Cuts in musicians’ salaries are the order of the day, some voluntary — the BSO players to the tune of 12.5 percent in 2009 — others reluctantly, after difficult disputes. “The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra locked their musicians out for six months,” says Michael Henson, CEO of the Minnesota Orchestra. “They were able to negotiate a contract with a 19 percent reduction in pay. Indianapolis locked their musicians out; they negotiated a 32 percent reduction. The Atlanta lockout, they negotiated an 18 percent settlement. A lockout doesn’t mean you can’t negotiate.”
Spring for Music’s reflection of cost-cutting is in its ticket prices: a flat $25 for any ticket in the house. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra tried the same experiment in 2007-08 to counteract audience attrition. “It had a dramatic impact in attracting new people,” says Paul Meecham, the orchestra’s president and CEO. But few orchestras can afford to keep tiprices so low in a tough economic climate.
And neither, it turns out, can Spring for Music. The festival’s founders hoped that the idea would gain momentum and that another funder would step in after the initial seed money ran out. But like many innovations in the current climate, this good idea hasn’t proven economically viable. Even at $25, tickets for unusual, innovative programs by little-known orchestras are a hard sell — to audiences and potential funders. So next year, the festival’s fourth, will also be its last.
A new business model
Classical music no longer plays the same role in society that it did in, say, 1950, or even 1980, when Time magazine put Vladimir Horowitz on the cover. “Music has been marginalized from the central social and intellectual discourse,” says the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Borda.
People are not as willing to commit to going to hear concert music 12 or 14 times a year, and today’s lifestyle is less compatible with subscribing to the orchestra every Thursday night or Saturday afternoon. The traditional subscription model has long been crumbling. Orchestras have to work harder to reach more people, and they are getting more new audiences as a result. Of the 66,000 households that bought tickets to the New York Philharmonic last year, 38,000 — more than half — were new to the database, says David Snead, the orchestra’s vice president of marketing and communications. “It turns out that on any given night, something like 20 percent of the audience is there for the first time,” Snead says, adding, “The problem isn’t getting them, the problem is keeping them.” In fact, orchestras are reaching a lot more people than they used to: In the 2011-12 season, the Philharmonic reached more than twice as many households as the 33,030 that bought tickets in 2003-04. But the actual number of tickets sold was nearly the same: Each ticket-buyer went less often. “We have a much larger, but less committed base of attendees than in the past,” Snead says.