Thinking Outside The Box (Seats That Is)

Or at least that’s the focus of Holly Mulcahy’s latest article at Neo Classical that proposes the notion that it might be time for orchestras to consider the long tail merits of a managed referral program to aid audience development efforts. Over the last several years, I’ve had discussions with colleagues and clients about this idea on and off and the response has been mostly chilly. We even examined the idea back in 2004 (read) and the response was more of the same; but then again, when you’re in a serious situation, it might be in your best interest to consider doing things that you might otherwise think are unacceptable…

Referrals: unethical conflicts of interest or is it the right idea at the right time?
Referrals: unethical conflicts of interest or is it the right idea at the right time?

One point that caught my attention in Holly’s article is when she compared effort toward the greater good bolstered by individual self interest. In a way, this drives at the heart of one of this field’s greatest criticisms: expected grandeur. We’re the greatest of musical art forms, above comparison and immune to competitive forces – LOVE US!

I’ve never bought into that ideal and being a firm supporter of meaningful mutually beneficial relationships, the idea of referral programs makes sense. Unfortunately, the devil is in the details and implementing a cost effective referral program is simply beyond the technical expertise of some organizations. At the same time, wouldn’t it be wonderful to see some of the foundation sponsored initiatives devote adequate funding toward developing something like a referral program platform capable of benefiting orchestral organizations of all size and infrastructure?

I suppose it’s good to have a goal. In the meantime, I’m very curious to know what readers think about this issue so go give Holly’s article a read and if you have time, review the article from 2004, and then come back and send in a comment with your thoughts and observations.

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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3 thoughts on “Thinking Outside The Box (Seats That Is)”

  1. I honestly can’t imagine why referrals would be considered unethical. Certainly _requiring_ orchestra musicians to bring in sales (the idea that started the 2004 posting) is problematic, but asking musicians to help and giving them an incentive to do so seems completely fine. But better than a referral program for musicians might be a referral program for audience members. Not with cash payouts, of course, but credit toward future purchases or something. Refer a new ticketbuyer, get $X off your next ticket purchase. Refer a new subscriber, get a free ticket to a concert. An orchestra has a lot more patrons than musicians, and leveraging all of those people and their networks would probably be more effective than relying just on the musicians.

    Another way to leverage audience networks might be a sort of free sample program (sort of like some of the TAFTO programs you’ve proposed). Give each subscriber a free pair of tickets which they can’t use themselves but which they can give to anybody who hasn’t been to a concert in at least X years.

    • I couldn’t agree more with everything Galen. Given the increasing popularity of orchestra bloggers (especially patrons) it seems like a no-brainer. As for the unethical perspective, I have encountered individuals that liken referrals to commissions, which by and large is frowned upon in the nonprofit world.

      • I know that the AFP discourages paying commissions to fundraisiers (“24. Members shall not pay finder’s fees, commissions or percentage compensation based on contributions, and shall take care to discourage their organizations from making such payments.” -AFP Ethical Principles) but I didn’t know that it was frowned upon for ticket sales as well. (And of course lots of orchestras do pay commissions to fundraisers, especially if they run a telemarketing campaign.) But I didn’t know that commission for ticket sales was also frowned upon, and it seems odd to me that it would be.

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