Peter Gelb: ‘We’re planning for single ticket buyers’

In an interview with soprano Angela Mitchell on Cleveland’s WCLV, the Met’s general manager outlines the ways he’s confronting a different demographic of opera goers.

‘We have to replace an ageing subscribing audience,’ he says, ‘with new younger ticket buyers who don’t plan their time and entertainment many months in advance. It’s somewhat more nerve-racking but we are thankfully selling more single tickets than we have in the past.’

He adds: ‘It’s a question of keeping the institution artistically vital to make opera appealing so that when we get people in the door they respond.’

 

Part of his strategy is to engage with hipster talent. He singles out the designer Es Devlin ‘somebody who not only works on the stages of leading opera houses but also is designing sets for Beyoncé and Kanye West.’

Hear the full 10-minute interview here.

Tribeca Talks After the Movie: "Wagner's Dream" - 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

 

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  • It is truly shocking that someone so well paid in the performing arts does not understand the centrality of building and sustaining a subscriber base. In case you are reading this, Mr. Gelb:

    Product = Season –> Habit = Relationship

    Market accordingly. You are not selling records, one title at a time. That is hugely inefficient in the performing arts, and in fact impossible long-term.

    Nobody has ever wanted to commit to something a year in advance, not even 200 years ago when we know seasons were already being sold on subscription. Nothing new or trendy about this problem! But to solve it you must recognize that the Met planned and created a season. Ergo that is what you must sell. And you must keep it affordable if you want to make it part of someone’s, or a couple’s, life.

    So enough of the interviews already. Get asses on seats! Or step down.

    • Your comment is very foolish. The Metropolitan Opera works very hard to build its subscriber base. As an occasional attendee (I live in Boston), I receive a series of mailings from the Met each year, offering first the standard subscription packages, then versions with increasing flexibility (“build-your-own” options of varying length), as each new season approaches. But Mr. Gelb’s observation that they end up with more single-ticket buyers and fewer subscribers each year mirrors the reality of all arts presenters in the US, and I wager elsewhere as well. Here in Boston, I subscribe to the entire 25-program season of the Boston Symphony on Saturday nights. Out of about 2,600 seats in the hall, no more than a few hundred are sold to full-season subscribers today (but there are several sub-series, including one-half or one-fourth of the concerts, that bring the subscriber numbers up). When I first got to Boston in 1968, pretty much every concert was sold out by subscription—and that was near the end of Erich Leinsdorf’s tenure as Music Director, not a high point of excitement at the BSO.

      Peter Gelb is smart to recognize that things have changed in the arts world over the years. And I’m glad the Met is doing its best to market single tickets as well as subscriptions—”getting asses on seats” requires selling tickets the way the public demands to buy them, not forcing people to buy what they’re unwilling to commit to in advance. The reflexive anti-Gelb sentiment here, which you parroted in your post, is not valid at least in this case.

      • Please! New York has some 5 million adults. The Met has 4,000 seats, a fine location, and a monopoly on its product. Do the job!

        • I have worked for several orchestras in several countries, including very recently, and I can assure you that the trend against subscription is very widespread indeed. We have argued until we are blue in the face about the benefits of subscription — most of the orchestras I have worked for DO offer mini-packs of as few as three events carrying full subscriber benefits, and free, late exchange. And considerably simpler pricing points than those apparently on offer at the Met — it made me reel just to look at them. But the punters are increasingly adamant — even with exchange by telephone, they find it to much of a hassle in their busy lives. (This is what the cellphone generation has come to).

          So Peter Gelb is doing the right thing, and is doing desperate orchestra managers everywhere a favour by admitting it. The era of subscription is coming to an end. So the Met plans a season. THAT IS NOT MY PROBLEM. I know a marketing manager who urged his staff, in my presence, to appeal to the punters they met, called or wrote to with the message that their absence from the subscription rolls could hurt “their” orchestra financially. I urged him to withdraw that suggestion — he was operating in a town in which a couple of large companies, major employers, had not only shut down, throwing thousands out of work, but defaulted on their pension commitments as well. While they may not have been dealing with people who had been affected directly, the ripple effect in a mid-sized community was such that few did not know people who had been badly damaged. The last thing they were concerned about was what the orchestra was planning.

          And the fact of the matter is, this is not a plan-ahead society. People are used to “on-demand” services. And especially with discretionary purchases that involve time commitments. The only risk, a huge marketing tool back in the day, used to be that when the time came, the concert you wanted might be sold out. That is a very rare risk these days. And one most people are prepared to take.

          The way of the future is to appeal to single ticket buyers — who may buy a lot more than one but not enough, or not the right ones, for a subscription package. And they will buy as and when they choose, paying more for the privilege than if they took a package. To fill the halls regularly on such a basis is going to take a lot more work, and perhaps a fresh approach to advertising — in too many places, I have seen each and every concert marketed as if it is the event of the century. It all becomes wallpaper in such circumstances. Until we start educating our citizenry, starting in their youth, about real music before they get caught up in the world of popular stuff (which will always be a draw) audiences are going to shrink. Nobody is going to pay Met prices for something that might as well be in Swahili (and may well be in Czech or Russian) to them.

          • You are right to bring up prices, both price levels and price structuring in fact, especially at the Met, where management has been running rich and trying (now hugely unsuccessfully) to pass costs on to operagoers. But you might want to re-read my first comment. There is in fact no alternative to subscriptions because the purchase of a season is the mirror action of the planning and mounting of a season, which is the only way performing arts organizations can operate. Your other points, such as the freedom noticed by buyers to access even hot events at will, are essentially symptoms of years of marketing policies that have ignored the basics.

          • But I am telling you, Olassus — the way a season is planned IS NOT MY PROBLEM. As an audience member (not me, personally; I do subscribe to Orchestra, Opera and Dance where I live) I will go to what I want to see and hear, when and as I can. I will NOT, despite seductive inducements, do what YOU (the company) choose for me, despite exchanges, etc. I will go based on various things from how I feel about the offering, to how I feel in general that week/day, to how my finances are, to what else is going on in my life at work and socially. MY taste, MY health, MY budget, MY work, MY friends, matter more to me than you and your need to secure funding a year before I am going to attend your events.

            THAT is what managements are facing. And that is what Gelb has been the first major player to come out and admit is what he is facing. Nobody owes the Met a living on their terms. The universe is changing and there is not going to be a subscriber pool out there once the wrinklies pack in coming all season. The next generations DO NOT WORK THAT WAY. So those with something to sell are going to have to make the adjustments — not the other way round. It may be a pity, but it is a fact.

          • He’s at least the 2nd “major player to come out and admit” to subscription woes: Deborah Borda at the LA Phil was reported here on Slippedisc as having similar concerns about a year ago (NL will know exactly when).

            Look, I get the whole Devil’s advocate point. But we are talking past each other. When a house is sold out on subscription, or close to it, you don’t have the options you list above. And a performing arts organization that can’t sell subscriptions will fold. As rules of thumb, acquiring new subscribers costs 3x as much as renewing last season’s people, and selling on a single-event basis entails 6x or 7x the new-subscriber acquisition cost. Staggering. Also terminal.

            In the case of the Met, the whole pricing structure and subscription base appears to need to be rethought and rebuilt. This situation may be more threatening than the difficulties the company has recently faced with fundraising. From this interview Norman reports on today, Peter Gelb does seem out of his depth — and I say this having nothing whatever against the man, who strikes me as a kindly type, albeit a bit spoiled.

          • Perhaps it will fold. I’m not denying that, and I agree about your costing estimates. But that’s what I’m saying: it will be harder to fill with single ticket purchasers, and harder means more money, more effort, more imagination. And it still might not work.

            Of course companies want subscribers, and need them. But that doesn’t mean they are going to have them. Deborah Borda may have recognised the difficulties in getting subscribers but Gelb is the first important person to admit he will have to look at single-ticket marketing in a new light. They all will. Subscribing is not dead, but it is dying. He is looking ahead. They should all work on retaining subscribers, and developing new ones, but not to the exclusion of getting people in to one concert at a time. Wanting them does not make it happen, and times are changing.

          • Okay, CDH. But the subscription model, which may well predate the United States of America, is most certainly not dead, and “looking at single-ticket marketing in a new light” is [makes male curled-fingers motion near lap] when the big institution is running out of time.

      • Hello Stephen, long time no talk! Not since Compuserve days, I think.

        Anyway, you are correct. I cannot speak for other parts of the world, but in the U.S., the general trend is that fewer people subscribe, and more people purchase single tickets.

        Where I live, there is a chamber music series that not only used to sell out its auditorium for each concert with subscriptions, but there was a waiting list of several years to purchase a subscription. Today, the concerts are typically half full, sometimes much less. I subscribe, but I’m in an increasingly small minority.

        The chamber series with which I am affiliated has been able to hold the line in recent years on the number of subscribers, but only after several previous years of declines. However, we have been able to manage to increase the number of individual tickets sold to the point that we pretty much have maintained the same size audience in recent years. This is due in part to a loyal core of subscribers — but who knows what will happen as they grow older. (In fact, I was on stage just last night, encouraging the members of the audience to subscribe to the entire season; who knows, maybe a few extra people did.)

        The Met, as with so many other institutions of classical music, is facing changes in the demographics of its audience. It is adapting in both innovative (such as the simulcasts) and practical ways. Of course it is good for such organizations to continue to offer and promote subscriptions, but it is also good that they offer and promote single ticket sales in a way that they did not do not all that long ago. I know that I made it to the Met for only one performance last year (Rake’s Progress). At least they made that sale!

          • It’s clear enough to me, and in your desire to promote what HAS to be done in order for the status quo to survive, you are missing pretty clear points: subscription is not the way most people want to go any more. The audience for this commitment IS shrinking. You only have to look at Norman;s occasional classical music sales figures, and the continuing reports of classical music stations being closed, to start getting the picture. And a basic awareness of the society around you would confirm what some have been saying: that this is increasingly an on-demand, non-committal society.

            You seem only to be arguing that organisations like the Met HAVE to have subscribers in order to survive because they plan their seasons accordingly. It has been argued here, reasonably convincingly, that people are bot interested in what the Met’s problems are — they will operate, on what is after all a non-essential purchase, out of their own interests. Mr. Safford’s contribution illustrates that the problem is not exclusive to high-end expensive opera. But most here are saying the same: Gelb is seeing the reality, and dealing with it. I don’t blame you for fighting for an old model that was important and effective for a long time. But I wish you were not blinding yourself to the painful fact that it just may not be adequate to the task any more.

          • No. My message is clear. As I already wrote: “[F]ewer people subscribe, and more people purchase single tickets.”

            You may not wish to acknowledge this demographic fact, but your denial makes it no less factual.

            Poor marketing would be to ignore this fact and act as if it weren’t the case.

          • V. Lind and W. Safford:

            Please read the cost multipliers shown in the talk with CDH above. Marketing on a single-event basis is not feasible because of them, and to rely on it entirely would bring the demise of the presenter within one season. This is not some view I invented, by the way.

          • Olassus, I read what you wrote. Irrespective of its validity, it’s moot. The demographics *are* changing. Studies show this. So do box receipts.

            Organizations that stick stubbornly to outmoded models run the risk of going out of business.

            Organizations that attempt to adapt to the changing demographics at least may improve their chances of flourishing, or at least surviving.

            Another factor: box receipts, whether from subscriptions or single ticket sales, compose only a fraction of the budget for most classical music organizations. Donations and grants make up a substantial portion of most budgets.

            The demographics may shift again, as baby boomers continue to retire. You can bet that arts administrators will keep an eye on these changes. My opinion is that these new retirees will continue the trend of preferring single ticket purchases. Look to the music that they listened to when young; how many rock concert subscriptions exist? But I could be wrong. The numbers will be there to be analyzed.

            There are yet other models. Groups are forming that operate as collectives. They are becoming innovative in ways of fundraising (such as crowd sourcing), programming, networking, etc. They may be poised to thrive in new ways.

            There are those organizations that may fail anyway. City Opera closed. The Met may or may not end up being another. I hope not. But that does not mean that there is no hope for the future.

            If classical music organizations do not adapt to the realities of today, and neglect to continue to adapt in the future, then they will, in all likelihood, fail.

          • A reply to W. Safford:

            (Last from me on this. Must do other things.)

            “Demographics are changing.”
            “If classical music organizations do not adapt to … .”

            The demand for art, and so art music, is indestructible and timeless. People in their child-rearing years lack time for it, but otherwise there is demand. No change in demographics = no need to adapt. But understand the demographics!

            “Trend of preferring single-event purchases.”
            “Organizations that stick to outmoded models run the risk … .”

            No such trend exists. Nobody ever wanted to commit if they didn’t have to. It is human nature. We know that subscriptions were used by Händel for his oratorio series in the 1740s, by Bologna’s Accademia Filarmonica in the late 18th century, by the New York Philharmonic in the 19th century, by Columbia Records to pre-fund recording projects before the stereo era, and so on. In all cases the idea was to secure a commitment so that the entity could plan ahead and enter into contracts. No commitment = no offering!

            What is trendy, ad nauseam, is the use of the word “model.”

            “Box receipts compose only a fraction of the budget … . Donations and grants make up a substantial portion of most budgets.”

            The house must be full in order to complete the delivery of the product. Once it is, the presenter can think in terms of nudging up revenues. A half-full house turns off donors and grant-givers and causes a dozen other problems besides.

            “Other models: Groups are forming that operate as collectives.”

            So what? Or, no idea what you are referring to.

          • I’m staggered that you have seemingly taken none of the points made by several people on board and only seem happy with those who seem to agree with you. You seem to think that because X is what opera needs or wants, X is what they will HAVE TO get. How many ways do you have to be told: It. Is.Not. Happening. Some reasons why are outlined above, by me and others.

            Yes, I am sure you are right that there will always be a hunger for art. But either it is a shrinking hunger or the definition of art is changing (and I rather suspect the latter). The much-desired Boomers-in-Retirement have for the most part spent their lives and their entertainment budgets going to rock or pop or even country concerts and buying recordings of the same type and listening to radio stations that accommodate their preferences. And not on subscriptions either. They go when some artist they love comes to the local arena. They fork out truly heroic sums on the event, and merchandise. They would no more turn out for Bartok (of whom most will never even have heard) than I would for Kanye West.

            TASTES are changing, and have been helped along the way by aggressive and seductive marketing, celebrity culture, dumbing down and the removal of music education from the schools. How many kids pick up the guitar as opposed to the cello or the flute or the bassoon?

            HABITS are changing. As I and I think others have noted, this is an on-demand society, Booking ahead and making longterm commitments is not how people operate these days.

            LIFE is changing. For a long time people had jobs for life, perhaps hard, perhaps dull, but usually stable, with the prospect of continuing financial security whether at high, medium or even low level. Women were often in the home. So men came home to prepared meals and relaxation and were ready to go out, and women were ready to go out as they had not been out except to shop or pick up kids all day. Nowadays, both sexes are working, children or not, and are stressed and subject to high demands in excess of their job descriptions merely in order to survive. They are often tired, late, etc. A decision to go to a concert is not something they CAN make months in advance. And they do not want the one-more-thing-to-deal-with hassle of changing tickets. Or the cost of letting them go.

            SOCIETY is changing. The economics of education have meant the loss of music education n the schools. Churches, where choirs once were the source of much musical training and a magnet for those who loved music just to listen to are no longer centres of communities — they, too, play to depleted houses and many music programmes have been curtailed for lack available talent.

            ATTITUDES are changing. The legendary selfishness of teenagers seems to be lasting into early middle age in some of the millennials and those who just preceded them — driven, perhaps, by absence of economic security. But they do not read as much, write as well, or get any sort of arts education, They are treated as “customers” in university and cannot be marked too low in case they take their business elsewhere (or, worse, grieve and cause all sorts of legal headaches: they have been raised to believe the world revolves around them and so cannot brook being considered less than wonderful). So they enter senior year unable to read a blog such as this one with the slightest sign of recognition on any names in it. How would they? They can’t name their Prime Minister, or identify Nelson Mandela or Argentina. A 29-year-old TEACHER asked me seriously the other night why her generation SHOULD have heard of the Beatles? Don’t expect them to have heard of Brahms.

            Who in this day and age wants a FULL subscription to an orchestra (same people every week) or a weekly opera? In some of the orchestras I have worked with they will not commit to three-packs — though they might well go to more than three over the course of a season. The fact that companies NEED full subscription to pay their bills and plan their lives is NOT THE CONCERN of the paying public. Get over it. Gelb has. There are single ticket sales out there and it is high time companies began marketing to them. They ain’t getting a new influx of the others.

    • You don’t know what you’re talking about. That is clear as crystal. I’m sorry; I don’t really have anything else to say to you.

        • People who don’t know what they’re talking about certainly can drone on and on. I would advise you not to imagine you are going to learn anything from their conversation that has any currency in the real world.

          • Are you suggesting subscriptions are up in North America? I’d like you to tell me where (isolated exceptions there may be but over all they are down, down, down). I have worked with several major orchestras, and they are trying everything they can think of to retain and obtain subscribers. It is a tough sell, for reasons I have enumerated. And that is in major markets, including two top five orchestras. As well as smaller cities, with fewer competitors for the entertainment dollar and time. People do not want to commit in advance. In one mid=market, they were trying to sign people in February of one year for June of the next. The elderly may have grown up doing that, with perhaps more ordered lives, and as has been pointed out, some retirees may enjoy doing it now there is more time. But the younger crowd, with difficulties in job markets, much wider interests, virtually no exposure to serious music, and uncertain funds from paying off student loans to preparing to send their own issue off to college are simply not plonking down several hundred dollars for vents over a year in the future.

    • I visited New York in November 2013 and was very surprised what and how both NY Philharmonic and The Met were advertising. I discussed with colleagues that this is typically how organizations promote themselves when they have lost subscriptions for a very long time, they have had serious problems for a couple of years already and now they are in panic. From my observations, what they were doing would probably only get them into deeper trouble.

      In spring 2014, we could read in newspapers that The Met has had problems for a couple of decades and now they were in deep trouble. Mr. Gelb himself was questioned.

      In August 2014 there was a big article in The New York Times (or was it The New Yorker) how The New York Philharmonic (along with LA Philharmonic and a third orchestra) has lost subscribers for a couple of decades and have to pursue dramatic changes in marketing.

      I have no information how the New York Philharmonic is doing, but Mr. Gelb keeps sending alarming reports to the world on his institution.

      With the latest strategy, I’m seriously worried he is getting into really big trouble.

      This is no prophecy. It’s only based on having studied the long term marketing and sales patterns of some hundred organizations. There are no big secrets here. Only some very basic principles you have to recognize and follow.

  • As far as I have been able to find out, the only arts organization which have had success in growing their subscriber base are one selling what amounts to a 4-pack, or some number of performances with no-fee, last minute change privileges. The Met has a brochure which you need an engineering degree to manage – 5 price categories in the Dress Circle alone, plus three price categories for the types of operas, plus three categories for the performance time/day. Dealing with this nonsense isn’t worth the effort. If you want to sell more subscriptions, you have to make the interaction maximally user-friendly. That’s a concept never applied at the Met.

    • The Met has a brochure which you need an engineering degree to manage – check!

      Dealing with this nonsense isn’t worth the effort – check!

      You have to make the [transaction] maximally user-friendly – check!

      That’s a concept never applied at the Met – check!

      Et cetera, et cetera.

  • And, since we’re on the subject, has anyone noticed that the “new” Met Opera website is WAY more complicated to negotiate even for single tickets than the “old” one was. Sort of like the “new” Ring Cycle is, in comparison to the “old” Schenk Ring, heartless and bloated and the “new” Otello, like most of the new productions, utterly mindless and sterile. Whenever I hear something Peter Gelb says, I think of LBJ at the height of the Vietnam War: “I’m the only President you got.”

    • Not living in New York and rarely having looked at the Met’s website, I checked it today. There is a great deal of information there and I do not find it especially difficult to navigate, But I find one thing extraordinary! Click on “Season” in the left column and you get a list of seven categories. The first is “On Stage 2015 – 16” which provides full details of all the operas. But the second is “In Cinemas”. Apart from these being Gelb’s baby, why would any organisation wish to give such prominence to the far cheaper option of tickets for cinema showings when it is desperate to sell its seats in the House? If I were uncertain whether I could afford to attend a performance I really wished to see, it would immediately prompt me to opt for the cinema screening.

      To put that option right next to he stage performances seems to me a form of administrative madness!

      • That’s true! The new website is impossible! I can not even figure out how to buy single tickets or to look the seats availability! I was unable to check out my tickets twice because the checkout logo disappeared in the Ipad, I have to used the computer!

      • Your point would make a lot of sense if the only people that came to the Met’s website to find out what’s on this season were people looking to come to the house in New York.

        But now that the cinemacasts are shown in however-many-dozen countries, there are a lot of people all over the world who could never get to New York but can get to a nearby cinema – and they go to the Met’s website to find out what operas will be simulcast when (and in which particular movie houses).

        It would make no sense for the Met to make it difficult for those people to find that information.

        • “there are a lot of people all over the world who could never get to New York but can get to a nearby cinema – and they go to the Met’s website to find out what operas will be simulcast when (and in which particular movie houses).”

          I perfectly understand. But I would certainly not have the cinema section right next to the stage section. I would have it as a completely separate sub-section away from the live performances with all its own information.

      • Living many, many miles from Lincoln Center (read: many hundreds of $$), it’s either MET HD or nothing at all, for me. There, does that answer your question?

  • I guess I’m the only person in the universe who was excited when retirement finally arrived because now I have the time and money to pursue my passion. One of the first things I did was buy season tickets to our local opera and chamber music societies. There is a tidal wave of retirees entering the market every year as the baby boomers move into the audience. Are we welcomed with open arms, encouraged to attend? No. There is a constant flood of hand-wringing because we’re not younger. I’m sorry I’m not younger, but isn’t my money as good as someone younger? Surely there are others like myself who have always wanted to enjoy opera but were prevented by family and work responsibilities. Now I’m free to do so and am constantly devalued because I’m not young. I admit I’m not young, but I have something the young don’t: time, money, and the desire to spend them on the arts. Unfortunately, there is only one of me, and I live in Arizona. Too bad there are no other new retirees in other states who could be wooed into opera for the first time.

    • Great point. The audiences for classical music and opera have been “graying” for decades, and Peter Gelb’s references to “new younger” buyers and having “to replace an aging” audience are more indication that he doesn’t understand the market. It’s not that complex really. People in the 25-44 age group tend not to have time for art music, for obvious reasons, even if they had been interested in their late teens and early 20s, which a majority in fact had not. From age 45, most people are graying at the temples (!) but their values, wealth, schedules and, yes, planning ability, evolve in the direction of art and cultural activities.

    • This is a very valuable point and one all the orchestras and opera companies should be taking note of. It is relatively short-term — the boomers are nearly all at retirement age now, and of course not all of them are interested in classical music. But they are a healthier generation than the one before them, so they can give serious music a good tide-over innings. Maybe enough time to get a new lot trained up a bit through outreach, education, other awareness campaigns. Gelb seemed clearly aware of that need in the linked interview.

      I liked the sound of him too, as someone above said.

  • (Kilian Metcalf) You are absolutely correct. Retirees ARE multiplying at an increased rate. Many have time, money, and incentive to pursue passions for which there was no time while working or any extra income while sending children through school or while paying off a mortgage. This demographic is the proverbial fish in a barrel, yet arts organizations treat them as has-beens. Reality check: it is an increasing population that will potentially live longer than the preceding generation. They should not be written off. They have 30+ years to fill.

    Contrary to the concepts of the Met’s Marketing Department (whose average age is about 35 with little or no life experience), retirees do not suddenly disappear or die. They have more economic freedom for leisure activities that 20 to 65 year olds often do not. Despite Peter Gelb’s desperate pretense of youth (no, Peter, dressing all in black is not chic nor hip any longer, and certainly doesn’t suit your position), he is also himself in his 7th decade. He ought to know better.

    There is a huge market of potential ticket purchasers (in-house, not HD) that remains unrealized because the Met (and most performing arts organizations) are spending a disproportionate percentage of their marketing budgets on creating a youth market that, frankly, just isn’t there. Create programs to educate 65+-year-olds (whatever happened to lecture series for non-members?). Create social groups targeted to 65+-year-olds as every organization attempts to do for 20-somethings (until they inevitably age out and their lives of children and mortgages take precedence, thus lost until they too retire) . Both groups are seeking the same social goals of companionship and shared interests.

    Better to use the money allocated to seeking the elusive or nonexistent 20-something ticket buyer to promote the arts in elementary and secondary education–sadly lost lost for the most part in the last generation–to begin to regain an informed and interested population. Targeted and effective lobbying efforts by the Met and Lincoln Center with national and state governments and local school boards could potentially have a lot of clout nationwide.

  • People that argue that subscriptions are dead simply don’t know what they are talking about. I have been consulting 25+ companies that have had 100% (Netherlands Symphony Orchestra), 200% (Luleå House of Culture), 250% (argovia phil), 300% (Gävle Symphony Orchestra) subscription growth. A couple of days ago I heard Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra has now reached a growth of 1,200 subscribers, and Tonhalle Düsseldorf 1,300 subscribers. Gothenburg Symphony went from problematic concerts every month in 12/13 to selling 97% of the tickets in 13/14, not only but largely thanks to subscriptions. Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm got 1,450 more subscribers in the autumn of 2014. And the methods we have developed has potential to do much, much bigger numbers when needed.
    Note: I am not talking about the flex (pick-and-choose) subscriptions or mini-packages. They can also be important in the right situation. The numbers above are for old fashioned fixed seat – fixed night concerts pre-packaged by the organization.

    So the subscription scheme is far from dead. But you need to know what you are doing.

    However, I think it is wrong to put single tickets and subscriptions against each other. There are people that are willing to buy subscriptions and you should really care for them and plan your organizational strategy around building a solid subscription base. But of course there are lots of people that either haven’t yet reached the age when you start to subscribe and some that will never start. You need to plan for them and you need to involve them too but if you want an artistically vital organization you can’t base your operations on them. It’s about balancing and truly understanding the dynamics of the sector we are in.

    • I note that all these successes are in Europe. My experience is only with North America and Asia (and the latter quite a while back — the changes in China and the rise of a few Chinese superstars may well have altered scenarios there). But in North America, I can assures you, subscriptions are a harder and harder sell, especially if you are dealing with people under 50.

      So I would be very interested if you could give us some idea of the commonalities you have found in some of the various orchestras you cite — if they are doing something right, the rest of us would be only too glad to learn from them.

      • Don’t hold your breath waiting for an answer. I believe Mr. Still has a book coming out on this theme…if you want to know his secrets, you will probably have to 1) wait and 2) pay for the privilege of his wisdom.

        • Hello V.Lind,
          Yes, “Fill Every Seat – EVERY Week” will be launched in April 2016. The manuscript is being checked for proper English right now.
          Clarification: No one has to pay for my advice. My company only charges commissions in the case we really do help improve the sales numbers.
          Magnus

      • Hello CDH and V Lind,
        I am based in Northern Europe, that’s why we have mainly worked here. I visited a couple of US orchestras in November 2013 and my feeling there was a lot left on the table. We didn’t pursue those discussion, however.
        We have a 25 step “Annual Subscription Wheel”. All our clients following that system are growing in subscriptions this year. Some radically.
        On commonalities:
        I think you should really not waste your energy on trying to sell subscriptions to people under 55 – build a relationship with them with single tickets instead. After having intervieed 7,500 subscribers in 5 countries we know that 85% of the subscribers are 55+, 75% are 65+.
        Most organizations are trying to fix their declining numbers with flexible (pick-and-choose) subscriptions or mini packages. That’s simply band-aid (possibly lead generation), you don’t solve any organization challenges that way.
        I can’t see digital marketing having any greater impact yet. Yes, you should use social media for creating excitement, you can send reminders over e-mail and (depending on country and culture) more and more people want to book over the internet. But you still need the physical brochure – it’s totally imperative.
        Talking of brochures, many seem to believe the season brochure is what you should use in subscription sales. When a personalized letter and a simple subscription leaflet can do the job much better.
        Having worked in 8 European countries I am surprised how alike they are. The same basic principles seem to be at play almost everywhere. In our consulting work, the Annual Subscription Wheel is enormously helpful tool.
        Hope this was of value!
        Magnus Still

        • Thanks, Mr. Still. I agree essentially with what you offer, but would like to know more about this Annual Subscription Wheel. You are not telling me enough to see a way to any change in North American patterns.

  • I totally agree with Magnus Still! Until recently I’ve been responsible for the PR & Marketing of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and can document success in both ticket sale and subscriptions. In my opinion it’s not a question of one way or the other. First of all it’s about building a fan-culture – and realising that it isn’t any different from any other business or sport!

    For starters: No one in history has ever started out with a subscription. You have to look at it as a very long-term process, starting when your audience is young. In the beginning it has to be easy, cheap and convenient (… later on probably just easy and convenient). You are building up a relationship, and everybody has to feel welcome, engaged and inspired.

    As your audience gets older, they may change priorities: If you’re doing it right they may want to buy tickets before everybody else, or want their own regular seat – If you’re are doing it wrong they’ll get bored or get new hobbies – probably because they feel unwanted.

    Not everyone will be suited for a subscription, but almost everybody wants to be part of a culture. Make the effort, and make it yours!

    • Hello Nicolai,

      That’s great to hear, congratulations, well done!

      Two comments:

      1. For our North European participants to not get the wrong picture: Subscriptions are declared dead also in (Northern) Europe. I know, I am travelling in the UK, Netherlands, Nordic countries, Germany, Switzerland etc. I think 90-95% of the organizations are losing subscribers each year. And most of them go into more and more hectic marketing, with narrower and narrower artistic choice (if they want to have audience). Just so there is no misconception.

      2. I don’t totally agree that you have to start with single tickets. A couple of years ago, I was interim CEO of a small ensemble that was in trouble. I was able to sell significantly more subscriptions than I could get single ticket buyers to most of the concerts. Crazy but true.

      Magnus

  • Dear V.Lind,

    The general principles seem to be very similar in different countries. It was interesting, I invited 5 of the most successful subscription marketers from Europe and North America to my company’s Subscription Advisory Board in 2013. These people didn’t know each other in any way before they met here in Finland. And it was astonishing that to 95% they had arrived at exactly the same solutions, often opposite of what we see most people do.

    The actual 25 steps in the Annual Wheel makes it easy for us to make sure we as advisers don’t miss anything. But what steps (typically we end up focusing on only 3-5) we emphasize in each project are always different.

    And mostly it can be really subtle changes that make big differences. The CEO of one orchestra we worked with put it this way: “This isn’t fair, we had been losing subscribers for several years, your team asked us to change a handful of things, we did work hard, but it wasn’t anything revolutionary you suggested – and now we have clearly changed the trend.” (This orchestra has been growing subscription numbers 3 years in a row now.)

    I don’t want to sound mystical, because it really isn’t. But the small things seem to be different in each organization. Which makes it very difficult to answer your generic question about North American patterns.

    If you want to exchange ideas for an hour – feel free to contact me over LinkedIn! Then we could be more precise. As said, we don’t charge for our advice, only for results and this (of course) only if there is a contract (and we can’t take on more clients for 16/17 any more). But it would be really fun to talk with you because you are clearly interested and know a lot about the subject already.

    Best regards,
    Magnus

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