Those Tickets You Bought? Yeah, They Were Non Refundable

It looks Like Syracuse Symphony Orchestra (SSO) went from celebrating fundraising success to cancelling the remaining season in the space of just under two months. Moreover, an article from the 3/29/2011 edition of the Syracuse Post Standard by Melinda Johnson reports that SSO Interim Executive Director Paul Brooks that the organization will not refund ticket purchases for cancelled events…

The Post-Standard article indicates that most of the SSO staff and musicians will be given pink slips on Monday, 4/4/2011 and Johnson also reports that donations made to the “Keep the Music Playing” bridge campaign will not be returned. At the time this article was written, there are no public statements available at the SSO website with more details about the cancelation notice but the no refund policy apparently applies to their sold out special event concert featuring Yo-Yo Ma scheduled for 4/27/2011. Availability notwithstanding, according to the SSO ticket portal, orchestra floor level tickets for that concert are listed at $101.00 each.

It would be surprising if the no refund policy doesn’t anger, if not alienate, a large percentage of the current ticket buyers and it will all but certainly make any rebuilding efforts that much more difficult. The reality is the musicians will likely file an unfair labor charge against the SSO for failing to honor the existing collective bargaining agreement so if there are any thoughts that simply cancelling the season won’t have any potential legal blowback might be considered an optimistic outlook.

Other questions involve pension obligations, asset verification, and institutional liability but in the meantime, we’ll keep an eye out for information that sheds a light on those issues and more.

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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0 thoughts on “Those Tickets You Bought? Yeah, They Were Non Refundable

  1. What I’ve heard from SSO musicians is that the Yo-YO Ma concerts had been sold out, plus the orchestra had already paid his fee. With only a fund-raising shortfall of 100K, I don’t understand how this makes fiscal sense to the board.

  2. I haven’t been able to confirm that yet but if it is accurate, then it would be surprising if Yo-Yo didn’t show up to play the concert, even if it is something the musicians put together. the problem, and this is a big issue, is verifying ticket buyers. the only way that could be done is if the SSO management plays nice and shares the box office database information.

  3. I slightly disagree. I read the comments in absolute horror, particuarly at the ratio of comments by the ignorant “trolls” versus the number of comments by people who deeply love, appreciate, and see the value in having arts and culture in their community.

    I also have to say that the $5+ million structural deficit is an illuminating fact that may lead to yet another tragic closure of a fine orchestra. When the emergency campaign began to show early success, I cheered the SSO for raising a substantial sum over the period of a few weeks. No easy feat. Now, I almost have to retract those cheers; we didn’t understand the bigger picture. That campaign was not a real solution by any means. This is truly a mess. For the donors who stepped forward, I understand that most of them would expect no refund for donating to save the orchestra. For ticket buyers alone, however, the no refund policy is a tragic mistake. Tickets are not donations in public opinion. This is not one concert cancelled by a hurricane or snow storm. One angry comment mentioned a child string player who would now not have the chance to see Yo-Yo Ma perform after months of anticipation and several hundred dollars of hard-saved discretionary income. I can’t disagree with that sentiment.

    This underlying structural deficit and resulting debt is really the root of the problem. They should have announced a $6 million campaign, not a stop-gap $1 million campaign; and perhaps should have outlined the more dire situation up front in their emergency announcements.

    But don’t think that I’m blaming the board entirely. The majority of horrid comments from members of the Syracuse community here reveals the cultural and educational backdrop that the SSO board is playing against – and not only in Syracuse. This speaks clearly to me of the declining importance of the arts in both education and society in general. Those of us who “get it” are in a dangerous minority. If more people understood classical music and loved it, these comments would not be there; and furthermore, maybe this orchestra wouldn’t be in this situation at all.

  4. Based on my understanding of the bridge fund, it could have served as the first step in allowing the organization to successfully manage its debt. Of course, that assumes the campaign met its goals. Yes, the larger recapitalization campaign needed to happen but given the cash flow situation, the need to launch the bridge fund with the idea that the recapitalization drive would happen immediately thereafter (along with subsequent details) was a fine plan.

    I have similar feelings about the urge to retract initial kudos for their bridge campaign success. Looking back, it almost has a “Mission Accomplished” feel to it and if there’s anything to learn here it’s perhaps momentum can get lost in overzealous celebration.

    Regardless, I still don’t place much weight on the newspaper comments, Overall, they represent a small fraction of the overall local public. Add to that the one dimensional perspective serving as the root for these comments make them hardly worth reading. The issues at hand are simply too complex for the sort of analysis (and I use that word lightly) offered by the newspaper’s reader comments.

  5. I think the reactions of this small fraction gets a lot of traction! (Sorry, couldn’t resist). Like you, I don’t call it analysis, either, but then again, it doesn’t take much to see a sinking ship. In this case, it’s almost under water and there’s a lot of surprised passengers.

    What do you mean by the issues are too complex? The statistics revealed in this article should cause anyone, not just orchestra pros, to raise eyebrows. 33% earned income is low. The sharp declines in audience numbers are serious. No surprise: a 32% decline in public funding. But in one place, the article says the board has “struggled with its finances over the past eight months,” but down further it states that the board has been operating with deficit budgets for three years. $5 million in debt is a serious figure. Do you have inside information that a recapitalization plan was in place? I see the board pointing fingers at the musicians, citing their decline of this latest round of concessions as one of the biggest causes for this suspension and a sharp warning of what they will demand from musicians to move forward.

    But in this same article, I read that these musicians are at the table, they’ve cut and offered more cuts. They even showed up for this meeting, in uniform. I’m impressed by that.

    A bridge fund is usually launched with the promise that an organization will cross troubled waters to land on solid ground. The SSO bridge appears to have abruptly ended less than halfway across, but the true solid ground is far out of sight. The community is outraged. Yes, the comments are out of control. But it doesn’t take a genius to analyze the evidence given.

  6. Sinking ship, no doubt but the questions at this point is did it hit an iceberg, toppled by a rouge wave, torpedoed, or scuttled by the crew?

    The complexities deal with the fundamental differences between how nonprofit performing arts organizations function and what the general public understands about basic for profit businesses. To see members of the general public spouting off vitriol over business practices they seem to think they understand does far more damage than good.

    For example, the 33% earned income is actually within normal standards for any nonprofit orchestral organization with an annual budget over a few million dollars. On the other hand,; yes, sharp declines in audience numbers are a serious concern.

    The articles in their local newspaper don’t come close to providing enough information to draw any reasonable conclusions. Likewise, the only way to really have a good idea about what might be taking place is if an individual knows the nonprofit business well enough to have a good idea of which questions to ask based on the limited information available.

    For example, one of the most puzzling items at this point is the board’s decision not to offer refunds of any type for ticket purchases or bridge fund donations. This is more unusual than not and indicates that something else may be driving the decision making process that has yet to be uncovered. From my professional perspective, I’m curious to know whether or not board members in the state of New York carry personally responsibility on certian financial obligations, such as satisfying underfunded pension requirements or other benefits related obligations.

    This varies from state to state but if New York obliges board members to cover those sorts of debts, then it casts an entirely different light on the board’s decision making process and governance. Consequently, motivations outside of stereotypical debt/revenue carry far more weight than what the garden variety newspaper comment troll has been droning on about.

    I hope those examples shed some light on why these are issues are far more complex than most people realize.

  7. You are right. Nnewspaper articles do not not provide enough information for a thorough case study. I still feel that the barrage of negative public reaction (however small the lunatic minority might be) should be balanced with an equal or stronger level of intelligent defense. It’s sad for this orchestra to be so underappreciated by even a small fraction of local citizens after 50 years of fine service.

    Thank you for your continued insights.

  8. In the spirit of the New York State Consumer Affairs laws and the NYS Arts & Cultural Affairs laws, it would only be appropriate for the SSO to refund any SSO concert ticket that has been purchased for an SSO concert that has not yet taken place. IF the events have been actually cancelled AND NOT pending to be rescheduled, by NYS law the ticket price (and any applicable service fees) have to be refunded in full. The SSO, having filed for reorganization, may not have yet determined whether or not those events are indeed being cancelled and may be in discussion to reschedule event pending further evaluation. However, that should have been directly stated by the SSO … in the spirit of NYS Consumer Affairs law.

    ~ From Albany, NY

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