10/04/2019 - 15:18

Youth orchestra keen to jazz up its image

10/04/2019 - 15:18

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In any arts landscape the word ‘youth’ is often used interchangeably with ‘amateur’, but that association is far from the reality emerging at the West Australian Youth Jazz Orchestra.

Simon Keen (right), pictured with Mace Francis, says WAYJO’s concert program and audience numbers have significantly increased since 2016. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

In any arts landscape the word ‘youth’ is often used interchangeably with ‘amateur’, but that association is far from the reality emerging at the West Australian Youth Jazz Orchestra.

General manager Simon Keen, who previously held research and development roles with Sydney Festival and Perth Festival, told Business News he had moved the company towards marketing itself as a young-professionals orchestra.

“Youth can be a bad name in arts, people say it’s not as good quality,” Mr Keen said.

“But I say, when he was 21 Eric Clapton had people spray-painting ‘Clapton is God’ across the streets of London.

“There’s no barrier to what young artists can achieve, there’s just a different skill set and a different energy.

“That’s what we bring as an artistic experience, this vibrancy.”

Established in 1983, WAYJO’s jazz offering is unique in Australia, providing a performance platform for young jazz artists through an annual season, as well as educational and touring programs.

Mr Keen said WAYJO’s artistic quality was on par with the state’s biggest professional companies, but when he took up the role in 2016 he noticed that the audience base was split between students and older generations, missing a huge age demographic.

He began an internal organisational shift and rebranded the organisation visually to present a more professional feel.

“I told our staff we would not call (the members) kids any more, we’d call them our musicians or our artists,” Mr Keen said.

“Because ‘kids’ devalues what they do, and it treats them in a different way.

“We expect a certain level of professionalism and quality from them, and they deliver that, so let’s treat them like early career artists.”

The move seems to have paid off, with WAYJO boasting impressive growth in ticket sales.

“We’ve grown from about 1,500 in 2016, to 4,500 in 2017, to over 8,000 last year,” Mr Keen said.

Much of this growth came from the addition of the King St Corner Pocket Festival last year, featuring 41 shows over three days.

WAYJO’s concert program has also expanded from 12 shows in 2016, to more than 100 in 2018.

To fund this offering, WAYJO receives $150,000 from the state government and a similar amount from private sector grants and sponsorship, according to the BNiQ database.

The company had revenue of $500,000 last financial year.

Mr Keen said he had worked closely with artistic director Mace Francis to ensure they were programming successful seasons that were conducive to sponsorship.

“We’ve now planned out our next five years of programs, so we’ve got more lead time to reach companies,” he said.

“This year we’ve got two guest artists coming out from the US, and the Minderoo Foundation and the US Consul General’s office in Perth are both supporting those artists, and we’ve also got the Intercontinental Hotel on board, giving us some contra accommodation.

“Without that, that’s $25,000 I’d have to find, and we’d never make that through ticket sales.”

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