Good news from Toronto

I talk a lot about problems with classical music, and maybe don’t say enough that what I really care about is classical music’s rebirth.

Which — knock on any wood-like substance available — seems to be happening.

For instance: The Toronto Symphony says it has an amazingly young audience. More than one-third of it is younger than 35!

I read this some months ago in a story that appeared late in June, in the Culture Monster page on the Los Angeles Times websiteAnd then was surprised to see that the story — in journalist-speak — didn’t seem to have legs. It wasn’t picked up, as far as I could see, by other major media. And even people in the classical music business didn’t seem to know the Toronto Symphony was having this notable — pathbreaking — success.

And i confess I sat on the story myself. It was summer, Then came Rafa, the baby we adopted, and two months focused largely on him. (Such a joy.) And what I wanted to do — since there was, as far as I know, no precedent and no context for news like this — was talk to people in Toronto.

I should have linked the story right away, though. I did set up a conversation with Carey Suleiman, the Toronto Symphony’s Senior Director of Marketing. From whom I learned that, yes, the astounding stat (about the audience age) is correct. The number dates from the 2009-10 season.

Carey also said, anecdotally, that “audience at our concerts looks younger than other things i’ve seen” — meaning other audiences she’s encountered in her classical music career, which included time at the Philadelphia Orchestra.

I’d love more hard data. And also I — and I’m sure many others — would like to know how this happened. And at what cost, if any. (Some classical music institutions attract a young audience by lowering ticket prices, but then they need funding to offset the loss from selling tickets at a cheaper price.)

In fact, I think I held up posting because I wanted some explanation. I’ve formed a theory, for what it’s worth: I think that the Toronto Symphony persevered. More than a decade ago, in 2001, they introduced their Tsoundcheck program, which sells tickets at a low price to anyone 15 to 35.

You have to sign up, which puts you on the Symphony’s mailing list. They can market to you. And they’re selling 3-packs, tickets to three concerts at a time, which makes Tsoundcheck members Symphony subscribers.

There are more details — for instance, that Tsoundcheck tickets are only available if full-price tickets aren’t all sold. And how, as a Tsoundcheck member, you can bring a friend along at the same low price.

But what I think is crucial is that they’ve continued the program for all these years. All too often, I’ve seen classical music institutions try an innovation, and then drop it. If you want a new audience, you might have to work on that for years.

Which is what the Toronto Symphony seems to have done. They also have some special series — Casual Concerts, Late Night Concerts — that might appeal to younger people, and as far as I know they’ve continued these for years, too.

Or maybe it’s Toronto, at least in part. The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra has had success with younger people, too.

 

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  1. says

    Some classical music institutions attract a young audience by lowering ticket prices, but then they need funding to offset the loss from selling tickets at a cheaper price.

    Greg, this would be a fantastic subject to discuss (in a future blog post) price discrimination for tickets. As Flanagan states (in his new book,, which I’ve finally read last week–thanks for bringing it to our attention):

    A study of the pricing of popular music concert tickets in the United States between 1992 and 2005 found that greater ticket price variation could increase concert revenue by as much as 5 percent (Courty and Pagliero 2009). By the metric of ticket price variation, many U.S. orchestras appear to possess unexploited opportunities to increase performance revenues by altering ticket price structures. Consider the range of ticket prices charged by 23 large U.S. orchestras during the 2004-5 concert season. For regular concerts, the highest ticket prices charged by individual orchestras ranged from 3 to 16 times their lowest prices. For pops concerts, the range of high ticket prices was from 2.2 to 14.4 times the price of the cheapest ticket, depending on the orchestra. Orchestras with the most limited ticket price variation have the most to gain from altering their price structures. (Flanagan 2012)

    He gives examples of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra raising revenues by increasing the number of price categories from 13 to 20 (Ravanas 2008) as well as the Boston Symphony Orchestra which, in the early 20th century, used to auction its choicest seats while a “large portion of the symphony hall in Boston [was] kept for music lovers who [could] afford only 25 cents or 50 cents” (Aldritch 1903).

    Interestingly, Flanagan also states that diversification of endowment portfolios is advice he suggests would also bring in more non-performance revenue. Baumol Effect aside, it seems like most Orchestras [studied in his book] just aren’t running their organizations at maximum efficiency and generally could do more to bring in performance and non-performance revenue simply by applying a little more diversification of existing revenue sources. The diversification of different kinds of Orchestra concert offerings (e.g. the addition of pops concerts, summer outdoor concerts, children’s concerts, ‘coffee hour’ concerts) is probably the most publicly recognizable way of seeing this kind of economic strategy at play.

    Of course, I’ve always felt that diversification of a “performance skills portfolio” is one of the best ways to maximize the ability to get paying gigs for individual artists (or smaller groups) — it’s all pretty standard economic advice.

    It will be interesting to see if the price discrimination in tickets that the Toronto Symphony surely must be using in some manner has actually helped to increase ticket revenues.

    For your readers’ convenience, the sources cited below:
    *R. Aldritch (1903) “‘Permanent Orchestra’ Season a Bad One.” New York Times, May 3
    *P. Courty, M. Pagliero (2009) “The Impact of Price Discrimination on Revenue: Evidence from the Concert Industry.” CEPR Discussion Paper no. 7120. London: Centre for Economic Policy Research
    *R. Flanagan (2012) “The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras.” Yale University Press
    *Ravanas (2008) “Hitting a High Note: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Reverses a Decade of Decline.” International Journal of Arts Management 10 (2): 68-87

  2. D Shapiro says

    As a subscriber, and a parent of a 29-year-old, I can provide a little insight. My daughter is fairly typical of a certain class of concertgoer — though obviously there is a range. Like many of her generation, she doesn’t go to a concert just for the music; recordings are a big part of her listening life. And like many others (including me at her age), classical music is a comparatively small part of her listening life. But she takes advantage of the TSOundcheck program, with friends, and they get a chance to hear some terrific live performances for the cost of a movie, or a few downloads. Once you hear a fine live performance of the Emperor Concerto or Mozart’s Requiem, even a great recording can seem thin, somehow, and they’re ready to hear more.

    You won’t get all of those young people to become long-term classical concertgoers, but if you get five or ten per cent, that’s a lot. At my last concert, a few weeks ago, there was a good number of younger people, and the place was sold out a month in advance, so there were no cheap seats to be had. We saw a young phenom (16 years old!) from Calgary play Mozart’s 20th (and one encore), and I don’t see how that can fail to entice more loyalty from younger listeners.

    Credit not only the marketing department, but also Maestro Peter Oundjian, who does a short verbal concert introduction with insight and humour, and has helped the orchestra become better than ever, at least since I’ve lived here — Seiji Ozawa was conducting back then. They may now be Canada’s finest orchestra; there is, happily some real competition from Montreal, Ottawa, and Vancouver, and I think Winnipeg is good, too, though I’m biased a little in their favour; their annual New Music Festival is surprisingly popular.

  3. says

    I’ve been away and just saw this post now. The tsoundcheck program is terrific, and the change in demographics can be felt in the concert hall: fewer bored friends of donors waiting for intermission and their class of wine, and more excitement. There are lots of subtleties in the program that are just great. For example, soundcheckers pick up their tickets on the way in to the concert at a special table, staffed by “kids” their own age, not at the regular table staffed by ladies-who-lunch volunteers (hey, they’re great, and essential, just not young). Also, members of tsoundcheck may purchase tickets for a friend – WHO CAN BE ANY AGE. I love the idea of spreading the love of classical music through trickling UP, age-wise!

    • says

      Thanks so much, Dinah! Glad to have the ambience filled in.

      Compare what you’re reporting with a new program the LA Opera launched. For one of their current productions, if you’ve got a ticket, you can buy more tickets for friends, for only $25. But with these conditions! The friends have to have never been to the opera before. You can only buy two friend tickets. You can only buy them on three designated days. And — wait for it — they say they’ll make their “best effort” to sit you next to your friends, but they won’t guarantee it.

      Way to go, LA Opera! That’s how to make newbies feel welcome. Toronto, by contrast, has it right.

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