Little To No Value? I Don’t Think So…

It never ceases to astonish me how many managers (and even some musicians) have expressed the opinion that free concerts have little to no value. Nevertheless, when implemented properly, free concerts have the potential to do more for developing an audience and raising the level of appreciation for live orchestral music than just about any other tool available today. Case in point, the Grant Park Music Festival featuring the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus…


Throughout the course of 10 weeks each summer, the Grant Park Music Festival attracts tens of thousands of listeners who are exposed to first rate performances. Furthermore, they cultivate and retain these listeners even though they program some of the more challenging works from traditional repertoire as well as quite a bit of new music.

At the heart of its success is the fact that the GPMF is perhaps the only large budget music festival in the country which is subsidized mostly by government funds. As a result, concerts and rehearsals are free to the public, and those concerts draw as many as 8,000 listeners.

I could go on and on but instead of pouring words all over the topic, perhaps it is better to let some pictures do the talking:

The following photographs (click to enlarge) illustrate just how popular GPMF concerts are among the Chicago public (and tourists). These photographs are of a concert from the 2006 season which featured Vine’s Percussion Symphony and Orff’s Carmina Burana. The crowds were so big that I had to take two separate panoramas, one for the fixed seats (top) and one for the lawn seats (bottom). Just in case you think everyone was there for the Orff, think again. I witnessed more people milling about or leaving during the Orff than I did during the Vine.

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Not only are the concerts popular but crowds form early. The photograph below (click to enlarge) illustrates just how many listeners show up early to stake out their preferred seats. The photo was taken approximately 45 minutes before a concert (and during an evening where it was expected to rain).

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Finally, orchestra rehearsals tend to draw a large number of locals and tourists every day they rehearse. It isn’t unusual to find a few hundred listeners there in the afternoon enjoying a picnic, the lunch hour, or just stopping by because they heard the music as illustrated in the picture below:

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In fact, the GTMF managers noticed so many people attending rehearsals that they initiated a volunteer docent program to interact with the afternoon crowds, which is illustrated in the following photographs (click to enlarge).

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The fact that Chicago stands alone among American cities to provide such an invaluable city resource – free orchestral concerts – is a shame. Of course, why would any city and/or state government find value in such an idea if the managers from their resident orchestras don’t espouse the value of free concerts on cultural enrichment?

In the end, this business needs to begin pushing for more large-scale free summer music concerts patterned after Grant Park. The politicians may kick and scream along the way but if you wait for them to do it on their own, it will never get done (and if Chicago politicians ever decide to cut GPMF funding, may God have mercy on their souls).

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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6 thoughts on “Little To No Value? I Don’t Think So…

  1. I love free concerts, and hope that I hear about many more. I do think that they are a great place to bring people into the Concert Hall. However, as I’ve written about, You must be careful not to think that just because a big concert like this works on the large scale, doesn’t mean it will necessarily work on the small scale. Community Orchestras, Chamber groups and Solo concerts are more likely to attract a crowd through good advertising and charging a fee, as opposed to free, or donation concerts.

    Hi Ben, thanks for the input and pointing out the differences between large and small size ensembles but I don’t know if there is any relevant comparison between a full 90+ member orchestra and the size groups you mention. Moreover, the point of this piece is to address the notion among some in the business that free orchestra concerts don’t have much value for the institution or the business in general whereas we could have an entirely separate
    (and worthwhile) discussion with regard to smaller ensembles and soloists. ~ Drew McManus

  2. My question would be: how many of the people who attend the free concerts come back and pay money for tickets. The Knight study showed that very few people who come to free concerts will pony up for the paid ones. However, that being said, there is a value to free concerts, but the problem is that funding is a major obstacle. Here in Portland we in years past did three major outdoor free concerts in various parks. We now do two because the City of Portland cut funding for one of the neighborhood parks concerts. Word from our development department is that there is little to zero draw from these concerts to the concert hall.

    All good points but then why do orchestras design and implement in-school programs? Personally, I think free concerts like the GPMF style do more than the school programs (plus the Knight Study’s conclusions on the impact of free concerts on an orchestral organization were not negative, quite the opposite in fact). I would suggest that you ask your development folks for the data they used to come to those conclusions as well as the methods use to gather and compile the results. Furthermore, I would also suggest that there is more value to free concerts than simply residual ticket sales but that’s an issue which has been covered here before. Widespread attendance to free concerts makes it much harder for governments to cut funding and increases an organization’s attractiveness to potential donors. Everyone likes to be around a winner and a successful public profile helps build that image.

    Regardless, the issue of funding will always be a core issue. At the same time aren’t we all tired of hearing about what we can’t do because of funding? It’s time to begin raising expectations and pushing lawmakers toward where they need to move and one of the first steps is to begin espousing what is expected of them.

    On a side note, is anyone else concerned that a recent article from the American Symphony Orchestra League (or League of American Orchestras – I don’t know when the new name officially kicks in) issues a public document that calls their $7.4 million annual budget “limited resources?” In fact, this is larger than all but one ROPA ensemble annual budget and is larger than the annual budgets several ICSOM ensembles as well.

    I’m not sure what they would classify as being less than “limited” but apparently, more than half of the professional orchestras which constitute their membership fall into that classification.

    As for the cuts in Oregon, I hope the local citizens keep a steady stream of letters and emails to their representatives complaining about the cuts. In the end, it’s all political action and politicians always hope that complaints just fade away so don’t give them the satisfaction – hold them accountable! ~ Drew McManus

  3. Hi Drew–It’s great to see another positive article about the GPMF, thanks for posting it. Just thought I’d mention that 8,000 audience members is an “average” night for us now. Recently, we’ve enjoyed performing for 11,000-12,000 listeners, and at one particular concert, I couldn’t find an empty seat by looking out from the stage. There were people standing near the wall on both sides of the seating area, all the way back to the lawn. Our rehearsals attract a lot of people who ask when the performance will be held, because they want to come back. Understandably, part of the initial draw is Millennium Park, but audiences return for the music. And you are quite accurate when describing our repertoire–it was astonishing to think that over the course of two evenings, possibly 20,000-24,000 people not only heard George Antheil’s Fifth Symphony, but also cheered enthusiastically afterward. Who knew? The only thing that I can say in conclusion is that it’s a thrill to be part of such a vital organization.

  4. One more comment about the wonderful program at GPMF – the enormous positive face it puts on Chicago. I am always thrilled to hear visitors rave about Chicago and the wonderful free concerts that no other large city can match. They can’t wait to come back for another visit.

  5. A few other thoughts –
    * We bring our 6 year old son with us (no babysitter hassle) and he (hopefully) develops an appreciation for the music.

    * The concerts (Friday) start at 6:30, which lets us get back to the western suburbs (Hinsdale) at a reasonable hour.

    * We pack a picnic, so no hassle finding a restaurant and worrying about the clock before the concert.

    * Seating quality is not driven by buying into a subscription series – just show up about an hour early and you can get an outstanding lawn seat.

    Free is a benefit, but it’s not the only reason we’ll see many more GPMF concerts than CSO this year. Frankly, this is probably the only way for the music to live into the consciousness of the next generation.

  6. I wanted to point out that the Houston Symphony performs two weeks of free concerts every June at Miller Outdoor Theater as well as a Dollar concert at Jones Hall every July. All events are well attended and provide the HSO with a great public face.

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