I’ve been hearing a lot about empty seats over the past year or so. I meet people out of town who come to New York, go to the Met, and can’t believe how empty the house is. They ask me about it. (People in New York often ask the same thing.) Or I get e-mail from people who’ve been to concerts in their own cities (most recently a Philadelphia Orchestra program), and they wonder why the house is so sparse. I’ve seen the same thing myself, in Pittsburgh last year, for instance. At one Pittsburgh Symphony concert I wanted to sit with a friend in the balcony, but only had one ticket. (My friend had a seat downstairs.) I asked an usher if he could find us two empty seats. He looked at me sadly, and gestured at the empty rows. “Sit anywhere,” he sighed.
Now, I’m not saying that the Met or the Pittsburgh Symphony or the Philadelphia Orchestra are empty all the time. But I do think there are nights when, in many places, empty seats start to be unavoidably noticeable. And I have a theory to explain that.
For any organization that gives a lot of concerts, ticket sales will go up and down, influenced by all the obvious things — program, day of the week, weather, competing events in town, soloist, conductor, you name it. Obviously a concert with a lot of new or recent music (like the one in Philadelphia I got e-mailed about) will sell fewer tickets than one with Rach 3, played by Lang Lang. So sometimes it’s obvious why a concert will be emptier than another event the week before.
But now suppose overall sales have been steadily declining. That’s the case in the orchestra world — the biggest orchestras have seen a steady decline in ticket sales since around 1990. (And maybe the decline started earlier; I haven’t seen the figures.) Very likely the same sales trend is mirrored in other classical music genres. Certainly opera companies are selling fewer tickets than they were just a few years ago.
These declines aren’t absolutely steady. The sales for any individual organization will go up and down, year by year. But the overall trend is down. So now, after many years of this, the average level of sales for individual concerts is down, too. Of course, the concerts themselves vary. Some sell more, some sell less. But now that the overall level is lower — this is what my theory comes down to — the concerts with the lowest sales are really low. They’ve passed some threshold, below which empty seats just stare at you. So that’s why people talk about empty seats. They’re much more noticeable than they were five or ten years ago (even though some concerts still are pretty full).