Recently, two orchestras located on opposite coasts have shared some PR spotlight for the same reason: ticket prices…
On the East Coast, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has been drawing attention to a new subscription ticket program that offers discounted tickets thanks to a $1 million grant from the PNC Foundation. On the West Coast, the Seattle Symphony found itself in local newspapers thanks to a steep hike in subscription ticket prices for targeted seating areas.
Ticket price has been an ongoing issue here at Adaptistration and these two issues are representative of the discussion.
To begin with, kudos to Baltimore for seeing the light and actively seeking funds to subsidize ticket prices. However, I think some of the comments from BSO President and CEO, Paul Meecham, in the 02/27/2007 edition of the Baltimore Sun were a bit over the top, such as:
“The staff came up with a really radical approach to pricing to encourage more people [to come] into the hall,”
Henry Fogel, president and CEO of the American Symphony Orchestra League, got in on the act as well. The Sun quoted him as saying
“a number of orchestras, small and large, have begun to take seriously the whole issue of pricing.”
Radical approach? Orchestras taking the issues of ticket pricing seriously? I’m not certain how radical of an approach locating funding to subsidize ticket prices is; perhaps calling it obvious would be more accurate. Furthermore, I’m not the least bit surprised to hear that orchestras are just beginning to wake up to the fact that the average ticket price is just too high.
In fact, the idea of subsidizing ticket prices through capital level fundraising efforts has been examined in detail here as far back as 2004:
“The ‘Big Endowment’ idea…would serve to significantly reduce ticket prices, resulting in higher average attendance figures.”
Furthermore, there have been a handful of orchestras out there actively looking for sponsors to help subsidize ticket prices for targeted audiences for at least a few years:
As such, the idea isn’t as radical as folks in the BSO might want to believe. In fact, the idea has been scrutinized right here at Adaptistration (as well as being addressed in some of the other fine music blogs here at Arts Journal). Best of all, access to all of this terrific information is free of charge; no membership dues, no user fees, and no subscription fees:
“Fortunately, the administrators at the SPCO are attempting to lessen the impact of lower ticket revenues by following one of those dynamic paths often espoused here at Adaptistration: subsidize the loss of ticket revenue through dedicated sponsors.”
The Sun article reports that the BSO began to find funding for subsidized ticket costs in January, 2007. Fortunately, the old adage of “better late than never” is as applicable as ever:
“As such, orchestras should be initiating capital campaigns -right now- designed to subsidize ticket revenue with income revenue.”
In the end, it is good to see a group like Baltimore take the idea to heart. Apparently, initial reports from The Baltimore Sun indicate the program is working out as they had hoped.
At the same time, it would have been good to see Baltimore earmark some of those funds to help subsidize single ticket prices as opposed to just targeted subscriptions. Furthermore, it would have been better to offer subscribing patrons more flexibility instead of only offering pre-selected performances or a six concert minimum to create their own subscription. Hopefully, the BSO will continue to find a renewable funding resource to make those changes in future offerings.
Moving over to the other coast, the Seattle Symphony bore the brunt of negative press when the 03/01/2007 edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that SSO subscribers were “up in arms over new ticket prices.” In particular, the article reports that some SSO subscribers saw extreme increases in subscription prices,
“…the third tier (fourth level) was hit, in some cases, with increases of more than 300 percent.”
The article goes on to report that the SSO asserts that “the pricing structure for the new season was done after careful thought and analysis.” However, the orchestra is offering some of the patrons who were targeted with the 300 percent price increase options for purchasing 2007-2008 subscriptions for “a reduced price.”
Unfortunately, the article doesn’t report what the “reduced price” actually is so I contacted the SSO for some clarification (after all, a 299 percent increase is a reduced price compared to a 300 percent increase). According to Rosalie Contreras, SSO Assistant Director of Public Relations, the reduced price 2007-2008 season subscription seats mentioned in the article “are equal in cost to third tier subscription price for 2006-2007 season.”
Whether or not these seats on the orchestra floor will be suitable to displaced subscribers will be a matter of preference. Personally, I like to sit in different seats for each concert, a habit some box office managers refer to as a PITA. Fortunately for them I don’t buy subscriptions.
Back in the 2004-2005 season the Boston Symphony (the other East Coast BSO) encountered a similar backlash from ticket buyers when they instituted sharp increases in ticket prices. Undoubtedly, Seattle won’t be the last ensemble to get caught in the backlash of a patron revolt over steep price hikes unless the business begins to approach the concept of subsidizing lowered ticket prices as compulsory step toward survival.
In this respect, each professional orchestra needs to begin crafting plans to locate and acquire funding sources to help indefinitely lower ticket prices. In fact, the ASOL could be instrumental by using their authority and clout to launch a business wide awareness program. Additionally, they can use connections with philanthropic and corporate donors to push ticket subsidy programs.
Seeing that the business is constantly looking for a silver bullet to help vanquish the evil of a steadily shrinking audience, subsidized ticket prices are as close as they’ll ever get (think of like a pewter bullet). At the very least, it will give them some breathing room to begin experimenting with other forms of long term audience building/retention: word of mouth. But that’s a topic for April when the 2007 Take A Friend To Orchestra program gets into high gear.
Regardless of what the rest of the business decides to do, the topic of subsidized ticket prices will remain in the limelight here at Adaptistration.