Ticket Price And Competition

Colleague and fellow AJ blogger Andrew Taylor wrote a good article on Monday   comparing the rising cost of tickets at the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Red Sox… 

Andrew touches on how the two organizations view the need for their increased ticket costs:

"Both organizations justify the increase based on how it will
support the core of their work. The symphony talks about the new
revenue helping to ‘maintain our artistic standards as one of the great
orchestras in the world.’ The [baseball team] explains that higher
ticket prices help them ‘to maintain and compete and to have a
competitive team on the field."

Andrew concludes the article with a question:

"So why is a price increase for {the BSO] a shock and a disgrace, while the [increase at the Red Sox] is a force of nature?"

It’s a very good question and one worth finding an answer.  In
short, the question sums up one of the problems at the heart of why the
industry is having such trouble justifying its existence. 

It essentially boils down to the difference between for-profit vs.
non-profit.  There’s an inherent lack of competition between orchestras
when compared to sports teams, so orchestra patrons don’t place the
same weight on "artistic standards" versus "competitive edge" as do
sports fans.  Most communities that are home to one of the top 20% of
orchestras tend to believe their orchestra is more or less just as good
as the others, but without head to head competition there’s no way to
justify it.  And as a result of this lack of awareness and cultural
education throughout a community, there is no sense of urgency to
provide increased funding to improve the "home team". 

What we end up with is a collective consciousness among the public
that tends to believe their orchestra is just fine, so it therefore
becomes difficult to justify significantly increased ticket prices.  I
proposed a solution to this problem awhile back, by advocating direct
competition between orchestras.  Additionally, I think increased
regional touring would help audiences determine just what the value of
their orchestra really is by way of live comparison.  Why doesn’t
Pittsburgh go to Cincinnati, which would go to Columbus, which would go
to Cleveland, which would go to Detroit, and so on and so forth?

I remember back to my days as a camper at the Interlochen National
Music Camp (now called the Interlochen Arts Camp).  The "camp"
consisted of an intense eight week school where every orchestra and
band student was given the weekly opportunity to compete for their rank
and position in any given ensemble.   It was officially called
"Challenges" but we called it "Bloody Thursday", and you either rose or
fell in your section based solely on your ability and how much you
practiced.  Although most students found it a very stressful situation
to find themselves every week, they also reveled in the competition.
It was the closest thing I’ve ever experienced in my lifetime that
approached a completely unbiased avenue for advancement based on pure
merit and hard work.  But even as a teenager, I began to learn one the
most important lessons a professional musician needs to be taught:
dealing with and thriving within a system of direct competition is
essential to future success. 

Musicians thrive on competition, they’re trained to be competitive,
and they relish head to head contests.  So why are orchestras so leery
about the idea of competitions?  Why would you not take advantage of
one of the most useful qualities among the individuals that actually
create the music?  It seems that the professional sports world reaps
the benefits of increased community interest through competitions, so
why shouldn’t professional orchestras do the same?

What do you think? Is competition rewarded by financial gain one of
the answers to raising the level of orchestras among America’s
collective cultural consciousness?

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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