Jun 30, 2011

It’s The Money Stupid! Or Is It?

Concert hall acoustics and the effects of continuously dissonant musical compositions definitely have their impact on concert attendance or the lack thereof.

Another frequently discussed factor is the price of admission. As we should know, whatever price is being charged for a classical concert ticket, it does not cover the cost of producing the concert. We have been using the same financial model in the United States for over a century, imported from Europe, in which somewhere between 50% and 80% of concert cost is being subsidized by philanthropic contributions. So if we meet in the middle at 65% being the contributed portion of concert cost, it means that a $50 average ticket price – prior to any senior, student or group discounts – should have realistically been $145 in order for the concert to break even. And we need to quickly note that the break-even ticket price may vary up or down relative to the total annual budget, hall capacity and average attendance.

While an avid sports fan or rock concert attendee might happily pay $200 or more for an event ticket, I don’t think we even need ask how many regular classical music concert attendees would be willing to pay about $150 to listen to a live performance of a Beethoven symphony. We have all been trained to expect the subsidized ticket price. And even that may now be beyond the reach of some patrons on fixed retirement incomes or younger individuals stretched by current recessionary economic conditions.

This begs the question – should ticket prices be lowered? A few professional orchestras are in fact doing this and obtaining improved attendance results. In other instances a single, low very affordable ticket price for every seat has been instituted. There are those who have recommended that tickets to all classical concerts simply be made available free of charge! When one arrives at the door there might be a suggested but not required contribution, as is the practice at some art museums. I have even encountered a ‘pay as you exit’ strategy. If you like the concert, pay for your ticket as you leave. If not – don’t!

These are intriguing ideas, all to some degree based on the proposition that if so little income is to be recouped from classical music concert tickets in the first place, why not simply make classical music concerts a completely philanthropic gift from donors to the community? My guess is that this strategy would have to be balanced against such ingrained beliefs as: “If something is free, it can’t really be worth anything.” and “You don’t get something for nothing.”

In this context, a quote from Penelope McPhee, who formerly oversaw the John S. & James L. Knight Foundation’s Magic of Music (https://bit.ly/jsdru5) initiative, lingers in my mind as a haunting prediction. It still gives me chills to recall it, and it makes me question whether ticket prices have anything whatsoever to do with the decline in classical music concert attendance.

Addressing a group of marketing executives from professional symphony orchestras with budgets ranging from perhaps one million dollars to as much as forty million dollars annually, Ms. McPhee said something like – and I am paraphrasing here: “If nothing changes, in a few years you won’t even be able to give away your product, let alone sell tickets to it.” A sobering thought to say the least, and one which causes this observer to look to yet other reasons why classical concert audiences are declining.