Concert Companion or ORBIT Part 2

Continuing from where things left off in Part 1, this installment will examine the new Concert Companion and ORBIT products in further detail. 

Both products are technology based solutions designed to help develop a new audience for live orchestral classical music.  The Concert Companion is a proprietary palm driven device and ORBIT is a web based application; both products are designed to be used by any size orchestra.

Concert Companion

The impetus for Concert Companion comes from the need to develop a new audience and generate greater interest in live classical music.  I spoke with Roland Valerie, Concert Companion’s chief executive, about how he envisions Concert Companion. He said,

“Our mission is to make Concert Companion a ‘mission enabling tool’ for orchestras and we want to help them do that in the most effective way possible.”

The Concert Companion device is being developed under the auspices of the Kansas City Symphony and funding has come from philanthropic foundations such as the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

I asked Roland about the funding that has gone into developing Concert Companion from inception to prototype.  Unfortunately, details were not forthcoming, however, according to information from the foundation’s respective webpages I was able to determine that the Knight Foundation provided a $132,000 grant and the Packard Foundation a $50,000 grant.  Also, according to an article in the Kansas City Star by Paul Horsley, the project has secured investment income of at least $500,000.

The obvious expenses associated with the program include the cost of the PDA devices (manufactured by HP) and the proprietary software developed by Opera Glass Networks.  But the single largest expense category isn’t for the software or hardware related to the project, it’s for content development. 

Content, or commentary, is the actual text that scrolls across the PDA screen while the concert is in progress.  As of now, it is a very time consuming and expensive process that takes about an hour of work for each minute of music, or more than two weeks of fulltime work for a 90 minute concert.

According to Roland, he would like to see their commentary library grow to about 200 works.  So if we assume that a 90 minute concert includes three works from the standard repertoire, then it will take approximately 150 weeks to create a library of 200 works, or 2.8 years.

Then consider the fact that the commentary library is static, meaning an orchestra can’t customize content for its concert unless it’s willing to pay a large fee to have the commentary rewritten.

I don’t know if Concert Companion has done any research into whether or not that static component would be a long term issue but it may be worth considering.  Then there are the variables involved with music director and soloists wanting the audience to perceive the music the way they interpret it.

During one of the Concert Companion tests in New York, piano soloist Leon Fleisher refused to allow the Concert Companion device to be used during his piano performance.  So there’s already some evidence to show that these artistic variables may have an impact on the concert companion and how will function in the long term.

But the answer to that problem is simplistically complicated: create an inexpensive method to generate commentary that can also be customized without significant expense. That answer may need to wait for further technological innovations or perhaps a bored college student may come up with an answer sooner than later such as Shawn Fanning’s infamous “Napster” creation.

And that brings up another issue with the Concert Companion device.  Many of Part 1’s readers wrote in asking

“Why can’t I just download the software and content to my own PDA instead of having to rent one?”

Once again, it comes back to the unique proprietary software that’s been developed by Concert Companion.  As of right now, it’s particular enough in its operation that it requires technicians on hand to facilitate solving any software/hardware problems and the PDA requires very specific hardware features in order to operate properly.

But advances in technology may make this issue moot in several years.

Advances in technology may also be Concert Companion’s largest threat. According to Roland, it appears that part of concert Companion’s long term revenue plan is to license the content and software it has developed to orchestras, even if they use their own PDA’s.

Anyone that regularly follows the technology business can tell you that it doesn’t take long for competitors to develop a similar product to that of their competitor.  In this case, it would be a software package that will deliver a concert experience similar to that which Concert Companion is attempting to create.  Who knows, perhaps there’s already a college kid out there doing exactly that.

If Concert Companion can create a flexible product capable of matching and exceeding any prospective competition while simultaneously bring down the cost of the product exponentially, then they will certainly place themselves in a better position to hold onto a market they’re attempting to create.


The ORBIT (Organization Relationship Building Invitation Tool) web based application is more of a development of an idea that uses existing software technology to sell an audience development tool to orchestras.

According to ORBIT developer, Jon Hardie, the program is a collaborative public/private/nonprofit social entrepreneurship project with three primary funders.  Six orchestras contributed $25,000 cumulatively, the International Music and Arts Foundation contributed $15,000, and SymphonyWorks and Large Animal Games contributed $80,000.  That brings the overall cost of development was approximately $120,000.

The design for ORBIT emerged from research conducted by AMS Research Inc. and conversations with marketing managers from the Detroit Symphony, Kansas City Symphony, Long Beach Symphony, and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Jon said they all wanted to find a way to facilitate the social, cultural, and emotional needs for ticket buyers via a web based software program located on each orchestra’s respective web site.

The task of designing the software was conducted by SymphonyWorks and Large Animal Games.  They created ORBIT so that it can be customized by each orchestra without additional cost and allows them to focus on individual relationships between ticket buyers, all facilitated via permission marketing by the individual orchestra.

The ORBIT application does not rest on each individual orchestra’s website, instead, it remains on ORBIT’s secure central server.  Orchestras upload their performance schedule and ORBIT links into the respective orchestra’s website for visitors to use.

But there is a problem with this arrangement.  Currently, there isn’t any way for ticket buyers to actually buy tickets via ORBIT or for orchestras to accurately track exactly how many tickets are sold via ORBIT influence.  Additionally, orchestra’s have no real means of gathering marketing information from ORBIT users. 

Since ORBIT is not linked to an orchestra’s box office software or marketing databases, orchestras have to sit down and compare results from one database with the limited information provided by ORBIT.

According to Jon, ORBIT makes individual ticket buyer information safe by initially allowing anonymity when they move from the ORBIT server to the box office purchase.  The orchestra will still be able to gather the same information they always would via their box office software, but it isn’t linked to the ORBIT database.

Jon continued by saying that due to the vast array of orchestra ticketing services and third party application being used by many orchestras it isn’t feasible at this time to link the ORBIT database with all of those different options.  But that’s an issue they’re currently attempting to resolve.

As for ORBIT’s future, it seems to have the same issues to deal with that Concert Companion will face.  The technology that allows their application to function isn’t unique enough to prevent a would-be competitor for creating a similar product.

What’s more, if one of the large third part ticket selling services, such as Ticketmaster, decide to develop their own ORBIT like software, they’ll be able to attach it to their sales database without any difficulty. 

If ORBIT can solve this problem sooner than later, they may be able to corner their niche market before anyone will even think about creating a competing application.


Both products are creative technology based solutions to the problem of audience development.  ORBIT appears to be more about promoting individual social connections surrounding the concert experience while Concert Companion looks to enhance a patron’s concert experience by means of an individual education tool.

Personally, I’ll always favor an approach directed more toward developing interpersonal relationships.  Ideally, those relationships will include at least one individual capable of serving as a sort of educational enhancement tool themselves.

However, if Concert Companion can find a way to make their idea more economically viable and more flexible to use than currently exists, then the combination of the two would be a powerful weapon in the fight to create a new audience.

Imagine; a socially driven concert experience that allows patrons to enhance their enjoyment and understanding of the music without having to feel ignorant.  All of which facilitates the orchestra with selling more tickets, increasing their marketing and donor base, and making themselves relevant in their communities.

Now that would be a good product.

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.

Related Posts