Some Good Questions On The Value Of Free

Yesterday’s article examining the value and impact of a free concert series like the Grant Park Music Festival produced a question from Charles, a professional orchestra musician, who asked “…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…Word from our development department is that there is little to zero draw from these concerts to the concert hall.” Good question Charles…


In my response to Charles’ question I mentioned that the issues he brought up from Knight Report were examined in a previous article. Nevertheless, I failed to actually cite any of that information and since I find it frustrating when I encounter that elsewhere on the web, my response to Charles’ question deserves more detail.

In particular, the article I referred to was from November, 2006 and among the points from the from the Knight Study conclusions, the issue of the value of free concerts was the very first topic examined. Here’s what the Knight report states about free concerts (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.”

My response from the November, 2006 article was as follows:

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.

My positions on this topic haven’t changed a bit. I continue to think that the real failure of most free concerts has more to do with implementation and lack of adequate interaction between attendees and representatives of the orchestra. For example, I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been to a free orchestra concert and the only presence the organization has is perhaps a table with some brochures and a box-office employee to take ticket orders.

Instead, the organization needs to send people out into the audience and press some flesh. In fact, it wouldn’t hurt to cut down from the PR laced chatter from the stage and redirect those resources toward getting out there and finding out what attendees think and why.

In the end, there are too many organizations that suffer negative results from positive initiatives simply because of how the program is implemented. It doesn’t have to be that way and in regard to free concerts, an organization has to expect that the event will be more labor intensive than producing a standard concert; otherwise, you’re only going through the motions.

POSTSCRIPT: Following yesterday’s article, the folks at the Grant Park Music Festival contacted me to say that to-date, the attendance for July has regularly tipped the “mega crowd” mark with audiences in excess of 10,000 (no doubt the freakishly beautiful Chicago weather this month has added to the level of enjoyment for the already popular events).

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 “Some Good Questions On The Value Of Free

  1. I think the number one problem facing us is empty seats. All the other issues stem from that one way or another. Financial to artistic. I read on Polyphonic recently an article that spoke to our audience finding peaks in valleys in our classical programming, regardless of the “popularity” of the works. It seems that this is where pops comes into play. But for those of use in orchestras that play many pops concerts to half empty halls maybe the next step is reaching out to the free audience. We are supposed to be a community organization. If a well run free concert can attract many thousands of people it does not seem unlikely that orchestras could find willing corporate support. Never mind more help from the city.

  2. I have to ask the following question: What is the function of free concerts? What are they supposed to accomplish?

    Until that question gets answered, there is no basis for saying that they do or do not succeed.

    Until we know what we want such concerts to accomplish, we do not know how they should be designed and implemented.

    I assume that the CSO does free concerts because they have a contractual obligation to pay the musicians for so many weeks per year so they might as well have them give free concerts as busywork.

    Surely there are things that would be more productive in the long run:

    *audition new compositions.

    *give aspiring conductors the chance to work in front of a great orchestra.

    *give opportunities for orchestra members to do some things they have always wanted to do.

    It’s going to cost the orchestra the same and I think the benefits would be greater, in the short- and long-term.

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