Sure, season ticket sales are down. But don’t tell Minnesota’s performing arts organizations that the model is dead.
“I hate when I hear the subscription model is dead,” said Darby Lunceford of the Minnesota Opera, shaking his head. “It’s just changed.”
Nationally, fewer people are buying season tickets to opera, theater and orchestra productions than they once did, data show. About 90 percent of people surveyed in 2014 said they didn’t hold a subscription to a performing arts organization — a drop of about 13 percentage points from just three years before, according to Culture Track, a study by arts advertising firm LaPlaca Cohen.
“That’s definitely a steep and significant decline,” said Hil Moss, a senior strategist for the firm.
Arts organizations here and elsewhere are fighting back by rethinking the season ticket’s classic structure — offering more flexible packages, create-your-own mini-seasons and even Netflix-like memberships to entice people who expect greater control and less planning. When you consider those ticket buyers, some local groups say, the numbers don’t look half bad. In some cases, they’ve actually grown.
Take the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, for example. The share of concertgoers has shifted: In 2004-05, about 75 percent of tickets sold went to traditional subscribers. Now, it’s about half. But the number of subscribers has increased over that time, along with the total number of tickets sold, said Lindsey Thoreson Hansen, the SPCO’s director of marketing and communications. That’s partly because the SPCO is counting new types of subscribers, including 3,000 people it calls “members.”
In 2012, the SPCO began offering a $5-a-month membership. Members can go to as many concerts as they like, but unlike classic subscribers, they’re not guaranteed the same seats.
“People were demonstrating a desire to choose their own concerts and have a lot more flexibility in when they decide to go,” Hansen said. “A lot of people just don’t want to commit six months in advance. They don’t know what they’re going to be doing on the second Friday in May.”
Anne Claflin joined right away. She had attended SPCO concerts growing up in St. Paul, but in her 20s, seeing a concert was “a much more rare event.” Since becoming members, she and her husband have attended about one show a month — on different days of the week and at different locations. “We appreciate being able to choose the package and the days,” she said. “It is very flexible.”
Claflin, 33, has seen the SPCO’s audience change around her: “We used to look out in the audience, and there was a lot of silver hair. And now there is such a more diverse crowd at the concerts.”
The Minnesota Orchestra counted about 13,000 subscribers for its 2015-16 season. A decade before that, the orchestra had about 19,000. But over the past few years, numbers have been “leveling off and creeping back,” said David Sailer-Haugland, a director of marketing overseeing subscriptions. That’s partly due to a boost in flexible packages — although the average new package has dropped from four tickets five years ago to three tickets today.
But “what’s interesting for us, I think, is there is even growth in that same-seat package,” he said.
Nationally, while orchestras’ revenue from traditional season ticket holders has dropped — by 17 percent from 2005 to 2014 — revenue from customizable options grew by 67 percent, according to a study commissioned by the League of American Orchestras. By 2014, flexible packages contributed a quarter of the average orchestra’s subscription revenue. The study predicted further growth.
To further attract subscribers, stages are offering exclusive events, giving their most loyal ticket buyers access to musicians and administrators. In September, for the first time, the Minnesota Opera offered subscribers and donors a special season preview, featuring treats and solos from cast members.
Arts groups are finding new ways to connect with audiences, said strategist Moss. “It’s easy to look at the numbers and … assume that it’s because people are flighty and no longer loyal,” she said. But the survey also showed that people are attending a wider variety of activities. “Sometimes the most engaged performing arts attendees are actually the ones that are most likely to be kind of hopping around and trying out different things.”
Still, it’s clear the heyday of season tickets in the late 1970s and ’80s is over.
“It’s hard to believe we’d get to those kinds of heights again,” said Trisha Kirk, director of marketing and audience development for the Guthrie Theater.
Ten years ago, the Minneapolis theater boasted 25,000 season ticket holders, and 47 percent of all paid tickets went to subscribers. For its most recent season, 19,200 people bought subscriptions, accounting for 33 percent of paid tickets. But last season was up, Kirk said, compared with the past two years.
Subscribers offer arts groups stability, often committing to shows months ahead of time, then helping with word-of-mouth in the interim. “Their support for an organization cannot be overvalued,” Kirk said. “They’re a group of people that will commit to you without hearing anything, without waiting to read the reviews.”
Weighing advertising and other factors, it costs the Guthrie half as much to nab a subscriber as it does to entice a single-ticket buyer, she said.
“Now, we love single-ticket buyers,” she added. “But needless to say, if I could get you to buy five plays at once vs. marketing to you five times, it’s much more efficient to have you become a subscriber.”
This month, Chelsie Messenger is moving from Charleston, S.C., to Minnesota. In preparation, she and her husband subscribed to the local newspaper and bought four-ticket passes to the Guthrie Theater.
Messenger, 29, considered a bigger, curated pack of tickets. But she liked being able to pick which shows they’d see. “In the end, we figured there are so many other options for shows in town.” With the money they would have spent on the fifth show, they could check out another theater or arts event, she said.
What’s she seeing at the Guthrie? “Sense and Sensibility,” “King Lear,” “The Bluest Eye” and one she couldn’t quite remember — “sort of our wild card.”