New model money

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. 

When I last posted, I praised the New York City Opera for its savvy and successful plan to build an audience for its Monodramas. The company willing to accept smaller houses, early on, hoping that the audience would build itself by word of mouth. Which happened.

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. 

So we need a new financial model. 

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.

So we need a new financial model, one that shows us how classical musicians can make a living outside the classical mainstream.

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. 

And maybe mainstream classical musicians could do this, too. But one thing I’m certain of — it’s time for this to happen! The audience is out there waiting — as (see some of my recent posts; here, for instance) some of the mainstream classical music institutions in New York have proved. 

And that goes also for — well, not just classical music institutions, but our entire economy. There’s a major readjustment happening, which (among other things) is hitting state and local governments especially hard. Money for everything is scarce. 

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. 

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  1. says

    Should a piccolo or tuba player earn the same annual amount as a string player? Might it be advisable for a symphony orchestra to include other responsibilities for those musicians that spend less time on the job—librarian duties, pre-concert lectures, post-concert receptions, school events, administrative tasks, fund-raising, etc, and broaden the over-all job description for those with less notes to play and more time on their hands?

    Audiences seem to enjoy interaction with artists. I believe a more interactive approach is vital for cultivating education and support.

  2. says

    Thanks for this wake-up call to large, institutional arts organizations. The solution of lowering ticket prices to attract younger (poorer) audiences might attract the dwindling number of young lovers of the Canon, but what about younger audiences that like more contemporary composers?

    Both Tully-Scope and the Ecstatic Music Festival were very successful in attracting young audiences both because of pricing models/marketing AND repertoire that the new audience was actually interested in. If they had marketed $20 tickets to see the same standard rep performed, just gussied up and placed in a festival, I don’t think it would have worked, or would have been sustainable.

    The elephant in the room seems to be programming. It might alienate the older audiences to hear contemporary music, but that won’t be a problem forever…

  3. JonJ says

    I’ve never played in a professional orchestra, but I played trombone in some amateur outfits in my youth, and I can attest that that instrument, among others, doesn’t have as many notes to play as the string section in the usual classical piece. But why would one think that that gives the “lesser used” players more free time? Believe me, they need to work as hard as any string player to keep their chops up.

    We look at those lazy percussionists sitting on the stage, languorously rising once or twice a concert to tap on their instruments, and think, “Boy, why not give them some real work to do!” But, if my amateur experience is any guide, I don’t think that what the audience sees at a concert is a representative sample of the actual total work of the musicians.

    You might as well say, “Look at that conductor. All he/she does is wave that stick, while the players are doing all the real work.”

  4. Scott Winters says

    I knew I liked Greg Sandow. The term ‘alt-classical’ is new to me, but describes an exciting new avenue that could attract audiences from several camps. Why is it so hard to imagine a middle ground music that incorporates the rich complexity of the classical tradition and the approachability of the pop tradition?

    I think Greg is correct that the audience exists for a new, sophisticated yet popular style. It may be as simple as market forces. For better or worse, the religious and aristocratic patrons that cultivated the highly complex music of the western classical tradition are gone, replaced by a broad, educated middle class that does not identify with the old canon and has instead exercised its spending power by supporting popular music with roots in the gospel and jazz traditions.

    I refuse to accept the argument that this audience is too uneducated or not discriminate enough to appreciate higher quality music. This may have been true five and six decades ago when popular music was the domain of rebellious teens. But many of those teens are sophisticated adults today and they are hungry for something new (isn’t this the energy driving Indie Rock?)

    Of course there will always be symphonic purists. I can imagine a SUSTAINABLE number of large, traditional orchestras with visions that are unique and clearly articulated (even WalMart and Target are careful to cultivate unique brand identities for themselves)to preserve the traditional canon. Next to these (but likely separate) a new type of modern ensemble may develop that embraces this new alt-classical tradition.