The good news, from a Playbill Arts piece linked on ArtsJournal today: the Baltimore Symphony’s reduced-price subscription plan seems to be working, maybe even spectacularly.
The Baltimore Sun reports that when the box office opened last Saturday morning (March 3), about 150 people were already in line at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, ready to snap up the tickets [writes Vivien Schweitzer, who also reviews music for The New York Times]. Music director-designate Marin Alsop was on hand to give out doughnuts to the eager subscribers.…
Charles Shubow, an administrative judge, told the Sun that he hadn’t subscribed to the Symphony for years, but Alsop’s appointment prompted his return.
Lawyer Brendan Hurson, 29, said, “I wouldn’t be a subscriber if not for the deal. If you do the math, it’s amazing.”…
Paul Meecham, Baltimore Symphony president and chief executive, told the Sun that subscription renewals have increased, and those who have renewed so far have purchased close to 16 tickets each this year, up 25 percent from this time last year. Despite the decrease in price, subscription revenue is five times higher than this time last year.
The bad news:
According to the Sun, Meecham would not commit to offering the deal next year, however. The new pricing was made possible by a $1 million grant from the PNC Foundation, the charitable arm of Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services Group.
So here we have this exciting initiative, which could energize this or any other orchestra (not to mention bring happiness to a lot of people who’d love to hear the music). And it’s only possible with a large shot of outside funding. (Apparently the five-times-higher-revenue is a very preliminary measure; apparently the orchestra expects to bring in less money overall, hence the need for funding. Orchestra marketing people have often told me that, even if they sell more tickets by lowering prices, their overall revenue will go down.)
This is heartbreaking. Baltimore can only continue this initiative with $1 million each year in special funding? A million dollars is a lot of money. If the economy sags, as eventually it will, this program could go right out the window, even if it continues next year or the year after that.
This makes me think of the http://www.artsjournal.com/sandow/2007/01/where_we_stand_3.html stats I presented earlier, about the declining proportion of orchestra income that comes from ticket sales, a decline that’s been going on for around 70 years.
As time goes on, orchestras have had to raise more and more money, simply to stay alive. And now we might be at a new stage in this impasse. Ticket prices are too high. Everybody says this, and the results of lowering them can be dramatic. But if you lower prices, you lose money. So what happens if orchestras decide they don’t have any choice — if they find they have to lower prices, in order to redevelop their audience? (And re-energize their relationship to their communities.) The proportion of their budget that comes from ticket sales will fall still more. It approached 100 percent (at least at some of the biggest orchestras) in the 1930s. It dropped, in the 1960s and 1970s, to 50-odd percent, then 40-odd percent, and more recently to something like 25 to 30 percent.
What would it fall to now, if orchestras decide they have to lower ticket prices? 20 percent? 15 percent? Once again, orchestras will have to find new sources of money, just to stay alive.
It’s enough to break your heart.