Information shortage (Where we stand, part 3)

Continuing with my series of “let’s see where we are” posts…the others were here (an overview), and here (about a new spirit in the world about classical music). Plus supplements to the first post, and to the second.

This one is about statistics, but maybe more importantly — in the long run — about transparency. We don’t have enough numbers (and certainly not enough publicly available numbers) about how classical music institutions are doing. Opera America, I’m happy to say (they’re the association of North American opera companies), each year publishes an Annual Field Report, a thorough statistical roundup that includes ticket sales and detailed financial data. But the League of American Orchestras makes equivalent information (its Orchestra Statistical Report) available only to its member orchestras. (And Opera America, I fear, buries information about its field reports deep in its website. You have to go to their publications page and click the “General Information” tab.) Chamber Music America and the Association of Performing Arts Presenters don’t offer any information on their websites about how their members might be doing. So we can’t readily find out if chamber ensembles are selling more tickets or getting more performances than they used to, or if presenting organizations are selling more or fewer tickets to their classical

What this means: We don’t know how well the classical music field, taking as a whole, is doing. We don’t know how many tickets orchestras are selling this year, or how many they sold last year, or sold 20 years ago. We don’t know whether sales to recitals and chamber concerts are up or down.

Contrast other areas of life and the economy, and even the arts. The auto industry has a crisis, and we can read exactly how many cars each car company sold each year. So when we talk about the crisis, we know what we’re talking about. We know, just for instance, that Toyota sold more units of one of its models, the Camry, than Chrysler sold of its entire line. And if we want to know how museums are doing, in the economic downturn, we can find out. Someone surveyed around 40 of them, and published a summary of the what the survey found.

How can we not have similar data about classical music? We have it for movies (though, I’ll grant, not for pop records, since record companies don’t like to release sales figures, unless they have some great success to brag about. But for how many years — how many decades — have we been pondering the classical music crisis? How many articles, in newspapers and elsewhere, have been written about it?

And we’re doing all of that without proper data. I myself don’t have enough data. I’ve concluded — based on what I do know, or have heard about (from various public, private, and anecdotal sources) — that, most likely, sales are down over many years. The League of American Orchestras gave me some figures on attendance, some time ago, and they showed a decline starting in the 1997-98 season.

But as I’ve noted many times, attendance figures (as opposed to sales numbers) can be misleading. They count free concerts, kids bused to concert halls to hear performances, Fourth of July events in parks. They’re not as sensitive a measure as ticket sales to an orchestra’s core subscription concerts. The League hasn’t yet released any figures on those sales.

Now, I hope to remedy this problem. Watch this space for updates. But my thought, so far, is that it’s a sign of immaturity that the classical music field doesn’t have solid data on itself. And also, at least in some cases, a sign of too much secrecy. There’s a fear that donors won’t give money if they think things are really bad. But if donors are sweet-talked with notions that everything is more or less OK, and then find out later that this isn’t true, won’t they feel cheated? And won’t organizations that tell the public when they’re having trouble are better equipped to face their problems? They can’t hide, can’t go into denial. If they say they’re having trouble, they also have to say what they’re going to do about it.

And aren’t we moving, as a society, toward transparency? Transparency is a current buzzword. Cf. Obama’s insistence that everything his administration does, all planned spending, should be available in detail online for everyone to read. The classical music business isn’t yet transparent, which puts it out of step with developing trends in the country at large.

The classical music press bears some responsibility, too, for not asking tough enough questions, for not demanding that classical music institutions disclose solid information about funding and ticket sales. But in the end, it’s the institutions who ought to be more transparent. Classical music institutions get government funds, and also solicit money from the public. Shouldn’t they tell the public how they’re doing?

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Comments

  1. Gail Wein says

    Greg, you make several good points here, and I think there’s a lot between the lines. As a former actuary, I can tell you that a skilled numbers person can find statistics to give any number of different impressions. They’re each technically acurate, but may not reflect reality.

    So perhaps what our industry needs is more administrators skilled in the art of using numbers to tell a story.

    And indeed, no executive director or development officer wants to admit to the donors that only 11 people showed up to a performance. I’ll be interested to read about ways you’ve come up with to uncover the cold hard facts, and glad to help out where I can.

    Thanks so much, Gail. I might ask you for help. As I mentioned in another response, organizations’ tax forms can be informative, but they need more financial knowledge than I have, to be deciphered.

    And yes, amazing things can be done with numbers. I’ve commented on this here, in a post about (among other things) the different things a performing arts group might mean when it says “subscriptions have increased.” The number of subscribers, the number of subscription tickets sold, the amount of money earned by subscription sales?

  2. says

    Hello there,

    You bring up good points but are can’t most of these questions be at least partially answered by having a look at the orchestras’ annual reports?

    It’s not a line by line breakdown of how many people came to what concert specifically but they do give an idea of relative movement over time.

    Because orchestras receive government funding in Canada, the reports are public information. Perhaps that is not the case in the United States?

    The answers in the annual reports are very partial. Not adequate for any serious statistical purpose. And the work involved in getting those reports for each orchestra, and then collating them all — prodigious. And then smaller orchestras might not issue annual reports.

    Another source would be the orchestras’ tax returns, which can be downloaded from guidestar.com. But they also don’t give all the information I need, and, beyond that, can be opaque if you don’t have serious financial skills.

    So nice that you named yourself after the character with the best name in the entire operatic repertoire!

  3. Name Withheld says

    Greg, there are plenty of people who will read your article and just pray you never look any further into this situation.

    There’s a reason for a lack of transparency. If the public ever knew the actual debt levels of many arts organizations, their attractiveness to donors could be severely compromised. There are also instances of press outlets reporting misleading and even false information about some arts organizations so that the true nature of their finances would not be publicly known.

    I know this very well, NW. I’ve been told to my face by the executive director of a large American orchestra, “The public can never be told!”

    But I think times have changed. Any lack of transparency is going to look very out of place, in the coming years. And if the arts industry really wants a government bailout, as many are asking — then forget it. If they don’t tell the world where they really stand, they’re not getting a cent.

    I’m going to pursue this, privately at first, but in public if necessary. Time for a change.

  4. says

    Greg,

    There is a difference between “you don’t know” and “we don’t know.” I’ve been an orchestra staffer for 30 years now, and the annual statistical reports collected by the League of American Orchestras (formerly American Symphony Orchestra League) are extraordinary. Yes, more public transparency and telling this story better would be good. But please don’t keep saying that this information is a mystery. American orchestras attract more ticket buyers each year than the games of the National Football League!

    Thanks, Rob. I don’t think I said that the information isn’t known, in every case. Certainly more information has been gathered than has been made available to the public.

    But the League, I believe, wouldn’t be as quick as you are to say that the their statistical database is extraordinary. I know a lot of people there, and I know that reevaluating and revising the research they do is a high priority there. Beyond that, they should speak for themselves. But I think it’s fair to say that they have a longer way to go than you think they do.

    As for orchestras selling more tickets than NFL games — what does that mean? I have no baseline to tell me why that should or shouldn’t be impressive. It certainly doesn’t mean that orchestras are more popular than football. Factor in the people watching football on TV, and the NFL of course leaves orchestras very, very, very far behind, even if, to be fair, we added the number of people listening to concerts on the radio.

    You’d also want to consider another factor. How many people would go to NFL games if there were more of them? How many people would go if everyone who wanted to go could get a ticket? In other words, how much unsatisfied demand is there for NFL tickets, compared with unsatisfied demand for orchestra tickets? (I’m sure economists have a more precise term than “unsatisfied demand.”) Also consider that NFL games require sitting outdoors for a couple of hours in the winter, in the company of rowdy fans, and it’s not hard to imagine that lots of people would prefer to watch on TV.

    To me, all this means that a comparison of ticket numbers between the NFL and orchestras is meaningless — two numbers that have nothing to do with each other. Besides, if you added college football games, wouldn’t orchestras fall behind once again? Remember that college teams have national followings, and that college games are taken just as seriously as NFL games, by huge numbers of people.

  5. Anonymous says

    Greg is correct that the League does not collect or report actual paid attendance. And no, many orchestra annual reports also do not contain this information. Ticket revenue — as opposed to attendance — may show up on 990’s, but it would be quite a chore for someone to compile and analyze.

  6. says

    It is true that the League’s data is not publicly available. There are historical reasons for this, chief amongst them being that it is quite detailed and is collected with the understanding that institutions can report honest numbers without having them splashed all over the press with whatever spin the splashing party might choose to put on them.

    Having said that, the League has embarked on an entirely new mechanism for collecting statistical data and disseminating it to the field, which should be more transparent and far more helpful to the field as a whole, as well as more accurate.

    It is true that there is good data for some other sectors in the arts business. The League has a far larger and more diverse membership than similar support organizations, however, and even deciding how to group organizations for comparison and data-gathering purposes is not a trivial task.

    Robert, Opera America appears to have solved both the data gathering and grouping questions. And they did it long ago. But then, the League is pretty forthright these days in saying that it could do better. (And see also Galen’s comment.)
    But about splashing the data around, and putting spin on it — do you mean the orchestras are going to spin the facts, or that the press will?

    If you mean that the press will — and that this is some kind of major problem — then can do you think the press should also be denied information about drug companies, oil companies, and Wall Street bonuses? Or should orchestras live some kind of privileged — and, if you ask me, not fully American — life, in which they’re protected from press scrutiny? Seems to me that in a free society, you take your chances. And if the press misrepresents what’s going on with orchestras, don’t orchestras have any way to fight back? Seems to me that if they had any notion of how to do PR, they could easily get their own spin out.

    But I hope my remarks here are more properly aimed at others, and that you didn’t mean anything like this at all.

  7. Galen says

    I haven’t seen the full LAMO reports, but I’ve seen some of the recent data on fundraising and participated in researching some of the fundraising data for my employer’s response to this year’s survey. All I can say is that I hope the rest of the data is better, because the part that I saw was terrible. Some of the questions are unclear and can be answered differently depending on how you interpret them. Many of the questions ignore significant differences in how different organizations track income. I didn’t spend much time with the report, but my general impression was that the data wasn’t very useful and the questionaire was a poor instrument for collecting meaningful data. I would love to be wrong about this, but that was my impression.

    Thanks, Galen. That pretty much mirrors what I’ve always heard from the inside.

  8. Yorgos Kouritas says

    The fact that few reports and statistics have been made during the years shows that orchestras were always relying on the fact that audiences would be there! Nobody ever thought that there might be one day that we get less people and why that would happen.

    I think is important nowadays that orchestras finally realize that we live in a society that is changing rapidly. The more they think about this, the better their future is going to be.

    On the other side, if they have reports and they have been hiding them is a sign that the system denies to see itself in the mirror.

  9. Tristan Parker says

    The talk about donors being scared away reminds me of a recent incident where an online author admitted that she was facing a financial crisis and might not be able to continue producing stories for much longer. She is entirely supported by advertisements and donations, so she told people that without more donations she would have to close up shop. She received six thousand dollars overnight.

    My point being, donations are given to support, not with the expectation of some return, that’s why they are called “donations”. If an institution that people think is worth giving money to is in financial trouble, they should give more money, not less.

  10. Robert Levine says

    Greg wrote:

    “Opera America appears to have solved both the data gathering and grouping questions. And they did it long ago. But then, the League is pretty forthright these days in saying that it could do better.”

    Opera America has an easier task; it’s a much smaller field and companies are more homogeneous than orchestras. But, yes, the League does know it should do better than it has, and I’m confident that it will do so. There’s certainly a lot of hard (and expensive) work that has gone on recently to make that happen.

    “But about splashing the data around, and putting spin on it — do you mean the orchestras are going to spin the facts, or that the press will?”

    My point was not that reporting and analyzing the field’s numbers was a bad thing (although it’s safe to assume that much of that analysis will be poorly done, as happens in most other fields). My point was rather that it’s hard to get member institutions to voluntarily report data if they fear it will be used against them, however they define “against.” Obviously they have a legal obligation to report some data, but what the League collects goes way beyond that. Most orchestras are severely stretched in terms of staff, so reporting data to the League can easily go by the wayside if there are any risks perceived in doing so.

    The quality of the League’s data, and the uses to which it has been put in the past (by managements, musicians, and by folks such as Flanagan, has been a hot potato in this field for a long time. Of course there should be better data, and more transparency, about the health of the orchestra business. (And, in particular, there needs to be better understanding within the institutions about how to use the data to improve their own performance.)

    But we’ll never get there if we don’t understand what the obstacles have been.

    Would be interesting to hear from Opera America about what their own obstacles have been. Or from the Met, whose stats are broken out separately by Opera America (because by themselves they account for 1/3 of the budget of the entire North American opera world), and whose current numbers, as reported in the latest Opera America report, don’t look very good.

    But really, Robert! Poor, poor orchestras. Misrepresented by Bob Flanagan! In an academic paper published by a foundation! The horror! How did they ever stay in business?
    Somehow, in spite of that tiny burst of bad publicity (mostly forgotten by now), the NY Philharmonic continued to increase their ticket sales. The LA Philharmonic snared Dudamel, and announced his first season with an inventive webcast. The Boston Symphony gathered a world-class cast for its upcoming concert performance of Simon Boccanegra. You still have a job, I trust, and if your orchestra and others like it go under, the cause will be problems far worse than bad publicity. (Problems they might do better fixing if they’d say in public what they are.)

    Seems to me that orchestras are masters of their own fate — or at least as much so as any other American industry. If they’re misrepresented, they can fight back. And if they need kid-glove treatment from the media — or if they need to lie to the public by omission — then why should we think they’re strong enough to survive?

  11. Robert Levine says

    Greg wrote:

    But really, Robert! Poor, poor orchestras. Misrepresented by Bob Flanagan! In an academic paper published by a foundation! The horror! …you still have a job, I trust, and if your orchestra and others like it go under, the cause will be problems far worse than bad publicity. (Problems they might do better fixing if they’d say in public what they are.)

    Seems to me that orchestras are masters of their own fate — or at least as much so as any other American industry. If they’re misrepresented, they can fight back. And if they need kid-glove treatment from the media — or if they need to lie to the public by omission — then why should we think they’re strong enough to survive?

    The Flanagan papers weren’t, in the end, published by Mellon.

    But, as regards to your larger point, I agree with you. We shouldn’t be afraid of information. If it’s misused, then we should explain it better, and especially offer help to those in the field who will have to do most of the explaining.

    But it remains true that the League’s dataset is dependent on voluntary reporting, and the fear of how the data will be used is an obstacle to that reporting. There’s no point in making fun of that fear; that’s not going to change many minds.

    Point taken. But maybe orchestras — living in the dead past in so many ways — need to be slapped across the face. I’ll be the bad cop, you be the good cop.

  12. James Glicker says

    Greg,

    As the former head of a Group 1 orchestra, I got to see the coveted statistics that you are talking about (the LOA). And it’s true that they showed a long term decline in sales–both in core subscription concerts and overall. But that only supplies part of the picture.

    At the Baltimore Symphony, we found that there was a -.9 correlation between ticket price increases in the 2000-2005 period and sales declines. In other words, our habit of raising prices indiscriminately, during good times and bad, caused audiences to fall away. When we lowered prices in 2005-6 and following, attendance declines reversed.

    The other factor that has to be taken into account is the surge in local/regional orchestras. I don’t think the League has great statistics on this, but many insiders there think that the local orchestras in a given metropolitan area are sucking attendees away from the large central city groups. This is because of more adventurous programming, lower prices, and bigger traffic problems getting to the more established orchestra’s venues. The gains here most likely will wipe out the declines in the top 20 that everyone is bemoaning.

    Thanks so much for this, James. The hypothesis seems easily testable. Or at least falsifiable. If, let’s say, the Cleveland Orchestra shows a ticket sale decline while nearby orchestras aren’t gaining, the hypothesis doesn’t seem to work.

    Of course, it would be best to survey ticket-buyers, to see if they acted as you suggest.

    How would this idea fit with the gain in ticket sales in the past two years?