A dire statistic

Last week I learned that ticket sales for the Big Five orchestras haven’t declined all that much in the past 10 years (though this year’s, people tell me, are troubling, and I don’t know what the decline might be for all professional orchestras).

But I also learned this stunning, dire fact: In this same period, the cost of selling a ticket rose 40%. Yes, you read that right. It now costs large orchestras 40% more to sell tickets than it did 10 years ago. Why? Because orchestras sell fewer subscriptions, or, to put this more precisely, the percentage of tickets sold in subscriptions has been steadily declining. Years ago, in fact, nearly all tickets were sold in subscriptions, and each year the people who bought those subscriptions all but automatically renewed them. So orchestras hardly had to work to sell tickets; ticket sales just about took care of themselves. But now orchestras have to market subscription sales; they have to invent new, shorter, more varied subscription packages; they have to find ways to market single tickets. All this costs money (for telephone sales, for advertising, for hiring more marketing staff) — money that, years ago, orchestras didn’t have to spend.

Why don’t people subscribe the way they used to? For many reasons, most likely. There’s more to do (more theater companies, more serious movies, more dance companies, more museums, more sports events, DVDs to watch, cooking classes, yoga, exercise, adventure travel, endless things that didn’t compete for everyone’s attention 30 years ago). There’s also, many people think, a cultural shift, a change in the way people plan what they’re going to do: They don’t plan as far in advance as they used to. And finally there’s surely less interest in classical music.

This trend isn’t likely to reverse itself. The cost of selling tickets is likely to increase, which puts orchestras — already having trouble with their finances — in an even worse spot than they’re in now. They’ll have to find still more ways to sell tickets in smaller packages, or even one at a time, and that will very likely cost them even more than they’re spending now.

(Footnote: Larry Tamburri, who runs the Pittsburgh Symphony, would dissent from everything I’ve written here. He thinks subscriptions can still be sold, and, I’d guess, might wonder whether orchestras that have trouble with subscriptions aren’t trying hard enough. We should hope he’s right, because if he is — and if he can show other orchestras how to sell subscriptions — the health of all our orchestras might notably improve.)

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