Moment of truth

We’re all concerned, I’m sure, about the impact of the economy on classical music organizations. 

And we’ve seen some trouble. Groups going out of businesses, big orchestras making cutbacks. The same thing, no surprise, as we see elsewhere, in the profit-making world. The same economic factors are in play. 

But here’s something to look for very soon. Large classical music institutions are finishing their subscription campaigns. They’re trying to get new people to subscribe, and, above all, they’re trying to get current subscribers to renew their subscriptions. 

Normally this is more or less routine. Most existing subscribers renew. Yes, there’s been a falloff in subscriptions over many years, and that appears to be a long-term trend, which shows no sign of reversing. But still — even though marketing people at these institutions work hard on subscription campaigns — renewals are, in the larger scheme of things, relatively routine.

But maybe not this year! From what I hear, single-ticket sales have been surprisingly strong during the current season, despite the economy. And subscribers bought their tickets before the economy collapsed, so they’re still showing up. Attendance, therefore, is remaining at whatever level it was at before the economy got into trouble. (My impression here is based on anecdotal data. If I’m wrong, please correct me!)

Subscriptions for next year, though, could spell trouble. Will people renew? Maybe not, or, more precisely, maybe not in the numbers seen in previous years. Maybe some notable percentage of subscribers — some of whom may even have lost their jobs — will look at their budgets, and say, “No, not this time.” 

Anecdotal data once again: preliminary indications are that subscription sales are falling. Maybe not by any overwhelming percentage, but even a 5% falloff can mean a significant hit to the bottom line. 

So this is data we ought to be looking for. When the first round of the subscription campaign is over (organizations may launch other campaigns later on), how will the numbers look. Memo to my brothers and sisters in the music writing biz: Go right to your local orchestra, opera company, and presenting group. Go to any chamber music institutions that sell subscriptions. And ask all these people when their current subscription campaign will end, and, when it ends, ask them for some numbers. 

Don’t let them hide the figures, or stonewall. If they do those things, tell the world that they’re doing it. We all have a right to know how the classical music business is doing. It’s our music, too. 

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  1. says

    I know i’m not renewing my usual subscriptions at Carnegie Hall and BAM – although, for me this has less to do with the cost of the subscription as it has to do with the quality of the programming. The last few years i’ve felt a dropoff at these two orgs. in the adventurousness of their programming. Perhaps this is an economic factor as well.

    BAM is now basically just a repertory for a prior Avant Garde and Carnegie Hall has been veering more and more towards “world music.” Looking at Carnegie’s 2009-2010 season brochure there’s only one concert I’m even slightly excited about.

    I’ll just get a single ticket to that one concert.

    Interesting. I’d love to know if this is any kind of trend. Institutions getting more conservative (especially because they need to save money, and also think more people will buy tix to standard stuff) — while some of their audience gets more adventurous!

    Has anyone noticed anything like this going on? Are there any studies? Anecdotal data?

  2. says

    A huge problem with renewing subscriptions that we even heard last year is the stock market going down. Many of our patrons are older and their incomes depending on earnings in their IRAs, pensions, etc. This, of course, points to the larger problem of the age of the classical music audience.

    We have had many many more single ticket sales this season, and most of them are the day of the concert. We’ve started opening our box office and doors earlier to accommodate the door crowds. I wonder if anyone else has experienced this trend?

    Thanks for this info, Margo. Overall, I think this is a trend that’s been going on for quite a while, but it sounds as if the economy has sent it into high gear. Does this end up costing you money? Do you now spend more to open your box office earlier, and do you end up taking less revenue for tickets sales?

  3. Phil Hoffman says

    Two weeks ago I wrote the following in an email to a friend about the 2009-10 season program of a symphonic organization here in Seattle (not the Seattle Symphony):

    “There is absolutely nothing in the 2009-10 program that makes me want to get up out of my chair and go.

    What I have really liked over the last 3 years is their quirkiness and bit of edge. This past season: Dead Elvis, Stravinsky, Impressionism, Charlie Chaplin as a (very poor) composer, Joshua Roman in an absolutely wonderful concerto that he played from the heart, and the unfulfilled promise of music commerating the most important event of the second half of the 20th century (fall of the Berlin Wall). Its all gone.

    I know that they (and many others) are having money problems. I suspect in response they have retreated into the safe, usual, and ordinary – something I can get anytime at the hotty toddy house on a baroque/mainly Mozart program. In fact they have repeated the Tasmin Little program of Vivaldi and Piazolla’s 4 seasons that just happened within the last month. In short they have abandoned that which distinguishes them from everybody else; they have become just one of many.

    What does that lead to? Well, (my partner) turned to me and said ‘are we going to get season tickets for next year’ and all I could do was conjure up silence. To this day I have yet to answer her.”

    If times begged for innovation, now is the time. How do you expect to sell tickets unless you differentiate yourself?

    That’s a crucial question, isn’t it? Glad you asked it, Phil.

    Many organizations have moved toward safer programming. Sometimes that’s in response to research with their audience. For everyone like you and your partner, Phil, there might be many more who prefer the familiar stuff.

    But it really can backfire. Many not in a single year, but if you keep it up for several years. Then the whole thing becomes so predictable that more people might get bored.

    And what’s unanswered here is a really important question. What would happen if an organization not only responded to the economic crisis with interesting programming, but launched a major campaign to sell what it programmed? Thus maybe attracting new people — maybe enough to more than offset any established ticket-buyers whom the new programming would turn off.

    This is the kind of move that’s most likely needed for classical music’s future. Is anybody trying it? I’d love to hear about any group that is.