top of page


Autumn 2023

taste vs. tribe:

or, why do people like what they like and don't what they don't?


cimeon ellerton-kaye

It’s not about the art, it's about the experience. At the base of a New London Vernacular tower block in Canning Town, under a bright yellow sign, sits a café-bar with the usual day-to-night menu of coffee, craft beer and cocktails plus pastries, pizza and the like. The double height industrial interior is punctuated by touches of mid century modern, multicoloured neon lighting and old-school canteen seating. So far, so typical of any rapidly gentrifying part of London. But this place is not the pandemic-induced midlife crisis of an ex strategy consultant, it's home to a new cultural institution. This is Social Convention. I started it, and it represents the most recent chapter in my exploration of taste. 


As a venue owner, understanding why people like what they like, and don’t what they don’t is a hugely important question.  For the past 20 years, you might describe my professional and creative life as an ongoing action research project into this question. I’m a musician so, to begin with, I came at the question from the perspective of musical tastes and listening habits, but I’m also a producer so I think it’s an important question for the whole of the creative and cultural industries - from architecture to computer games and opera to television - mostly because it has a huge impact on what gets made, who it’s made by and who it’s made for. 


At age 15 I was a typical angsty teenager in Plymouth - I grew my hair, painted my nails black and listened to music the rest of my family hated. But in my case, the music I chose to annoy my family with was Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The idea that it caused a riot on its opening night in 1913 excited me nearly as much as the music itself, but the real payoff was the effect the music had on my parents and siblings. Eighty-five years after it was written, the Rite of Spring still managed to induce disgust and annoyance in them.  They normally listened to whatever music happened to be in the charts at the time. Watching Top of The Pops together on Christmas Day was an important yuletide tradition in my family, even if it meant moving the television to the dining room because preparation of the Christmas lunch was running late. 


I didn’t start learning my first musical instrument until age 11 and therefore experienced very little classical music before that, so I felt I had a lot of catching up to do. I listened to everything I could and my tastes became increasingly experimental. Stravinsky led to Schoenberg, then to Stockhausen and all the great innovators and experimental composers of 20th century classical music. This music felt dangerous and rebellious and  it certainly provoked strong (usually negative) reactions from friends and family. 


At the same time, I was discovering the world of clubbing. Certain clubs in my hometown were notoriously relaxed  about age checks and I went to everything from indie and goth nights at JFKs (which the locals dubbed Just For Kids) to dance music and cheesy pop at the only gay club in the city, Zero’s. Dancing and sweating with my peers provided a means for release and self-expression, but also social bonding. I managed to fit my other more wholesome musical interests around these weekend exploits. I joined the school orchestra, sang in the choir, made my own cheesy dance music, composed experimental music, played in a jazz band and regularly borrowed weird and wonderful reconstructions of mediaeval instruments to further terrorise my family with yet more strange sounds (this time of very early rather than very modern music). It seemed funny to me that all I had to do to upset somebody was change the track on the CD player from one genre to another. And, no matter how hard I tried, my jazz band refused to go clubbing and my clubbing friends refused to listen to a piece of classical music.


I moved to London in 2001 to study composition at Trinity College of Music, one of the more progressive conservatoires, where I hoped I would find more like-minded musical omnivores. On my arrival, I was surprised to find that the musical tastes of my fellow more metropolitan, more musically experienced (typically trained in an instrument by age 5) students was in the main no less narrow and reactionary than my peers back home. However, I did find some fellow explorers - Roise loved opera, traditional folk and Bjork; Natalie played classical oboe and loved heavy bass music, Harry was a saxophonist and cyber goth - together we went out and consumed everything London had to offer. Weekends were spent moving between squat parties and concert halls, laser filled super-clubs and sticky-floored dive bars listening to jazz, folk, classical, electronic and everything in between. Yet the handful of my friends doing this were the exception rather than the norm. 


I went to support my DJ friends McMash Clan as they played bigger and bigger clubs, but they wouldn’t come to the performances of my classical music. Doug, Chris and Kumar (the guys  behind McMash Clan) enjoyed all sorts of experimental music - as long as it seemed to fit within the tradition of dance music and electronica. They would excitedly play me tracks from the latest Autechre or Aphex Twin releases on seminal techno label Warp Records. Listening with them, it was clear to me that the sounds directly descended from the work of my heroes from the experimental classical music world. The only substantive difference between them was the context. 


Aphex Twin’s Druqks album could not be more direct in its referencing of experimental music titan John Cage, yet, as far as I could see,  this didn’t lead to the McMash Clan (or their ilk) attending any concerts of Cage’s music or any of the other composers I could hear referenced in the music they played. The one exception was a London Sinfonietta concert I went to with the McMash Clan boys at London’s Southbank Centre. The London Sinfonietta specialise in performing world premiers of classical music alongside other 20th century works. In 2003, their stroke of genius was to collaborate with Warp Records in an event titled: Warp Works & Twentieth Century Masters . Instead of the usual sea of grey hair and drab fashion filling the concert hall, the place had the vibe of a house party. The music itself was a tour de force. Hearing the vast aural palette of the orchestra used to render the sounds and rhythms of these electronic dance music producers had a profound impact on my future work.


As a composer, by this time in my 20s, I started to receive commissions. My favourite approach was to begin the work of writing for a particular musician by asking them not only what music they liked to play, but what they didn’t. I’d then try to write the piece of music incorporating as many elements of the music they said they didn’t like, but in such a way that they did like it. Beyond showing off - which I can’t deny - the technique had a serious purpose, it engaged genuinely with the philosophy of taste. 


The musicians performing the work loved it in every case, often even more so when I explained what I had done (although in most cases they spotted it without me having to do so). As long as I sufficiently grounded the “bad” music in the vocabulary and context of the “good” music, the bad was good.


As my composition career progressed though, I found I wasn’t happy making art for other artists. I can’t pretend I didn’t crave the respect and attention of my community of fellow composers and musicians. But I also wanted to say something to the rest of the world outside of the concert hall.  


My personal, philosophical question about all art and culture has always been: if nobody sees/hears/reads it, is there any point to it? Not that there isn’t huge intrinsic value in a personal creative practice for the individual, but I believe that what makes art art, is that other people (and not just other artists) enter into a personal dialogue with it. So, this led me  to the question: who is the artist making the work for? For me, since I couldn’t get the DJs and clubbers to the concert hall, I wondered what would happen if  I took my music out of the concert hall and into the clubs.


In 2005, inspired by the success of the London Sinfonietta x Warp Records concert, I set up the London Breakbeat Orchestra to continue my experiments exploring taste. Here I took my passion for electronic dance music, especially D&B and breakbeat artists like Pendulum, High Contrast and Ali B, and combined it with my classically derived love of arranging and orchestration. The response was incredible. We quickly found ourselves performing at festivals and major London clubs such as KOKO, recording a Live at Maida Vale session for BBC Radio 1 DJ Annie Nightingale, and collaborating with EDM producers Swedish House Mafia. The use of classical instruments to perform dance music has been enthusiastically adopted by the commercial music industry, with orchestras, brass bands and the like playing huge crowds at festivals across the UK and beyond - Outlook Orchestra, Acid Brass and Pete Tong with the Heritage Orchestra to name a few. The commercial music industry is not in the business of serving niche audiences and so this proliferation of cross-over music - from acid house brass bands to orchestral trance music - suggests that the barrier between the taste factions of the orchestral and electronic worlds is not as impermeable as I previously feared.


Having established that an orchestra can fill a nightclub with a dance music crowd and a techno label can sell music that is aurally indistinguishable from avant garde electronic compositions, I started to wonder, is taste even relevant, or is it just a question of marketing? I didn’t want to imagine that people are somehow tricked into liking a particular type of music by clever advertising. But I was becoming increasingly interested in how far the marketing of the arts made an impact on who actually consumed them.


I took a bit of detour in my career and began working at The Audience Agency, a consultancy that specialises in “understanding audiences” - a mixture of social research and marketing theory, this company spends a lot of time analysing patterns of behaviour (what people do or consume) and psychographics (why they do it). I worked on a once-in-a-lifetime project, funded by Arts Council England, to create a segmentation of the cultural habits of the entire UK population. Not just the data from people who already attend the arts, but also those that don’t. Combining data from a major credit referencing agency (who know everything from what you buy and where, to your home-ownership and marital-status) with a survey database of 15,000 people who were asked about what arts and culture they consumed (if any) and why. 


The thing that really struck me was that most people are going to galleries, gigs and theatre for social and not artistic reasons. This should be really obvious, but as someone who has spent time making art, it’s so easy to get caught up in how exciting, novel and creative the art is when the people in the audience are actually looking for entertainment and to hang out with friends and family. The data revealed that only about 6% of the population attend cultural events for the intrinsic value of the art. Of course, there is huge range and nuance in those social drivers for engagement. But the headline story in the data was  that it’s not about the art, it's about the experience. Especially for the people that don’t generally attend. The non-attenders don’t feel that arts institutions are the sorts of places that people like them go to. If they do go, they want to be certain that they’ll have a good time and will choose somewhere they know. That means that everything about the way you make and market the cultural experience needs considering from this perspective if you want to understand why the average person on the street is (or isn’t) engaging with any particular part of our creative or cultural industry.


It turns out, in understanding why people like what they like and don’t what they don’t, context is king. We like the things that people around us like. Most of the time when we are engaging with culture, we’re using it as a social tool. We are demonstrating our belonging to a social group and lubricating our interactions. Take experimental art which is, well, an experiment. The point is we don’t know what to expect and that is scary for most people. We expect certain characteristics of a cultural experience and are surprised and shocked by those that don’t conform and disrupt the experience and therefore our social relationships. 


This is why it is easier to market the Royal Opera House (ROH) than the English National Opera (ENO) to first-time opera attenders. The ROH represents the epitome of elite cultural experience. For most people, walking in off the street to hear an opera in a language they don’t speak, surrounded by chandeliers and paying up to £325 for a ticket is not even something they can imagine. The English National Opera sings everything in English, is often cheaper and actively promotes the idea that you can wear whatever you like. However, the elite signalling of the ROH is also what makes it seem like it would be an exciting experience and the “real deal”. This only makes sense when we look at it through the lens of the social signalling that is involved. In this admittedly oversimplified analysis, going to the ROH is about social cachet and the ENO isn’t. And anyway, most first-timers wouldn’t hear much difference between an opera sung in translation vs the original language; being unable to understand the words is a common complaint about operatic singing.  And yet I didn’t feel this was the conversation that the institutions or funders involved in arts and culture were having. Instead, I felt that a lot of oversimplified and occasionally dated business advice about how to better price tickets or better market events to different types of audiences was offered as a post hoc solution to attracting more diverse audiences. 


Somewhat annoyed by this, and to give them credit, encouraged by my boss and CEO of The Audience Agency, Anne, I decided to sign up for a Masters in Business from Birkbeck, University of London. I wanted to look at the marketing, finance and operational theory of other industries to try to figure out a way to do things differently, and hopefully better. To enable more people to experience arts and culture - people like my sister, Celia, a teaching assistant with 3 kids who exclaims when I drag her to an art gallery "my kids have drawn better pictures than this sh*t."


When I myself was a kid I completed my GCSE Graphic Products portfolio with a full design treatment for a two story venue of my dreams. A ground floor DJ bar, first floor jazz club and outdoor terrace all combined in a temple to music and performance of all kinds for all people - fully open and transparent in attitude and design (I envisaged the two street-facing walls to be made entirely of glass so that any bypasser could see the joy of the people inside). Nearly 25 years later, using everything I learned at business school, researching audiences and working as a musician,  I've manifested quite a good approximation of this vision.  


On a typical weekend, a few small groups of locals sit in the bar at Social Convention under the dappled light of a disco ball , chatting and drinking as the band sets up for the night’s free jazz gig. Some of the customers might be here for the music, but others are just here to hang out and order a pizza. Five minutes down the road, a small but steady flow of people separate from the chaos of a rush hour tube station, headed for the calm of a life drawing class in our upstairs exhibition space. This month, there is an exhibition of local emerging artists on the theme of Black History Month. Tomorrow we’ll host a gig with musicians from the University of East London’s music department upstairs, whilst a DJ entertains the locals downstairs - perhaps some of them will be tempted to join the gig upstairs. It gives me deep satisfaction when a customer orders a drink and asks what’s going on upstairs and if it’s a private event. I love being able to say “no, it’s a music gig - do you fancy giving it a try?” and watching them tentatively climb the stairs to see where all these other people are going - people maybe a bit like them, who’ve also come to a place like this.

CIMEON ELLERTON-KAYE is the CEO and Chief Creative Officer of Social Convention, a venue in Canning Town, London. As a composer and music technologist, he founded the UK’s first EDM orchestra – performing with international DJs Swedish House Mafia and Goldie. As one third of composers’ collective Brainer he created work on the boundaries of music, poetry and theatre. Brainer were Artists-in-Residence at the Borealis Festival (2011-2013, Bergen, Norway).

Cimeon’s work in arts policy and cultural management includes delivering the Cultural Olympiad in the London Borough of Lewisham, managing various arts grant-giving schemes and producing numerous arts and community festivals. As Chief Product Officer at The Audience Agency he built Audience Finder – a groundbreaking marketing and business intelligence tool aggregating audience data from across the UK. Cimeon holds a postgraduate certificate in Creative Commerce (Greenwich University) and a masters in Business Innovation (Birkbeck, UoL) – his dissertation focused on digital innovation in the performing arts.

bottom of page