How PCMS Sells Chamber Music Concerts: An Introduction

By jacob on October 14, 2011

Selling live classical music is never an easy proposition, but selling chamber music and recitals is, well, just that much harder. Why is that?

Well, first and foremost, people tend to gravitate to chamber music as their musical tastes develop. So, it's inherently a smaller core audience pool (although a highly devoted and sophisticated one).  Without the visual power of opera or the sonic magnificence of a symphony orchestra, chamber music is usually not the first stop on a listener's musical journey. Even the great composers (Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart, Brahms, etc) turned their focus to chamber music at the end of their lives. Some, like Beethoven and Brahms, made a conscious retreat from the larger musical forms and considered their chamber works their masterpieces.

All that musical stuff aside, the real challenge is three-fold:

  1. Chamber music audiences are "out there" but tend to be widely scattered. As such, reaching them can be expensive.
  2. Chamber music and recitals rarely command a large enough audience to require repeat performances. One night shows are the norm.
  3. Different strokes for different folks. Some like violin or piano recitals. Others only attend string quartets. Some like guitar recitals and aren't attracted to woodwind quintets. Vocal recitals?  A small niche for sure.  Perelman Theater vs. the Fleisher Art Memorial? Talk about a huge difference in venue!

In this case, the second point amplifies the impact of the first, and the third one blows it out of the water. You've got a widely scattered audience that is expensive to reach in the best of circumstances, and this proposition is made even more challenging in that you might reach the audience member and they might want to attend, but they are attending another event or for some logistical reason can't come on the only night that the show happens to land.

Doesn't sound too hard, right? I would agree, if only we were presenting the same group or even the same type of music/ensemble each night in the same place. Instead we're presenting a new artist or ensemble each night, often at a different venue and usually with very different repertoire.  Take a look at the 2nd week in November, for instance:  Richard Goode, the Takács Quartet and mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirschlager all appearing within a few days of each other. In this case, all are at the Perelman Theater, but we're talking about three very different audiences with very different tastes.

Some Numbers
Our operating budget this year is about $1.3 million, and most of that is spent, as you'd expect, on artist fees, hall rentals and pianos.  Add in staff and overhead, and we're left with about $100,000 per year with which to promote our organization and its 63 concerts. As my predecessor, the wonderful Susan Grody, once told me: don't plan on spending too much money on any one concert!

I've taken her advice quite seriously, and through her hard work and a variety of other factors (our low ticket prices and the amazing artist program that Tony Checchia and Miles Cohen craft each year), we've been able to increase ticket sales and attendance each of the past three years. To translate that into numbers:  in 2007-08 we welcomed 23,400 people to our concerts (including free tickets given through our music education program) and brought in $355,000 in ticket revenue.  This past year we welcomed more than 26,000 people, and our ticket revenue came in at $423,000.

While of course there are a zillion variables to consider (artists, repertoire, cancellations, huge winter storms, etc.), the overall trend is encouraging, especially in the context of a dismal economy.

What this Post is Really About
I'm hoping to spend some time this season articulating how (despite the above challenges) PCMS promotes its concerts, builds audiences and increases brand recognition. I plan to dedicate at least one post to each of our core methods, which currently include:

  • Online/Search Engines
  • Email Marketing
  • Brochures and other print materials
  • Special Offers
  • Word of Mouth/Viral
  • Social Media
  • Group Sales & Outreach
  • Traditional Media (radio, television, print advertising)

I look forward to writing about these topics, both to share our methodology and to help myself think more analytically about what we're doing and why. I hope that my peers out there in the arts marketing field, and marketing in general, chime in and tell us how we could do better.