Talk is cheap, tickets aren’t

Audience development is a big issue in this industry. Attendance is down, younger patrons are harder to attract, and subscription series are getting increasingly difficult to sell. In addition to all of the cultural, social, and marketing issues involved with this problem, I think a widely overlooked area is the cost of single tickets…

Kennedy Center Director, Michael Kaiser coined the phrase “rich white guy” when describing today’s stereotypical orchestra patron, and he’s pretty much right on target. But I think that one of the reasons why you mainly see this demographic attending concerts is not because that segment of society are the only ones educated enough to appreciate culture, but because they are the only ones able to afford it.

Community outreach and participation in public school music education programs are all the rage in the industry. I constantly hear orchestras shouting out the mantra “We have to start building our future audience”. And in general, I would agree with that. But don’t you think it’s counterproductive to put so much money into outreach programs aimed at a segment of society that can’t really afford to patronize the orchestra on a regular basis? I do.

I did a little informal survey this morning of single ticket prices. I selected four orchestras at random (I actually have a program that does that for me), two big, two medium: Baltimore Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, Grand Rapids Symphony, and the Dayton Philharmonic. Here are the average single ticket prices for classical series concerts on
either Friday or Saturday evening performances:

  • Minnesota: $51.00
  • Baltimore: $44.28
  • Dayton: $33.50
  • Grand Rapids: $28.72

For someone that earns under $30,000 annually, those ticket prices frequently keep concerts out of reach. And if you have a family, forget about it.  Personally, I believe that you should be able to afford attending one concert per month. And not just the kids or pops stuff, but the programs that speak to your soul.

Fact: Orchestras need to increase ticket revenue in the midst of falling attendance.
Fiction: That means orchestras must raise ticket prices.

That scenario only excludes an increasingly larger segment of the community which orchestras are attempting to “reach out”.  Can you see where I’m heading with this? Orchestras are inadvertently pricing themselves out of an audience. At this rate we’re going to return to the days where only the aristocratic elite will be able to afford the joy of live orchestral performances. Good for Bill Gates, bad for Average Joe.

I honestly believe that traditional subscription ticket sales are a thing of the past. Although it’s cheaper to sell subscriptions than individual tickets, the result is higher single ticket prices, and that’s where we start that nasty cycle mentioned earlier.  Orchestras need to abandon traditional subscription series in lieu of something more along the lines of frequent buyer discounts. Stop the multi-layered ticket pricing and simply make two ticket prices:  the expensive box seats for those that can afford to enjoy them, and then everything else.

Write in with your opinions, tell me what you think. Are orchestra’s pricing themselves into extinction?

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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