Get Your Priorities Straight, Buster

It’s good to hear from St. Petersburg Times critic John Fleming. I was starting to get worried that he might have been abducted while in Denver during the recent NPAC Convention—I heard he’s a sucker for promises of ice cream. Luckily, that’s not the case. He’s alive and well and back at the keyboard recalling a Denver lecture given by the CEO of Target Resource Group, Rick Lester.

The topic? Surviving a recession.

This ought to be good.

Rick Lester, CEO of Target Resource Group, an arts marketing consultant, had some pithy advice on setting priorities during hard times. These no doubt found resonance among the considerable Tampa Bay delegation, which included folks from the Florida Orchestra, Opera Tampa, Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and Sarasota Opera:

Ready for the advice?

1) The importance of opening night. "Most first-time subscribers,'' Lester said, "make a decision to renew or not renew based on the first performance they attend.''

Mmmm. Market research. Small sample sizes. Suspect methods.

Okay. But how do we cash in?

2) Focus on blockbusters. "You have to take care of your flagship productions — the Beethoven Nines — in tough times. Put your artistic risks at the end of the season, when you've already got the renewal money.''

So, fuck ‘em when they’re not looking. Perfect! They’ll never see it coming. (Sounds a little like Shawshank Redemption, doesn’t it?) But, first make sure to pocket the money.

Got it. Now who do we fuck over?

3) Market to the affluent. "People who buy expensive seats are always better prospects than those who buy less expensive seats.''

Geez. In tough times, you get to fuck everyone over! You’ll get to extract money from the wealthy and shun the poor. Sound business tactics, if you ask me. Pun intended.


Sator Arepo said...

Goodness gracious. Pander pander pander to the rich, fuck art--it's less important than money!

Ugh. Wish I hadn't just had lunch, now I feel ill.

Surviving a recession: offer a good product at a fair price. Right? No? Buy more Hummers?

We're fucked.

Empiricus said...

Here's a fun little summary using some of the original language, and my interpretation of the language (in brackets[]). Check out the slimy spin:

Market your flagship productions [i.e., greatest hits] to first-time subscribers [i.e., the naive and impressionable], who buy expensive seats [rich-people seats]--those people are always better [poor people are bad for business]. After you've taken your prospect's [sucker's] renewal money [the sucker's money for next year], then you can take artistic risks [try out an unproven commodity] later on in the season [when people have lost interest in the symphony, because the weather is better].

That kind of spin hit a new level of douchiness. Yuck.

Marc Geelhoed said...

Guys? Lester is a consultant, and what consultants do is look at the facts, stripped bare of context and subjectivity, and make recommendations based on those facts. Facts dictate that the affluent are more likely to buy during a recession than the less well-off, and the end of the season tends to coincide with overall apathy and lethargy as people start looking towards summer. It doesn't make sense to put Beethoven 9 there when fewer people are less likely to take a night out. Some of this is suspect, but if a mid-sized arts organization decided to follow these dictates, it might help them weather the storm.

Murderface said...

Put that coffee down! Coffee is for closers only.

Empiricus said...

You're absolutely right. Sure, put the Ninth where it can be the most successful. That's useful information. What I'm taking issue with isn't that; it's like the greatest-hits shows, which we brought up a few weeks ago. It sounds, seems, smells like the bottom-line (cashing in on the commodification of art) is the only thing that matters, that music is the secondary goal. Music is just a thing that satiates the consumer's desire to spend. Whatever it takes to get them to spend more...

Whether or not that's the truth, that's my perception based on the shoddy product I often buy.

Listen. I'm all for maintaining organizational sustainability through intelligent means, including understanding the market through research. Well...you know what? Maybe I'm not. If I think my local symphony is producing an inferior product, I'm not going to go. If I think that my symphony is becoming a slave to market trends, i.e., violently reacting to hard times by over-pandering just because a consulting firm says that's the way to best ensure ongoing profit, in turn screwing over their original, quality product...then, fuck 'em. They can keep their Ninths and Fifths and Orff.

Not to be a pessimist, but maybe this is a signal that symphonies are unsustainable, that they can't adapt quickly enough to their surroundings, that they are indeed luxuries that we can do without. Not that I believe that...just food for thought. I don't know. I really don't know.

Besides, how can one pinpoint the exact time and cause of someone's susceptibility to subscription renewal without context? That seems absurd. Even if a consultant managed to ask all the first-timers right after the first concert whether or not they will renew their subscriptions for next year, cross-referenced their responses with the performance date and time, came up with an algorithm that appropriately weighted the data against composers' nationalities and influence...whew...how could the consultant draw any hard conclusions?

Anyway, it wasn't entirely lost on me that this was the guy's job and he was only trying to do his best. It's just that he is, in effect, the voice of your local, mid-level symphony's future marketing campaign. I have a problem with that.

But certainly not you.



Empiricus said...

I'm here from Mitch & Murray. And I'm here on a mission of mercy.

Empiricus said...

Oh shit! I didn't mean to say that that you don't have a problem with the direction of symphony marketing or the consultant. I meant to say that I don't have a problem with you or your opinions. Sorry for the horrible sentence. Eww. My bad.

Sator Arepo said...

The issue, methinks, is that the consultant's view is one-sided.

Let me offer my contrarian one-sided view.

Yes, revenue is an important issue. Yes, subscribers are also important to symphony orchestras' continued existence.

My goal is not necessarily to refute the opinion proffered, but to offer what I think is a valuable counter-argument.

Continued revenue is important, indeed, vitally important. But if the orchestra does not serve the Cause Of Art, its existence is merely a revenue generating machine.

Surely we can find a compromise that advances the cause of art and also supports the institutions that advance it!

Pure capitalism (the argument of the commentator), which is pure profit as motive of the artistic body, is unartistic.

Pure art, the argument of (mostly) our blog and others, is probably untenable.

Surely there is a middle ground?

Aaron said...

What I took away from the earlier thread on the "Greatest Hits/Take A Friend" thing was that symphonies are too conservative artistically, as a general rule. New - or even just less well-known - music is not (by the example of the SF Opera, at least) itself either off-putting or financially risky. By all means, showcase the Bach/Beethoven/Mozart stuff, but playing just that stuff is at least as big a gamble as replacing some early-season warhorses with, geez, I dunno, Stravinsky or Schoenberg or any of the Composers of the Day.

The biggest problem facing symphonies today is probably the money, though. It's expensive to have that many good musicians on the payroll, it's expensive to rent, lease, or own concert halls, it's expensive to do even the limited advertising they do. The people who can pay the prices that symphonies are forced to charge are well-off. Wealthy people are also more likely to be interested in classical music in the first place, because in the US classical music is associated with the elites.

Long-term, the best solution would probably be public subsidies for art, which would both free the symphonies from their perceived need to appeal to a broad audience all the time, and also make it less expensive for people to go to the symphony, which would expand the audience and (IMO, at least) improve the cultural and intellectual life of the country.

Sadly, while we're quite happy to spend untold billions of dollars to kill, maim, and injure hundreds of thousands of people who've done us no harm, we're reluctant to spend even a few million to improve the quality of life for people right here, so hopes for public financing are probably just pipe dreams.

AnthonyS said...

Or, in lieu of public financing (which I can't see ever happening on a large scale basis), orchestras need to concentrate on large capital campaigns to strengthen endowments. Endowments are where orchestras can find sustainability. Where public funds can help would be the NEA kicking off a campaign to provide serious matching funds for every dollar raised for an orchestra's endowment.

Getting orchestras off of fundraising for the immediate season and concentrating on long term capital campaigns would help; orchestras that used the happy money in the 90's to sure up endowments are much better off now than some of their brethern.

StunningStu said...


Empiricus said...

Well played, Stu.