2009 Orchestra Website Review: Special Recognition Awards Plus The Best and Worst Of 2009

During every orchestra website review, several orchestras deserve special recognition for how well they satisfied evaluation requirements as well as demonstrating particular originality and creativity for specific website components, regardless of overall score. As such, the Special Recognition Awards are designed to highlight individual achievements and promote them as benchmarks within the business. Conversely, the Worst of 2009 examines organizations that could benefit from improving particularly damaging components and/or practices…

Performance ScheduleCategory 1: Performance Schedule

When it comes down to it, the KISS method (Keep It Simple, Stupid) is almost always the way to go when trying to quickly convey basic performance information. To this end, orchestras that don’t confuse complex with complicated deserve notice. One method that has risen to the top is the simple graphic calendar that displays basic concert info via left-click and then offers the option to transfer to the full event page. A nice addition to this is a “buy ticket” link embedded in the brief popup description. It can be simple text link like the one used by Nashville Symphony or you can go with a big, info-packed popup like the one employed at the Spokane Symphony. Either way, ticket buyers that know what they want based on basic info are propelled to the check out that much faster.

Although certainly not interactive, Orchestra Iowa deserves a special nod for good use of the KISS method with a consistently formatted “what, where, when, and cost” sidebar on each concert event page. Granted, there are no fancy audio clip players of videos of the music director talking about the selections but the layout and design convey important information efficiently and train returning visitors to look for what they need to know. And if you’re an orchestra on a budget, those things don’t cost extra or take much time to deploy but they deliver bigger returns in improved usability.

A number of sites have made good use of featured glider, or scrolling, widgets. Previously, most orchestra websites posted concert events statically and you could only fit so many on the homepage before they took up too much space. But sliders provide the ability to list 10 times the amount of info in a fraction of the space, freeing up home page real estate for other offerings or better yet, more white space and wider margins. Orchestra Iowa uses a very straightforward design that is almost identical in nature to the feature used at the bigger budget New York Philharmonic where users click through each slider item. The end result is both groups benefit equally from the same basic design feature.

A word of caution here regarding sliders: the key is to make the slider controls intuitive, something too fancy or complex can leave users confused and frustrated. The L.A. Philharmonic uses an aesthetically beautiful slider design with overlays and animation for upcoming concert events but the load times for the initial animation and unusual tabbed navigation structure make it harder to use and ultimately, less effective at moving buyers through to the checkout. Likewise, there is a clear trend that some groups are abandoning the monthly calendar style format in favor of a slider but this is dangerous ground. When it comes to businesses that sell a product based on a chronological platform, buyers still need to find concerts via date-based interfaces and even the best slider design can’t compensate for a missing calendar.

Purchasing TicketsCategory 2: Purchasing Tickets

Although it is now a few years old, the Nashville Symphony’s interactive seat selection feature continues to be years ahead of comparable offerings from any other professional orchestra in the review; simply put, it exudes the essence of “online chic.” If you haven’t done so yet, visit their virtual seating chart yourself to discover just how much fun it is to find your ideal seat.

One big improvement among smaller budget orchestras was the increase in the number of groups that offer the ability to select individual seats. The Harrisburg Symphony was an early smaller budget pioneer in this offering and they continue to put the same system to good use. Choice Ticketing Systems appears to be making some real headway in the number of groups using their service (although it would be better if they modified their system to allow buyers to purchase seats anywhere they want as opposed to herding them into groups).

The Baltimore Symphony demonstrated that a busy orchestra schedule doesn’t have to result in a confusing array of text heavy subscription packages. The Choose Your Own BSO flex subscription buying system is intuitive, well designed, and a breeze to use. They display all available concerts in each package program by month, you can select individual seats for each concert, and every time you add a ticket, the system tells you how many remaining tickets you have in the flex purchase. If that weren’t enough, they also offer a free online ticket exchange (although it would be even better if you didn’t have to have an account to get in and look around).

Making DonationsCategory 3: Making Donations

Among the sub categories to improve in the 2009 reviews, the variety and number of orchestras providing online giving opportunities increased a great deal. The Chicago Symphony continues to maintain a straightforward yet diverse design they pioneered years ago. The recently redesigned Utah Symphony & Opera website offers a similarly diverse but easy to use donation page. Of particular note is the ability to give to either the symphony or opera right from the same page, which might not seem like a big deal but it is a crucial component given the complexities related to the merger between the two groups.

Back for a third year of special recognition is the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s “Sound Investment” program which allows potential donors to contribute toward a special new music fund. Orchestras of all size budgets can learn from the LACO’s example and dedication toward funding new music programs.

Orchestra InformationCategory 4: Orchestra Information

There were no real stand-outs for creativity or new offerings for this category in the 2009 reviews; in fact, this was one category that went down in average score. Only four larger budget orchestras – Houston Symphony, Nashville Symphony, New York Philharmonic, and the Pittsburgh Symphony – managed to provide both annual reports and financial disclosure documents and among smaller budget groups, only the Toledo Symphony met those same requirements. Frankly, this is something the entire business should be downright ashamed of – especially in this economy – so the five groups above deserve a very special kudos for providing this information.

Although too few orchestras utilize engaging methods for introducing musicians to patrons, there was an increase in the number of groups that are following Oregon Symphony’s time tested format, such as the Naples Philharmonic. A nice variation on this continues to be the Baltimore Symphony’s Musician’s Corner.

The Toledo Symphony does a great job at providing musician support by offering contact and program information for patrons interested in hiring a small ensemble or locating a private instructor. In fact, the smaller budget orchestras cornered the market on providing recommended levels of musician information and contact methods.

There was no real progress regarding staff and board information; in fact, those sub categories regressed in average score. Nonetheless, the San Diego Symphony deserves special kudos for being the only US orchestra to post bios for every member of the board.

Special-Award-Cat5Category 5: Dynamic Content

2009 was the year of social media awakening throughout the orchestra field. Don’t get me wrong, many groups still lack adequate social media offerings but compared to 2008, the number of orchestras offering multiple social media outlets increased considerably. The biggest increase was the proliferation of social networking outlets which were dominated by Facebook and Twitter. The Utah Symphony does an excellent job at bringing all of their social media offerings together on a single “fan page” and at the North Carolina Symphony homepage, a good 20 percent is occupied by their aggregated blog content.

Speaking of blogs, the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra continues to lead the pack with sincere and regularly posted blog content but not far behind is the Minnesota Orchestra’s Inside The Classics blog, which has an edge in occasional juicy behind the scenes content. If every orchestra could follow these examples, the world of classical music would be an entirely different (and better) environment. Rounding out the social media component of this category, the San Francisco Symphony went to great lengths to create their very own online social community entitled (wait for it) “Social Network.”

Another sub category to show signs of marked improvement is the use of RSS feeds. The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra earns another nod here for being the only orchestra to offer multiple RSS feeds for a variety of offerings including press releases, concert events, and free concerts. Simply put, if you aren’t using RSS feeds for concerts, you’re missing out in a big way.

A unique addition to this year’s review is the use of free third party applications to improve website offerings. To this end, the Toledo Symphony created a custom Google Map detailing the sites for regular venues and run-out locations. Did I mention offerings like this are free and would be worthwhile even as a paid service?

Moving on to traditional media content, Orchestra Iowa, Louisville Orchestra, and the Las Vegas Philharmonic provided a simple but useful media page full of necessary goodies while Nashville Symphony and Chicago Symphony are good examples of something with new media friendly, broader offerings.

FunctionalityCategory 6: Functionality

As orchestra websites evolve, so does the amount of content they include and putting users in contact with the information they want is an increasingly complex challenge. For the past three years, the Chicago Symphony and Nashville Symphony continue to put a straightforward left sidebar oriented navigation structure to good use. However, groups like Columbus Symphony (note the color coded integration between calendar event and concert info widgets), the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Baltimore Symphony are some of the better examples of groups that have adopted horizontal navigation designs.

The Elusive Award

Ever since the inaugural orchestra website review in 2004, there has never been an orchestra that provided media contact information for a musicians’ representative. The business is filled with those who like to talk about eliminating the “us against them” syndrome but apparently no one out there is willing to take the first step in putting their money where their mouth is by listing a name and contact info for an elected musician representative. Is anyone willing to be the first for the 2010 review?

The Best of 2009: Biggest Gains

Biggest Gains

You know what they say about success; it breeds expectation. Nevertheless, it is great to see such a wide variety of budget size organizations enjoy large increases in rank and/or score. The trick for next season is to maintain and improve on these results. The Top 5 orchestra websites to experience an increase in rank and score include:

Largest Gains In Rank

  1. Utah Symphony increased 52 positions
  2. Santa Rosa Symphony increased 40 positions
  3. Columbus Symphonyincreased 39 positions
  4. New York Philharmonic increased 36 positions
  5. Dayton Philharmonic and Sarasota Orchestra both increased 30 positions

Largest Gains In Points

  1. Mississippi Symphony increased 32.9 points
  2. Wichita Symphony increased 29.80 points
  3. Columbus Symphony increased 27.20 points
  4. Utah Symphony increased 23.90 points
  5. Santa Rosa Symphony increased 19.00 points

The Worst of 2009: Worst Online Ticket Sales And Donations

Worst Donations and Ticket Sales

The only thing worse than forcing ticket buyers through a frustrating online ticket buying experience is not offering online ticket sales at all. Fortunately, the number of orchestras on this list decreased by exactly half as compared to the 2008 review. Nevertheless, the following orchestras did not offer online single ticket and subscription sales at the time of the review (listed alphabetically):

  1. California Symphony
  2. Delaware Symphony
  3. Long Island Philharmonic

There is simply no good reason why an orchestra shouldn’t expend the effort to provide an opportunity for patrons to make online donations. Over the past two years, the number of low to no cost online donation tools allow even the smallest budget organizations to increase their contributed revenue through e-commerce solutions. Fortunately, a sizeable number of orchestras took advantage of these tools and as a result, the number of orchestras on this list decreased by two-thirds. Nevertheless, the following orchestras did not accept online donations at the time of the review or they had donation links lead to an error page, the latter of which are indicated with an asterisk (listed alphabetically):

  1. California Symphony*
  2. Florida Orchestra
  3. Fresno Philharmonic
  4. Fort Wayne Philharmonic
  5. Jacksonville Symphony
  6. Long Island Philharmonic
  7. Memphis Symphony*
  8. Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra

The Worst of 2009: Narcissistic Executive Directors

Narcissistic CEO

In November of 2003, I published an article entitled I Go To The Symphony For Their Executive Director? which chronicles the bizarre habit of some orchestra executives who feel compelled to post their pictures, biographies, or personal messages to patrons on the organization’s website when there is nothing beyond scant information about the musicians. Granted, there is absolutely nothing improper with posting biographical data, photographs, and personal messages from or about executives, but when those endeavors eclipse learning about the actual musicians it is time for the organization to reevaluate its priorities.

There were high hopes that 2009 would be the year that witnessed the eradication this scourge once and for all but unfortunately, this was not the year. In fact, the number of executives on this list went up by one.

California Symphony
For the fifth consecutive year, California Symphony Executive Director, Stacey Street, maintains a full color picture and biography although there is nothing more than a text-only orchestra roster. I’m simply at an end of pithy comments. At this point, it’s embarrassing for everyone.

Long Beach Symphony Orchestra
Although no specific executive director is listed on the staff page, the LBSO makes a second appearance on the list by providing bios for all staff members while offering a text-only orchestra roster. At the same time, the LBSO website has provided biographical information for some musicians in previous reviews so here’s hoping they’ll make musician bios and/or contact info a priority for the 2009/10 season.

Louisville Orchestra
This was an odd addition to the 2009 list. On one hand, the organization’s newly designed website features a number of clever, unique photographs in the footer (really, you should check it out – I love the one with the bass player in front of the classic car with the woman wearing the horn rimmed glasses in the background). At the same time, they provide a text-only list of the musicians while CEO Robert Birman gets a full page bio along with color picture. Let’s hope this is either an unfortunate oversight or they have simply yet to complete the website.

Santa Rosa Symphony
This group is another borderline entry. On one hand, Executive Director Alan Silow doesn’t have a bio linked from the staff page but he does have a full page bio and color headshot accessible from the press room/bio page while there is a text-only musician roster.

General Observations


Every orchestra website review has a few items that deserve attention but don’t fit into any of the above categories. On the positive side, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra deserves kudos for incorporating a wide variety of well produced videos into just about every part of their website. You’ll find them on the subscription pages, musician pages, education pages, and many more.

Speaking of the BSO, they deserve credit for becoming the first orchestra to develop a creative primary URL outside the traditional mainstays. In their case, they use bsomusic.org. You might wonder why they don’t use bso.org but that’s because it is owned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Without a doubt, bsomusic.org is easier to remember, easier to pronounce, and shorter than baltimoresymphony.org; it even looks better in print: bsomusic.org vs. baltimoresymphony.org.

Finally, one thing that hasn’t changed over the years is just how self-centered orchestras are and this detrimental trait comes across in their websites. In many cases, most groups likely don’t even realize just how inwardly focused their websites really are. I dare you to find more than a handful of orchestra websites that offer links to online resources that will help develop an enhanced cultural base within their community. Link lists of cultural blogs, arts news aggregators, cultural social networking sites, etc. are hard to come by.

Ultimately, this business will have to work at shaking off decades of self-centered behaviors and learn to benefit from sincere networking activity in order to meet new audience engagement challenges. Fortunately, there’s no better platform to get a new start than by adopting new media with the right approach.

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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11 thoughts on “2009 Orchestra Website Review: Special Recognition Awards Plus The Best and Worst Of 2009”

    • Ha! That entirely depends on whether or not the author was in the Middle East when he originally wrote that copy (which is exactly where I was at the time) 🙂 But now I find it kind of cute in a wistful subconscious sort of way so I might just leave it there as a personal inside joke.

  1. Excellent work here! The orchestra website review is a great service for the entire industry.
    You mention the LA Phil’s calendar above, but my favorite part of the LA Phil’s website, is a single page which lists Every concert in the season, program included. Many websites have calendars or lists that include concerts by titles, which give you a clue but require another click to see what will be performed at that event. I find this page very useful to look at the entire season to find concerts I would want to go to. Among major orchestras (by that I mean groups that have several performances every week) I have not seen this feature at any other orchestra website.

    Perhaps most customers don’t use the feature, but I think it deserves a mention.

  2. Orchestra websites, like just about any corporate website, are deliberately inwardly focused and self-centered. The goal is to keep users on the site, not drive them away, even for ostensible purposes of networking, cultural enrichment, etc. This is at least (or should be) some measure of motivation for orchestras to make their websites as content rich as possible or develop strategic, project-oriented partnerships (outside of sponsorships) that can enhance all of the partner brands.

    • I certainly agree that the benefits of developing the sort of content rich material I think you’re talking about. to that end, I think the San Francisco Social Networking site is a good indicator of how those efforts can begin to take shape.

      At the same time, in order to develop a content driven environment that achieves a certain level of dynamic interaction that compares to the overall (and unaffiliated) online cultural community will take a significant amount of time laden resources. It would be wonderful to see orchestras move in that direction but from a realistic perspective, that’s not going to come to pass any time soon.

      As such, a better alternative is to begin reaching beyond current inwardly focused design elements and take advantage of creating a presence in the larger online cultural community.

      • I think there are examples of orchestras “reaching beyond” (apologies for truncating a much broader concept), for example, Sam Bergman’s blog on the Minnesota Orchestra website–initiatives that address topical issues affecting the orchestral world without diluting or deterring from the host organization’s brand. Does Minnesota have it precisely right? Probably not, but it’s a good start and provides–much like this website–an interface that involves the public in a much more interactive way.

        PS Have you considered including, in future editions of best of/worst of, the websites of opera companies and producing (i.e., Carnegie Hall) organizations? There are some wonderful–and awful–things going on in both spheres.

      • Those are all very good observations and I agree on pretty much every count. Sam (and Sarah) write a good blog and although the interface and design could stand improvement it is a wonderful example other orchestra should follow!

        Each year dozens of requests come in asking to expand the reviews to opera and other performing arts websites. I would love nothing more than to make that happen but at this rate, the reviews would need an official sponsor in order to allocate the necessary amount of time to conduct a worthwhile review. If you’re interested or know someone who is interested in sponsoring the 2010 reviews and/or expanding to other organizations, let me know.

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