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How to Entice People to Buy Symphony Tickets

• May 21, 2013 • 6:00 AM

(PHOTO: STOKKETE/SHUTTERSTOCK)

New research suggests that, contrary to common belief, ticket buyers are not particularly hostile toward contemporary compositions.

These are very tough times for America’s orchestras. Symphonies in some cities are facing bankruptcy, while others are contending with nasty labor disputes. Subscriptions—which once provided a reliable funding stream—are declining, with more and more concertgoers opting to buy single tickets.

Given those realities, a new analysis of what types of pieces lure people to a concert is of keen interest. In the June issue of the International Journal of Research in Marketing, Wagner Kamakura of Duke University and Carl Schimmel of Illinois State University use a sophisticated model to determine what it is audiences are willing to pay to see.

Less-popular works by famous composers such as Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky do not necessarily translate into higher attendance.

While some of their conclusions are expected, others are most decidedly not. Arguably the most striking: Contemporary music is not the turnoff to ticket-buyers that many conductors and administrators apparently believe.

The researchers found a modern work on the program has roughly the same impact on ticket sales as a lesser-known piece from the romantic era. This suggests exchanging the “risky” First Symphony of John Corigliano with the “safe” First Symphony of Brahms will have little or no impact on the bottom line.

Kamakura and Schimmel analyzed data from the American Symphony Orchestra League’s 2004-05 Orchestral Repertoire Report. It included information on 47 orchestras, all of which had a budget of more than $1.7 million.

They compared single-ticket sales with a number of factors, including day of the week, whether a star soloist was performing with the ensemble, whether the program contained works by several specific composers (including Beethoven and Mozart), whether a choral piece was performed, and whether the program included extremely popular works, as determined by “classical countdown” lists compiled by eight radio stations.

As expected, they found the presence of highly popular works, choral works and big-name soloists boosted sales. On the other side of the ledger, having a guest conductor in place of the music director “has a significant negative impact on occupancy.”

But many of their other conclusions were counterintuitive. They included:

• Less-popular works by famous composers such as Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky do not necessarily translate into higher attendance. (Mozart is the exception here; people are enticed by the thought of hearing even his lesser-known works.)

• Less-popular works written before 1900 have a stronger negative effect on occupancy than less-popular works from after the turn of the 20th century.

• Perhaps most surprisingly, contemporary music is “the only category of less-popular works that does not have a significant negative effect on single-ticket occupancy.”

The researchers admit they are not sure why modern pieces had greater appeal than expected, but they offered several plausible explanations.

“Contemporary works can allow for additional marketing possibilities (e.g., the composer is local, the work is about a contemporary figure, etc.),” they note. “Furthermore, recent trends in orchestral composition favor the incorporation of elements from rock and popular music, making contemporary music increasingly accessible to a broader public.”

Schimmel cautions that “Subscription ticket sales might show a very different pattern, and indeed there is reason to believe that subscribers have a different opinion of what is ‘popular,’ and also a different attitude toward contemporary music.” But, as noted previously, the subscription model is slowly eroding, meaning the tastes of single-ticket buyers are increasingly important.

So, orchestras needn’t be afraid of new music—especially if they program other concerts featuring traditional fare intelligently. Kamakura and Schimmel note that “occasional concertgoers are more likely to attend a program that has both a choral work and a very popular piece than a program that has only one or the other.”

On the other hand, “Including a star soloist on a program that already includes a choral work or a popular work will not significantly increase ticket sales,” they warn. So if you’re paying big bucks to bring in, say, Joshua Bell, you’d might as well have him perform a relatively obscure work; his star power will be sufficient to get people into the seats.

But if the soloist is a young, up-and-coming violinist or pianist, better to stick with a proven audience-pleaser like a Beethoven or Brahms concerto. Ideally, it’d be paired with a choral masterpiece.

Granted, results will undoubtedly vary from city to city. But given the financial situation so many orchestras find themselves in, this sort of information, gleaned from crunching numbers, could give struggling institutions a needed edge. Think of it as Mahler meets Moneyball.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

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