Using Good News The Wrong Way

In a recent article of the Los Angeles Times by Christopher Reynolds, the increase in the number of tickets sold by the Los Angeles Philharmonic certainly paints the organization is a positive light.

The article points out that over the past three years, the orchestra has increased the number of tickets it sells (181,457 in 2002-2003 season to 302,428 in the 2004-2005 season) along with expanding the number of performances it offers (from 98 in the 2002-2003 season to 165 in the 2004-2005 season).

Using those figures, the LA Phil has experienced an overall increase in ticket sales of approximately 66% (that figure was originally 16%; thanks to new Adaptistration reader Brady Westwater for pointing out that good old fashioned typo). That is absolutely good news and the LA Phil should be very proud of their accomplishments. In a perfect world, the LA Phil will continue to enjoy attendance figures of 95% or better without having to reduce their number of performances for years to come.

This is certainly good news for the LA Phil, a double digit increase in overall ticket sales over the past few years while also increasing the number of overall performances is a wonderful accomplishment.

So how can such good news get used in a negative way?

For the simple reason that the article seems to imply that in order to improve its 60% capacity rate, the LAP built their new hall with 831 less seats (or a 27% reduction in the number of available seats). Keep in mind the article does not state that overtly, but that’s what I inferred.

The danger here is whether or not other orchestras with capacity rate figures as bad as the LA Phil’s used to be might deduce that in order to improve those numbers, they should simply move to smaller halls. It is another case of how universal application of a particular case can be dangerous (a topic recently explored here at Adaptistration).

What if a middle or small budget orchestra, such as Richmond (VA), who perhaps only sells 60% of performs in a 2,000 seat hall decides to move into a smaller 1,100 seat venue while simultaneously increasing the number of performances a bit as a solution to adjust sagging ticket sales? They could publicly say that they are following a proven strategy implemented by the LA Phil by moving into a hall with only 1,100 seats.

Unfortunately, the acoustical differences between typical halls which seat 3,086 and 2,255 is much less than the differences between venues which seat 2,000 and 1,100. The fundamental differences between the latter pair of halls would force an orchestra to radically change its artistic offerings whereas based on the programming from the LA Phil over the past three seasons, there have been no appreciable cut backs at all.

On the contrary, the LA Phil has actually expanded their artistic offerings as a full 80+ member symphonic orchestra simply because their new 2,255 seat venue is well within the minimum specifications for such offerings. Conversely, a 1,100 venue would not begin to meet the acoustic needs for a full 80+ member symphonic orchestra and is better suited to something like a 35-50 member chamber orchestra.

You might think comparisons and rationalizations such as this do not occur in this business but it is more common than you might think. Nevertheless, in March, 2005 I posted an article which explores this very same topic from a different perspective. In the end, it demonstrates how spinning negative institutional statistics into something positive can be detrimental to an orchestral organization.

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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2 thoughts on “Using Good News The Wrong Way

  1. I am not certain if I agree there is a negative spin in the LA Times article (which has got to be a first for me…), but I do agree about the dangers of making universal judgements based on individual case histories.

    What does puzzle me, though, is how you arrived at the figure of a 16% increase in the number of tickets sold by the LA Phil. As I calculate the numbers – the rate of increase is substantially higher. What is it that I am missing?

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