As someone who is interested in bringing contemporary classical music to a more mainstream audience, I find myself thinking a lot about the role of music in the lives of most people and its role in society in general. It seems to me that if I can understand what role music has in general for most people I can then understand what would make them want to come to a concert of new music. There are several roles music plays in our lives:
1) nostalgia or to remind you of a specific time in your life
2) a nice beat to which you dance, go into a trance or row a slave galley or warship
3) something to sing along with while you clean the house or drive your car
4) ceremonial roles, music for funerals or weddings, bar mitzvahs, meditation, spirituality
5) story telling, like ballads, Johnny Cash, most folk music
6) underscoring a film, theatrical production or audio book
7) engaging with an artist who is creating interesting music with a view toward self expression or pushing the musical art forward for its own sake
There might be other roles for music in our lives but I think these are the main ones. The vast majority of people stop listening to new music after college and then the only music they put on for themselves is the music of “their era” meaning when they were young. So the nostalgia role is the strongest by far for most people. It affects them so powerfully on so many levels that it’s unlikely a new piece of music will ever have that same resonance for them which in turn makes it unlikely they’ll seek out new music, let alone music in an unfamiliar genre.
The only time they hear unfamiliar music and are ok with it would be in a club where everything musical has been stripped away but a strong beat that defies you not to dance to it and a rudimentary sort of development: faster or slower, drums stop and then kick in, etc.
This might seem like bad news at first for composers but I think that the more we know about how people interact with music the better off we are. For example even someone who only likes a handful of songs and never goes to concerts may be deeply moved by a beautiful performance at a wedding or sports event. Understanding what expectations the average person has for music helps us understand what might entice them into the concert hall and then, most importantly, what might open up their ears to adventurous new sounds.