Back In The In-Person Concert Saddle

Over the weekend, I attended my first in-person orchestra concert in 15 months and the experience was fantastic. To a large degree, the entire experience reinforced what I have been hoping would be the case in that there are opportunities and advantages connected to socially distanced concert events.

This was my first time attending a South Bend Symphony concert. The program included Beethoven Symphony No. 5 and The Rose of Sonora, the violin concerto written by award winning film composer, George S. Clinton. I’ve written about that project in detail so there’s no need to cover it again here other than to say this performance required some tweaking from the composer to accommodate the reduced orchestra and it all worked without detracting from the artistic impact.

Overall, if this concert experience is representative of what’s to come in the next few months, it is an entirely positive outlook. Here are some of my takeaways:

  • Masks were a nonissue. Even though this may become moot in the near future, requiring masks didn’t appear to be a deterrent. I was eavesdropping as much as possible and didn’t hear a single patron complaint.
  • Your core audience will return. The concert took place at the Morris Performing Arts Center, which I learned after the concert has ~2700 seat capacity. Even with socially distanced seating configuration, the orchestra sold all available seats. We’ve examined this issue before and most orchestras can expect anywhere from 15-30 percent of available capacity. That’s well within the comfort zone for attracting your core subscribers. So, while there’s no denying the hit to earned income, orchestras can expect a bump in added ticket-buyer excitement. If anything, working news that the event is sold out into curtain speeches is a must. Attendees won’t know it’s sold out until you tell them, but everything changes once you do.
  • The added energy of playing conditions. Seeing musicians, soloist, and conductor on stage and masked had a lot more impact than I was expecting. Playing in a mask is fu*king hard. Not all ticket buyers will know that and while I’m not saying it’s something you need to tell them, it is worth leaning into if the opportunity arises. There’s an undeniable amount of positive nervous energy that contributes to a genuinely exciting atmosphere. Don’t squander it. It can help make everything old, new again. I can’t recall the last time I enjoyed a performance of Beethoven 5 this much.

That’s it in a nutshell. While there’s plenty of minutia I could dive into, it would only detract from those three primary points. Embrace the return and don’t let an overabundance of caution cause your group to miss out on these opportunities.

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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