The price was right

One of the most damaging misconceptions about orchestras is that we raise money because we don’t make enough on ticket sales to cover the total expense of the concerts. The reality is very little of the fixed expenses of orchestras is covered by ticket sales, which typically cover, at most, the marginal expenses of putting on concerts.

The underlying truth about non-profits is that, as they don’t make a profit by selling things, they can charge whatever they like for their product. That doesn’t mean that people will pay what is charged. But it does mean that non-profits have considerable flexibility when pricing their products and can do so with an eye on more than the financial bottom line.

A post a few weeks ago on ticket pricing in St. Paul discussed how that orchestra had increased attendance, and lowered marketing costs, by dropping ticket prices substantially. Last weekend, my own orchestra took this experiment quite a bit further:

Over the years, the MSO has found it difficult to sell tickets for its concert on the Friday after Thanksgiving, but the season calendar, based in part on when the Marcus Center’s Uihlein Hall is available, requires the orchestra to perform that day.

So the symphony told Journal Sentinel readers in a full-page advertisement Nov. 14 that it wanted to give back “to a community that simply loves music” by giving two free tickets to Friday’s concert and inviting them to call.

The MSO set aside a possible 1,000 tickets. It has given away 1,002, said Susan Loris, vice president of marketing and communication. Most of those were snapped up in the first few days after the ad appeared.

“People were thrilled with the offer,” she said.

It’s worth noting that the concert in question was a subscription program with chorus, popular repertoire, and the Music Director conducting.

At first glance, this might look like a typical case of “papering the house.” I don’t think it was; it was promoted as a community service, got good PR for the orchestra, and no doubt the marketing department collected contact information in exchange for the tickets.

But what’s most interesting to me is that, just for the price of a newspaper ad, we nearly filled the house on a historically bad night to be giving a concert. And if you think (as I do) that the mission of orchestras is playing live music to audiences, rather than selling tickets, we did a lot better job of fulfilling our mission that night than we often do.

True, we didn’t make a dent into fixed expenses by doing so – but that’s why we fundraise. We wouldn’t have made a dent into fixed expenses if we hadn’t given the tickets away either.

So when you read that orchestras give too many concerts for the marketplace to support, remember that one of the assumptions built into that assertion is the notion that orchestra tickets have to be expensive. They don’t.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

Leave a Reply