Sunday’s Charleston Post and Courier quotes a former board member of the Charleston Symphony as saying “The current business model has proven over 10 years not to be viable.” The recent travails and controversy at the Pasadena Symphony provoked a considerable amount of national discussion, including Terry Teachout asking, in The Wall Street Journal, “What, if anything, justifies the existence of a regional symphony orchestra in the 21st century?”
In recent well publicized cases, musicians have been asked to take staggeringly large pay reductions because boards have concluded that the communities they serve are unwilling to contribute the funds necessary to support the orchestra as it has previously existed, and that only a much smaller orchestra can survive. Do these cases show that the model is dead? Or only that it doesn’t work when it’s not well executed? Or maybe a little bit of both?
After spending a couple of days looking at what the model is, and why it may no longer apply, I thought I would wrap up my three day guest blogger stint here at Adaptistration by sharing a few ideas on what an updated model might and might not include.
I would argue that changes in how many members of our audience participate have significant implications for what any orchestra model has to say about both marketing and programming. And that, on the marketing side, the impact of changes in audience behavior is magnified by the incredible changes we’re seeing in media markets. Many of the tried and true ways of reaching our audience are much less effective than they used to be. Yet we cannot afford to abandon the old ways, while we at the same time strive to very quickly become savvy in using new ways.
If full season subscriptions are no longer the dominant form or orchestra audience participation…does that mean we should forget about subscriptions? Absolutely not! Orchestras still need to run flawless subscription campaigns–marketing departments which pay more attention to updating their Facebook page than the nuts and bolts of the renewal campaign are heading for disaster. But if we live in a world where there are lots of people who will buy tickets for concerts, but are unlikely to ever sign up for a traditional subscription package, doesn’t it go without saying that we also need to apply enormous creativity and resources to selling single tickets? There are plenty or smart people in the field who have been doing this for years, but many of us still seem to see single ticket buyers as a short lived evolutionary stage that people go through on their way to becoming subscribers and eventually major donors at which point they really start to matter. I would argue that ideally every concert should have its own well-conceived and well-executed marketing plan.
On the programming side, I know there are really smart people out there who disagree with me, but I often argue that in the traditional orchestra model you maximized ticket revenues by playing to the base, but in the new orchestra model we will maximize ticket revenues by offering variety. In the past success came from making one highly homogeneous group of people happy all of the time. In the future, success will come from giving lots of different audience clusters the opportunities to get exactly what they want some of the time.
Finally, I would suggest that for both marketing and programming purposes we must understand our audiences much, much better than we have in the past. Dividing ticket buyers into “subscribers” and “single ticket buyers” and treating everyone within each category similarly just will not cut it anymore. We need to become as sophisticated as big corporations in understanding our customers’ behaviors.
While the model for how an orchestra should sell tickets may be becoming more dynamic and much more complicated, there are still best practices to be emulated. I am not sure that it really makes sense to talk about any single model for how an orchestra should raise contributed income. To the extent that we’re still subscribing to the “Culturally Aware Non-Attenders become Single ticket buyers who become Season Subscribers who become Small Donors who become Major Donors who leave us in their will” model we need to recognize that people on the margins don’t behave like people on average, and that there are plenty of good prospects to support the orchestra at a significant level who are never going to choose to become a season subscriber.
As I suggested yesterday, economic-cycle issues aside, there appears some communities where what has worked in fundraising in the past continues to work today. On the other hand, it is hard to avoid concluding that, in other communities, even if the orchestra is doing flawlessly everything that used to get the job done, many traditional sources of funding will not provide the level of support that they once did. Orchestras facing declining access to corporate, foundation, and government funds are increasingly dependent on major gifts from individuals. There is nothing inherently unsustainable about this strategy—individual donors are by far the single largest source of philanthropic donations in the United States. But it seems that many orchestras are now in a pattern of relying on a sequence of substantial “extra” gifts to fund annual operations, rather than to build endowment or fund extra initiatives (what I call “Bridge to Nowhere” campaigns). It is not hard to see that this is risky as a long term strategy.
Governance and organizational structure
As in fundraising, it seems to me that there is no single right model for how an orchestra should be structured, although there are clearly some wrong ways.
- Orchestras may not be a three legged stool, but they clearly cannot thrive without strong and committed volunteer, administrative, and artistic leadership.
- Orchestras where key constituencies can have candid dialogue about and strive to reach consensus on priorities and goals will be better able to survive and thrive.
- We need really smart and creative and committed people marketing, fundraising, and programming for orchestras, but all the imagination in the world won’t help us if our staffs don’t execute as well as our musicians do onstage.
- Volunteerism is changing in America—to the extent that years of demographic trends working against orchestra volunteerism have led us to scale back the ways in which we ask our volunteers to help, the upcoming spurt in newly retired baby boomers may provide opportunities to rethink how volunteers can help many orchestras, especially smaller budget organizations.
Regardless of what model of board involvement you subscribe to, ensuring that adequate resources are available to fund whatever scope of activity the board has approved remains a central part of the board’s job. There may be some communities where fundraising can be completely staff driven, but I would suggest that in most communities the board needs to be both leading by example, and asking their peers to follow their example.
Let’s conclude by asking what do we mean by model, anyway? Are we looking for an “exemplar,” a prescription for what an orchestra should play, and how it should sell tickets, and how it should raise money, and how it should operate, that guarantees success? Or are we looking for a simplified concept of an orchestra, one which tells us key issues to be addressed without pretending to dictate exactly how each of those issues should be addressed? Or are we simply looking for a learning tool, a better way to understand that mysterious, strange, wonderful, frustrating, inspiring entity which is the orchestra?
On balance, I would suggest that
- in many ways the traditional model focuses on the right things, and that
- there are still basic building blocks which an orchestra can implement which will help to address those things effectively, but that
- the environment in which we operate has become sufficiently dynamic and complicated that we should abandon the idea that there is any “simple” model which captures what an orchestra needs to do to thrive, and that
- every community is different, and every orchestra needs to make its case for community support within the context of the resources, aspirations, and priorities of its own community.
Obviously, there are lots more that could be said on all of this, but I’ve already gone well over my word count from Drew. So I’ll wrap up and hope that what I have said will provoke some discussion…