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The price was right

0 Robert Levine

One of the most damaging misconceptions about orchestras is that we raise money because we don’t make enough on ticket sales to cover the total expense of the concerts. The reality is very little of the fixed expenses of orchestras is covered by ticket sales, which typically cover, at most, the marginal expenses of putting on concerts.

The underlying truth about non-profits is that, as they don’t make a profit by selling things, they can charge whatever they like for their product. That doesn’t mean that people will pay what is charged. But it does mean that non-profits have considerable flexibility when pricing their products and can do so with an eye on more than the financial bottom line.

A post a few weeks ago on ticket pricing in St. Paul discussed how that orchestra had increased attendance, and lowered marketing costs, by dropping ticket prices substantially. Last weekend, my own orchestra took this experiment quite a bit further:

Over the years, the MSO has found it difficult to sell tickets for its concert on the Friday after Thanksgiving, but the season calendar, based in part on when the Marcus Center’s Uihlein Hall is available, requires the orchestra to perform that day.

So the symphony told Journal Sentinel readers in a full-page advertisement Nov. 14 that it wanted to give back “to a community that simply loves music” by giving two free tickets to Friday’s concert and inviting them to call.

The MSO set aside a possible 1,000 tickets. It has given away 1,002, said Susan Loris, vice president of marketing and communication. Most of those were snapped up in the first few days after the ad appeared.

“People were thrilled with the offer,” she said.

It’s worth noting that the concert in question was a subscription program with chorus, popular repertoire, and the Music Director conducting.

At first glance, this might look like a typical case of “papering the house.” I don’t think it was; it was promoted as a community service, got good PR for the orchestra, and no doubt the marketing department collected contact information in exchange for the tickets.

But what’s most interesting to me is that, just for the price of a newspaper ad, we nearly filled the house on a historically bad night to be giving a concert. And if you think (as I do) that the mission of orchestras is playing live music to audiences, rather than selling tickets, we did a lot better job of fulfilling our mission that night than we often do.

True, we didn’t make a dent into fixed expenses by doing so - but that’s why we fundraise. We wouldn’t have made a dent into fixed expenses if we hadn’t given the tickets away either.

So when you read that orchestras give too many concerts for the marketplace to support, remember that one of the assumptions built into that assertion is the notion that orchestra tickets have to be expensive. They don’t.

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