The lesson here: Classical music needs some new financial models. Big institutions need to survive while selling cheaper tickets to a new young audience. Classical musicians need a way to make money playing in clubs. Classical musicians and composers — especially alt-classical ones — need a way to reach a larger, pop-oriented audience.
But undeniably there’s a risk here. You’re hurting your bottom line by doing performances that don’t fill your hall. I say bravo — you’re investing in your future. But even so, when your finances aren’t in great shape, it’s a big risk to do that. It’s no secret that City Opera has at least two big financial challenges. One is the possibility of a strike, by the singers’ union. The other is a longer-term money problem, the need to make the company’s finances sustainable, which has led to a delay in announcing next season’s plans, while many options are considered.
(City Opera insiders might dispute the tone of the Wall Street Journal story in the second link, but the money problems still are real.)
But City Opera isn’t alone in having problems. In New York, neither the Met Opera or the Philharmonic are financially comfortable right now. Of course, our entire economy is going through a painful readjustment, one that hits state and local governments especially hard.
Still, classical music has problems of its own. For instance:
Problem: the audience for mainstream classical concerts is aging.
Solution: find a younger audience.
Problem: To attract a younger audience, you have to lower ticket prices. But your financial model depends on people paying the old, higher prices.
And we need one in other ways, too.
Problem: classical music needs to break out of its bubble.
Solution (or, anyway, one popular solution): play classical music in clubs.
Problem: You can’t make a living doing that. In fact, as far as I know, you can hardly make any money at all.
Here’s a variant of that:
Problem: classical music speaks mainly to its own old-fashioned audience.
Solution: we have new kinds of classical music — the whole alt-classical thing — that speaks to a new audience.
Problem: So far, that audience tends to be small arts audience, centered around performing arts centers and specialized new music venues.
Solution: Expand your reach, to attract what I’ll call the indie rock audience, though that’s too limited a way to describe it. To do this, you probably need new managers and new publicists, and a sharper commercial sense than alt-classical people have had up to now.
So it’s no wonder that classical music institutions are scrambling. Especially since they have extra problems, one of which is the age of both their audience and their donors. Can they renew themselves with younger people? Let’s hope so, but if they do, they still have money problems. To attract younger people, they have to lower ticket prices. But their financial model depends on selling tickets at the current, higher prices. So a younger audience will hurt their bottom line — in two ways, in fact, because a younger audience also won’t donate as much as an older audience will, simply because younger people for the most part don’t have much money yet.
This is a serious long-range problem. And I’ll add two more difficulties. The first is that the entire financial model — where your revenue comes from ticket sales, and from donations from individuals, corporations, and foundations — may not be working.