What the numbers say

From a story in the New York Times business section two days ago, August 29 (“The Metropolitan Opera’s New Stage,” by Julie Bosman):

For 30 years, the Metropolitan Opera has wrinkled its elegant nose at advertising campaigns, preferring discreet sales tactics like direct mail and phone solicitations.

But next week, it is entering the mass marketing fray with ads in the most conventional places: telephone kiosks, lamp posts, subway entrances and the sides of city buses.

“It never needed to market itself because tickets were always sold out,” said Peter Gelb, who became the new general manager of the Met on Aug. 1. But now the Met is finding it harder to fill its roughly 4,000 seats with people willing to purchase tickets that currently range from $15 to $320.

After acknowledging years of lagging ticket sales and an audience that, as Mr. Gelb delicately put it, has aged, the Met is spending $500,000 on an advertising campaign that will blanket street-level New York with images from “Madama Butterfly,” the season opener on Sept. 25.

Like other orchestras and opera houses across the country whose ticket sales are on the wane, the Met is under pressure to lure younger audiences. The new ad campaign, scheduled to begin on Monday, is aimed at younger people who may find opera remote and intimidating.

So. Assuming this story is accurate, Peter Gelb openly says that the Met’s audience is shrinking and getting older. Now, maybe he’s said that before. A previous Times story, back in February, mentioned “declining attendance” along with “budget woes,” but didn’t explicitly credit Peter with talking about those things. And then the story went on to talk more generally about Peter’s plans for the company.

All of which is maybe odd. Here we have glancing references to what ought to be a major arts story, and also a major New York story — the Metropolitan Opera in trouble. Why doesn’t the Times tackle that head-on? Why not a long and detailed front-page story in the Arts section? How serious has the decline in ticket sales been? How long has it been going on? What, in detail, does the financial picture look like? What are Peter’s plans for turning things around? If this isn’t a major New York (and national) arts story, what is?

And not only that. Allan Kozinn’s notable “Arts & Leisure” piece this spring very prominently said that classical music’s numbers were good, that ticket sales weren’t declining. (For extensive debate and comment on what Allan wrote, see the comments to my post about the piece.) But on the other hand, the Times at least twice says in print that the Met Opera’s numbers in fact aren’t good, and a business story talks, as if the whole thing were common knowledge, about “orchestras and opera houses across the country whose ticket sales are on the wane.” So which is it? Are ticket sales falling, or aren’t they? I don’t mean that the Times should speak only with a single voice. Of course there’s room for many opinions. But shouldn’t the Times pay some coherent attention to this subject (which a lot of people care very deeply about)? It really does seem odd to run a long, passionate essay (Allan’s piece), saying that there isn’t any decline in classical music ticket sales, and then at least twice mention elsewhere, but only in passing, that at our largest and most famous classical music institution, ticket sales in fact are falling.

And there’s more. The American Symphony Orchestra League ‘fesses up to some problems in its bold new strategic plan, unveiled at its annual conference in June. From the League’s website, you can download the Executive Summary of the draft offered at the conference (“Supporting Orchestras in a New Era: A Strategic Direction for the American Symphony Orchestra League”). Here’s an excerpt from the opening section, entitled “Landscape”:

Through extensive consultation with the orchestra field, the planning process informed the League of the critical challenges and opportunities facing orchestras today. A variety of environmental changes are having a significant impact on the arts, including orchestras: shifts in community demographics, culture, values, and priorities; evolving technology; changing consumer patterns and tastes; and competition for philanthropic funds, leadership resources, and the ever-scarcer leisure time of audiences. These circumstances may indicate the end of a field-wide growth cycle and the emergence of a new one, yet to be fully defined.

The 1970s through the 1990s saw a period of major growth for orchestras–longer seasons, more concerts. During this time orchestras concentrated their efforts on delivering wonderful symphonic music onstage. As the supply of musical product increased, the audience was expected to consume more of it and, increasingly, to give enough money to cover the shortfall between earned income and growing expenses.

They did both. Orchestras’ standard of performance improved steadily; audiences filled the halls and loved what they heard.

Even as orchestras burgeoned in the 1970s, music education in the nation’s public schools came under the budgetary knife, with inevitable consequences for classical-music institutions. In response, orchestras have exponentially increased their traditional commitment to education.

Meanwhile, signs of strain on the financial model appeared, though they were initially masked by the surging economy of the 1990s. Today, there is a pervasive sense of apprehension among orchestras about their future organizational and financial health. While the standard of today’s orchestra performances is extremely high, concerns have surfaced about an overall loss of personality and electricity–concerns that are often cited alongside the routinization of performances, the homogenization of repertoire, and a gradual decline in attendance.

Note these phrases: “a pervasive sense of apprehension among orchestras about their future organizational and financial health”; “a gradual decline in attendance.” The League, with rare honesty, is telling the world that orchestras really do have problems. Among those problems is a decline in attendance. I’m told that in a talk at the conference, the League’s new board chair, Lowell Noteboom, was even more explicit. He said that attendance at orchestra events had been falling since 1996-97. (He also painted a fairly troubled picture in an article in the September-October issue of Symphony, the League’s magazine.)

(I myself quoted those attendance figures some time ago in this blog, after the League provided them to me. And as I said at the time, the numbers arern’t as informative as they might be. They measure attendance, not ticket sales, and include all kinds of free events, like concerts in city parks, and performances at schools. A much more sensitive measure might be ticket sales for orchestras’ core classical concerts, and those, from private figures I’ve seen, have been declining more sharply and for a longer time than overall attendance at all orchestral events.)

So if the Metropolitan Opera and the American Symphony Orchestra League say that ticket sales (for the former) and attendance (for the latter) are down…well, then clearly the numbers are going down. Especially since other opera companies (the Chicago Lyric Opera, for one) are showing the same decline.

But here’s something that’s not realistic, and maybe not quite honest. Opera America — which represents America’s opera companies, and is to opera what the ASOL is to orchestras — quotes all sorts of

optimistic figures on its website. Here’s a sample:

Opera attendance rose steadily from 1982 to 2002. The U.S. opera audience grew by 35% between 1982 and 1992. This trend continued through 2002, when the opera audience grew by an additional 8.2%, representing the largest increase of all performing arts disciplines. (Source: National Endowment for the Arts)

The boldface type is their own. And the problems with these numbers would go something like this. First, the 2002 figures from the National Endowment come from data gathered during the 2000 census. So they’re six years old, going on seven! They may not represent the situation today (especially since as far as I know, both the Met and Chicago Lyric’s declines in ticket sales took place after 2000).

And that 8.2% growth of the audience between 1992 and 2002 (really between 1990 and 2000) — that’s no higher than the rise in the American population during that period (and in fact a hair lower; between 1990 and 2000, the population went up 8.9%). Which means that opera audiences, measured as a proportion of the population, didn’t rise at all.

Plus: what’s with the 35% rise in one 10-year period, followed by only an 8.2% rise in the following 10 years? What caused the difference? We need some context here. Maybe there were a many more opera companies in 1992 than there were in 1982. Or has the growth of the opera audience been declining very sharply since 1982, to the point where maybe now it’s negative? (Which would mean, that is, that the numbers are falling, rather than rising.)

Opera America ought to rethink all this.

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  1. says

    It would seem to me that if attendance at all events is staying reasonably constant while “core event” ticket sales are declining, orchestras are doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing–sacrificing revenue upfront to build up a future customer base. I wonder if this is a case of trying to have it both ways: critics say organizations need to do more outreach or the industry will die, and then when organizations actually do more outreach, they point to the negative bottom-line impact as evidence that the industry is dying.

    I would love to see numbers historically comparing the money orchestras and the like spend on education and outreach; are the financials looking worse because the organizations are having to do more of the legwork that government (via public schools) used to pay for? This might be a structural shift in the way organizations spend money that doesn’t necessarily invalidate their core practices. (Which is not to diminish the difficulty of such a change.)

    Corporate types always love to have some conventional wisdom to justify their decisions, and the conventional wisdom right now certainly seems to be that classical music is in deep trouble. But the conventional wisdom is so frequently wrong (remember how the internet boom was going to permanently change the laws of eeconomics?) that I hope boards and managers double-check that bathwater for a baby.

    Matthew, thanks for these thoughts. They’re well worth pondering. Attendance at all orchestral events has declined, not just at the core classical concerts. And in fact only a small proportion of concerts that American orchestras give are paid classical events in formal concert halls. I don’t know the exact percentage, because the available stats (from the American Symphony Orchestra League) aren’t precise enough. But the percentage of orchestra concerts that are formal, paid, classical events could be as low as 19%, and isn’t any higher than 40%. (It all depends on how we interpret a catch-all category called “Other,” when we read the League’s tabulation of orchestra events.)

    So is this investment in the future? I’m not sure. It’s not at all clear that these events transfer sales to the main concert series. I think, in fact, that orchestras tend to think of all these activities as separate, each with its own reason to exist. The core series, though, costs the most, and also (paradoxically, since it’s a huge money-loser) brings in the most revenue. There really isn’t any revenue model I’ve ever heard of for staying alive on the proceeds of all the non-core events.

    Orchestras are definitely undergoing a longterm evolution. Back in the 1930s (a decade I pick because it’s the earliest I have solid data for), orchestras supported themselves almost entirely from ticket sales to the main classical concerts. They did very little fundraising, and very little (or none) or what we now call outreach. The story since then (which I believe is also the story of all the performing arts) is a steady squeeze, caused by many things, including (according to one prominent theory) the simple fact that productivity doesn’t increase as it does in the rest of the economy, so orchestral performance and other arts activities grow less and less competitive. There’s also a declining interest in classical music, which has hit very hard in the last decade, and helps accelerate yet another longterm trend, which is the aging of the audience. Data from the National Endowment shows that the audience has been aging ever since the 1980s, and data I’ve seen from the 1930s and the 1960s seems to show that the process began far earlier. In the 1930s, the average age of an orchestra ticket-buyer was around 30! So there’s good reason to be concerned right now, though no reason to despair.

  2. Andrew Bales says

    I appreciate your pursuing the point as the health of this “industry” matters. It does strike me that your poking at Opera America’s numbers seems to have forgotten that opera changed its product dramatically and that prompted the huge growth factor of the first decade you cited. Prior to that decade the majority of operas were sung in a foreign language and felt too distant for general audiences. The supertitle innovation changed opera’s mass market appeal. They blossomed and then leveled out once the product change became institutionalized in the art form.

    What is impressive is that the attendance didn’t collapse after a one-time pop for interest sake. It seems to show a genuine appeal from the product that the supertitle innovation enabled.

    As for the symphony numbers, I think we have a mistaken understanding of the product lines and as such we compare apples and oranges most of the time. There are two (and possibly many more) distinct fields performing symphonic repertoire in America and they have little to do with each other.

    On the one hand there are a few (less than 20) full time orchestras paying appropriate living wages, generally in major markets. The economic need to meet substantial payrolls forces a wide ranging product mix intended to utilize this wonderful resource (the orchetra members themselves) to generate optimal economic return. There is a forced need to produce concerts for the marketplace and it will often wander into turf that is less productive as you press the outer edges of natural market appeal.

    The second sector covers the vast majority of symphonies, though a more modest total economic impact stems from all of the per-service and part time orchestras whose role is to present classical music within thieir communities.

    It the later case the economics are tied to market appeal. You can’t hire the players if there is no market for them, or at the least one does so at the peril of the institution’s financial viability.

    In the first group, core financial commitments have been made on the expense side and they must produce product to cover the “nut”. One is revenue-driven and the other is expense-driven. The attendance and economic focres between the two sectors are quite different.

    And yet….

    A problem this field struggles with is that the distinction between the first group and the second is easily seen but often ignored. Many a per service orchestra seeks to become or operate like a major expense-driven orchestra without the resources to support that mission. You will then find attendance numbers hard to track as they ingore economics and strive to find new markets.

    One-time exceptions can alter the numbers to such a degree as to make them invalid. Several years ago the 3 Tenors phenomenon prompted operas to report annual attendance that swelled from modest numbers to huge ones only to return a year later. Does than mean no one cared for the second year for Opera?

    Returning to the question you started this topic with, one should find a way to compare apples-to-apples. What is the paid attendance to the core classical series of each of the sectors involved? What has it been over time? Then we can understand about the relative health of the field.

    Apples-to-apples series evaluation is a better test of the field than total attendance.

    Unlike so much in our world, size doesn’t matter here accuaracy does.

    Thanks, Andrew. Many good points, as usual. I honestly don’t know whether opera companies showed a great bulge in attendance because of supertitles. I was very active in the opera world in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and there the action was in two areas — new companies springing up ( you couldn’t, back then, take for granted that any significant American city would have a commensurate opera company), and performances in English. So my first thought is that the increase in companies led to the increase in attendance. The regional opera scene as we know it now was just coming into existence back then.Did the Three Tenors really get people to buy tickets to regular opera productions? I’ve never heard that. I thought it was generally accepted that this didn’t happen, or at least not in any large numbers, but maybe I’m wrong.

    About the different kinds of orchestras, and the apples to oranges comparison — amen. We need much, much better data. And I simply don’t know what’s happened to sales for the main concert series of group 2 and group 3 orchestras (to use the League’s terminology).

  3. Andrew Bales says

    For clarification my comment wasn’t that the 3 Tenors built new audiences, it was the local opera companies presented the 3 Tenors and then included the inflated ticket numbers in their totals, thereby creating unmatchable numbers.

    I am pretty certain that opera generally traces its sales boom, while everyone else was struggling, to the supertitle influence.