What Orchestras Can Learn From Mega Stores

Fellow AJ blogger, Martha Bayles, published an interesting piece yesterday.  It focuses on the mass marketing efforts by two large mega corporations which sell entertainment media: Blockbuster Video and Barnes & Noble booksellers.

Martha examines how online and mail order video rental services are taking a noticeable bite out of Blockbuster’s bottom line.  One of the reasons she states people are beginning to prefer the alternative source is because the experience of renting a video from Blockbuster is akin to getting dental work without Novocain.

She then compares that unpleasant Blockbuster experience to the pleasant inviting experience most people find at Barnes & Noble.  Even though that business uses many of the same techniques as Blockbuster to attract customers it provides them with something besides simply a product, an enjoyable retail experience (Wal-Mart take note, American’s are slowing  taking back ground toward a civilized shopping experience!).

Martha sums up the article with the following passage:

“My point is simple. Instead of interpreting the difference between Blockbuster and Borders as proof of a McLuhanesque gap between noble print and debased electronic media, maybe we should think of it as the difference between a company that batters its customers into submission and one that understands that most people will actually pay for the privilege of feeling civilized.”

This is a brilliant and simple conclusion that sums up many problems which the orchestra industry has dealt with over the past several decades.  Orchestras have always, and still are, sandbagging ticket buyers and patrons into experiencing their product in a cold, unwelcoming setting they select. 

Even the way we build most concert halls forces people to experience orchestra concerts a particular way. Many of them are stodgy, uncomfortable, and unwelcoming (and God forbid you have somewhere comfortable to sit down and relax in the lobby). 

Let’s get really simple here, how cool would it be to simply transfer a B&N atmosphere to an orchestra hall (along with the requisite Starbucks counter)?  Creating an environment which promotes interpersonal interaction among a variety of socio-economic classes can only be a good thing in the long run. 

Instead of directing all of those expensive mass marketing campaigns (and related marketing revenue) at simply putting butts in the seats, how about giving them a first rate artistic experience coupled with a comfortable environment which in combination will repeatedly bring them back?  If that doesn’t happen soon, people may very well restrict their consumption of performing arts culture to something that comes in the mail.

So how about it, let’s have everyone in the orchestra business take Martha’s “Most people will actually pay for the privilege of feeling civilized” statement to heart.  Imagine the positive change that can come from a point of view like that.

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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