Embracing The Supply And Demand Argument

Any manager who has been in this business for more than a few months has likely encountered the frustrating public argument of classical music and supply vs. demand. The argument is so stale most managers could recite both sides of the discussion at the drop of a hat. It usually goes something like this…

Orchestra cynic: Classical music is failing.
Orchestra manager: Why do you say that?
Orchestra cynic: Because they keep begging for more and more money but attendance keeps going down.
Orchestra manager: But classical music is too important not to support, so the city and the community need to step up their support.
Orchestra cynic: If people really wanted to go see the concerts they would; so if they don’t, then there simply isn’t any demand. Doesn’t it make sense to apply real world economics to orchestras?
Orchestra manager: But without art and culture where does that leave the community?
Orchestra cynic: People have the right to decide for themselves what they think is important by giving their own money through patronage or support for government funding measures.
Orchestra manager: But what about the children…

The real kicker in this debate is that both sides are correct. Classical music has a rightful place among government and philanthropic support efforts but it should be accountable to the real world economics of supply and demand. At the same time, the fact that there is a lower than desired level of demand, via low attendance levels, in any given community is not an indication that there is a lack of demand.

Did anyone expect that the U.S. auto makers would roll over and die just because they lost a sizeable market share to foreign auto makers in the 1980s? Of course not, it actually sounds silly when you say it out loud. Instead, they focused on making a better product while simultaneously creating increased demand.

That’s the key in this issue that the orchestra business needs to pick up on with their public rhetoric. Instead of allowing cynics to browbeat the business with a static supply and demand argument, we should be focusing more on improving demand.

If nothing else, the auto industry has provided an excellent example that there’s nearly no limit to how much demand you can create for a product that people really don’t want, just look at SUVs. A mere decade after the U.S. suffered a crippling energy crisis gas guzzling SUVs became all the rage and have stayed that ever since.

Why did drivers buy SUVs? Because they are fun to drive, carry a bunch of junk, and you get to sit high up in traffic. How did people come to that conclusion? First, the auto makers told them that and then they delivered on that promise.

As a result, the next time you encounter the orchestra cynic ask them why they don’t go to the orchestra and sincerely listen to their answer. Ultimately, each orchestra will need to find the right combination of changes on their own in order to create the sort of demand they need to support the organization. For instance, tweaking variables such as concert environment, ticket price, marketing efforts, programming, or outreach efforts will ideally yield the right combination for each given organization.

In the end, that process can become invaluable when attracting positive attention to the business. Consequently, you should embrace the supply and demand discussion in stead of arguing against it; after all, people like to see a builder working against the odds. Regularly filling seats allows the community to know that your orchestra is winning and they are part of something special, all of which serves to draw even more positive attention into the organization. Before you know it, you don’t even have to have the sort of conversations with cynics like the one above because before you can open your mouth, one of your patrons will start contesting the cynic for you.

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 “Embracing The Supply And Demand Argument”

  1. Great point about the auto industry. Did the overall demand for autos decline? Were the people who weren’t buying American buying nothing at all? It seems to me that the audience out there that is not interested in us is not making a decision based on quality or that they have found another cheaper more reliable version. They simply don’t have a need for the product. We are like an old Caddy, not without our charms and nice design but hopelessly dated and out of most people’s price range.

  2. One of the demands my local orchestra is not meeting is programming. How many times must I listen to the same chestnuts? What is wrong with branching out into unfamiliar work by familiar composers, if they are afraid to get their feet wet with contemporary music?Attendance is down because there is nothing exciting to bring people in on a predictable basis.

    Our symphony is in real trouble, but it is of Management, and, especially, the Board of Trustee’s making: they don’t give enough money, themselves, to make possible a viable effort at attracting an eager audience. They cut prices of tickets for students, but they grind down their musicians with “plugged-in” concerts, and art is not advanced. I am so sick and tired of the mediocrity which passes for “leadership” in the cultural institutions of my hometown. The Boards simply do not have a clue what music or art is, and cannot be trusted to “manage” it, therefore. How does such incompetency keep on going without some oversight from the community
    media? If this were government, we would have editorials about it!

    Fantastic questions Margaret; in fact, I’d say they would be ideal topics for entire articles. But to offer a short answer, coverage is scant because institution information is typically released in very filtered components. When an organization is in financial distress, you can usually count on that filter becoming more pronounced. Fortunately, some groups are abandoning this practice and adopting transparent policies but they are still the exception and not the rule. The best advice I can offer is to make as many public requests for information as possible: write letters to the editor, make calls to the administration, send emails to board members an cc local media and symphony volunteer organizations (they usually have their own contact information separate from the orchestra). When you’ve got the hang of it, encourage others to do the same. ~ Drew McManus

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