Another Casualty In the Subscription War

The once rock solid foundations of rigid subscription packages are beginning to crumble. Actually, they’ve already crumbled, turned to sand, and the economic model built atop of their revenue streams is sliding into oblivion.

Unfortunately, most orchestras haven’t been prepared to replace the revenue from those ticket sales or wean themselves off of using that income to pay for current debts. A few orchestras are even attempting to grasp the sand even tighter in a vain attempt to hold it in place. 

In Pittsburgh the Symphony president, Larry Tamburri, was even quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as saying:

“Subscriptions are the lifeblood of the orchestra. The whole idea of flex passes are clearly not the way to go, and we are going to emphasize subscriptions,”

But this will only prolong the inevitable.  People simply don’t want to obligate themselves to such long term commitments and the savings factor for subscriptions as compared to single ticket purchases is not as big of a selling point as it used to be.

A recent casualty in the subscription war is the Wichita Symphony.  Recently, the Wichita Eagle reported that the symphony has had to cancel two of its traditional subscription concerts due to low interest and declining sales figures for subscriptions.

I contacted the Wichita Symphony’s executive director, Mitchell Berman, to find out more about that situation.  He confirmed that low subscription sales were to blame for the reduction in their concert season as was a drop in endowment returns.  He said,

“We’re working on ways to replace those lost revenue streams and we want to get those concerts back in our regular schedule by the 06-07 season.”

Mitchell did say that they haven’t embarked on any official efforts toward making single ticket sales less expensive but they were moving toward that direction regardless if that’s where they wanted to be heading or not.  When talking about traditional subscription sales Mitchell said,

“With something that’s been a part of our lives for so long, it’s hard to let it go.”

And I doubt Mitchell is lonely in his way of thinking.  Subscription income has been the “lifeblood of the industry” as Larry was quoted as observing, but there isn’t enough plasma in supply to keep this patient from bleeding out.

The answer to the problem isn’t easy but it is necessary.  Orchestras have to start finding methods for making single ticket sales more cost effective while at the same time getting as much out of remaining subscription sales as possible.  The best solution so far seems to be a combination of offering shorter, flexible subscriptions while simultaneously pushing less costly measures to sell single tickets.

Mitchell did say that in Wichita, they are looking to launch a new orchestra web site designed to promote single ticket sales.  And that’s a good idea given the conclusions from the 1st Annual Adaptistration Orchestra Website Review

Another positive note in Wichita is they have had encouraging success with implementing some of the new concert series they’ve created from being a participant in the Knight Foundation’s Magic of Music program.  Between those gains and the future plans for expanded internet sales, they’ll hopefully replace the lost income and get those concerts reinstated and the musicians playing again.  In a per service orchestra like Wichita, loosing two concerts from their season is a big blow to player income so time is certainly an issue.

Although I hope Wichita will be the final orchestra I’ll read about who finds it necessary to cut back on their season due to slumping subscription sales I doubt it will be.  What I would like to read about instead is an orchestra that successfully replaces all of their traditional subscription revenue with flex passes and other single ticket income.

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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