As recently as 1990, American symphony orchestras accounted for an average of 60 percent of their budgets in earned income. This meant, at the time, that if you weren’t selling enough tickets (and other services) to make 60 percent, then you weren’t considered healthy. A report in 1991 – The Financial Condition of Symphony Orchestras – conducted by The Wolf Organization, said that attendance at orchestra concerts between 1970 and 1990 had increased 53% (from 17.5 million to 27 million) and the number of concerts had increased by 39% (to 18,000 from 13,000 concerts).
A few months ago The League of American Orchestras reported that in 2014 orchestras produced 28,000 concerts in front of an audience of 25 million. So a 55 percent increase in number of concerts over 24 years but a slight decline in total audience of about 7.4 percent.
The biggest change in the numbers was in the percentage of earned income – from 60 percent in 1990 to 40 percent in 2014 – a decline of a third. So now if you aren’t making 40 percent of your budget at the box office, you’re not succeeding at the model.
That sounds shocking. Dismal. A quote:
- Many financial approaches have been tried over the past 50 years to improve the financial condition of orchestras.
- Yet, the industry as a whole appears to be in the worst financial shape it has ever been in by several objective measures.
- Unless changes are made in the way orchestras do business – changes that are substantial and systemic – the future health of the orchestra industry is in serious jeopardy.
But that’s a conclusion from the 1991 Wolf report, not the 2016 League report.
There are many observations to be made about the drumbeat of woe accompanying discussions about the state of orchestras’ financial health and how that shapes debate about what’s going on. And that’s not even to mention a perhaps even more important discussion that might be had about a comparison of orchestra artistic quality over decades.
But for the moment I’d like to focus on the change in where orchestras are getting their income. The League reports that “across League member orchestras, 40% of total income in 2014 was classified as earned income, 43% as contributed income, and 17% as investment income.”
So the headline over the New York Times story about the report – It’s Official: Many Orchestras Are Charities – focused on the idea that American orchestras are now more dependant on philanthropy than selling tickets. And that sounds dire. Could one not make the case that so few people want to buy tickets to hear orchestras that they have to be subsidized for their unpopularity and maybe should just be allowed to fade away?
But let’s make a comparison. A report this month issued by the Association of Art Museum Directors says that American museums depend on ticket sales for only 6 percent of their budgets. That’s a fraction of the earned income that American orchestras achieve. And yet the debate in the museum world isn’t about museums as a failing model but whether or not they should just abandon paid admissions altogether (as they did in the UK).
Charging no admission would change the way people used museums, it might change the types of people who use museums, and it would certainly make museums more accessible to a broader range of people. Certainly there are museums that are in financial distress. But discussions of the museum “model” seem substantively different that those about the orchestra model. They’re more about what kind of audiences you want to serve rather than how many tickets you need to sell.
Maybe that’s because concerts are time-based and have a finite, expirable inventory. But I suspect it’s more because concerts are considered events to be sold while museums are more like public libraries – resources to be used. Orchestras sell tickets. Museums sell memberships.
But what’s so special about earning 60 percent of your budget or 40 percent or six? These are imaginary lines in the sand. If orchestras were a real business and charged what expenses cost plus a profit markup, only very rich people could afford to go. If orchestras only made 6 percent of their budgets on ticket sales you’d likely find a very different audience would be there and that audience would think about concerts in a different way. People go to movies and don’t get too upset if the movie is bad because it doesn’t cost much. But pay $100 for your orchestra ticket and the bar for satisfaction gets a lot higher. Maybe it’s shallow, but ticket price colors the experience.
Orchestras like the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra reduced prices and started selling memberships (like museums do) and found a dramatic increase in attendance and community support. Membership organizations are pervasive throughout our culture. Bike clubs, birding clubs, associations to support everything imaginable. Journalism is increasingly adopting the subscription model, which unlike the orchestra subscription model, is actually a membership fee that buys access rather than charging by the article. Maybe it’s time to start asking people to invest in the art, in the idea, rather than buying the transaction.