How can orchestras replace lost sales?

How can orchestras replace lost sales?


norman lebrecht

January 27, 2017

Earlier this week we reported that British orchestras are playing more concerts  than ever and earning less at the box-office.

In the US, Doug McLennan reports that orchestras’ earned income – ticket sales and seasonal subscriptions – has dropped from 60 percent of total revenue in 1990 to 40 percent in 2014 (and certainly lower since then).

The League (of American Orchestras) reports that “across League member orchestras, 40% of total income in 2014 was classified as earned income, 43% as contributed income, and 17% as investment income.”

So how are orchestras to make up that loss? Doug has a few ideas. Here’s one – change the audience:

A report this month issued by the Association of Art Museum Directors says that American museums depend on ticket sales for only 6 percent of their budgets. That’s a fraction of the earned income that American orchestras achieve. And yet the debate in the museum world isn’t about museums as a failing model but whether or not they should just abandon paid admissions altogether (as they did in the UK).

Charging no admission would change the way people used museums, it might change the types of people who use museums, and it would certainly make museums more accessible to a broader range of people. Certainly there are museums that are in financial distress. But discussions of the museum “model” seem substantively different that those about the orchestra model. They’re more about what kind of audiences you want to serve rather than how many tickets you need to sell.

You thoughts?

Read more here.


  • Pete Parker says:

    It’s a very interesting idea, but I believe ticket prices in the UK for regular orchestral season classical concerts are already keenly priced. Most concerts have tickets starting at £10 in London. Checking the Philadelphia Orchestra, Chicago Symphony their lowest priced tickets are considerably more, (in the region of £30-£40). The Berlin Phil start tickets at £21
    I wonder if London orchestra ticket sales account for 40% of total revenue?

    I also remember back in the 90’s the BBC Symphony introduced un-reserved seating (i think) with all seats in the RFH at £10. That used to be the only time I could sit in the “posh” seats at the RFH.

    Also the proms have a unique approach as they offer a 5th of their capacity for £5 regardless of concert/Orchestra/star conductor…

    I’m guessing each orchestra has a bank of analysts looking at pricing and will judge the tipping point between attractive pricing and losing money… I also wonder how much the folks in the posh seats subsidise the folks in the non-posh seats?

    • Anon says:

      I think your “bank of analysts” is wishful thinking. It’s a couple of people sitting around taking a view on what other organisations are doing and having a stab in the dark.
      As for London concert subsidies, it’s not so much the expensive seats subsidising the cheap seats as the ever-generous non-concert-going tax payer subsidising all of the audience.

      • John Borstlap says:

        “…………. as the ever-generous non-concert-going tax payer subsidising all of the audience.” That is a populist, egalitarian, Trumpesque remark. Nobody protests against subsidized sports events.

  • Blake says:

    It can be done!

    I co-founded an orchestra in Washington State in 2014, Poulsbo Community Orchestra, where one of our main tenants is offering free concerts. We have run under a model of first-come, first-served for concert seating but have recently needed to start planning for tickets. Some people on the committee have suggested charging because of that, but I, and most others, want to keep it free. (We just need to pass fire code for our audience size.) We have changed venues 3 times, because our audience has grown exponentially; 2014: 90-100, 2015: 150, June 2016: 220+, December 2016: 600+.

    Granted, our costs are significantly less than other orchestras, but, for the first time, we are paying a conductor next season and will still have a profit. I got the idea not from museums but restaurants in the USA that don’t have prices; you pay what you are able. These restaurants have actually performed better than their counterparts. Check this out:

    • NYMike says:

      Are you paying the musicians???

      • Bruce says:


      • Blake says:

        Of course not. It’s a community orchestra; we are very young (only 3 years old). As our endowment gets larger and donations continue, paying players probably might happen in 50 years. My point was that donations will still come pouring in even if the concerts were free. Since ticket sales make up so little of US orchestras’ revenue, they may make more by offering free concerts.

  • Halldor says:

    They aren’t losing sales – audiences are growing. They’re losing ticket income, which is a different thing. They’re selling more tickets and making less money for doing so. Low ticket prices are certainly a factor here, and my instinct is this is still long-term fall-out from the 2008-09 economic crisis – at least outside of London where salaries have not (or are not felt to have) recovered over the last decade, and a sizeable number of people still feel under financial pressure.

    Cuts to local authority funding may not in themselves have led to increases in ticket prices, but orchestras don’t work in isolation: the publicly-funded venues in which they give their concerts have also faced cuts, and they pass these on to orchestras in the form of (amongst other things) substantially increased ticket sales commission fees and set-up charges (I know of at least one struggling venue that’s ramped these up substantially). These may well reduce the overall income yield per ticket.

    As to why orchestras are working harder but getting no richer – well, I’m not aware of any agents reducing their artists’ fees in response to the funding climate and the economy more widely. One orchestra I know (well, its finance department anyway) actually breathed a quiet sigh of relief when its high-profile music director – whose fees had grown year-on-year during a time of stringent arts cuts – quit for a more lucrative gig. Elsewhere, Mr Lebrecht asks where all the money is draining out of the system, and why concerts are making losses despite orchestras giving more and more of them and audiences continuing to grow. For someone who’s spent his career chronicling the rapacity of agents and the greed of major artists, I’m quite surprised that he has to ask!

  • Doug says:

    Like I said earlier [and you chose to arbitrarily CENSOR] the “industry” starting with the money leeches [managers, booking agents, promoters and the minor leeches: writers about music], for lack of a better metaphor, need to be burned to the ground and earth beneath them salted.

  • John Borstlap says:

    But that is the Golden Egg: to see the orchestra not as some kind of business that has to meet budget requirements, but as a service to the community like a free museum. I don’t know how it is today, but years ago the Louvre had free entrance. In an ideal world, I would be for an entirely ‘communist’ solution to the ever-nagging orchestral money problem: it should be entirely paid for by local and national government, plus EU funding where this is needed, and concerts should be completely free for listeners. Salaries for the orchestral players, fees for conductors and soloists, and the percentages for the agencies, regulated in an egalitarian way: the same money for everybody involved in their category, so that music making is no longer a commercial game and money no longer a status symbol. Every professional in the field would earn the same as his/her peers, independent of achievement level, so that the best orchestras have their reputation and honor as their main reward. How to get there? that is another question, thinking of human nature. But music is not about status, getting rich, and using the repertoire for ego trips.

    The main point is, that ticket sales should never be a defining factor in budgetteering but a bonus.

    • Gennady says:

      You’re so right…

    • Stephen Owades says:

      Here in the US we’re facing the prospect of the new Trump administration eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities altogether. Fortunately, they don’t provide a major portion of the funding for (at least) major symphony orchestras, which rely more on private donations plus ticket sales. And I’m sure the managements of such groups are grateful that they haven’t become dependent on NEA money, which is subject to the whims of government—and is an easy target for the faux-populists and faux-deficit hawks now in charge of the Federal government. I suspect that in today’s worldwide political climate, the American model may be emulated elsewhere.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Agreed. When orchestras get entirely dependent upon government, that could only work when the funding of orchestras, like funding of other institutions of the humanities, would be written fast in the constitution and thus not be in danger of easy budget cuts, as happens, for instance, continously in Holland which had adopted the German model (introduced in WW II by the Germans) but where classical music was never understood as part of the nation’s cultural identity. The German-speaking lands however, consider themselves ‘Kulturnationen’ and even in times of financial stresses, cutting into classical music funding is highly controversial and a very sensitive political issue. Of course, if populist politics would get power, it is done with funding of culture.

        As long as a nation does not see itself as a Kulturnation, the best provisional solution seems to be that orchestras’ existence is garanteed by government (local or / and national) and the funding of the programming by donorship and sponsoring. But also for sponsorship, there has to be an awareness in the community of the importance of the arts, so all around cultural awareness is a condition sine qua non.

        Another thing that often worries me, is the overcooked modern tradition of orchestras having to produce as many concerts as possible, partly to be able to sell tickets as many as possible. This seems to impair the quality of the players’ functioning and the quality of the concerts. Some programs require more and longer rehearsels than others, and the time the players and the conductor spend away from their stand, is productive as well: work will sink-into the system, players will have more physical rest, be better prepared, have more fun in playing. Music is not just a physical activity. If something of the financial pressures would be taken away or diminished, and if there were less concerts, that would be more realistic and, I think, improve standards on all levels. Also staff would have more time to more carefully do their job. All this would be possible if the orchestra were an island of musical culture in the sea of commercial competition and pop vulgaria.