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?