An engaged, enthusiastic, and diverse audience is one of the strongest standards for justifying an orchestra's value. During my years as a violinist in various orchestras around the country, I have witnessed audiences lose their enthusiasm for live concerts and turn their backs to orchestras as the result of behavior from those inside the ensemble.
The last two months I covered how music directors and musicians alienate audiences, and this month's article will focus on managers. Unlike the previous two groups, managers are somewhat different in that they are not as visible to concert goers. However, they just as much if not more influence on how audience members experience a concert so out-of-sight, out-of-mind doesn't really apply here. As such, here's a step-by-step guide managers can use to identify the problems along with some practical advice on how to avoid the traps.
1) Practice the blame game.
If ticket sales and/or donations are down make sure you blame any one of the following: the economy, a hurricane, competition from sports, lack of music education in schools, or the city's new parking tax. Be creative and mix and match; it doesn't matter if they are true or not because in the end, your problems can always be traced to an external source that is beyond your control and the organization will have to weather the storm. After all, you're working hard so you must be doing everything right.
Just like any business, orchestras suffer from a variety of outside problems at one time or another one or all of the listed problems. At the same time, every successful business looks inward to identify problems before looking outward.
There's no denying that being an orchestra manager is a tough job and it is loaded with hard work. But effort and achievement don't always go hand in hand (or nearly every musician coming out of school would win an audition) and transferring the blame from internal to external forces only serves to amplify problems. Unfortunately, this attitude encourages existing patrons to give up on the orchestra and scares potential audience members away since the act of blaming external forces also gives them a sense of invulnerability.
2) Take credit for everything.
This is a special and important skill to hone. Any complement from a patron is your window of opportunity. Simply walk the patron through the step by step process on how you made everything possible. Make sure they know you were the one that hired the maestro, you were the one that insisted on Brahms instead of Beethoven, and you were the one that found the donations to bring the super star artist in. It doesn't matter if you were directly or indirectly responsible for any of these accomplishments because without you and the other managers, none of what the patron heard would have happened.
There is a fine line between gracefully accepting a complement and not. Audience members may complement a manager for a fine concert experience, and that complement should be received with gratitude that the concert experience was enjoyed. Otherwise, orchestras are like any other performance based offering; it's all about the artists and you should always find ways to help build a connection between the audience members and artists.
Going one step more, good managers will relay compliments they receive from patrons to specific musicians after the show date. Increasing the interaction, even if it is only second-hand, will build a better concert environment and in turn, encourage interaction between those on stage and those in the audience.
3) Beg relentlessly.
Everyone knows nonprofit organizations struggle, but be sure to remind your public just a bit more. There are several options, but the best way to catch attention is right when the concert is scheduled to start. Don't forget: the longer you talk, the more your point will sink in.
Yes, orchestras need to beg for cash during concerts from time to time but those should be very limited in number and restricted to short and graceful requests. I can't recall the number of times I've invited friends to a concert only to have a manager go on begging for dollars before the concert. Afterward, many of my friends mention that it felt more like a PBS beg-o-thon than a concert and as a paying ticket buyer, it made them feel uncomfortable and unappreciated.
4) Don't waste sincerity on anyone but the largest donors.
It is never crucial to say "Thank You" or even to show appreciation for anyone but the largest donors. Make donors realize that in order for them to receive acknowledgement beyond a basic thank-you form letter, they have to give big bucks. In any case, if they are satisfied with being listed among the hundreds of other low figure donors in program books and the website, then they don't deserve any other attention. When you come across a donor who you know could have - no, should have - donated more, simply curl your lips up ever-so-slightly and nod a generic approval. If you really want to send the message home, go the opposite route and offer gushing thanks laced with near-palpable levels of insincerity. Special note: don't let this stop you from engaging in your duties from Point #3; after all, you have to cultivate big donors from somewhere).
Of course, big donors deserve special attention but every gift adds up and if the 2008 Presidential elections demonstrated anything, it is that small gifts can make the difference between winning and losing. Each donation deserves sincere thanks beyond form letters and email blasts. Whether it is a hand written note, or a personal email, a sincere thank you acknowledges you understand even the smallest commitment and keeps audience members coming back and feeling good about being a part of the organization.
5) Ticket prices, schmicket prices.
You can charge whatever you feel like for concert tickets. Never forget that this is the highest form of art and the higher the ticket prices, the more valuable your product is. If ticket sales go down simply raise prices again to cover the losses. Ultimately, this will provide you with audience members who truly understand how great this art really is.
Ticket prices are too high. Really, they're way too high. Even I – as the musician on stage creating the music – wouldn't pay what most orchestras are asking for tickets. The lack of sold out concerts should be a clue. Granted, orchestras need ticket revenue but squeezing it out of an increasingly smaller group of patrons isn't any way to build a future. The reality is that orchestras compete with every other form of live entertainment from sports events to movies so let's lower prices until we find a point where we have to turn people away instead of playing for a half full houses.
6) Only sit in the boxes.
Whether you're the top executive or department manager you should be seen in expensive seats alongside elite patrons. This allows everyone know you are a high class executive manager. During intermission, avoid average patrons by escaping to the donor lounge as this not only allows you to hobnob with important donors, it also keeps you from awkward conversation with the general public (see Point #4).
One of my favorite books is called "Secrets of Entertaining: Pamper Your Guests, Your Home, and Yourself" by Gail Greco. In the first chapter, one of the innkeeper's recommendations is to "Spend one night in your guest room to determine if the furniture is placed in the best arrangement. This offers clues to any missing amenities."
Orchestra managers would do well to take this advice to heart since to know their own "house" can only be achieved by experiencing as many parts of it as possible. Restricting attendance to box or other premium seats steals valuable information that might be collected during concerts. For example, can you hear the conductor speak without a microphone in the back of the hall? Is it easy for the ushers to seat late comers?
Of course, enjoying concerts with important donors must be in a box or expensive seats but when attending multiple performances of the same concert program, a manager can learn more about the hall and the overall concert experience by listening to a larger cross section of ticket buyers by experiencing the concert in the same environment. Who know, you might actually get to know some of them).
7) Ignore those that want to help.
Once in a while, a group of maverick patrons will get a wild idea that *they* have a surefire way of bringing in new ticket buyers/money/ideas to your symphony. These are always terrible ideas and getting entangled in them only takes time away from your ideas, which are undoubtedly better. In order to remain in control, redirect any incoming ideas to an entry level underling as a "special project" and continue doing what you have always done.
The reality is that patrons that feel strongly about bringing in fresh money and help putting butts in seats can be a huge asset. Although working with patron groups and volunteers almost certainly means increased work for managers, the benefits often outweigh the burden. Plus, allowing people to help builds community ownership and snubbing anyone that has something to offer only creates hurt feelings and damages community relations.
8) It's okay to phone it in.
Even though you earned a degree in music or just took years of private music lessons as a child, now that you have a job in an orchestra office, enjoyment of and passion for classical music is no longer necessary. After all, a job is a job and you're responsibility is to get your job done. After many years of service, it's acceptable to just punch in, collect your paycheck, and go home. Any passion you share or express will be a waste of your energy.
Patrons, especially regular ticket buyers, are very passionate about classical music and can detect blasé employees who are just phoning it in. An unenthusiastic box office employee or uninspired development officer can leave a bad taste in patron's mouths and it only takes one bad experience to drive a ticket buyer away for the rest of their lives.
9) Air dirty laundry.
Sometimes it is refreshing to share how messy your job is. You can distribute tidbits to the press or give some details at a donor function. The choice is yours, and as soon as you share, the better you will feel. Say you have a nasty spat with the concertmaster of your orchestra, or a disagreement with the orchestras player's committee, you can allow yourself a pressure release by letting the saga out.
While your tale of a daring drama might be true, it is not any business of the audience. Your daily boxing matches with the guest artists might make for a great reality show on Fox, unless you are willing to sign on the dotted line with Rupert Murdoch, then keep your lips sealed.
10) Be a martyr.
People need to know just how hard your job is. Concert goers are apt to take everything for granted so go out of your way to make sure they are aware of all the obstacles you battled just to make the simplest concert happen.
Another gem from Greco's book is "Remember, the world isn't interested in the storms you have encountered, but rather, did you bring in the ship?" Audiences don't want to know how hard it was for you or the violinist on the third stand. All that matters is whether the music sounded good, they enjoyed the concert environment, had no issues getting to and from the concert, and leave with a strong desire to come back for more.
The last in this series, next month's article will look at how audience members alienate each other and what can be done to help avoid the most common problems.