The tipping point

In the past two days, I’ve talked to two arts professionals who each told me the same troubling thing — that subscription sales have been dropping strongly, not just in music, but in the other performing arts. (And, within the music world, not just for orchestras, but for opera companies as well. As one of these two people said, the conventional wisdom is that orchestras are in trouble while opera companies are doing fine, but the reality is otherwise.)

I haven’t tried to check what these two people told me, but they’re both in a position to know what they’re talking about, and certainly know what’s going on in whatever institutions they might work with. And the implications are dire. I’ll speak here of music institutions, because they’re the ones I know best. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the same conditions held throughout the performing arts.

If subscriptions drop very strongly — as part of a long term trend — major classical music institutions are in big trouble. Why? Because they expect to sell a major portion (typically well over half) of their seats by subscription, and their staffing, skills, and marketing budgets have all taken shape with that in mind. Or, to put it differently, selling seats by subscription is what they know how to do, and, at present, also what they can best afford to do. If soon they have to sell most of their seats one at a time, to what the trade calls “single-ticket buyers,” they won’t — unless they make big, changes — have the people, skills, or money to do that.

Why are subscription sales dropping? Both people I talked to said the same thing. The one I talked to today has just done a large-scale audience study for a major music institution outside New York. Former subscribers were asked why they didn’t subscribe, and their answers all were more or less the same: “There’s too much else to do.” “I just don’t have time.” “I can’t commit myself to go to performances that far in advance.” The conventional wisdom says that people in their 30s and 40s can be expected to talk this way, but now the audience members doing it are in their 50s and 60s, or in other words the age at which people used to be counted on to subscribe.

The other person I talked to reports the same thing. How long has all this been going on? For a long time. I first heard of it in the mid-1990s, though it may have started before that. Major institutions began to discover that they were selling fewer tickets by subscription, and that they had to work harder (and spend more money) to make those sales.

But now, if I’m to believe what I’m told, the tide is running out at a much faster pace. Some people in the arts believe that we may have arrived at what, in a much-quoted book, Malcolm Gladwell calls a “tipping point,” a moment in history where something small all at once becomes a stampede. The reasons for this may be obvious or obscure. If we speculate about classical subscriptions, we might guess that people now coming into their 50s and 60s grew up with pop culture, and are less interested in classical music than previous generations were. Or we might speculate that there’s simply more to do now — more arts, for instance (more theater companies, more dance companies, more museums, more music groups), not to mention competition from movies, home theater and the Internet.

Or maybe the tempo of life has changed, and people put off making choices as long as they can. One of the people I talked to says there’s been a longterm decline in the time between a ticket purchase, and the date of the performance the ticket is for. The decline, he says, is very sharp; he calls it “logarithmic.”

But whichever theory anybody favors — and all of them might be correct — the facts are the same. People who once might have made room in their budgets and their schedules for classical concert or opera subscriptions seem not to be doing that any more, and classical music institutions will have to adapt.

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