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Orchestra loses 350 subscribers: not a bad year, it says

The Tonhalle orchestra of Zurich, which is undergoing major generational change, had a pretty good year according to its annual accounts, just received. It gave 104 concerts and broke even on a budget of 39.6 million Swiss francs, of which 16.3 million came as city subsidy.

Looking good, except that the number of subscribers fell from 6,342 to 5,997. That’s in line with the rest of the sector, says the orch’s management.

Is it, really? Hmmm…

New conductor Lionel Bringuier will have a lot of wake-up work to do.


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  1. Seems perfectly reasonable. The entire subscription model is in long-term decline across classical music: simply put, in 2013, most people do not plan their entertainment options by signing up, 12 months in advance, to a one-size-fits-all package of pre-selected concerts.

    Few people seriously think that subscriptions will be an important part of orchestral marketing in 20 years’ time. They were nice while they lasted (a good run!), but the fact is that they’re a relic from a different age; an age of 9-5 working days, without online booking, and without television. This has been known for some time in the UK orchestras that I’m aware of, and shrewd marketing departments have long been planning for a gradual decline in subscriptions – and replacing them with increased one-off sales and more flexible bulk-purchase packages. In some ways it’s regrettable, but in some ways, it’s liberating – without the obligation to provide a balanced spread of meat-and-potato programmes on regular nights week-in, week-out, there’s far more freedom to pursue more imaginative and interesting artistic opportunities.

    Meanwhile, if there is a major orchestra that is still planning on the assumption that old-style subscriptions are increasing season-to-season, or even remaining constant, it’d be extremely interesting to hear from them. But I’d be surprised.

  2. Subscriptions don’t happen. People have to plan campaigns – time them optimally, package concerts strategically to fill the hall, value price the packages, message the offer clearly, renew current subscribers thoroughly, and execute everything flawlessly. (Mine is, of course, an American perspective.) If sales are in a dramatic decline, then the job isn’t being done right. The data is not being analyzed to adjust the campaign and correct the course. In my work with American orchestras and opera companies, dramatic declines are always staff performance issues, not such ephemeral “trends” or anecdotal perspectives as: “The audience is getting older” (that’s because you are also not selling enough single tickets), “People want more flexibility” (that’s because they want to avoid more challenging programs), “We’re less relevant” (that’s because staff members can not identify with what affects their audiences), “This is a very competitive market” (that’s because your competition is out-marketing you.) All are excuses to obfuscate staff performance. In our work with the post-strike Detroit Symphony, subscriptions (as you have reported, Norman) are on the upswing for the first time in at least a decade, not through any particular break-through concepts but by restoring the long-absent basics that were missing from the campaign for many years. This is a phenomenon I have seen time and time again. With so many variables under the marketer’s control (like timing, packaging, pricing and to some extent programming) each can be leveraged to reverse the course. Again, I stress, this is an American perspective and may not apply to the situation in Zurich.

    • Good post, Christopher, though I disagree with you strongly on one point:

      “‘People want more flexibility’ (that’s because they want to avoid more challenging programs),”

      No, it’s because for nearly everyone under 45 or 50 today, it makes no sense at all to lock oneself into expensive plans six to twelve months ahead of time, regardless of what may arise in the meantime, be it a better option, illness in oneself or a family member, or a loved one’s wedding. (All the more so when the presenting organization expects you to forfeit the cost of your tickets as a “donation” rather than allowing you to exchange them. I know that not all organizations do that, but many do.)

      One to two months in advance is reasonable, but not February or March 2013 (when many 2013-14 subscription packages will be going on sale) for December 2013 or April 2014.

      • Dear MWnyc:

        I hear what you are saying, but those who do subscribe have a different view. By securing their seats a year and a bit beyond in advance, they plan their other activities AROUND those far away dates. In smaller communities, there are fewer competing options. To those who prefer a traditional subscription it is the routine, as much as the experience, that they find motivating. Those who can’t plan that far in advance probably aren’t ideal candidates for the subscription model.

        • Oh yes, no doubt, Christopher. And thanks for a wonderfully clear explanation..

          I was just saying – and perhaps I was over-interpreting your words – that when you wrote, “‘People want more flexibility’ (that’s because they want to avoid more challenging programs),” it seemed to me you were saying that the reason people don’t subscribe is because they want their Mozart and Beethoven and Brahms and don’t want to be made to listen to Schoenberg or Boulez or that horrible see-sawing Philip Glass* – whereas I think the issue truly is that fewer people are good candidates for the subscription model than was the case a generation ago.

          Now, if what you were alluding to is the rigidity of pre-selected subscription packages, I couldn’t agree more. I’ve always resented the implication that I couldn’t be trusted – or allowed – to select the concerts I want to hear myself, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

          * Mind you, I don’t actually think that myself; I’d be more likely to buy a ticket to a Glass symphony than one by Brahms. I was writing from the point of view of a potential subscriber who wants to avoid a “challenging” program.

  3. Petros Linardos says:

    They report that while the number of subscribers fell, the number of tickets sold remained constant. So fewer people commit long term and more decide late on. I believe we hear this everywhere.

    • Galen Johnson says:

      Exactly. Perhaps not an ideal trend for any orchestra’s cash flow, but gratifying nevertheless.

  4. It could be a shift which has been happening to orchestras and operas all over the world for decades. Almost all regularly report a decline in series subscriptions and a corresponding rise in single-ticket sales.

  5. What Christopher Stager said. And how.

  6. ken scott says:

    Bringuier is terrific. I hope Zurich thinks so.

    • Martin Locher says:

      It’s good he’ll be here. His two concerts in Zurich so far have been terrific. Although, one has to say both programs were filled with show pieces. We’ll see what he can do.

      Switzerland should be very happy to have some great conductors in their orchestras already. From Otto Tausk in East to Neeme Järvi in the West.

  7. At an average of $380,000. per concert, I doubt tickets covered even a small part of the cost…tax payer maybe?

    • Martin Locher says:

      If the orchestra would sell all Tonhalle seats seperately, they’d make about CHF 125’000.

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