Some Intriguing Thoughts On Concert Formats

In June 2013, arts consulting firm WolfBrown released a report detailing the results from a three season long assessment of concert formats. The project was conducted using the post-graduate orchestral academy, New World Symphony (NWS) backed by what the report defines as generous support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Of particular interest are the findings related to concert length, ticket price, and newbie audience development.

Download the report

manager restCertainly, the report is of great value to the field and well worth your time; having said that, after a series of conversations with colleagues, a consensus began to form that a few key areas could benefit from addition details and/or are either glossed over or left out. If nothing else, these are areas worth considering before engaging board members or initiating exploratory discussions within administrative departments.

ROI for Data-Capture Tickets vis-a-vis Mini-Concerts

  • The report indicated that the goal of the 30 minute long format is to attract new audiences and build the patron database by lowering barriers with a $2.50 price point ticket.
  • There is no mention of how the organization used the expanded database to communicate with new patrons or what that communication produced. Of particular interest is whether the NWS structured subsequent communication so as to avoid a common problem of communication overload and burnout.
  • The report lacks relevant details surrounding the planning and implementation for the NWS’s marketing strategy. This data would be enormously beneficial in developing a reasonable marketing performance frame of reference when compared to traditional efforts.
  • When applied in the NWS’s environment, the approach appears to be quite successful at establishing the beachhead but it will be helpful to see how retention rates transpire alongside subsequent newbie development.

Don’t Underestimate the Need For Subsidies

  • Yes, nonprofit performing arts orgs tend to prefer support instead of subsidy but semantics aside, attempting to launch most, if not all, of these concert formats without securing the necessary contributed funds to offset immediate drops in earned income revenue (not to mention expected spikes in production costs) will sink even the best of efforts.
  • The report’s opening paragraph references the Mellon Foundation’s generous support but lacks accompanying data to illustrate the ratio of that support vs. operational costs associated with operational concert format costs or research and development. This data, along with the marketing strategy above, would provide an enormous amount of practical support.

Vastly Different Operating Environments

  • There is no mention of unionized musician involvement during any stage of the NWS process but that shouldn’t come as a surprise since NWS is an educational institution and the post-graduate musicians are not unionized. Instead, they are classified as Fellows as opposed to employees.
  • This lack of comparable labor expense structure and operational environment increases the potential danger for a professional orchestra to become internally committed to a new format before developing necessary musician stakeholder buy-in.
  • The conclusion on page 12 does a good job at illustrating just how different the NWS’s labor structure is compared to a professional orchestra but falls victim to a common bear trap by portraying collective bargaining agreements in a strongly negative context.

Ideally, WolfBrown will be following up on these items in a subsequent document and given the firm’s reputation, it would be surprising if that wasn’t the case.

Until then, this initial data is fun and exciting but prudence suggests that you be on guard against falling victim to the lure of focusing on the artistic at the expense of marketing performance, labor relations, and developing committed program subsidies.

Have you read the report? If so, what are 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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4 thoughts on “Some Intriguing Thoughts On Concert Formats

  1. Drew, your button link for the information is not working! I have tried twice and all I’m getting is a 404 error which means it cannot be found. Has something in a file been deleted that should not have been?

    Just so you know

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