and for certain entertainment types, like touring Broadway musicals (I do not recall ever paying for a Playbill when actually there, however).

  • bratschegirl says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever been to a classical performance here in the States where there was a charge for the program booklet. Theatre is another matter, especially national touring productions of big hit shows. Is this customary in the UK, or is it particularly a Proms thing?

    With regard to the specifics of Mr Lister’s complaints, nobody older than, say, 12 is going to include age in a professional bio. There is danger of both audience and concert promoters dismissing one for being too young, or too old, or too (fill in the blank) for one’s age. And marital/parental status has nothing to do with someone’s playing; especially for women artists, some people will think less of one for touring when there are young children at home, or think one an unnatural hag if one isn’t married by a certain age, for example.

    I do agree that the “42 conductors among others” lists are ridiculous.

  • Ravi Narasimhan says:

    US symphony programs are usually free. There’s almost no information about any of the 100 musicians on the orchestra’s roster or the substitute players hired for that particular evening. There is always too much information about the management and the music director who usually is not on the stand, anyway. The ads for luxury goods and wealth management services fill out the rest.

    • V.Lind says:

      Canadian one always include the list of Orchestra members, and are updated for each concert with absentees and substitutes or additional musicians listed. There are also lists of management and corporate and sometimes private donors. And of course programme notes. Usually come feature articles, too, though these have been cut back as they have to be paid for if not done in-house. Advertising pays for them.

      Four pounds (cited elsewhere) is outrageous. For a souvenir book sure. But a programme need not really have more than the barest necessary information, and ought to be supplied to every ticketholder.

      • Ravi Narasimhan says:

        Good to know that the subs and per night performers are acknowledged. I’d accept the rest of the package if we got that. There is always a list of the regular orchestra membership but no details unless a specific person is soloing or featured in any given concert.

        Listing donors is probably a good idea on balance. It might induce others to give.

  • 110 says:

    A program makes a great dustpan!

  • B Bailey says:

    I was surprised on my first trip to Britain that one had to pay for a real program considering the the exorbitant prices of the tickets to Covent Garden, the theatre or the RAH. They were often very good, handsome ones with good essays and such; but here in the States you get the program with the price of your ticket.

  • Martin says:

    Instead of lengthy biographies I would be more interested what the performers have to say about the pieces. Maybe including a few links to videos (how about QR codes for smartphones?) where the opinions can be heard in more detail.

    But mostly the programs are meaningless and rather useless biographies, adverts and just very little information about the music.

    I tend to buy them still to support the orchestra and out of laziness, as I could easily read the music info online before going to the concert hall.

  • Marty says:

    I just brought back 7 program booklets from Proms concerts for the last 2 weeks. I was rather surprised to be charged 4 GBP for each. They are nicely printed but given that 95% of the pages are advertisements, I would think that the ad fees would pay for the booklets so they could be free or cheaper. But they are nice souvenirs that my kids than throw out someday. I also went to see “The Book of Mormon” and there wasn’t a program book at all – free or otherwise. Maybe I missed it.

  • Eddie Mars says:

    Where else would Swiss watch companies advertise?

  • Marg says:

    In Australua it’s a mixed bag. Opera Australia charges for a program but a one page synopsis and cast listing is free. Some of our major orchestras send you an email two days before the concert with background info about the performance and a downloadable program if you want to read it. Often programs are free to subscribers but paid for by one off ticket holders.

  • Marg says:

    In Australia it’s a mixed bag. Opera Australia charges for a program but a one page synopsis and cast listing is free. Some of our major orchestras send you an email two days before the concert with background info about the performance and a downloadable program if you want to read it. Often programs are free to subscribers but paid for by one off ticket holders.

  • Christopher Stone says:

    Where I live in Australia, our symphony orchestra now emails program notes to subscribers ahead of the concert.

  • Brian says:

    It’s amazing how many bios won’t even tell you basics like the nationality of the artist, where or when they were born, where they currently live, or what they enjoy doing outside of performing (perhaps many of them don’t have much of a life, hence the dry CV format). If a serious journalist or critic omitted such information, their editor would be asking for a re-write.

    Unfortunately, I suspect that in this risk-averse business, no one is going to take the leap and write something that audiences will actually care to read.

  • Halldor says:

    He’s talking about artists’ ‘biographies’ in programmes, NOT programme notes. Biographies are provided by the artists’ agents, not the person responsible for compiling the programme, and those agents – acting for the performer – often insist on these dull, badly-written, vain and often inaccurate biographies being printed unchanged, as part of the terms of the engagement.

    Decent programme editors despair of them – I know several who spend hours of their own time bringing them up to an acceptable standard, and correcting typos and mistranslations (one artist was described at different points as having sung in ‘The Queen of Spades’, ‘Pikovy Dama’ and ‘Pique Dame’ – as if these were three separate works).

    God knows, agencies could afford to have artist biogs written by professional writers – but hey, why waste money that could be spent on senior managers’ bonuses, when the job can simply be delegated to an intern?

  • Meurig Bowen says:

    Not all concert programme biogs are the same…
    I will be happy to send David Lister a Cheltenham Music Festival programme book: five years ago, fully acknowledging the potential tedium of agent-generated biogs, we dumped them in favour of bespoke performer and composer profiles, Q&A style. We ask each and every one of our 150+ festival artists things that bring them closer to their audiences, and things that can’t be found in their website biogs. Things like whether a composer still writes with pencil and paper. Or for a favourite press quote (some, with admirable self-deprecation, pick out excruciatingly bad ones). And for ‘something else’ alongside the music/career stuff. So my audience this year learnt, among many other things, of Mahan Esfahani’s enthusiasm for making curry pastes as gifts for friends, of Ed Gardner’s obsession with BBC cricket updates, that Steven Osborne always plays with earplugs, that jazz chanteuse Claire Martin manages a national league girls basketball team, and that Sasha Sitkovetsky only passed his driving test at the fourth attempt.
    Not all artistes reply, and then we have to run a much edited prece of their standard offering. Most do though, and I’m regularly told by my audience that it makes for an entertainigly fresh, informative read.
    And this year, with some sponsorship, we were able to charge only £5 for the book – repertoire notes for 50 concerts, feature articles and the artist profiles making up a 150 page, 60,000 word publication.
    For me and an intern it’s a vast amount of work, but it’s worth it.

  • MWnyc says:

    Yes, the lists of engagements that pass for artist bios in programs are mostly boring to audience members, even sophisticated ones. But I think the people who provide those bios (agents and managers) don’t care, because those bios aren’t aimed at most audience members.

    I think they’re aimed at concert presenters, artistic administrators, casting directors, and others who hire musicians, actors, and other performers.

    They’ll be in the audience, too, after all. And the purpose of the dull and tedious list bio is to say to those folks, “Look how qualified this artist is! Look at all these institutions that have wanted to work with her. So hire her!!

  • Jill Davies says:

    As an agent, I encourage my singers to write more interesting and personal biographies for concert programmes. I’ve discovered all sorts of fascinating things that they get up to in their spare time!

  • George Porter says:

    The 176 page Finnish/English program book for the recent 6-day Sibelius 150 festival in Lahti cost 10 euros. There are extended extended essays and the usual performer details, with about 20 pages of adverts at the back. The only problem is that the print size is rather small.