At the conclusion of Part 1, Roger Oyster, Kansas City Symphony Principal Trombone, framed what he perceives as the problems eating away at core of this business. In Part 2, Roger concluded with the statement “In short, while things have never been tougher, they should be better than ever.”
As such, in order to help illustrate what he feels feel are the real competitive issues facing the business, Roger created the following narrative.
“May I take your order?”
After much consideration, another plausible explanation of the predicament of the orchestra business eventually occurred to me. My conceptualization of our industry’s problem started to evolve when I came up with this analogy for our situation: imagine we are in the restaurant business rather than the culture business.
Visualize that we are like a high-class restaurant selling mostly old world, very traditional European cuisine. The atmosphere of our establishment is “upper crust,” and while we may be serving what used to be vernacular food, we do so now on linen tablecloths in ornate rooms designed for the purpose, and we do so dressed in the way ordinary folk dress for weddings and funerals.
Fifty years ago, this was a newish concept. It provided an opportunity for everyday people to get not only excellent food, but also to be elevated in a way that made them feel like they were better people for the experience. Part of the sales strategy was to make the experience imply a higher social station, if only by eating food with a French name in a fancy setting and served by a waiter dressed in a set of tails and armed with a table-crumber.
Now jump ahead fifty years in this analogy. We are still in our tails, still serving the same cuisine, still marketing our product as if our menu provided a way to make one more “cultured” by the experience. But the landscape has changed considerably. Now, there are lots of restaurants, many with similar kinds of cuisine and presentation, many serving excellent food but with a totally different marketing message, whether populist, edgy, or multiethnic.
These restaurants don’t take themselves as seriously as we do, they don’t imply that one needs special knowledge to enjoy their cuisine, they make no spoken or unspoken demands on their dress and demeanor while at their institutions, and they bank on excellent customer service and high volume. In addition to this crowded field of competitors, incentive for people to leave home for a meal is not as strong as it once was. Folks are busy, and readily-available downscaled food close by may well win out over the fine dining experience. Also, thanks to better ingredients and Julia Child, among others, the food prepared in most households has never been better. And of course there is always “take-out” which offers quality steak-au-poivre which you can eat at home in your underwear if you felt like it.
Every year we find we have to work harder to keep our customers and especially to find new ones. Yet we wonder why. We serve traditional cuisine; people should flock to our establishment. Don’t they recognize fine food when they encounter it?
This analogy describes my take on our state of affairs today. I no longer think that people are less interested in what we do; in fact, recent evidence shows that there is still an audience interested in our fare, perhaps even a younger one than we would have imagined.
Last year the BBC offered a free download of the first five Beethoven Symphonies as a concert promotion, and over 650,000 people took them up on the offer (I imagine that the vast majority of this number was the younger and Internet savvy segment of the population we crave to invite to our concerts). I think our product, whose performance standard is higher than ever, still has the power to move people like few other things.
However, here are the problems which have emerged over the past half century:
- 1. We have much more competition now than the orchestra business had in the past. Other arts organizations, presenters, and other kinds of musical genres (jazz, rock, world music, and popular music in all its flavors) all are working diligently for every leisure dollar they can get.
- 2. People are busier than ever; while they have more disposable income, the inertia to stay at home has never been stronger.
- 3. The possibilities for entertainment in one’s home have never been more varied: CDs of all our repertoire; killer stereo/video systems; and awesome televisions with more viewing options such as cable television, video on demand, and other subscription online entertainment. All of these can be watched/listened to in one’s home by hardly lifting a finger.
At the same time, I believe the following two problems are the most serious:
- 1. Our business is competing poorly. Like the restaurant that rested on the “high class” image of its cuisine, we have become complacent in the basic art of customer service. We sell people an experience, of which our music is a central part. But the idea that “if we play Beethoven, they will come” is increasingly less powerful to our audience. And that audience, unlike their parents and grandparents who were more apt to associate what we do with social success, are primarily looking for a gratifying entertainment experience with minimum demands on their time and energy.
- 2. The hidden problem is that we believe our own PR hype. I believe that there are unspoken assumptions that because we play classical music, we get a pass on the sweat equity most other businesses see as a prerequisite to finding and retaining satisfied customers.
Columnist George Will used an analogy that is apt for the orchestra business today when he described New York socialites who, on election night in 1952, moaned to each other over their cosmopolitans,
“Eisenhower President? How could this have happened? Everybody I know voted for Stephenson.”
Everybody we know thinks classical music is indispensable to maintain a quality, meaningful life; but frankly, we don’t get out much. A nearly religious commitment to a static marketing stratagem of the past has made us, at the very least, less supple, less inquisitive, and perhaps less willing to change in ways big and small. As a result, all of these factors conspire to steal our audience.
This narrative, though, offers us some possible options for taking action. Some of them involve acting differently, some thinking differently. I will attempt to outline a few of these in the last installment of this article.