The Orchestra vs. the Phillies

Think outside the box (and other advice the Orchestra has ignored)

Stokowski and Mickey in 'Fantasia,' 1940: How to turn Disney fans into Orchestra fans.
Stokowski and Mickey in 'Fantasia,' 1940: How to turn Disney fans into Orchestra fans.

In the wake of its bankruptcy petition in April, the Philadelphia Orchestra acknowledged that its subscriber base had shrunk from a healthy 250,000 at the Academy of Music in 1989 to 150,000 today in Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center, and that half of that decline occurred in the past five years. At the same time, attendance at Phillies games has jumped from an average of 22,865 in the team's last four years at Veterans Stadium to 40,862 since Citizens Bank Park opened in 2004.

While pondering this conundrum, I discovered a little-known 2008 study in audience growth in which the Orchestra board had participated but which the board seems to have ignored.

The report, conducted by Oliver Wyman, one of the world's leading management consultancies cost $2 million and involved nine major orchestras: the Atlanta Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Los Angeles Symphony, New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Boston Symphony, Cleveland Symphony, Milwaukee Symphony and of course the Philadelphia Orchestra. These nine together provided a database of 545,000 concertgoers.

The first of the resulting published studies was presented in 2009 at the League of American Orchestras national conference in Chicago. A subsequent audio-visual version, titled "Churning Butter Into Gold" was presented at the League's 2011 conference in Minneapolis.

A "churner" or "trialist" was defined as "a customer who doesn't come back the following year." The survey concluded that these low-frequency patrons, who comprise about 39% of orchestra audiences, could eventually become loyal and regular patrons, given the right customer experience.

"It is all the more important," the survey said, "to graduate unconverted trialists to become core audiences because the core audience also generates the bulk of donations."

What patrons want

What most attracts all patrons is an orchestra's repertoire. But an enriching experience is vital as well. The Wyman study found that even single-visit patrons care a great deal about music information designed expressly for them, about ease of ticket exchange and hall access, and about the social experience (such as the ability to sit with friends and/or family, not to mention access to the bar at intermission). The bottom line, said the study, is the ability to provide a seamless beginning-to-end experience for potential patrons and unconverted trialists.

Thus when orchestras make so-called "killer offers" (like discount companion tickets and/or coupons for free drinks on a Saturday night), the loss in revenue is more than compensated by the presence of potential new patrons in seats that would have gone empty anyway.

The study went on to identify the favorite composers and solo categories of all those unconverted trialists. The top seven favorites, in order of preference, were Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Bach, Mahler, Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich. The favorite categories— all instrumentalists— were piano, violin and cello. (The orchestras' loyal core audiences expressed very similar tastes.)

"'It's not enough'

Why has the Philadelphia Orchestra board ignored or remained silent about a study that represents the best professional thinking for the future survival of American orchestras?

Jesse Rosin, the Orchestra League's president and CEO, discussing the Philadelphia Orchestra's bankruptcy in April, criticized the Philadelphians for their long-held belief that "if we're really, really good, and the Philadelphia Orchestra is off-the-charts fantastic, that everything will follow." He added: "Really, times have changed, and it's not enough." (Washington Times, April 18.)

The Orchestra League recognizes that orchestras must develop a stronger and stronger presence in their public communities if they are going to grow their audiences to profitability. To do this will probably require orchestra boards to do some out-of-the-box thinking.

Stokowski and Mickey


Remember, in 1940 Leopold Stokowski hooked up the Philadelphia Orchestra with Mickey Mouse in Walt Disney's Fantasia, to great commercial and artistic acclaim. By accompanying Disney's cartoon rendition of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Stokowski expanded the Orchestra's fan base and exposed the Philadelphia Sound to a future audience— children— in a manner that would have been impossible had the Orchestra limited its presence to concerts in the Academy of the Music (no matter how innovative and colorful those concerts might have been).

Because Stokowski went outside the box, Mickey Mouse fans became Philadelphia Orchestra fans. Like Leonard Bernstein after him, Stokowski took full advantage of the technology available to him in marketing his orchestra's music to the world.

What have the Phillies done to generate an audience in the past seven years that the Orchestra has failed to do? And why isn't this question the primary focus of the Orchestra's board?♦


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