Continuing from my last post, with what should be in a book on the past few decades’ history of American orchestras…
One main focus of the book would of course have to be orchestra finances. Along with the long-term decline in ticket sales, which of course affects the bottom line.
So the writer of this book would need accurate information about orchestra ticket sales from the 1980s till the present. And orchestras won’t reveal this! They of course have the data, and report it to the League of American Orchestras. The League then publishes it — or at least this used to be true — in a large book, marked SECRET. Available only to members.
I’ll repeat very strongly what I said at the start of the previous paragraph. Orchestras do not want to reveal their ticket sales. (Which, if the data were available, should be clearly divided into subscription sales and single ticket sales, and into sales to core classical concerts and sales to other events. We should be given both the number of tickets sold in each category, and the revenue from those sales.)
Once at a break at a conference I was at, an orchestra CEO told me outright that the data couldn’t be revealed. I’ll be discreet and not mention this person’s name, but anyone who knows the recent history of American orchestras would recognize it. This person said to me (in words as simple anbd direct as this): “The public must never be told how badly we’re doing.”
The fear is that if the truth were known — and ticket sales figures would reveal it —donors would be scared away.
Not the best thing to do
Which seems to be a very bad road to go down. Do orchestras really want in effect to lie to their donors, to keep the money flowing in? Surely that’s going to backfire.
And in fact I used to hear about “donor fatigue,” as it was called. Donors getting tired of donating to orchestras. Perhaps because orchestra troubles persisted, and didn’t seem to be fixed. Or maybe even — though I’m speculating here — because donors felt they weren’t getting the whole truth, that orchestras weren’t being transparent.
Donor fatigue would have to be studied in the book, too. Is it a real phenomenon? How widespread? How do donors express their fatigue? Simply by not giving, or do they speak up? How do orchestras combat this?
I do know one case where a donor couple wanted to give a major orchestra quite a large sum, but on condition that the orchestra do more to adapt to the future. When the orchestra’s CEO said change couldn’t go as quickly as the donors hoped, the donors took their money elsewhere. (In these posts about the book that should be written I’m mostly not giving the names of people and orchestras I mention. That’s because I’ve gotten much of this information privately, on the inside, from people who didn’t expect it to be published. In some cases I might be too cautious, but I’d rather be too cautious than betray a confidence, or reveal something I privately observed.)
Why transparency would help
So back to orchestras not — to put it mildly — being transparent about their ticket sales. To me, this is greatly unfortunate. Among much else, it deprives the entire classical music field of data we badly need. We know classical music is in crisis, and has been for quite a while. (I’ve been teaching a course on the crisis at Juilliard ever since 1997. That’s one quick way to measure how long the crisis has gone on, though of course signs of it can be found earlier.)
So our field is in crisis. One part of the crisis is a decline in ticket sales. But how bad has the decline been? By far the largest amount of data on that is orchestra ticket sales. But we’re not allowed to know those. So the whole field is deprived of data that would show how bad the crisis is. Or, for that matter, if ticket sales improved, data that might show how the crisis might be easing.
Orchestras also hurt themselves, I think, by not telling the world how many tickets they’re selling. Because if they admitted they were having a problem, wouldn’t that give them the strongest incentive to fix it? Once you tell the world you’re in trouble, you have to say how you’re going to improve. Which I think would help orchestras greatly, no matter how much of a shock it might be at first.
Some years ago I was shown some of this secret data, and it truly looked alarming. Ticket sales for orchestras’ core classical concerts were headed strongly downward, over nearly 15 years.
I don’t know what the picture looks like now. But all of this would have to be in the book. All the data that orchestras don’t want us to have.
And if I’m wrong about this — if orchestras now are telling the world how many tickets they’re selling — I’d be thrilled to know that!
Of course, when orchestras tumble into a financial crisis, and demand pay cuts for their musicians, then they want the world to know they’re doing badly. That might make them more transparent, at least temporarily, but it’s not fully honest. When they kept their troubles secret, that was self-serving of them. And it’s self-serving for different reasons to suddenly say they’re in trouble. Also leaves us unclear — to put it mildly — about where the trouble came from. They’d do better to be honest, and tell the truth all the time.
And just to be clear: I’m not going to write this book. Too long and intense a commitment, when I have other priorities. But it ought to be written. And should reveal a lot of things orchestras might not want known. Not because anyone should play “gotcha!” with them. But because their evolution in an age of change hasn’t been easy, and because their mistakes show how badly they were prepared for change of any kind.