How to do it

I’ve gotten some very vivid e-mail encouragement for what I proposed in my last post, my shocking proposal that newspapers (and of course other media outlets) cover classical music the way they’d cover anything else, with probing questions and all the factual data they can get. I’m even encouraged to think that some people who write about classical music are going to do at least some of what I suggested.

So I want to append a little how-to guide, about things to look out for when you ask orchestras (or of course other classical music institutions) for data on ticket sales. The data isn’t always as straightforward as all of us might think.


First suggestion: if you want to know how an institution has been doing lately, ask for more than just two or three years’ worth of data. That’s because the data you get needs a context. If a business writer is writing about Ford or GM, he or she is going to have reams of numbers, covering the companies’ performance for decades. Thus anything happening now can be put into context.

That’s not going to be true of orchestra data. If you discover that your local orchestra has lost ticket sales over the past three years, or gained them, what exactly does this mean? How large is the gain compared to long-term performance, or how large is the drop? Maybe the drop turns out just to be the normal year to year churning of these numbers. Or maybe ticket sales in fact had been increasing for years, and the recent drop rather strongly reverses this trend. There’s no way to know what current numbers mean without a much longer context.

So I’d urge everyone to ask, not just for two or three or four years’ of data, but 10 or even 20 years. Don’t be shy. Here we’re in a very different position from sports or business reporters, who already have that information. We’re starting very nearly from scratch. So ask for the long-term context. Your local orchestra or opera company can — if they’re doing their job right — give you data for 20 years as easily as three years. It’s all on their computers. Or it ought to be.


Second suggestion: Be sure to distinguish between ticket sales and attendance. The League of American Orchestras (formerly the American Symphony Orchestra League) collects and reports data on attendance. This isn’t the same as ticket sales! It includes attendance at huge free Fourth of July parks concerts, for instance, and free concerts for bussed-in schoolchildren. Ticket sales are a much more sensitive measure of an orchestra’s performance, so always get ticket sales data. Attendance data is valuable, too, but make sure you have figures for ticket sales. (Attendance figures also allow institutions to inflate their numbers by papering their houses, giving away many free tickets. I’ve known this to happen at one of New York’s big institutions, and I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that it happens elsewhere.) And make sure you know which concerts are included in the sales figures. Aggregate sales numbers might include pops concerts, if the orchestra does them, and also the annual holiday gala, which perhaps is always packed. I’d always ask for a breakdown, so that I’d know the sales data for each kind of event. But here the most sensitive data would be sales for the orchestra’s core classical concerts. These, after all, are the orchestra’s main mission, and sales figures specifically for these concerts will give you one very clear measure of how successful that mission has lately been.


Third suggestion: Be very careful with subscription data. An orchestra might report, for instance, that subscriptions have risen 14%. But what does this mean? There are actually four separate statistical measures of success with subscriptions (or lack of success), and you need to get all of them.

The first measure is simple enough. It’s the number of subscribers an orchestra has, the figure that tells you how many people bought subscription packages. So an orchestra reporting a gain in subscriptions might be referring to this number. More people are buying subscription packages. Good news!

But is it? Another measure of subscription success is how many subscription tickets were sold, a number that’s to some degree independent of the number of subscribers. Suppose, for instance, that a large opera company increases the number of subscribers it has by shortening the length of subscription packages. It’s now, maybe, more tempting for people to buy subscriptions, because they cost less, and commit people to fewer performances. (A big issue in today’s subscription market.) But if this happens, it’s entirely possible that the opera company will sell fewer subscription tickets than it used to, even while the number of subscribers goes up! You need to get both numbers.

And you also want to ask about the revenue from subscription sales. Is this up or down? Suppose an orchestra announces a 14% increase in subscriptions. Maybe they’ve shortened the subscription packages, and also sold them at a steep discount. Now they have more subscribers, but they’re taking in less money from subscription sales! Or maybe they have more subscribers, and are also selling more subscription tickets, but subscription revenue is flat.

I’m not saying that classical music institutions are behaving badly or making strategic mistakes if any of these things should be true. Maybe they’ve got a strategic plan that makes sense, for instance a plan to attract more people at an initial lower price, in hopes of getting new people through the door, and then retaining them at the normal price in the future. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra was very successful with a plan like this. But if you’re gathering these stats, you have to know what you’re dealing with. So get all three of these measures — total number of subscribers, total number of subscription sales, and total revenue from subscription sales — as well as a fourth figure, which in some ways is the most important of all.

The fourth figure is the percent of total ticket sales that are sold by subscription. This number is very important because — for orchestras, at least — it’s been falling for at least the past two decades. According to an article in the latest Symphony magazine by David Snead, the marketing director of the New York Philharmonic, the drop in this percentage is considerable: from 95% in 1984-85 to 76% for the 2004-2005 season. (These numbers are for the 25 largest orchestras.) This makes a huge difference. Subscription sales are cheaper to market than single-ticket sales. Your marketing effort nets you many sales with each transaction, instead of one sale at a time. So the drop in subscription percentage has created a more difficult sales climate, and also made marketing more expensive.

That’s why you need this number. If you want to know how well an orchestra is doing with subscriptions, this percentage is the bottom line. For any given orchestra, you’d want to know how their percentage compares with the industry average, and also whether it’s rising or falling. An orchestra that increases subscription sales but still has a subscription percentage below the industry average may have scored a brilliant success, compared to its past performance.

But then you have to ask why sales had fallen below the industry average, and also how high the orchestra thinks they can rise. If the orchestra thinks they can continue to rise until they’re higher than the industry average, you have every right to be cautious, and to ask why the institution thinks the percentage can keep going up. And if the percentage is falling, before blaming the orchestra for doing its job badly, you have to know if the decline falls within industry norms.

But the subscription sales percentage is the key to understanding subscription success. If, over a period of years, it keeps falling, even within industry norms, that’s a problem. (It’s a problem for the whole industry.) And if there are gains in the other three subscription numbers, that’s good news for the orchestra, but still these gains — in the larger context — may only be a holding action, a success that in the longer run only lessens the immediate effect of the long-term decline.

Thus my suggestions for sharper coverage of classical music ticket sales. I hope they’re not too elementary, and my apologies to readers who already know these things. But I sense, from seeing classical music coverage in the media, that these details might not be as widely known as they should be.


One last footnote. David Snead’s article in the current issue of Symphony is very, very important (and also brilliantly written). Snead tackles the subscription issue head-on, explaining why the older model (as set forth in Danny Newman’s famous book, Subscribe Now!) doesn’t work any more, but how subscription sales can be made to work in different ways. And since the Philharmonic’s sales have been up…

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  1. says

    Thanks. . . Useful for us grantmakers as well. Also useful for those of us involved in collaborative marketing projects to insure meaningful metrics to guage success.

  2. concerned player says

    I play in a peer orchestra to San Diego and I find this idea very troubling. Not simply because I disagree on principle, but I think it shows a lack of understanding about where these orchestras are. In my city the music critic has rarely written a word I agree with and not just about us. He is an informed person but his ignorance, at least in my opinion, has made me laugh out loud frequently. Coincidentally, he has started in with the personal attacks with players he doesn’t seem to admire. So whose opinion should go down in print? Sometimes we behave like a critic’s column is like a box score, as though it is an accurate record of what transpired on stage. As a player in a full time orchestra I feel we are the real experts. Even in a smaller orchestra we are the most qualified people in town to have an opinion. However, there is probably not a single person in an orchestra who does not have his or her critics within the group. I believe the temptation to be more critical of your colleagues is greater in the smaller orchestras, not because the problems are any more real, but the frustration is higher. In my group one of the finest musicians I know was let go after more than two decades of service by a new music director who is clearly an average musician.

    When you refer to the San Diego Symphony as “smaller” you must realize that there are only 30-40 larger ones in the country. That orchestra, like many its size, has a very busy schedule. If it is anything like mine, they could be playing as many as 3 separate programs a week. Many of these have very little to do with playing a polished symphonic program. In fact they often seem like the exact opposite and they take a big toll on chops and morale. When you take into account the financial instability of these groups, the low pay, the heavy schedules and generally poor work conditions I don’t think that most boards and certainly not the critics have earned the right to that kind of criticism. I think it is important to remember that almost every time you have an opinion about someone’s playing another person probably has an equally sincere opposite conclusion.

    In the tier 2 orchestras especially how much does “great” playing alone count? Most of these orchestras would not have survived if it were not for the sacrifices of the players. A great oboe solo never put anyone else’s kid through college. Great trumpet playing never carried a picket sign. It says very little about if the orchestra is a community success or if the person is a good teacher or colleague. My orchestra has fewer players than it did in 1982. The pay is only about $15,000 more as well. In my opinion everyone has earned the right to stay and be treated with respect.

    Sit on an audition committee and you will realize that there are not thousands of clearly qualified people waiting for the job. Sit on the job for a decade, especially in a solo chair, and see if it is reasonable to maintain your playing like the day you won the job on this salary. In my experience most cities are getting way more than they are paying for.

    Thanks for this. It comes from the heart, is unusually honest — and tells the truth.

    I think that if journalists could write the things this comment says — and more in the same vein — everyone would be better off. But note that this is the second comment doubting that critics are really up to the job. Or even good enough for the more limited job they current do. I hear that loud and clear, and it’s a concern I share.

  3. says

    You may also want to consider “reach”.

    Many Arts Orgs will triumph something like “50,000 people attended annually”

    When in actuality, they might have sold 50,000 tickets–but only to 8,000 subscribers who attended 6 or 7 performances.

    Good point. Thanks.