Fixing the Subscription model

It’s that time of year again.

Spring and early summer is the time for music organizations to send out their subscription notices announcing their upcoming concert season.  I receive flyers from the LA Phil, Chamber Orchestra, Opera, etc. — basically every organization I have bought a ticket to in the last five years (even those halfway across the country).  The emails keep coming too.  “Check out our exciting new season,” they say.  But in all of them the only option for tickets is the expensive subscription package.  And after receiving each one, I look at them, sigh to myself, and think, “What a waste of paper.”

I never subscribe to any ticket series, and I’m a music lover — I look at the concert season to see what I want to attend, and then just buy tickets to those events.  Last year, for instance, I really wanted to see Dudamel conduct the Rite of Spring after hearing this recording, so I bought a single ticket and went.  That’s what I did when attending the LA Chamber orchestra performances as well.  It has never occurred to me to be a season subscriber for any organization.  It can’t be just me who never considers subscriptions, can it?

There are three main reasons I don’t, and I imagine many others feel the same:
1)  Specific tastes:  I want to hear the pieces/performers I want and don’t want to be forced to hear a program I’m not particularly interested in (for example, Beethoven #2 instead of Beethoven #1).

2)  Schedule:  I have no idea right now if I’m going to be free on April 17, 2014 to book my concert.  Even if there’s a concert I’m interested in, I’m probably going to wait and see.

3)  Price:  I love hearing live performances, and I have all that I need financially, but I’m still hesitant about plunking down hundreds of dollars at the start of the season, especially in light of points 1 and 2 above.

I think most people have those same concerns about buying a subscription, which is why most subscribers are mostly rich/retired individuals with predictable schedules.  But I think people need to realize that the subscription model is fading away.

I don’t mean to say that the subscription model is going away completely — it won’t.  Supporters point out that it has a lot of great things going for it; organizations get their money up front at the start of the season, they get to fill seats for their less sought after programs (Schōnberg and Webern), and cultivate a wealthy clientele to be active participants in your universe.  You certainly don’t want to push your strongest supporters into being one-ticket ponies, so you will always keep subscriptions for them.  And if you are a small organization and have three performances a year, then you have a large portion of your audience who might be interested in a package deal.

But what I think people fail to realize abou the subscription model is that while it brings in support from your biggest fans, it alienates others. Most individuals not only don’t buy subscriptions, but they never even consider attending a performance.  Why not?  It’s not just money — people spend hundreds of dollars every night at Lakers games, clubs, and U2 concerts.

First, people have busy social lives and schedules.  They don’t want to belong to bowling leagues, go to the same restaurant every weekend, or vacation at the same resort every year.  So the idea of a 12-concert subscription, even if heavily discounted, is not what most people are looking for.

I also think people look at the culture of art music — stuffy clothes, dry martinis, and hushed silence — and say to themselves, “I’m not like that.  I don’t like that.”  It’s a corollary to what Virginia Postrel says in her book The Substance of Style.  Because music organizations play to their subscribers who regularly attend, they cater to those who are “in the know” about music.  Those who are not familiar with the experience feel left out.

Orchestras, musical organizations, and many people who are smarter than I are aware of this, of course.  So are sports teams, which have largely relied on season tickets as their core revenue model.

I think, however, that music organizations need to migrate to a Long Tail approach to selling tickets.  This is essentially the idea that instead of getting a small group to attend all of your performances, you cast a wider net to get everybody to attend a few (there’s a better description here).  If you actually got each member of a city to attend just one concert, you’d easily sell out.  I think there is more room for success by going in that direction.

Getting away from the subscription model means more than just changing a few flyers.  You would have to rethink your whole performance philosophy.  Subscription concerts try to balance audience favorites with “duds,” good works that people are less interested in (think Schōnberg’s innovative Five Orchestral Pieces paired with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony).  That way you spread out the “duds” across the whole season and your subscribers know they’re going to get something they like on the program each time.

But these programs like don’t get audiences very excited.  Most audience members will be disappointed that they have to sit through Schōnberg just to hear Beethoven.  And there will be a few souls who love the originality of Schōnberg and don’t want to hear Beethoven 5 for the millionth time.

So instead of balancing concerts, a long tail model would seek out pockets of specialized interest.  Have an all-Beethoven program one week and a modern, avant-garde program the next.  They will attract different audiences and everybody will be happier.  You can also spread your programming out through a season.  The LA Phil has had great success with their Mahler Project where they did all of Mahler’s symphonies.  A number of years ago the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra did all of Beethoven’s symphonies during its season and it was also successful.  You could do Brahms’s four symphonies over two weeks, or a Baroque night, or a “Classical Hits from the Movies” night.  Orchestras already do some of this and I think they are finding there is more interest when they “unbalance’ their programs.

Music critics may say that this approach will mean that the modern, edgy repertoire will be performed less often.  I agree that it’s easier to sell a concert with Dvorak and Tchaikovsky on the program than Webern and Penderecki, and organizations may need to cater more to “crowd favorites” like Bolero or John Williams to generate more revenue.  However, I’d rather have that than have 97% of people not attending our concert halls, which is our current situation.  New music fans are out there, and by branding an annual New Music Festival in an orchestra’s season, they can still program contemporary music.

I have two other ideas that can also cultivate the Long Tail:

1)  The Culture Pass.  What if orchestras teamed up with local museums, sports teams, theatres, and had an annual cultural pass?  For $400, you got a ticket to one of each event every year.   You would need to provide some discount off of the face value for each ticket.  They make a great anniversary gift or holiday gift, and citizens can feel like they are participants in their community for one low annual price.   Organizations still get some of their money up front, and people who may not be as interested in your specific organization are now coming in the door.  Depending on how much breakage there is (unused tickets) from each pass, you could discount heavily (or even oversell in some cases).

2)  Promo Nights.  Sure, it sounds corny to give away trinkets at something so civilized as a musical performance, but the right promotion could really get people talking and generate more sales.  I might not be interested in a LA Phil keychain, but a Gustavo Dudamel bobblehead will certainly pique my interest.  Or what about a program with works all written in the 1980s and asking the audience to dress up in their best 1980s attire?  Or what if your orchestra tickets got you two tickets to a baseball game or a discount at an amusement park?

These are not fully formed ideas, but I think music organizations need to start heading in this direction.  Leave your thoughts in the comments or send me an email!


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I saw this picture below online and thought it was amusing.  Sometimes I’ve felt the same way as a choral singer.  I spend time practicing a difficult musical line and sing it musically only to realize after hearing a recording that nobody could ever possibly heard the bass section at that time.


A cute video on what to do when things go wrong during a performance, which they inevitably do.  A little bit of poise goes a long way.


A helpful post from Jeff Tillingham on how to store and move big audio/video files.  I just used WeTransfer recently and it works great!  Of course there’s always my referral link to Dropbox.