More Grumbling About Ticket Prices

This time the grumbling comes from Boston where the world renowned Boston Symphony Orchestra is experiencing a severe backlash from its patron subscribers regarding their steep ticket price increases.  According to an article by Geoff Edgers in the March 10th edition of the Boston Globe the BSO has raised ticket prices by as much as 80% for next year’s season.  Subscriber’s reaction has been, to put it mildly, less than enthusiastic with 35 canceling their subscriptions…

We’ve talked about this issue in several past articles and
Adaptistration reader Art Priromprintr had a letter to Arts Journal
published about the inflated cost of tickets back in January.   There
are a number of points of view you can take about this situation at
Boston:

  1. If you go back to yesterday’s Adaptistration article it relates to
    what patrons feel is the real value of their concert experience.
  2. It demonstrates how much clout the average patrons actually have within the orchestra organization.
  3. Percentages matter: Is the concert experience going to be 80% better than before the rate increase?
  4. It’s another example of the inherent problems with multi tiered ticketing pricing.
  5. Does the orchestra management have an inherent "right" to determine the value of ticket prices?
  6. It provides insight to how much emphasis orchestra executives and managers place on spreadsheets and static analysis.

Point 1: Go read yesterday’s Adaptistration article again.  Patrons
don’t feel as much of a "need" to provide their hometown orchestra with
ticket revenues which help keep "artistic standards" as high as
possible.

Point 2: Patrons have been kept at arms length from the internal
workings of their orchestras for the past several decades.  They’ve
been collectively cowed into believing they are not qualified to
adequately decide what’s "good and bad" or what’s "right and wrong" in
the world of orchestral classical music.  In order for them to finally
speak out en masse, it took a giant ticket price hike to anger them
into action.  And I would have to add that’s not exactly the way
orchestras should increase the amount of patron involvement.

Point 3:  Does the BSO really believe that the new concert
experience is going to be up to 80% better than the previous year?  The
average ticket price increase for orchestras is around the rate of
inflation, so it consequently becomes difficult to justify such a large
percentage increase.  If the orchestra hasn’t been keeping up with the
rate of inflation, then they’re going to have to find some other way to
deal with the shortage of income other than massive periodical rate
increases.

Point 4: I’ve griped about the problems with multi tiered ticket
systems before.  I believe the "value" of a particular seat isn’t able
to be determined by a marketing analyst or even by patron interest.
The BSO claims that the ticket prices in the second balcony have been
under priced for some time.  Based on what?  Regardless of the answer,
it doesn’t matter.  Beyond the box seats which possess obvious
differences (larger seats, maybe some private bathrooms, yadda yadda
yadda) that do justify higher prices, all other seats should cost the
same.  Any factors (beyond perhaps a pole directly in your line of
sight) used to determine the remaining seat prices are subjective at
best.

Point 5: In the Boston Globe article, Mark Volpe, the BSO’s managing
director is quoted as saying "Our mistake was not phasing it in over a
longer period of time, we feel we have the right to price seats
according to demand, and yet for some people that’s a major burden, and
we’re trying to rectify that."  That’s a pretty heavy duty statement,
and one that forces me to pause in order to process it.

But after mulling Mr. Volpe’s statement over for awhile it seems
like a very defiant statement to me, almost as though he’s angry at the
patrons for dictating how much they think ticket prices should be. And
am I the only one to get the feeling that there is a heavy overtone of
exclusion in his statement?  The implication that some people find it a
"major burden" indicates that they are "economically disadvantaged" and
therefore can’t afford those prices.  We’re talking
about upper middle class people here, so why on earth would the
executive leadership of the BSO perhaps feel the need to single them
out in order to make them feel underprivileged? 

I don’t think there was any real malice in Mr. Volpe’s comments, but
I find that it’s just another example of how orchestra administrators
exclude large segments of their community without even realizing
they’re doing it.  In the end, what remains is this message between the
lines that says "Unless you’re a rich white guy, go away   this isn’t
for you". 

Point 6: According to the Boston Globe article, "rescaling" of the
house (as the BSO puts it) takes place every 10 to 15 years.  I think
this is just spin used to artificially increase earned income and make
next year’s budget look better on paper.  That way the executive
management and the board feel better about the orchestra’s bottom
line.  Their marketing analysts worked out the price increase based on
static examination of the ticket revenue and came to those
conclusions.  Then the executives decided just how far they could push
their subscribers and single ticket patrons, unfortunately they made
the wrong choice.

In the end, I’m a little surprised to hear that the BSO raised
prices so much.  After all I was under the impression that they weren’t
suffering nearly as much due to a very talented group of financial
manager that take care of their endowment as well as stronger ticket
sales compared to the other "Big Eight" orchestras.  One of the factors
Volpe credited for the ticket hike was their upcoming production of
Wagner’s opera "The Flying Dutchman".  So perhaps here’s the real
reason why they need the additional income. But why is the BSO
producing an opera?  Doesn’t Boston already have an opera company?
Didn’t the BSO notice the financial bath the Chicago Symphony took with
their recent "opera" project?  Seems silly to me, but then again, so
does raising ticket prices by up to 80%.

What do you think a reasonable ticket price is for your orchestra and why?  What would you do if you lived in Boston?

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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