Sign Of The Times

An article appearing the 03/15/06 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that the Pittsburgh Symphony is experiencing some negative feedback from some long time subscribers over losing their accustomed seats when they renewed their subscriptions. According to the article, the conflicts are the result of a new subscription program implemented by the symphony…


Seasoned subscribers are at the core of just about every orchestra audience; their longevity is representative of their resolve to be a part of the organization through good times and bad. Maneuvering them into a position where they have no option but to lose something they’ve demonstrated is valuable to them will assuredly result in some hurt feelings.

The article reports that the PSO maintains many of the dislocated subscribers have moved to better seats. Unfortunately, the term “better” is more often than not a subjective term. Although I’m curious to know how the PSO qualifies one seat as being better than another, it really doesn’t matter because most human beings are creatures of habit and they don’t appreciate unexpected change. Veteran subscribers tend to get attached to their seats in a number of different ways; one connection often overlooked is the social connection to a seat.

In particular, subscribers will build relationships with their surrounding ticket buyers if there are a great enough number of regular subscribers who sit in the same section. Over time, they recognize each other, start to have conversations, and hopefully develop stronger ties to the organization; or at least that’s what orchestras should hope takes place. They should foster those sorts of interpersonal connections between their patrons and for many of those patrons, sitting in the same seat helps build relationships.

Then there are the dynamic consequences; moving long time subscribers out of their seats runs the risk of losing much more than just a potential subscription sale. Those long time subscribers usually contribute to annual fund campaigns and they are the usual suspects when it comes to audience members inviting friends to go to concerts with them (oft times the most cost-effective source of marketing an orchestra can employ). If they are upset over losing their seats, all of those other related benefits run a high risk level of disappearing.

An unfortunate fact of life is people are typically better motivated to complain than offer praise; apathy is a side dish best served with contentment than disgruntlement. As such, upsetting 3% of your core audience can have far greater impact than a 3% reduction in earned and contributed income.

In the end, I think there’s greater value when a patron enjoys a variety of seats throughout a concert season, however, I realize this is likely a minority viewpoint. Nevertheless, you can’t change the way people feel in the here-and-now in one fell swoop. Instead, organizations will need to allow them to keep what they revel in while slowly guiding a new core audience in a different direction which will one day take their place.

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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1 thought on “Sign Of The Times

  1. Your assessment of the social value of seats is absolutely right. When I worked at New York City Ballet, subscribers asked if they could leave “their seats” in their will to loved ones! I suggest we offer subscribers the opportunity to move when “better” seats appear and let the subscriber make the choice.

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