Why don’t all classical music concerts provide child care?

I love classical music concerts. I have two young kids. These two facts are not in harmony with one another. Let me tell you why, then let me propose a solution.

Not long ago, a symphony came to our local performing arts center. I told my wife that we should go. It would be nice to have a date night, I thought. I looked up the ticket cost (only $10 each), and booked reservations at a local Thai restaurant (what date night is complete without dinner?). Then I prepared to call the babysitter. Phone in hand, I tallied the cost of the evening. Two tickets at $10 is $20. The restaurant is modestly priced, so about $40 for dinner, added to $20, that’s $60. I’ll need the sitter from 6:00 to 10:00. That’s four hours at $15 per hour, $60. That doubles the total to $120… I started dialing, but not the sitter’s number. I called the restaurant back to cancel our reservations. The night of the concert, we stayed in.

Later that year, it was time for my university’s popular Vespers choral concert. My wife and I both had students in the choirs, and we wanted to support them. So we decided to bring the kids to the concert with us. Our son was four at the time, and his little sister was 12 months. The kids did great, but by the end of the concert, we were exhausted. Most of our attention was on helping the kids behave, not on the music.

Though I've smoothed out the prices and changed some details, these stories ring true in my family. They provide a window into the decision-making process of parents with young children. It goes something like this: I want to go out to dinner, but what will the kids be doing? I want to go to a movie, but what will the kids be doing? I want to go to a concert, but what will the kids be doing? The possibility of going to an event is always stacked up against the practical question of: how will my kids be taken care of for those few hours?

In the first story, a babysitter was the answer. But because the price of the sitter doubled the cost of the evening, it was a deal breaker. In the second story, the kids came to the concert with us. This is a great solution every once in a while, but I've had to sneak out of a concert hall more than once due to loud and squirmy kids. And let's face it, they would rather be kicking around a soccer ball than sitting for an hour.

So I am left with a problem: Will I have to miss out on several great concerts a year until my kids grow up? When I look back on the movie of my life, is this destined to be an extended silent scene? I'm not prepared to accept that. 

I have been ruminating on this question, mostly unconsciously, for several years now. But no solution came to me—until I went to IKEA.

Consider the decision-making process when a parent asks the question: “I want to go to IKEA, but what will the kids be doing?” That’s easy: IKEA provides child care. My kids can play happily while I stroll through imaginary living rooms with track lighting and glossy bright red plastic lamps. IKEA knows that young families are part of their core customer group, and they make the shopping experience easy for them. Plus they provide food. Child care and food allow parents to come to IKEA more often and stay longer.

Then it dawned on me:

What if classical music concerts provided child care?

If orchestras consider young families to be a part of their core customer group, shouldn’t they be more like IKEA?* When a parent asks, “I want to go to this concert, but what will I do with my kids?,” what if the orchestra could answer: “Child care provided.”

Picture it with me: My family of four pulls up to the concert hall at 6:30 p.m. We park, then walk to the lobby, where we follow signs to the on-site child care. A pleasant young lady checks us in, who we find is a licensed child care provider, and in fact is the director of the orchestra’s child care program. We sign a release form, they give us a pager in the case of an emergency, and our kids run/toddle towards the toys. We turn towards the concert hall for a 7:00 downbeat. 

Music fills the hall. And we hear it.

After the concert, we swing by and pick up the kids. All the way home, my son tells us about the fun he had, while his toddler sister squeaks an occasional “ball!” or “doggie!” When we get home, I tally the cost of the evening: Tickets were $20, we ate dinner at home, and child care was complimentary. We would have eaten dinner either way, so the event cost was $20. I look up at my wife, our eyes meet, and we both smile.

But aren’t all classical music concert-goers grandpas and grandmas, not young parents? If you listen to the gossip line, yes. But what if that is because there is not a sufficient answer to the but what will the kids be doing question? I’m interested in solving problems here, not keeping the status quo. I know a lot of music entrepreneurs who are interested in tapping into a pool of young, interesting, music-loving potential concert-goers—who also happen to be parents.

But shouldn’t the kids be in the concert, so that they can learn about classical music? Yes, for older kids. Yes for matinee concerts and family concerts and kids’ concerts. No for “date-night” concerts.

Principles to Remember When Providing Child Care at Concerts

Successfully adding child care at a concert would need a careful plan and an administrative staff willing to do it right. Doing it poorly could backfire in ways that could land your orchestra on the 10 o’clock “Breaking News!”, instead of the 6 o’clock news Arts Calendar. Here are four principles and a season ticket idea to keep in mind when formulating a plan. Now I'm speaking mainly to arts organizations and musicians.

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Make it trustworthy. This is the most important point of the entire plan. Hire trained caregivers, and communicate to patrons these credentials. Understand the need for separate age groups (infants and pre-teens need different kinds of care), as well as how many caregivers you need per child. Do your homework on your standard of care, because it is the linchpin of the entire idea. If your childcare is not trustworthy, parents won’t use it and they won’t buy tickets to your concerts. (Also, be sure your insurance covers child care, and that you provide the necessary release forms.)

An idea for making your child care service credible: if you have musicians in your ensemble who are also parents, ask if they would use the service. Provide it free to them as well. If you can tell your patrons that your childcare service is so trustworthy that the performers in the concert are using it, that would go a long way toward allaying fears. Or what if your young, brilliant conductor also uses the on-site childcare? Or your artistic director? You get the idea.

Communicate to parents. Music-loving parents have seen so many posters for concerts that don’t have child care, that they will assume yours doesn’t have it either. The arts organization will have to reach parents through marketing, and teach them that their concert creates a new normal for music-loving parents.

Make it free. This might be difficult, but if you really want young couples to come to your concerts, offer the child care free! But if this is financially impossible, add a “parent” price tier for tickets (like senior or student tickets). The ticket could be modestly more expensive, and would also be the admittance to the child-care room at check-in.

Care about bedtimes. Concerts that begin at 8 p.m. might count out parents who need their kids to go to bed at a reasonable time. And trust me, we need them to sleep. For our sanity. It’s okay to have kids go to bed late for special occasions, and an evening out at a concert qualifies, but don’t push it. A concert beginning at 7 or 7:30 should work.

Use child care as an incentive for season ticket purchases. What if you could change the decision-making process from “Do I like all of the programming choices enough to pay for sitters at all of these concerts?” to “Do I want to secure six evenings out over the next year, and listen to great music—all while getting the gift of child care as part of the deal?” I don’t know about others, but for me the second question is a much easier “yes.”

What Can I Do?

Are you on board with this idea? Does it make sense to you? What can you do about it?

If you’re an arts entrepreneur, or in a position of influence at an arts organization, you can start a conversation about whether or not providing child care is right for you. Do a trial run at a concert this year.

If you’re a concert-goer and a parent, or have friends and family who are concert-goers who are parents, or someday might want to be a concert-goer and a parent at the same time, please speak up.

If child care would get you to more concerts, say so in the comments for this page. Then send your arts organizations a link to this post and ask them to read the comments.

 

*This question was posed to me by David Cutler, at the Savvy Musician in Action retreat for music entrepreneurs. Thank you to David for sparking the idea of this post!