For TAFTO, It Depends On What The Meaning Of The Word ‘Is’ Is

Quick: define the term “orchestral core audience”. Apparently, TAFTO 2006 has sparked a great debate among some in the cultural blog-o-sphere over the concept of just how much impact a program such as TAFTO can have on the overall business development of classical music…


“TAFTO is a cute idea, but you’ll never build a new audience from something like that.” I heard dismissive statements along those lines shortly after announcing the first TAFTO initiative in 2005 and a steady stream of similar statements has flowed across my voice mail and email in-box ever since. I usually try to respond by saying something along the lines of “It depends on how you define an audience for classical music”.

To begin with, you have to go back to the original question: define the term “orchestral core audience”. Traditionally, orchestras described this group as the individuals who purchase large subscription packages on an annual basis and make regular donations.

At its high point, this group represented nearly 60% of an orchestra’s respective seating capacity (keep in mind the extremes for this percentage fluctuate a great deal depending on which organizations you examine). The remaining 40% of patrons were a mix of one shot wonders and Johnny-come-latelies who floated in and out of concert attendance.

The reality of today’s market is that a 60% average figure of regularly returning patrons like the type described above has shrunk. How much depends on which ensemble you’re examining (older, big budget ensembles typically do better than their less established, smaller budget peers) but the overall industry average is closer to 30% of respective max capacity.

The big question at this point in history is how you want to define “core audience”. Is it still the group of die-hard ticket buyers or is it the group of casual ticket buyers who only attend three-five concerts a year, or is it something in-between? In fact, should we continue using traditional definitions or is it appropriate to re-examine the issue from the ground up?

Going About the Task
In order to divine an answer to this question I think it’s useful to take some guidance from a nontraditional source which has nearly limitless resources to throw at sociological based questions such as this: the U.S. Armed Forces.

I know you probably didn’t see that one coming but stick with me on this, it’s worth it because there are some important lessons the U.S. Armed Forces have learned which apply to the orchestra business. I had the good fortune to take a Military Sociology class about 15 years ago (which I enrolled in just for fun). The professor was one of the leading sociologists in the country who also specialized in internal military operational history (and we think music degrees are limiting).

Among the lessons I remember learning in that course were 1) the military throws a staggering amount of money and research into internal problems and 2) not all of the results have to do with killing people and are therefore, worthwhile to other aspects more closely related to the orchestra business.

In particular, we spent a great deal of time studying the historical development of how the U.S. Armed Forces determines how many and what type of officers it should retain at any given time. Prior to W.W. II the U.S. maintained a very small standing army commanded by a smaller core of officers who, by and large, attended the same military academies and only tooled up during times of immediate danger. Following W.W. II that policy changed and the U.S. Armed Forces adopted a system of conscription (AKA “the draft”) in order to maintain high enough level of troop numbers which they could use to identify and train officers.

At the same time, the U.S. Armed Forces became very concerned with sociological issues. One of those issues they studied was how to prevent a large core of career officers from becoming the dominant percentage in the ratio of cumulative active duty officers (too many career officers for a prolonged period of time threaten the stability of a civilian ruled military). Known as “The Mix”, the ratio of short-term officers vs. career officers fluctuated between 80/20 and 75/25 (as compared to the 20/80 ratio before conscription & W.W. II).

However, when the U.S. Armed Forces adopted an all-volunteer force policy in 1976, “The Mix” became a problem. In a short period of four years “The Mix” ratio changed to as much as 40/60 in favor of career officers. Military planners actively sought to solve this problem and initiated a new series of sociological studies designed to identify a good ratio for “The Mix” that would also be obtainable with an all-volunteer force..

By the early 1980’s, the studies determined that a stable ratio capable of preventing military dominance over civilian rule shouldn’t exceed 60% short-term officers vs. 40% career officers. As a result the military began to cap the number of academy graduates and promote OCS (Officer Candidate School) programs and increase lower ranking benefits and pay in order to boost the numbers of short-term officers.

It only took the U.S. Armed Forces a few years to achieve the ideal “60/40 Mix” and they have (roughly) maintained that ratio ever since.

So How Does All Of This Fit Into Orchestra Management & Didn’t This Have Some Sort Of Connection To TAFTO 2006?
You’ll have to come back on Monday to discover the answers to those questions. However, I will say that it has everything to do with process and perception.

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 “For TAFTO, It Depends On What The Meaning Of The Word ‘Is’ Is”

  1. Oh, that class you took sounds fantastic! It would not have occurred to me to take it during college, but today…!

    I was also wondering who the core audience is at this point. Maybe I will have some thoughts.

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