It’s More About Ticket Prices Than You Think

Back at the beginning of the month, Philadelphia Inquirer music critic, Peter Dobrin, published one of the best articles on classical music and orchestras I’ve read in the mainstream media this year. Unfortunately, it was swallowed up by the more pressing news events of Hurricane Katrina. Nevertheless, it’s worth examining now…

Peter’s piece focused on the cost of orchestra tickets. That topic is no stranger around here; there were several articles from the beginning of 2004 which touched on this issue.

Peter’s article focused on the astronomical increase in ticket prices for the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1975 through 2005. He discovered and reported this about the change in ticket prices,

“Tickets were listed at $2, $3.50, $4, $4.50, $5, $7, $7.50, $8 – with the top ticket price a big $8.50…The middle range of ticket prices in 1975 was especially accessible for the middle class. Adjusted for inflation, the $2 ticket would be $7.50 today; the $3.50 ticket would be $13.11; $4 would be $15; $4.50 would be $16.86; $5 would be $18.73; $7 would be $26.22; $7.50 would be $28.09.”

At the end of the article Peter concludes,

“The answer isn’t more popular programming (though that’s a worthy subject on its own) or punchier adjectives in brochures. It just might be that cheaper tickets would do more to fill houses than an award-winning advertising campaign.”

He goes on to suggest that in order to get those ticket prices down, orchestras may need to find subsidies through government grants, corporate sponsors, or private philanthropists. Personally, that’s a great idea and something orchestras shouldn’t shrug off as an idealistic solution from someone who only “writes” about classical music.

I’ve been arguing a very similar set of points here for years. In all that time I’ve only found one great example of an orchestra who found a sponsor to subsidize lower ticket prices for 13-29 year old listeners, the Toronto Symphony and their tsoundcheck program. Is it any surprise that Toronto has enjoyed some significant success with this program?

One of the best reasons why orchestras need to focus more on this initiative is because of the ever increasing competition among nonprofit organizations for grant money. In Peter’s article he mentions a similar point,

“Development departments comprising dozens of people compete more aggressively than ever for private and corporate philanthropy.”

Unfortunately, orchestras have been moving the opposite direction and raising ticket prices in attempts to fill in the income gaps. Instead, they need to focus fundraising efforts around the idea of subsidizing ticket prices in order to remove the economic hurdle facing the middle and lower economic classes.

One of Peter’s key suggestions, a sort of bridge subsidy campaign to give orchestras time to develop a permanent ticket subsidy endowment, is right on the mark. It may take 20 years to complete but it’s worth it, and better yet, it’s no different than most capital projects.

It’s well known that donors like to give to brick-and-motor projects over endowments. So why not approach ticket subsidies as a brick-and-motor project? It has all of the slick “staying power” angles that development personnel are successful in using to attract brick-and-motor donors as well as improved pitch appeal over a standard concert sponsorship. Wrap that up in a sexy PR presentation and you’ve got a winning fundraising offer.

There are so many great viewpoints associated with this idea, but given the current trend to scale every last perceived penny out of the house (at the sake of higher attendance figures) I wonder which orchestra will be brave enough and be the first to pursue this with everything they have?

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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5 thoughts on “It’s More About Ticket Prices Than You Think

  1. Thank you Drew (and Peter). With your articles in mind, I phoned the National Symphony Orchestra’s Marketing Department late this morning to see whether it would be possible to get a promotional discount on this coming Thursday’s NSO concert featuring Hovhaness’s Symphony #2 (Mysterious Mountain), the Elgar Cello Concerto, and Dvorak #6. The prices were listed at $44 to $79, with the partial view or behind the orchestra $20 seats already sold out. (Actually, there was still one $20 ticket available, but I was planning to attend with my not-presently-employed spouse.) The Web-site also listed a “Promo Code” space.

    When I spoke with M.-E. in KC/NSO marketing, she politely informed me that the Promotional Code was currently only for NSO subscribers, students, and “corporations” (?). I politely informed her that my guest and I were neither students nor corporations (though I once was an NSO mini-subscription subscriber).

    She kindly offered to do some research and to call me back. When she did, she informed me that if, on Thursday, I obtained a copy of the Washington Post Express newspaper, I could therein find a special “Promo Code” offering 20% off of orchestra seats-only. That means we could sit in the first two rows of the orchestra for $88 (including the 10% on-line ticketing fee), in the prime orchestra area for $132, or in the good but not prime orchestra area for $114. (Sitting in the non-promoted rear Second Tier Center would set me back $97 (exclusive of transportation and associated attendence costs.) The average for these four options is $108 for a pair of tickets (exclusive of associated costs)…

    We’ll be in Europe, I hope, for 4 weeks over the New Years holiday period, and I think that we’ll do our orchestra concert attending there instead;, where culture remains affordable to the working educated middle-class.

  2. Fascinating stuff. I have long believed that the arts take the wrong things from business (mission statements, focus groups etc) and ignore some of the valuable stuff. Price elasticity testing is one. It’s not too hard to do tests with targeted offers.
    Back in the 80s, quite a few companies in consumer products discovered that they had their pricing wrong. they had got in the habit of pushing prices in a time of high inflation. If they went to high, inflation would fix it. When inflation stopped many were hanging out there and had to cut prices – some did it with great success.
    And whereas the model for most businesses is long term profit maximisation, I suggest the model for an orchestra is to fill as many seats as possible, while raising enough money to survive in the long term. That gives quite a different pricing strategy.

  3. Isn’t this the absolute first lesson we learned in economics class in high school? When demand drops (i.e., the halls aren’t full), either supply or prices must fall. Obviously with a finite supply of seats available, prices must drop until each seat is filled.

    It’s a little simplistic, and of course there are nuances this doesn’t address, but orchestras’ excuse has always seemed to be, “If we price our tickets too low, people won’t think it’s worth buying.” I think we’ve proven time and again that we ARE worth buying, but people just plain don’t feel like buying $50 tickets for something that’s basically as common as a movie in terms of how many times it’s offered.

  4. I am intrigued by your “bricks and mortar” approach to lowering ticket prices. I wonder if the arts could take a cue from education and create “endowed chairs” — specific seats that have a patron’s name on it. The patron contributes the difference between the actual ticket price and a more reasonable ticket price.

  5. Interesting notion Scott, orchestras already have endowed chairs for musicians and I know many similar projects for seats in the hall. those usually come about during the initial construction process or during major renovations.

    I suppose one of the tricks for creating an ongoing endowed seat would be calculating the cost of subsidizing a seat over a given period of time (10, 20, 30+ years). Although I think an all encompassing ticket endowment might be more flexible it’s certainly and idea worth examining.

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