Here’s an important question, which arrived on the blog as a comment from a reader who doesn’t give their name. Clearly a classical music professional. Because the question they ask is important, I’m making it a full blog post, along with my answer. (Both comment and reply were public, so I’m free to repost them here.)
The subject: my thought that classical music institutions have to find money and resources to do two things at once. Maintain what they traditionally do, and at the same time embark on a major program of new initiatives, so they can attract a new audience to replace the one that’s going away.
We just tried a new Friday night concert format.
Shorter concert. No intermission. Speaking from the stage by Music Director and radio personality.
We sold more single tickets since the concert was heavily promoted by the radio station.
However donors and regular subscribers were upset by the change.
How can you fix the plane in mid-air?
Is is worth alienating major donors and long-time subscribers to gain a few more single ticket sales from one time attendees who likely may not return.
My reply (which I hope will be helpful, and which I’ve revised a bit):
Well, if it’s onetime event that doesn’t do much in the long run and alienates some of your core supporters, then of course it’s not worth it!
The question you could ask is whether those core supporters — as the years pass — are still going to be there. If you think they will be, then I guess no problem. Keep on doing what you normally do. And don’t offend your key people.
But if you think the key people won’t be there 10, 20 years from now, that the present ones will age, and not be replaced — well, then then maybe you’d want to think a little differently. So you don’t do onetime events, but instead do different things consistently, to attract the audience and donors you’ll need in the future.
I can’t speak to your organization in particular, but I think some general suggestions would apply. One is that you could separate the new events from the old ones. Make clear that this is a new series, not aimed at existing ticket-buyers or existing donors. The concerts they go to would proceed unchanged.
The National Symphony in DC does that, at the Kennedy Center. They have their regular subscription events, which are what orchestra concerts traditionally have been. So the donors and subscribers are well-served.
But the NSO also does a series called Declassified, aimed at a new and younger audience. These concerts do pretty well, both artistically and with ticket sales. But they don’t offend the older audience because the people in the older audience don’t to them, don’t even have to know they exist.
It’s like Declassified lives in a different part of the NSO universe. Of course this adds to the NSO’s workload and budget. And maybe some of the musicians aren’t happy with the Declassified events, or with the NSO’s good pops concerts.
Though on the plus side, it would be hard to find a big orchestra that doesn’t do a lot of not strictly classical events.They help fill out the 52-week season, help the orchestra reach out to the community, and help pay the bills. But for the NSO’s traditional supporters, nothing has changed!
Here’s what could happen, though. If in the future there are fewer people being tickets and fewer giving money, then the NSO would have to reconsider — as any business facing falling sales would — what it does. It might have to do fewer old-style classical concerts, and more concerts of new kinds.
That could be a difficult transition. Now the core supporters, as their numbers fall, would have fewer concerts of the kind they love.
But with any luck they’d see — if management handled this skillfully and sympathetically — that the change was the only way the concerts they loved could continue. And if they didn’t see that, it might be clear that the old ways (and this isn’t a judgment on their value) were maybe not sustainable anymore. Forcing the institution still further down the path of change.
I sympathize with everyone involved. This, looking forward, wouldn’t be an easy evolution. Among much else, the orchestra might have to look forward to a time when new-style concerts were all that they did.
Which I hope would mean not treating them as light entertainment, or as educational introductions to classical music. They’d have to be as deeply artistic as the current old-style concerts ought to be.