Knight And Day Part 1

Without a doubt, the Knight Foundation’s Magic of Music program has had a sincere impact on the orchestras business. Several weeks ago, the foundation released a 59 page summary report authored by Dr. Thomas Wolf and after taking the time to go through the entire report I have a few thoughts…

I feel the report was well written and did a good job at giving the reader a strong sense of what transpired over the decade the project operated. At the same time, there were a few places where I became puzzled between how the program reached certain conclusions based on data they gathered. To begin with, this installment will focus on the former aspects.

Free = Worthless?

Initially, the report generated a good deal of attention throughout the mainstream media as well as the usual suspects of online outlets. Many of those entries focused on itemized points contained in the report’s summary. However, I think much of the current discussion about the report’s findings have some fundamental disconnect with what the report actually presented.

The most glaring example of this is in regard to the report’s findings on the merit of using free concerts to generate new ticket buyers. Much of what’s been written about this point states that this is a failed notion and orchestras should essentially abandon such initiatives.

Nevertheless, that’s not what I came away with at all after reading the report. In particular, the report addresses this issue in the summary conclusions on page 50:

“Free programming and outreach do not turn people into ticket buyers. If the Knight program dispelled one myth, it was the long-held axiom that the way to develop new ticket buyers was to give them free tickets or programming. Free and subsidized outreach can be valuable for its own sake and is part of an orchestra’s service to its community. But it is not a technique to market expensive tickets. Similarly, new audiences can be attracted to orchestra programs using various methods. Yet there is little evidence to suggest that significant numbers of them can be retained without more sustained followup strategies.”

Although the opening sentence declares that free concerts do not create ticket buyers, I came away with the impression that the remaining paragraph goes on to say that this is only the case when orchestras approach such initiatives from a one-shot marketing perspective. Similarly, the conclusion does state that free and subsidized concerts should be a part of the orchestra’s service to its community but it falls short of making an obvious connection between attracting patrons for free concerts and failing to retain them at full ticket prices.

Isn’t it obvious that the issues of converting patrons into ticket buyers has more to do with the average cost of tickets than the merits of using free concerts to attract patrons in the first place? At the same time, I do think the conclusion does a good job at pointing out the necessity of following through on such initiatives, which is something just about every organization could stand to improve.

As such, I hope any subsequent conversation on this topic moves away from the black and white debate of “free = worthless” which appears to dominate most discussions I’ve seen so far on this issue. Instead, the discussion should focus on designing and implementing adequate follow-up efforts as well as increased efforts toward subsidizing lowered ticket prices.

Discovering More About Who Doesn’t Attend Concerts

I thought one of the most beneficial conclusions presented in the report was the importance of orchestras increasing the amount of market research they conduct on those who do not regularly attend concerts. On page 50, the report sums up this point in a simple sentence:

“Orchestras need to do more research on those who do not attend their concerts.”

Unfortunately, this is always more difficult to do than discovering more about current audience members. It is expensive and time consuming work and most organizations don’t have the resources available to mount effective efforts. I was glad to see the report endorsing the idea that philanthropic foundations direct more resources toward helping orchestras embark on this type of research and then provide additional support for designing and implementing initiatives based on research findings.

Education Reform

Another useful component of the project is the classical music consumer segmentation study. In particular, the study discovered educational concerts which focus on quantity over quality have little impact on building a future audience.

On page 33 the report states:

“For orchestral music education programs, there were equally startling implications. Large concert formats for school children had been the dominant form of educational presentation for decades based on the presumption that such exposure was the best way to produce the next generation of ticket buyers. Yet there was little evidence that such programs had the desired effect. On the other hand, participatory education programs – ones in which children actually played instruments and sang in choruses – were strongly correlated with later concert attendance.”

I’ve always believed this was the case but those beliefs were based on a small amount of research along with a great deal of observational knowledge. At the same time, I fear that many orchestras won’t take this lesson to heart because current grant guidelines will keep them locked into the wag-the-dog syndrome of demonstrating educational relevancy through cumulative numbers of children exposed.

Yes, children need to be exposed to classical music but most orchestras could do a far better job than they currently do with regard to meaningful interaction with school age children. Hopefully, the Knight Report will arm them with enough useful data so they can begin to change how they approach education grant proposals. Additionally, I hope philanthropic and government grantors will place increased emphasis on this data when creating evaluation guidelines for education grants.

One interesting side component to the classical music consumer segmentation study is identifying the fact that individuals are more likely to be ticket buyers if they had a history with what the report defines as “participatory education programs.”

In addition to mentioning this in the above quote from page 33, the author must have considered this to be a significant discovery because he mentions it, along with the disconnect between ticket buyers and traditional education programs, again on page50:

“There is a lot of evidence that participatory music programs – including instrumental lessons and choral programs – are correlated with later attendance and ticket buying at orchestral concerts. Traditional exposure programs, such as orchestras’ concert hall offerings for children, seem to have little long lasting effect on later behavior.”

The report made it clear that there is real potential in continued research in this area. For example, I’ve often written about the untapped potential between most professional orchestras and their regional community, civic, and youth orchestras.

I think it would be fascinating for the Knight foundation to fund additional research to determine what percentage of individuals and/or families from community, civic, and youth ensembles attend their local professional orchestra and what motivated them to attend the professional orchestra concert in the first place. It would seem like that would be an easy marketing source for most orchestras to capitalize on and also conform with some of Knight’s early research; i.e., these individuals are currently active in “participatory music programs”.

I remember that during my time living in the Baltimore area, there were no less than four community and civic ensembles within 60 miles of downtown and at least three youth orchestras. If you assume that each ensemble maintains no less than 80 players that works out to 560 potential individual ticket buyers. Those figures can double or even triple if you figure in spouses, parents, friends, etc.

It would have been fascinating if one of the Magic Of Music’s participating orchestras created a proposal that attempted to explore finding ways to capitalize on creating and maintaining relationships with participants from their local community, civic, and youth ensembles. [If anyone from the Knight Foundation is reading this and finds the idea intriguing, let me know and we’ll find a way to make it happen here in the Chicago area]


In addition to the issues examined in this article, I thought there was much, much more material that was both useful and intriguing. As a quick example, I was glad to read that the foundation was discouraged to discover that most of the initial orchestra grant proposals didn’t include any input from the music director or musicians. For all the talk about inclusive behavior within orchestras, we are obviously a long way off from being inclusive. Perhaps it is high time to begin defining what exactly constitutes “inclusive” in the first place.

I was equally pleased to read that the foundation was frustrated at the lack of participation and interest among music directors. Unfortunately, they didn’t do much about it (a mistake they readily acknowledged in the report).

However, if you have had the opportunity to read the report, I would be interested in reading about what struck you as some of the more positive aspects. As such, I invite you to take a moment and submit a comment with your thoughts and observations.

Tomorrow’s installment will examine some of the report’s more puzzling elements.

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 “Knight And Day Part 1”

  1. There is definitely a danger, and I’ve seen this already, that some will read the report and conclude that it is saying there is no point to free or subsidized programming. That is not the case – as you point out, all it says is “don’t expect free and/or subsidized programming to turn people into consumers of expensive tickets.”

    The report goes on to say that orchestras must pay more attention to being relevant within their own communities. In some communities, free outreach programming might be a major part of how that is accomplished.

  2. Good points Paul. In fact, I’ve been meaning to write about a program I experienced first hand this summer at the Grant Park music festival that used orchestra docents to help capitalize on the increased contact they have with patrons.

    I’m thrilled to see they are beginning to train and capitalize on docent interaction as that’s something I’ve been advocating now since 2004:

    For those who may be unaware, the Grant Park Music Festival is open to the public free of charge and they regularly attract three to eight thousand patrons per concert.

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