Reader Response: Talk is cheap, tickets aren’t

I received quite a few responses from orchestra managers challenging my point of view regarding the recent article about orchestra ticket prices . One of which came from Curt Long, the Executive Director for the Dayton Philharmonic

  • Curt had this to say:
    look at average price rather than lowest price?  We have seats that
    start in the $11-13.50 range for all of our classical series."

reason for focusing on the average price instead of the lowest price is
because many of the least expensive tickets are few in number and
usually have purchasing restrictions (such as student or senior
tickets). Therefore, the average 20something and 30something usually
ends up having to select from among the average priced tickets.

  • Curt went on to point out:
    an industry I would suggest that ticket prices have increased because
    expenses have increased – primarily musician wages, but also guest
    artist fees and production/hall costs.  If we charge people
    significantly less than they have shown they are willing to pay, does
    that mean we pay musicians less?  Or hire less prominent guest artists?"

point sound quite reasonable, but I think it confuses cause and
effect.  Just because you will lower ticket prices does not mean that
you need to lower connected musician pay, guest artist budgets, or
management’s salary.  Although it’s a practical static analysis, it
doesn’t take into account a number of positive dynamic variables. Such
as by bringing in more patrons with lower average ticket prices, you
significantly increase the number of potential donors.  And if the
organization is doing a good job of enabling patrons then you’ll gain
more in the long term from them as involved donors than what you will
make in the short term with higher ticket prices. And remember, the 20
something’s that become enabled today turn into your big individual
donors over the next 30 years.

  • Curt goes on to make what I consider an excellent observation:
    "I imagine that the orchestras building really small concert halls [1000 seats] are going to be faced with a cost per seat structure which will push their ticket prices frighteningly high."

couldn’t agree more. I feel these orchestras are going to financially
strangle themselves to death because this problem perpetuates the "rich
white guy" syndrome.  Meaning they are unable to bring in new patrons
to replace those leaving because the ticket prices are prohibitive to
the average person.

orchestra administrators wrote in to make the following point. Here is
an excerpt from one of the letters where the manager went on to poke
holes into my two-tier ticket price idea:

  • "Your
    idea of two tier tickets may work for some houses, but it would be more
    lucrative to price as many sections as can be differentiated by the
    audience — the main floor and the 2nd balcony are obviously two
    different sections, but what about the upper and lower parts of the
    same balcony? Can you make a case for that? In some houses you may be
    able to. The goal should be to price the house up to what people are
    willing to pay."

My point is that patrons are
telling orchestras what they are willing to pay but orchestras aren’t
listening. Simply look at the 60%-65% average attendance at most
orchestras. Those numbers don’t exist simply because of ineffective
marketing (although it is connected), so much as due to high ticket

yes, different sections of the hall have different qualities but that
does not justify pricing them differently.  For example, take this
dynamic analysis: There is much more going on than just listening when
you attend an orchestra concert. Audience members don’t always sit in a
particular section because of its popularity. Sometimes I like to sit
in the acoustical "sweet spot" to hear the best homogeneous sound and
sometimes I’ll sit far to the side and up close so I can hear a
particular section in the orchestra better.  As a patron, I don’t feel
that there should be financial restrictions (in the form of multi tier
pricing) regarding where I am able to sit.

Keep posting your opinions, I think the issue of inflated ticket prices is paramount to the industry’s future and your opinions matter.

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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