Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra out of sync with potential audiences, survey finds
March 15, 2015 12:00 AM
The orchestra still relies on subscribers for most of its ticket sales — 68 percent of revenue in the classical series this season.
Patrons attend a Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra happy hour in the Heinz Hall lobby last May.
By Elizabeth Bloom / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra wanted to find out what potential audiences thought about concerts at Heinz Hall and the people who attend them.
The answers were painful.
The concerts? Boring. The audience? Old. The symphony itself? Outdated.
“Too boring, too many old stuffy people,” one person said. “The last time I attended the symphony it was a total drag.”
“PSO is something I would only do once a year. I would be open for them to blow me away. It’s their job to make me want to come back,” another said.
(Click image for larger version)
If those comments sound like pat stereotypes about classical music, it turns out that plenty of people in the Pittsburgh area hold them. Those quotations came out of a study conducted last year by a marketing research firm to help the PSO understand how to attract new audiences. This study occurred at a critical juncture for the $32 million organization, which recently developed a strategic plan to address its operations and financial problems.
The study and the PSO’s ticket data from last season, both of which were obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, provide two doses of reality: The audience is shrinking, and the potential audience thinks the symphony isn’t for it. But it also offers clues as to changes the organization could make to overcome those challenges.
A sea of red
Last season, at the PSO’s core classical music series, 57 percent of seats at Heinz Hall were filled by paying customers, according to a Post-Gazette analysis of ticket sales. The ticket data obtained by the Post-Gazette was updated as of Aug. 4, 2014, and is slightly different from figures reported by the symphony in September. The orchestra distributed about 12,000 free tickets (known as “comps”) to the 21-weekend series — 14 percent of the number of paid tickets — to schools, family members or those who simply got lucky.
Between unsold seats and comps, 43 percent of seats in Heinz Hall weren’t generating revenue.
The orchestra comps tickets both to give back to the community and to fill out the hall, as a sea of empty red seats can be dispiriting to musicians. For one summer concert at Heinz Hall, which has a seating capacity of about 2,700, the orchestra handed out more than 1,700 free tickets.
Yet there’s a concern at the organization that doing so trains audience members to wait for free admission.
“We’re doing less comping now than we’ve done in the past, and that’s a strategic decision,” said Michael Bielski, PSO senior vice president and chief operating officer. “I think there are people that wait for a comp, and I’m not sure we should give them that privilege.”
The classical series also rarely met its sales goals. On average, the orchestra pocketed about 78 percent of its target revenue for single and group tickets per concert.
The orchestra sold more subscription tickets on Fridays and Sundays than on Saturdays — a trend that confounds Mr. Bielski, particularly since the orchestra’s pops series generally does best on Saturday nights. Next season, the orchestra will offer fewer classical concerts on Saturdays in Heinz Hall, making the venue available for rentals and freeing the orchestra to perform elsewhere.
The orchestra still relies on subscribers for most of its ticket sales — 68 percent of revenue in the classical series this season — and has probably fared better than most orchestras at retaining those committed audience members, Mr. Bielski said. With improved sales of group and single tickets ($25.75-$105.75), revenue has been stable, he said.
Still, modern audiences are less inclined to buy large ticket packages. It’s not a new problem — “I remember 20 years ago having conversations about how to increase subscribers,” he said — but the model may not be sustainable in the future.
“At some point,” he said, “you simply have to get more bodies in seats to earn money.”
"We’re doing less comping now than we’ve done in the past, and that’s a strategic decision."
Last year, the orchestra commissioned W5, a Durham, N.C.-based marketing research firm, to explore why Pittsburghers do or don’t attend the symphony and how the PSO could draw them to Heinz Hall.
The $100,000 motivational study began in June centered on six focus groups in three locations and an online survey.
The focus groups involved 45 people whose demographics were similar to those of symphony audiences but who had not attended a PSO concert in the past year. All participants were ages 40 to 64 and had incomes of at least $75,000; most were married and white.
The research drew myriad conclusions: The definition of an ideal evening out includes a combination of food, drink, social opportunities and uplifting performances; audiences prefer familiar artists and music they can relate to; and the PSO is not top of mind for several reasons, including the perception of a stiff and constrictive atmosphere.
“The PSO is valued for its musical expertise, esteemed international reputation and position as a part of Pittsburgh’s identity,” according to the study. “But its core offering — classical music — is swiftly losing its audience.”
Participants described classical music performances as boring, relaxing, soothing and long. They said older people, musicians and rich people were the sorts who attended them. And they said the genre made them feel relaxed, sleepy, peaceful and mellow.
“There’s so many good things offered by the city of Pittsburgh. Why would I go to the PSO when there’s other, better choices available to me?” one person said.
“The symphony is very stuffed-shirt, prim and proper ... ,” said another.
Still, the study advised, “The aspirational glamour of the symphony and relaxing qualities of classical music are attractive propositions for audiences. Consider capitalizing on these aspects of PSO performances through special event and marketing efforts.”
For the 891 people surveyed online — a mix of season subscribers, symphony patrons, non-symphony visitors of Heinz Hall and general area residents of various backgrounds — the barriers to entry were multiple and diverse: traffic, parking, cost, lack of interest in symphonic music or a combination thereof. One participant felt the repertoire was, in fact, too familiar, saying, “They play too many of the same old warhorses over and over again.”
W5 recommended that the orchestra consider several strategies, such as allowing patrons to use tickets as coupons for future performances, bundling PSO concerts with other Cultural District shows, presenting multi-sensory, interactive productions, educating audiences on the context and history of the music, collaborating with big-name artists, partnering with local restaurants on concert packages and performing in alternative venues.
The PSO already does much of that, offering a diverse array of events, including outdoor performances over the summer, symphonic shows with popular artists such as Ben Folds, happy hours and a slate of pops concerts.
“PSO marketing communications must be multifaceted, seeking the attention of those who do not feel connected with classical music or feel the PSO atmosphere is too formal without deterring season subscribers and other patrons,” the study said.
In recent years, labor strife and bankruptcies have plagued orchestras from Philadelphia to Minnesota to Honolulu, although many have rebounded from their financial challenges. Given that Heinz Hall is a large, hard-to-fill venue in a relatively small city, the PSO points out that it is faring well compared to peers.
Still, there have been bright spots at orchestras in similar cities.
Cincinnati, for example, is the smallest city in the country with a full-time orchestra, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer, and its 3,400-seat hall is substantially bigger than Heinz Hall.
The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has balanced its $47 million budget for six consecutive years, a period during which attendance at its classical concerts increased by 28 percent. That symphony’s leadership attributed the recent success to concerts with star performers, a new festival and other projects.
Cleveland supports an orchestra with an even larger budget, and it had a nearly $1 million surplus in the past fiscal year, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
The PSO, in taking a hard look at itself, hopes to find similar success.
“I think what the motivational study has told us and what we all knew intrinsically is we … have to be very flexible,” Mr. Bielski said. “The patron, the client, has changed.”
Elizabeth Bloom: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1750. Twitter: @BloomPG.
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