Act 1: Autumn in the Country

Today’s high in Baltimore will be 81, says my weather app, but I’m skeptical. It is overcast and almost cool. The backyard garden of the independently owned and operated coffee shop where I write is lined with leaves of taupe.* Though they died in 2012 (some, perhaps, in 2011), they are not out of place.

For autumn has arrived. And autumn is the season when the season begins.

This Monday is opening night at the Metropolitan Opera. It’s nearly sold out, but $1,500 will get you a “prime” seat in the orchestra section or a rear side box seat in the Parterre. A front side orchestra seat can be yours for $700 and a seat in an undisclosed section of the orchestra for $400. For the truly desperate on a budget, a rear box seat with partial view in the Grand Tier is available for $300. You may just want to show up and give your best impecunious voice student impression.

Have you seen the ads? There he was yesterday on a phone booth [sic, with working dial tone] on the corner of 26th and Eighth: Mariusz Kwiecien—how’s that for the name of a matinee idol?—chewing on Anna Netrebko’s veil under the headline, “Don’t let desire pass you by.” At lower left, below some fake snowflakes: “Seduction. Infatuation. Tragic love. Give in to the epic romance of opera at the Met.”

This was a season ad. No naming of stars, opera (Eugene Onegin), or composer (Tchaikovsky). A hot flash of branding.

Not counting an elementary school trip to Madama Butterfly at the Bushnell in Hartford, Eugene Onegin was my first opera—at the Met, no less. I had skipped off to New York during my sophomore year of college, bought a standing-room ticket, and was led to an empty seat way up in the orchestra.

Still a cultural greenhorn, Met Titles far in the future, I had no idea what was going on. (A New York Times article about the first public demonstration of Met Titles, in 1995, noted that James Levine’s original position was that supertitles would be used “over my dead body.”) The woman next to me asked, “Do you like him?” I said, “Who?” “Lensky,” she said.

In the orchestra realm, three of the American Big Five held their season kickoffs last Thursday (Boston Symphony Gala, with soloist Augustin Hadelich, then Audra McDonald with the Boston Pops Swing Orchestra; Chicago, part of a Verdi celebration including tonight’s Symphony Ball; and Cleveland, with soloist Hélène Grimaud). Opening night for the other two is this Wednesday (New York, with soloist Yo-Yo Ma; and Philadelphia, with Anne-Sophie Mutter).

The reports of the death of the season, in other words, have been greatly exaggerated. Nonetheless, selling the season remains an uphill battle, with the first cannons fired before the prior season ends.  

For years, in some cases for decades, the percentage of concert and theater tickets sold to subscribers has been going down. And this shift in the balance between subscription sales and single-ticket sales would have been even more dramatic if the definition of a subscriber hadn’t been loosened. Instead of being required to buy a dozen performances, or eight, it is now a la-di-da landscape of Pick 4s, Pick 3s, and Flex Passes:

  • A Pick 4 Subscription offers many of the benefits of a Super Subscription, but with added flexibility. [Pittsburgh Dance Council]
  • You can mix Classical and POPS concerts to create your ideal ticket package. Plus, being a Pick 3 subscriber has rewards! [But…] You need to pick 4 or more concerts to be able to add tickets for ‘John Williams Joins Yo-Yo Ma’ to your order. [Houston Symphony]

There is a new à la carte culture out there, I know. We want choices, we want to customize, we want to decide on a whim. What we really, really don’t want is to be tied down.

Now that everyone who buys a ticket online has to register, and at least some information is collected from box office walk-ups if they pay with a card (getting a name, a mailing address, and an email address from those who pay in cash would be well worth the trouble), I’m happier about the growth in single-ticket sales. But I think we’re overdue for some positive thinking about seasons and subscriptions.

Remember the 80/20 rule? Roughly 80% of your business comes from 20% of your customers. The key is to over-deliver to your core audience. This is your subscriber base—or member base, when we’re talking about museums—and you shouldn’t be selling them with thousands of brochures, posters on phone booths, cold calls, or last-minute special offers.

Let’s try a little math, arts administrators. Say that you’re a 500-seat regional theater with a season of six productions, ten performances each. So your inventory is 500 x 6 x 10 = 30,000 seats. Eighty percent of your inventory is 24,000 seats, or 4,000 seats per production. Ideally, these seats will be purchased by 4,000 subscribers.

Since most subscriptions are two-seaters, you only have to convince 2,000 subscriber units, many of which are current customers. What does this mean for what you offer them, when, and how?

Meanwhile, you have 6,000 seats to fill through single-ticket sales, 1,000 for each of the six productions (though, again, it’s really 3,000 pairs, which can be reduced substantially by a successful group sales program).**

In next week’s post, I’ll apply this framework to the 2013-14 seasons of two Connecticut theater companies. Oh, yes, and return to my surfing analogy, despite the weather.

* Wikipedia: Originally, this referred only to the average color of the French mole.

** This ends up being 80/40 not 80/20. Go figure!

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