No, not the surge in Iraq. This is a surge, or at least a heartening
increase, in ticket sales, which I’ve been hearing about for the past
couple of years. Of course — since, as I’ve said, we just don’t have
reliable data for classical music ticket sales and finances (I should put that in bold type) — I don’t
know how big this surge is, or how broad, by which I mean how
widespread it is in the classical music world.
We know the
Metropolitan Opera has been selling more tickets, but that might be a
special case, caused by Peter Gelb’s unique innovations. The surge I
hear about informally involves big orchestras, and while that might not
mean that smaller orchestras are selling more tickets — or that
chamber music concerts are — it’s certainly a good thing, and worth
thinking about, even if we don’t know very much about it. And while I won’t just now pore through orchestras’ annual reports and tax returns, looking for data, I’ve noticed that the Pittsburgh Symphony shows a notable increase in concert revenue from 2005 to 2007, which could be due to increased ticket sales (or might not be, if, for instance, they raised ticket prices a lot), and that the Cleveland Orchestra shows a similar but smaller increase from 2005 to 2006. (I’m using annual reports available on both orchestras’ websites.)
I’ll also note that last October, in an obscure press release announcing senior staff promotions, the New York Philharmonic mentioned something that you’d think they’d trumpet from the rooftops, that combined subscription and non-subscription ticket sales have gone up 38% over the last three years. This was in a paragraph about their marketing director, who’d been promoted to the higher rank of vice president. So there we have testimony to the surge, from one orchestra, at least. (If anyone has further documented evidence, please let me know! I’d also be happy to have private data, which I’ll keep confidential.)
So assuming that this surge is real, what does it mean? My working assumption — thinking especially of what I know about orchestras — might go like this. Having seen that their ticket sales were falling, many institutions upped their marketing, using solid, well-established, traditional techniques, based on solid research. That’s the first thing anyone should do, faced with falling ticket sales. Of course I think more radical changes will be needed in the long run, but the first thing to try is the traditional approach. It might work better than you think, which is another way of saying that your marketing right now might not be all it could be.
But then we have to ask if institutions are selling more tickets to their established customers, or whether they’re selling to new people. The first seems likely, if only because it’s where — in your heightened marketing — you’d want to start. Get a database of people who used to buy tickets, but aren’t buying now, or who are buying fewer tickets than they used to. Do some research — questionnaires, phone surveys, focus groups, individual interviews — and find out why. Then address those problems, and above all target marketing directly to these people. If you do this well, you’ll get results.
So then — I’m theorizing, I should stress — we might have something like the following. Ticket sales were falling. Hard-core ticket buyers now are truly hard-core. They’re your most loyal audience, the people whom nothing short of death can keep away. You’re left with them, I’d further theorize, because (perhaps not meaning to) you’ve neglected those who lie outside the inner circle. So now you pay attention to them again, and you bring them back.
But now you’d have another question. How large is your welcome recent sales increase? Does it wipe out the longer-term decline you’re remedying? Or is it just an uptick whose meaning isn’t clear yet, which might turn out to only be a bump in what will soon turn out to be continuing decline?
That might be the case, if — as I’ve theorized before — the decline is due to cultural changes that you haven’t addressed. That is, you’ve mobilized your marketing, and brought back people who share the old classical music culture that your institution is part of. You sell more tickets. But the number of those people is, over many years, steadily declining. So your current rise in ticket sales can’t be sustained. In not too long, your sales will fall again.
This is why you’d like to bring in new people — and ideally younger people. That’s the only way — if my theories are correct — that the decline can be reversed.
And here the Philharmonic presents an interesting, maybe hopeful picture. Go to the search page of their website. It’s nicely up to date, featuring a “tag cloud” of searches people made, with the largest words showing the most popular searches. Here it is:
Some of the most popular searches are for student tickets! Most likely, then, the Philharmonic is selling many student tickets. I don’t know, of course, how many “many” is, but let’s suppose it’s more than they sold in earlier years. Does this mean they’ve found a younger audience?
Yes and no (as I go on theorizing). Yes, because they have some younger people coming. And no, because I’d guess they don’t and couldn’t know if these student ticket buyers will keep coming. Younger people now are open to many forms of music, classical among them. They’re open-minded, curious. Prime targets for Philharmonic marketing (if their offered low-priced tickets).
But that doesn’t mean that they’ll come back. Or, more to the point, it doesn’t mean that they’ll come back very often. And the ticket sales that orchestras depend on are repeat ticket sales, even though subscription numbers have been falling now for many years. A reasonably large proportion of the audience still subscribes, and if a future audience doesn’t subscribe, or subscribes in lower numbers, then orchestras — despite the recent bump in sales, and even if we think they’ve found a younger audience — will shrink.
Theorizing still, I’d say the burden of proof lies on those who think that ticket sales can be as high in the future as they are now. Maybe college students who try out a Philharmonic concert will become subscribers, but given the culture that younger people have, I’d say it isn’t likely. They may enjoy the orchestra, but they identify with other kinds of music, unlike the core audience today, which might like other kinds of music, but most closely bonds with classical. Maybe that will change, as the student audience (whose numbers, let’s remember, we don’t even know) grows up. But I don’t think it’s likely. If I’m right, the surge won’t be sustained, and in the longer run, mainstream classical music institutions will be forced to cut back.