How much would you pay to listen to good music?

“I’m a cellist and I’ve played in orchestras all my life,” Blake-Anthony Johnson, president and CEO of the Chicago Sinfonietta, said recently. “I used to ask the other musicians, ‘How much is the most you would pay for your ideal gig?’ And it was nowhere near what our customers actually pay.”

Johnson was describing a slow-moving crisis in the performing arts: Ticket prices have risen much more precipitously than most Americans’ earnings, not to mention the seductively low cost of in-home streaming services.

This increase does not only affect short-term sales. It also affects the long-term health of arts organizations, which depend on the philanthropic support of patrons who have often established close relationships with the objects of their donations.

“I have long been concerned that ticket prices present a barrier to curious newcomers and a barrier to enticing regular attendance,” said Marc Scorca, president and CEO of trade organization Opera America, noting that that kind of habit can lead to giving later.

“High ticket prices are a disincentive to experimentation and raise the bar of expectation,” he added. “And the higher the price, the less likely expectations are to be met, leading to disappointment.”

It is axiomatic: high ticket prices are barriers at a time when organizations need their doors to be increasingly open. And reliance on ticket sales also hampers innovation in programming. (In Europe, where arts institutions sometimes receive substantial public subsidies, ticket sales make up a much smaller percentage of budgets, so arts decisions don’t have to prioritize attendance.)

But could new ticketing approaches work to increase access and encourage more adventurous programming?

“Removing socioeconomic barriers is one of those things that we have to get ahead of,” said Johnson, whose Chicago Sinfonietta introduced a pay-what-you-can approach to ticketing last season. “I sleep very well at night, for someone to say: ‘I can take my family to these concerts'”.

Experimentation in this area has been spreading in the world of theater. More recently, Ars Nova, the prominent incubator of Off Broadway, announced that it would be moving to a pay-what-you-want model for the upcoming season.

In classical music, this kind of initiative has been much rarer, with the Sinfonietta taking the lead recently. But a much larger and more influential institution, Lincoln Center, issued a challenge this summer, when it made the short-lived Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra pick what it pays for.

The results were encouraging. According to the center, 90.5 percent of tickets were sold for the concerts, which took place at Alice Tully Hall, as the orchestra’s usual venue, the larger David Geffen Hall, was undergoing renovations.

Suggested ticket price was $35, but the average payout was just over $19, compared to nearly $60 during the orchestra’s 2019 season, when face value ranged from $35 to $90. Sixty-three percent of Mostly Mozart ticket buyers this summer were new to a Lincoln Center performance (although perhaps not to the center’s components, like the Metropolitan Opera or the New York Philharmonic).

Of course, many institutions have reduced-price tickets available for students or seniors, or for last-minute buyers. And increasingly, some have subscription programs that make the cheapest tickets available for a monthly or annual fee. But those programs effectively penalize newcomers and casual ticket buyers. And what about those who are not students or seniors but still challenged by rising prices?

“It seems very strange to me that we subsidize tickets for young people and seniors,” Johnson said. “There is a very large group of people in the middle. What I am suggesting is that we have the kind of relationship with the community where we are a public service and we want to be a part of their life, regardless of whether they are giving us money.”

As Renee Blinkwolt, executive director of production at Ars Nova, told The New York Times when the company’s new pricing policy was unveiled in August: “It’s not based on income, it’s not based on age, it’s not based on age.” there is a demographic base. It is radically accessible: the doors are wide open for everyone to pay what they want”.

The rise of dynamic pricing, in which ticket prices fluctuate based on demand, is spreading beyond the world of commercial theater. This can help maximize the income of institutions when they are successful.

But it can also hurt the audience and the long-term fate of the presenters. Fans are likely to be less likely to buy tickets at the last minute, when in a dynamic pricing situation they will be more expensive. Therefore, relative newcomers will be disproportionately the ones who will have to pay a premium, when they should be the most diligent recipients of discounts. (For this reason, the Metropolitan Opera did not employ dynamic pricing during its successful run of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” last season.)

The obvious solution would be for institutions to simply lower prices systematically, without expecting users to search websites for special ticketing programs or know how to game the dynamic pricing system.

One way to lower prices is to remove ticket revenue as a factor in the budget. Yes, that sounds extreme: When Emilee Syrewicze, CEO of Opera Grand Rapids in Michigan, told her board earlier this year that her company was headed in that direction, there was a bit of a panic.

“His first thought was, we’re not selling tickets anymore,” Syrewicze said.

However, what he was imagining was something different. Syrewicze had realized that the company’s ticket sales, like many small and medium-sized institutions, generated only a small portion of the budget: in the case of Opera Grand Rapids, about 15 percent. He also saw that the company was constantly lacking a consistent source of income to direct towards new projects and new works.

What if, he thought, the opera house reorganized its finances and increased its fundraising to compensate, so that all the money from ticket sales went to creative programming? In other words, as she put it: “What if we had a couple hundred thousand lying around?”

When he explained to the board that the company wasn’t just removing ticket revenue, but was planning to put it into other shows, and that the change would happen gradually over a few years, starting this fall, members calmed down.

“The panic was only momentary,” Syrewicze said with a laugh.

In Grand Rapids, the goal is not to lower prices, which are already cheap and addressed by various accessibility programs. But other organizations could use the same strategy as a model for price reduction: If ticket revenue doesn’t matter, tickets can be cheaper.

Small or medium-sized institutions may find it easier to experiment, because if changes in ticket strategy are going to work without cutting budgets, donations will need to increase to fill the gap. That said, smaller organizations also tend to have less fundraising prowess; The Stavros Niarchos Foundation supported the Mostly Mozart pilot program this summer, and Syrewicze and his new director of development are confident that their city, which has a remarkably strong philanthropic history, will support their experiment.

But it is still a gamble and requires a rethinking of the entire organization around the goal of lowering prices.

For larger companies that sell more tickets, and those that still see ticket sales as a larger percentage of their budgets, the losses and increased pressure on fundraising might not be viable. And as Johnson pointed out, the very configuration of most concert halls, at hierarchical levels, resists truly democratic approaches to pricing.

But Lincoln Center has shown that even the largest organizations can at least experiment in this area, embracing the radical accessibility espoused by Ars Nova and opening the door to broader audiences while providing inspiration for the rest of the field.

There is still work to be done. Syrewicze said she didn’t know of any other organizations doing truly creative thinking in the pricing area, although a couple of her colleagues approached her to find out more after she presented what she was working on in Grand Rapids at a meeting of Opera America.

“They liked the sound of it, but we like the sound of a lot of things,” he said. “The way things translate to a budget is totally different. Because of our size and because we stay skinny, we feel comfortable experimenting with this.”

Of course, even if ticket prices came down, it wouldn’t solve all the problems faced by orchestras and opera companies looking to grow their audiences and secure their donor bases.

“When we talk about people who haven’t been to the opera in general, price is not the only barrier,” Scorca said. “We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that lower ticket prices will make people totally comfortable. But it is a powerful, tangible and identifiable barrier.”

Still, it would be unfortunate if the fact that lowering prices doesn’t fix everything prevents it from solving anything.

“Let’s see what happens,” Scorca added. “It doesn’t have to be all or nothing in an experimental mindset.”

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