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Alexandra

Still MORE on art and audiences

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From the Philadelphia Inquirer, some encouraging news for fans of classical music (ballet and other arts mentioned in passing) and some interesting questions.

Classical music for the (older, richer) masses

So marginalized has classical music become, so much louder is the beat of commercial popular music, that what percentage of the United States do you think is still listening to classical?

A Two percent, barely.

B The same number of people who can remember where in the basement they store their marching-band instrument from high school.

C Not measurable, since classical fans are such contrarians that they refuse to participate in public polling.

Based on the panic issuing from arts leaders and the press, it seems that one, and maybe two, of the above answers would be correct.

But in a revelation that confounds the pessimists, 11.6 percent of adult Americans said they attended at least one classical event in 2002, according to preliminary findings of the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts recently released by the National Endowment for the Arts. (More details are to be released later in the year.)

That robust figure simply scotches the idea that classical has become a fringe, stigmatized art form. While skepticism about any survey is a good thing (after all, what qualifies as classical these days, the Three Tenors?), the fact is that Americans clearly like classical music and they're willing to admit it - in large numbers. (See the details of the survey, which polled more than 17,000 people, at www.arts.gov/pub/notes/82.pdf.)

Lots more to the article.

What do you think?

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That is some very interesting information.

But...11.6% is a "robust figure?"

And considering the number of ballet companies around the country there are with theaters to fill, 8 million people sounds like a rather paltry sum, especially when spread across an entire year.

However, there is something to the ticket price issue. As much as I love ballet (not to mention opera and theatre), I can rarely afford to attend it; it's currently about a once-a-year thing with me: the Maryinsky comes to town, I see it once. Then I have to wait until next year, as tempting as the brochures for Washington Ballet, Washington Opera, NSO, and BSO are. It's a catch-22 of course--companies that are struggling financially can't exactly be expected to lower their ticket prices, not to mention that those "free" events are only free for the audience--the dancers &c still have to be paid. Maybe companies could consider, instead of free events, say, $5-10 ticket night once/month featuring excerpts from the repertoire, no scenery, and simple lighting? Or reduced-price subscriptions for those with less than a certain amount of income (sort of the way need-based scholarships are calculated)...not sure the public would go for that. My point is that sometimes people want to see the ballet, they just can't.

As a (somewhat) unrelated question, has anyone figured out if those Calvin Klein-like ads and melodramatically worded brochures actually increase ticket sales?

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I don't know the answer to your last question, Hans, but I wish I did! If any of our arts admin folks do, please let us know.

I definitely thing there's something to the ticket price issue. I saw it in DC in modern dance. Paul Taylor sold out when he was at Lisner, top price $9 (back in the early 1980s). I think every college dance student in DC went to those performances, and we had a lot of little PT imitators here. They moved to the Kennedy Center -- it was going to be so exciting! Better house, live orchestra! The price went to $16, and there wasn't a student to be seen. The Kennedy Center audience at that time wasn't used to Taylor, the houses were not full.

Standing room, too, has skyrocketed. When I started going to ballet in the mid-1970s, standing room was $2, so I could go every night. Now it's half the top ticket price (I believe; that was the last I was told). It's at least $20. I don't think there are many who can go every night.

Ballet is built on the donors, but also the gallery. And we don't have a gallery any more. (Gallery being the really dedicated, diehard fans, usually without much money, the kids who stormed up the stairs in "Red Shoes.")

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As an aside, I took a look at the survey itself and it notes that women constituted 62.9% of balletgoers in 1992 and 68.9% in 2002.

I think ticket prices are crucial. It's all very well to talk about "outreach," but you can't reach very far if people can't afford to go.

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A famous line--there are lies, damn lies, and statistics.

As one who has a statistics background, I can tell you that 90% of statistics reported in the popular media have some major problem. Usually writers pick some number from some source that substantiates whatever message is being conveyed.

For example, regarding the 11.6% of people who say they attended a classical event in 2002, the key is to know what is meant by a “classical event” and how they got the information. Is hearing Stars and Stripes forever at the Fourth of July fireworks attending a classical event? Is attending a classical event equivalent to buying a ticket to a symphony concert?

And those 17,000 people “polled.” Are they a random sample?

Personally, I believe classical music has become less popular (in terms of record sales and radio station formats) because of the growing segmentation of the entertainment market rather than as a result of anything that the classical music business is doing or not doing. There are just more things competing for entertainment dollars now than there used to be.

With regard to ticket prices, I would love to see lower ticket prices and believe I would go to more performances if ticket prices were lower. But in general, ticket prices are almost mathematical. There are expenses that have to be paid and the goal of the company is to maximize revenue. Revenue is the product of ticket price and attendance. In general, higher prices decrease attendance and lower prices increase attendance. But for a concert, would lowering ticket prices increase attendance by enough to increase overall revenue? You don’t really know until you try. And what if it doesn’t? Very risky, which is why I don't think it is often tried.

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I agree with your comments on statistics. One of the famous ballet stats that was thrown around about a decade ago was that more people went to the ballet than to NFL games. Well. They counted as 'ballet" student recitals and civic company Nutcrackers. (To balance that, you'd have to include high school and minor league football.)

I was struck by the 2% classical music figure, because I remember reading the exact same percentage in the mid-1970s and being shocked by it then. (And that was a time when Washington, DC still had three classical music record stores.) I think another variable is that, in the mid-1970s, 2 percent was a viable market. Now, when companies are miffed if they don't make a million dollars a second, 2 percent isn't worth spitting on.

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I think when you are a big record company, that 2% is so small you don’t consider it. And it shows in what they produce. But other companies emerge and find a way to produce something profitably that is really good. In classical music recordings, there is Naxos, for example. Yes, you have probably never hear of the performers or the music for that matter, but the quality is excellent and the price terrific. And there is a bonus—you learn there is a whole lot of really terrific music that you (well, I anyway) have never heard before.

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I second the comments about the extremely dubious significance of most "statistics".

About ticket prices: let's face it, you have to really really want to see it and/or have lots of money for tickets that run $40-$80 and sometimes more. On the other hand, this isn't crazy: pro sports event and rock concert prices are typically at least at this level and tickets sell just fine. (And then there's opera...)

For subscribers and prime seats the tickets have to be at a certain level to pay the bills, but there are ways to sell cheaper tickets without cannibalizing or alienating the full-price audience, including

--"student rush" tickets--I don't know if these exist in DC, but in Boston the Wang Center (where BB performs) has them and as of a few years ago they were $12.

You would think that this system could be extended fairly easily to other penniless ballet nuts (eg, the "student" discount could also apply to dance teachers). Very few students and dance teachers can afford full-price subscriptions (though I will admit that I scrimped to afford a BB subscription as a graduate student).

--Boston also has a half-price ticket booth for unsold tickets as of the day of the performance or maybe the day before that. I think NY has something similar.

I think these are an interesting channel because they may get people in who come to the kiosk just wanting to see a show--if ballet is one of the options, maybe they'll give it a try and maybe they'll even like it.

--Washington Ballet's "preview night" is about 1/3 less than the other nights.

Usually Weds. is "preview night" and then Thursday is "opening night".

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Scroll down to "Opera troubles" for discussion of PBS' policy on broadcasting opera.

ArtsJournal

There is also a link here to an article on the same subject in Opera News.

My apologies if any of this has already been posted.

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I'm well beyond my student-discount eligibility :shhh:, but my discretionary funds are not a lot more than they were in those days, and even taking inflation into account, ticket prices for ballet are much higher. If ABT wants me to spend $30 for one ticket (their minimum at City Center), the program/cast combination must meet a very high standard. If they open the upper balcony and sell $12 or $15 seats, I will be there much more than twice as often. In the end, more money for them! It is simple math on one level, but on another, it ain't that simple. I may be wrong, but it's hard to believe that selling, say, the last two or three rows at movie prices would not fill more seats and net higher box office. :) :shrug:

Unfortunately, the more interesting City Center season is -- for minimum-priced tix -- still 50% higher than standing room for the less interesting Met season. And yet, I see more performances per week in the latter. :nopity:

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I don't know about particular statistics but I would say there is a similar situation here. Popular music seems to be much more popular than classical although such performances such as Opera in the Park, the Australian Ballet, and visiting classical performers seem to be well attended. However I would venture to say that there are far more contemporary works performed than classical.

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Companies are between a rock and a hard place on ticket prices. If they aren't getting funding to make up revenue in some unearned fashion (grants, public funding or donations) they have to make it up in earned income (ticket sales). It's important to have "starving artist" tickets at steep discounts for the people who go every night - they are the company's base; but it's dangerous for the company's revenues to make that kind of steep discount widely available or desirable. ABT would have to sell twice as many $15 tickets to make the revenue they'd make from $12 or $15 tickets, and they'd have to keep their $30 buyers from buying a cheaper ticket. Are you sure that audience is there? More than ever, I'm beginning to feel that low-priced tickets need to be underwritten by a donor who will make up the difference in lost revenue. They're an important public service, but I don't think they're a revenue producer.

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I work in the polling and research business so I thought I would add my two cents. While I agree that survey statistics get abused in the media, I think we can assume that this data is accurate from a sampling perspective. It was done by the Bureau of the Census as a supplement to their Current Population Survey. Among other things, they develop statistics for the government for policy making purposes. However, The National Endowment of the Arts, who published this document, do not report the sampling error which they should do. I thought I saw the sample size, but as I write this I cannot find it. However, given The bureau of the Census did this survey I am assuming the sample is large.

Without looking at the questionnaire I cannot tell if there is room for ambiguity in terms like "classical" music.

I think the most alarming figures for this group is how the average age of those attending the ballet is moving up (as it is for most other arts) from 40-44. They note that in 1992 14.8% of those attending the ballet were 18-24, but in 2002 this share dropped to 8.8%. This represents a 40% decline. That is not a good trend.

Money may be a problem, but I think it goes beyond that. Last year if you were a member of the 4th Ring Society at NYCB the tickets were $12. This is not much more than a movie. I think of my own daughter who is 25. For years we faithfully took her to The Nutcracker. It was part of our Christmas tradition. Quite a few years ago I talked her in to going to a Saturday matinee performance of NYCB with me. She has no interest in the ballet today. A couple of years ago her mother invited her to go to The Nutcracker with us (we still go and love it). She made it clear she was not interested.

I'm not sure what is going on, but the trend for all of the performing arts is not good.

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I need to correct myself. It is the median age of those attending the ballet that has gone from 40 to 44 not the average age. That means half of the people who attended the ballet were above and below that number.

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Last year if you were a member of the 4th Ring Society at NYCB the tickets were $12.  This is not much more than a movie.

Yes, and a great marketing device, in my opinion. :thumbsup: By charging $15 for the annual membership, NYCB elicits commitment for a certain number of ticket purchases, but in return discounts those purchases significantly. I wonder why other organizations haven't adopted a similar system.

Speculating on whether NYCB would raise prices in light of the Balanchine Centennial, friends and I agreed that a modest increase in either membership fee or ticket prices (or both!) would be reasonable. :yes: :wink:

The Joyce seems to have tried something similar to the Fourth Ring Society, in that they give a substantial discount on subscriptions. The discounts, however, do not bring the prices down to a level I'm willing to pay. Being such a small house, they are in a somewhat more constrained circumstance, which I fully appreciate.

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Lots of interesting points here -- thank you! I think Leigh is right when he points to the pitfalls of charging lower prices. If you're a subscriber paying, say, $50 a ticket, you might not be pleased to learn that the person sitting next to you paid only $30. BUT if a company is really in trouble -- 50, 60% houses, say -- then they often get desperate and raise ticket prices to cover costs, which could reduce the houses to 40%. In that case, I think it would be worth it to try lowering prices.

A student rush idea that the Washington Ballet used to do in the early 80s was very popular: $1 general admission tickets. They danced in Lisner Auditorium, then, which has a combination of very flat orchestra seats (bad sight lines) and a very steep, bleacher-like "balcony." The student rush tickets were at the top of the balcony and 1 minute before curtain, you could "rush" down and take any seat in the house. Added a bit of sport to the occasion.

Mark, I think it does go beyond just the prices, though -- and sports events and rock concerts are proof of that, I agree. I do think the audience age varies. Two anecdotes. First, I remember reading in the late 1970s an article that said, almost in passing, that NYCB was worried because the average age (or median, can't remember) of its subscribers was 55. I've read that same number several times in the last year as the average age of this or that company's subscribers. (My line for that is "There's a new crop of 55-year-olds every year." Maybe they should do some Freshman Class initiation ceremony when you turn 55?)

Another anecdote. I'm doing the second half of Ballet Alert's preview section now, and talking to press and other company people. One person connected with a company in a "market" where there are a lot of 55-plusers, and whose subscription base has grown over the past two years, said that actually the audience was more young people. The older ones don't come -- and this is a company that does not have a pop repertory. Washington Ballet, too, has increased its subscriber base since Septime Webre has taken over, and has been attracting younger audiences, although it IS doing a lot of contemporary and pop work, and I think they would like to attract older audiences, too. So it gets complicated.

I also think the Fourth Ring Society is a great idea :thumbsup:

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I love the 4th Ring Society (I've been a member for years) - but that's a development concept, not a revenue concept. Going from subscription prices, an orchestra seat is $70, 4RS seats are $12. You need to sell nearly six fourth ring society tickets to make the revenue of one orchestra seat. There aren't six fourth ring tickets for every orchestra seat. If you're trying to keep the doors open, where would you put your efforts? Also, for balletomanes, we're asking for a discount, but we'd pay more if we had to. I look with gratitude at the 4RS deal at NYCB - but without that deal I'd buy standing room instead, and they could raise the price by at least 50% before I'd cut back.

Alexandra's point about increasing prices sometimes decreasing revenue is valid (Would they sell enough extra orchestra seats at $65 to make up the loss of per ticket revenue?) and the steep discounts on less desireable seats is as well. The Fourth Ring is both the devoted audience and in some cases future orchestra ticket buyers (that's the ostensible point, but it also subsidizes balletomanes as well) it's just that we're not the ones paying anybody's salary. Producing a concert right now, I can tell you that no matter what your artistic goals are, the bottom line is always visible, and I sympathize with anyone who's trying to produce revenue through ticket sales.

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