Planet Orchestra

Last week, an article written by a college student in Cleveland began making its rounds on the social media circuits. It was titled “Orchestra May Face Uphill Battle Attracting Youth,” and recounted the experience of one boy and his expectations for a Cleveland Orchestra concert. That it was well-written and easy to relate to was not the most disturbing part of the piece – it was that he is exactly right and not alone. Parker Perry described his intentions to attend with friends or a date, the ease with which he purchased student tickets, and the pleasant interactions he had with other audience members and staff at Severance Hall. But more importantly, he wrote that despite his best efforts, he did not enjoy himself.

Mr. Perry is not alone in his demographic: young, educated individuals with limited funds and even more limited time deciding – for one reason or another – that orchestra attendance is not for them.  In fact, many middle-aged people with steady incomes and established community roots are also arriving at the same conclusion, and it is terrifying professional orchestra associations nationwide. Even with discounted rush tickets, Young Friends promotions, special sales, and other marketing initiatives, attendance at orchestra concerts is low and falling, especially considering younger patrons.

Every orchestra in the country is trying to find an answer to the “why” of this problem, and while all acknowledge that orchestras must compete for audiences in an increasingly complex and diversified marketplace, none know the “how” of a solution.  There is probably no single answer. Music has been a big part of my life for as long as I can remember, and now that my career is closely tied with the success of performing ensembles I am especially concerned with audience development. As a result, I have a few of my own suggestions to throw into the ring. Since my experience with professional orchestras is most closely tied to Philadelphia, my figures and suggestions are all tailored to fit The Philadelphia Orchestra and the Kimmel Center. You heard these here first:

Orchestra Happy Hour

Inspired by the culture of performing arts attendance at European venues, the Orchestra Happy Hour would be a program that makes orchestral concert attendance a more social event. Young people still see the orchestra concert as something of a “date night,” and drink promotions rarely fall flat. Handling fees through Ticket Philadelphia range from about $2-$15 depending on the type of ticket purchased and how that ticket makes it into the hands of a patron. While I’m not a fan of this additional charge, I wonder how many people would balk at an increase of $3-7 to the base price of a ticket to cover expenses of the happy hour program.

How it would work:

In partnership with the venue and restaurant vendor (if applicable), the orchestra would purchase glassware relative to their hall’s seating capacity. Glass champagne flutes from IKEA run about $.80 per glass, so $.88 x 2,500 seats at Verizon Hall = $2,200. At approximately $10/bottle when considering Cupcake Prosecco and 5 glasses per bottle, a fully-attended concert would require the bar to have 500 bottles on hand, or about $5,500 worth of bubbly.  Consider that some attendees are under the age of 21, others may not drink, and some might worry about the drive home. For those patrons, Sprite, Coke, ginger ale, Diet Coke, and root beer cans can also be available ($.88 per can in a 24-pack; 10 24-packs to serve 240 guests).  Startup cost would run $7,910 (or $3.17pp with a full house, $5.28pp at 60% capacity), but factoring in breakage of almost 500 glasses per performance, those per-person costs are reduced to $2.50 for full capacity and $4.20 at 60% full.

At intermission, present your ID to the bartender who will punch or stamp or rip your ticket, and receive your free beverage (limited to sparkling wine, soda, or water). Bartenders can have a number of flutes poured at the start of intermission so the process can go smoothly. This incentive can get people out of their seats and into the lobby to meet other people who share their musical interests, other people who came alone, or friends seated in a different section. The bar can also be open to purchase other food or drinks at regular prices for people who don’t like sparkling wine and soda. By indulging in the already-accepted idea that concert attendance is a special event, this small incentive can also remind concertgoers of all ages that a trip to the orchestra is also a social event that can be fun even if you don’t much care for the music. Happens in clubs all the time, right?

What could go wrong:

-Broken glasses – Glassware will always break. If management is concerned about the cost of excessive breakage, perhaps factor in an additional $1 into the price and either absorb that cost regardless of the outcome, give it as tips or additional payment to the restaurant group partnering in the event, or give it back to the customers when they return their glass (the way the Vienna food festival at the Rathausplatz works every summer).

-Guests unhappy with drink selections – Since this cost was covered in the ticket prices, not sold as a separate “drink ticket,” guests who complain about sparkling wine and soda being the only options don’t have much of a leg to stand on. Free drink or no free drink?

-Concerns about driving home after the concert – One appropriately-sized glass of sparkling wine should not impair even the smallest adult if consumed 45 minutes or more before driving. Furthermore, standard liquor laws should be upheld in that this free drink would not be given to a visibly intoxicated individual.

-Laws about giving “free” liquor – Pennsylvania’s liquor laws permit businesses to “give to or purchase for consumers one standard-size alcoholic beverage in retail licensed premises, provided the giving of the alcoholic beverage is not contingent upon the purchase of any other alcoholic beverages and is limited to one standard-sized alcoholic beverage per patron in any such offering.” In this case, a standard-sized wine offering defined as a 4oz pour.

-Longer intermissions necessary – So be it. If your patrons require more time in the lobby to finish any additional drinks they may have purchased (since they aren’t allowed back into the hall), it may be necessary to extend intermission by a few minutes. If this means programming a longer work on the first half, maybe that will also entice people to arrive on time for the concert so as not to miss the top-billed work. I am not suggesting that the concert run time be extended as this could run into financial problems with musician overtime. Rather than call it an intermission, orchestras who wish to experiment with mini-concerts (such as offered by the New World Symphony), could use this incentive to get one audience out of the seats and another one in.


Surprise POPS!

It seems that the vast majority of people enjoy hearing popular music of one type of another. When considering orchestra patrons and other fans of classical music, the extent to which they enjoy hearing live performances of popular music might not be great enough to lead them to see the Philly Pops or themed orchestra programs. Orchestral musicians are often the most vocal in their distain of popular music on an orchestra program, partly because popular music does not reflect the ideal art form, partly because popular music is not what they found inspirational when devoting their lives to their instruments, and partly because they don’t believe that the artistry that is sacrificed when programming popular works equals the revenue drawn in by POPs ticket sales. So what’s the solution? Surprise POPS!

How it would work:

When devising programs for the concert season, the artistic team can select popular themes to explore each month to be marketed to the public on the “Surprise POPS” premise. For example, the month of October could be Halloween, November: Broadway, December: Ballet, January: Latin, February: Jazz, March: Rock, April: TV & Movies, etc. At each concert, the orchestra would devote 5-10 minutes to one of these themes at varying places in the program (some nights it might be the first selection, others it might be the last or encore).

This would require forethought in programming only in that the usual 105ish minutes of classical music programmed on a concert would be cut down to 95ish minutes with not other changes. Each night, a different popular selection would be performed so that no two performance offerings are alike. In terms of money, an initiative such as this one should only cost $250 per week at most since the average price for a full orchestra arrangement of popular works ranges from $55-75 per set through companies like JW Pepper, and it wouldn’t be necessary to rehearse the music beforehand. Other scores might already exist in an orchestra’s library.


What could go wrong:

Not much. People could be upset that they missed their “favorite” popular work that was performed on a Thursday night program instead of the Friday afternoon program they had tickets to. Die-hard classical fans might resent the addition of non-classical, low-art music to the concert, but ticket revenue might offset these complaints. Marketing might be more expensive because the orchestra now markets individual months rather than yearly subscriptions, but individual concert marketing is always a consideration in the budget. Complaints might come in that the orchestra is playing the same music that someone’s kids are playing in high school for their pops concerts…and they might be. Arrangements intended for high school orchestras are perfect for this situation and might be a nice way to inspire kids to play their school ensemble music at a higher level.

The extra 5-10 minutes out of the classical portion of the program might have negative effects on concert selections, but it could also open up more possibilities to artistic directors who may have been unable to program certain works because they were always either too short or too long on the program as a whole.


All-in-One App

Most of the major symphonies these days have an app available for use on smartphones, and each of these apps have varying degrees of interesting content, useful material, and accessibility. The Philadelphia Orchestra launched their own app in 2013 which allowed fans and followers to view video excerpts from the orchestra’s upcoming season, watch videos about upcoming offerings, and purchase tickets. Suffice to say, it looked nice but wasn’t too brilliant. It wasn’t very user-friendly, didn’t have many multimedia offerings compared to other orchestras of their caliber, offered only a small, grainy seating chart when purchasing tickets, didn’t offer virtual tickets, and could not show a patron’s history of purchases. In short, its creators missed the big picture.

An orchestra like The Philadelphia Orchestra needs to recognize that investment of time and money into the development of an All-in-One App is crucial in today’s world where every successful business has a mobile version of itself that people like to use. An All-in-One App should have:

  • Virtual tickets – no printing out tickets, no box office fees. Perhaps link to Passbook to put concert tickets in the same place as other purchases.
  • Interactive Seating Chart – like a Google Maps street view, patrons should be able to see what it looks like to sit in the seat they’re considering before purchasing it
  • Push notifications – for special events, promotions, partner coupons and discounts, fun facts about upcoming shows that the user has tickets to. Send push notifications an hour or so before Community Rush Tickets open for sale with the number available.
  • Digital downloads – whether it be through iTunes, or the orchestra’s own website, allow patrons to purchase that orchestra’s recordings at any time through the app. Did you like the concert you just heard? This orchestra recorded the same work in x year with x conductor – download it now for a 20% discount with your ticket purchase!
  • Radio Stream – if the local NPR station broadcasts recordings of that orchestra, allow fans and followers to listen through their device app rather than going to the radio’s website
  • LiveStream – So much happens before a concert! Livestream parts of rehearsal or the Pre-Concert Lecture so people can get hyped. Can’t come to the concert? Why not pay $5 and have access to the LiveStream of the performance through the app?
  • Program notes & artist bios – Make these available on the app a few days before the performances
  • Social Media Link – Put all social media surrounding the orchestra in one place so fans can see posts from the official account, musicians’ account(s), Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and hashtags for the organization and specific performance.
  • Link to Calendar – Want to know when the orchestra will play another concert featuring x composer, x soloist, x conductor, etc? Want to know about family concerts or community offerings as soon as they’re planned? Link to your calendar!
  • Concert Survey/Feedback – The app just saw that you scanned in your ticket for tonight’s concert. At the end of the concert, the app will prompt this user to answer a few brief questions about their experience.
  • Donate Now – A button on the homepage of the app for very small donations which is linked to any payment that a customer authorized for use by the app at one time or another. $1, $3, $5, or “More” buttons.
  • Games! GAMES. – Simon, Aero Guitar Hero, Chrimbell, TapTap Revenge. ANY FREE music-related game.
  • Ticket Incentives – If you purchased 4 tickets at regular price during the regular season, your app will log 4 vouchers for kids under 10 to get into lawn seating at your summer location for free. Frequent attendance incentives can also be tracked, and people can receive rewards such as invitations to orchestra musician meet and greets, open rehearsals, etc.


And finally, my prized possession when it comes to marketing ideas:

Planet Orchestra

I listened to a Planet Money podcast that was all about how Planet Fitness makes its money. The host gives an introduction:

“Most businesses would close if their customers never showed up. An empty restaurant – disaster. An empty store – bankruptcy. But here, among the mirrored walls, rubber mats and elliptical trainers, emptiness equals success. Today on the show, the mind games that gyms play with you. From design to pricing to free bagels, gyms want to be this product that everyone buys but no one actually uses.”

The difference here, of course, is that I WANT orchestras to be the product that everybody buys AND actually uses, but basing your business model on customers not showing up might solve the problem of poor concert attendance.

The premise is that Planet Fitness sells many more memberships than its locations can support, but those memberships are sold at a very affordable cost along with the psychology that belonging to a gym might make you a better, more fit, person. The Planet Fitness on the Upper West Side of Manhattan can hold 300 of its 6,000 members at one time, but those 6,000 members pay $10/mo whether they come or not. And despite such high membership numbers per location, it is rare to walk into a Planet Fitness that has no machines available for use.

In any given season, orchestra attendance fluctuates but rarely reaches full capacity. A hall like Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia has a capacity of about 2,500 seats. Concerts that sell 95% of their available tickets for a series of 3 concerts leaves about 125 seats unfilled (or about 40 seats per concert). Unfortunately for orchestras, 95% of tickets sold is neither an accurate snapshot of the number of tickets scanned in at the door nor an average sales number. The more accurate percentage hangs closer to 75% (or, for Verizon Hall, 625 unsold tickets per 3-concert series – about 200 unfilled seats per night). Factor in 100 EZSeatU students, and that average goes down to approximately 100 unfilled seats per night. In the case of Philadelphia, since PECO Power Hour (Community Rush) tickets are actually purchased – for $10 – they do not constitute another deduction from the unsold ticket number. This is where Planet Orchestra comes in.

How it works:

Much like EZSeatU and other student rush ticket programs, the Planet Orchestra program would function as a membership club with an annual fee, except this one is open to patrons of all ages, and the annual fee is broken down as a recurring monthly charge to a credit card. Members would receive a key fob (something akin to your pharmacy or supermarket rewards card which they can also link to their phone’s Passbook) that would function as their ticket each visit.

For $25, billed monthly to your credit card, and no startup fee, memberships would offer a rush ticket to every concert all year on a first-come, first-served basis. At $300/year and, say, 40 weeks of concerts, that comes out to less than $8/ticket (if you only attend ONE performance per week).

Did you use your membership to see a concert and got to sit in a section you absolutely loved? Use your membership card to purchase a single ticket for any performance at a discounted of 20% or more.

Depending on the popularity of the program, local businesses might offer discounts to customers with Planet Orchestra membership cards. The orchestra itself can also offer incentives for patrons to sit in different locations and experience music at different places in the hall by providing a type of “Hall Passport” – a card that ushers can punch or stamp when patrons sit in the balcony, on the orchestra level, first or second tier, etc. Members who visit the orchestra in all locations can be entered in drawings for small prizes, coupons, or discounts.

If only 50 people became Planet Orchestra members, that is equal to $1,250/mo or $15,000/year before the cost of the key fob, and based on average ticket sales these 50 people might be able to attend every single performance given by the orchestra in a given year (at a cost of less than $4 per concert to the member). Those numbers increase to $3,750/mo and $45,000/yr if membership numbers rise to 150, and many of those 150 will still have access to weekly concerts if average sales do not significantly increase.

The catch:

First-come, first-served is just that. Planet Orchestra members would file into seats just before the start of the performance the way students currently get their rush tickets. When seats are full, they’re full. Depending on sales, this might mean that 50 people get seats or it might mean that 300 people get seats. A limited number of seats (determined in coordination with the house management staff who can more accurately attest to how many patrons arrive late each night) should be set aside in the event of late arrivals — in which case the Planet Orchestra member would be relocated, just as in the EZSeatU program. Ushers will have to deal with long lines in the lobby and more time being spent seating guests at the last minute.

Single tickets must be priced much higher per concert to account for one-time purchases. Tickets that might have ranged from $20-127 per concert might now cost $50-$250 for those single purchases. This way, if you absolutely want to come to a single concert and want to be guaranteed a seat, you can. If you’re traveling from out of town and won’t be back for the rest of the season, you don’t need to be a Planet Orchestra Member. No more community rush tickets.

The same subscription offers still exist (for the same prices) for patrons who desire specific seats or guaranteed admission; however, subscriptions are not available for fewer than 3 concerts.

This would NOT qualify for the previously-mentioned Orchestra Happy Hour. Only paper tickets could be presented for the free drink incentive.



So what do you think? Would any of these work?



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