musings of a professional bassoonist

Monday, August 22, 2011

More survival techniques for orchestras

News of worldwide economic distress continues to pepper the media, with fears about the U.S. possibly heading into another recession making it ever more imperative that orchestra boards and managements carefully consider whether or not they are doing everything possible to place their orchestra in a position of relevance in the community.

I have already written posts on this topic, such as "Some orchestras' secrets of success , "April is the cruelest month" , "Connecting with the audience" , "Connecting, part II" and "Orchestral relevance".  I apologize for sounding like a broken record, but the problems plaguing U.S.orchestras have not gone away.   There is hope; I keep hearing of solutions which some orchestras have implemented.

The very latest news from U.S. orchestras, though, has been grim.   A stream of musician departures from the troubled Philadelphia Orchestra potentially threatens the orchestra's famous sound. The San Antonio Symphony is looking at a "significant" financial loss for the 2010-11 season - a loss which comes despite a 6% musician pay cut in 2011 and a 14% pay cut in 2009.  Donations (especially corporate gifts) in San Antonio are down, while costs are higher.  Unfortunately, many orchestras are all too familiar with that trend.

As I've said previously, the orchestras which survive the next few years will be the ones which figure out how to become not just relevant, but indispensable to the communities they serve.  The same old approach to predictable programs in familiar venues and time slots is simply not working anymore, as the older patrons who do cling to tradition are gradually becoming less mobile.  Younger potential audience members are being wooed by countless providers of culture and entertainment, both virtual and live.

Donations (a major source of orchestra revenue) are harder to come by in times of economic distress, as corporate and individual giving tends to be focused on social charities such as homeless shelters, food banks and hospitals rather than on perpetually struggling orchestras.  (Orchestra managements sometimes refer to this phenomenon as "donor fatigue".)  Orchestras' endowments are shriveling, and orchestras lacking collateral are at risk of collapse.  With resources so limited, orchestra managements must choose their outreach and innovative projects very carefully - yet outreach and innovation are essential.

The orchestras experiencing positive changes are the ones which have changed venues, formats, lengths and starting times of concerts.  They have made tickets easy to obtain and available singly (as opposed to subscription only).  They have lowered ticket prices.  They have introduced food and beverages to the concert experience.  They have figured out what appeals to today's audience.

Furthermore, they have built connections between the musicians (including the music director) and the audience by having the conductor and musicians speak from the stage, by creating video and audio content to share online, and by hosting post-concert receptions or mixers.

Equally important is the connection between the orchestra and the community at large.  As far as I know, the only way to establish this critical connection is to constantly present the orchestra at important community events such as city-wide festivals (particularly arts festivals), New Years' Eve celebrations, downtown July 4th fireworks, sporting events, etc.  Any event, festival or sports team which is important to the city is the perfect (and necessary!) venue for the orchestra. 

There are many examples of orchestras which are implementing these changes. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra musicians have the option of participating in community outreach (through teaching, coaching and chamber music) throughout the year for additional compensation.  The DSO recently presented a number of free, standing-room only community engagement concerts, along with open-air residencies at Greenfield Village and at the Ford House in Grosse Pointe.  The DSO is taking the orchestra to the people, in churches, synagogues, community halls and suburbs.

One of the most striking examples of integrating the orchestra into the community is found on the website of the Seattle Mariners:
Safeco crowd cheering
Seattle Symphony Night
Blue Jays vs. Mariners
Tuesday, August 16, 2011 - 7:10 p.m.
Round up your friends and family members and join the Seattle Symphony at Safeco Field on Tuesday, August 16! Special group seating has been reserved and is available for you to purchase online. A portion of the tickets sold through this offer will benefit the Seattle Symphony.
Be sure to arrive early- new Music Director Ludovic Morlot will be throwing out the evening's first pitch and a group of Seattle Symphony musicians will be performing the National Anthem!
  • DEADLINE TO PURCHASE: Monday, August 15 at NOON
  • Game Date: Tuesday, August 16, 2011 - 7:10 p.m.
  • Pricing:
    • $15 View Reserved (normally $20)
    • $32 Field Level (normally $40)
    • $37 Terrace Club Outfield (normally $47)
    • $7 from each ticket sold will benefit the Seattle Symphony!
Bravo to the Seattle Symphony for figuring out how to connect to the community by collaborating this way with the city's beloved baseball team! 

Another orchestra which seems to have figured out multiple ways to connect to the community is the Buffalo Philharmonic.  Free concerts, from birthday bashes to outdoor rock concerts (with orchestra) have been presented recently.  Like the Detroit Symphony, the BPO does not sit still - it performs in various neighborhoods and venues, bringing the music to the people, often free of charge.  The upcoming Season Sampler sounds enticing:

The free concert offers samples and  highlights of the BPO 2011-2012 season at Kleinhans Music Hall, featuring a pre-concert happy hour with drinks and appetizers from the BPO's restaurant partners. 

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra reports that 35% of its audience is younger than 35. How did that happen?  The formula is simple:
  • shorter concerts
  • cheaper tickets
  • more partying
The TSO has gone out of its way to adjust the orchestra's schedule to its audience's schedule and desires, rather than vice versa.  Three innovative series: Afterworks, Casual and tsoundcheck have resulted from that effort, and this is how they are described on the TSO's website::

Skip rush hour and recharge at the end of your work day with light hors d’oevres and magnificent orchestral music! Host Tom Allen of the CBC will introduce the pieces that will linger in your mind as you arrive home for an early night.

Casual Concerts are performed without an intermission and are followed by a party for the whole audience in Roy Thomson Hall’s North Lobby. After the concert, mingle with TSO musicians and guest artists in a relaxed setting and enjoy live music by local bands.

tsoundcheck is an easy way to buy inexpensive concert tickets to the TSO. It lets young people take in some live classical music without spending a bundle.
You don't even have to be a student - if you're between the ages of 15 to 35, you're eligible for tsoundcheck.
And tsoundcheck tickets for TSO concerts are only $14!
For more information about tsoundcheck,

The tsoundcheck series has been so successful that it has its own website.  Ticket sales have quadrupled since the series was implemented 9 years ago, proving that the TSO's determination to build a young audience paid off.  The TSO could have easily given up after the first year and cancelled their new series, since they couldn't have predicted that sales would quadruple in 9 years.  It takes time, patience and determination to build an audience and to firmly integrate an orchestra into the community.  But it could save the orchestra.


1 comment:

PSFT said...

Interesting to read about how orchestra's are attempting to win over audiences - have you seen the Berlin Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall? Living out in the sticks I subscribed to this as it's difficult to get to any decent concerts on a regular basis - it is amazing!