The Millennials’ Orchestra: The Challenges Facing U.S. Symphony Orchestras – Part 1

“The Millennials’ Orchestra” series of blog posts are not meant to be opinion pieces, but rather founded in research, which I gathered and reported as part of my graduate Capstone project from 2012-2013. This is a personal blog and does not represent the views or opinions of my employer.


The Millennials’ Orchestra: The Challenges Facing U.S. Symphony Orchestras – Part 1

Declining Demographics
Symphony orchestras have been faced with many challenges over the decades, including financial distress, decreasing audiences and revenue, and increased competition for our patrons’ attention as technology, work, and education continue to evolve and shape our lives.  The so-called classical music crisis and threat of extinction for symphony orchestras have been a cause for concern among music lovers, culture-seekers, and orchestra managers everywhere.

In part 1 of my posts on the challenges facing symphony orchestras, I address the issue of declining audiences in the concert hall.  Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3, coming soon!

A Return to CHURN
The Classical Music Consumer Segmentation Study, led by Audience Insight LLC Project Director Alan Brown from 2000-2002, is considered to be the most extensive discipline-specific audience study ever conducted in the U.S.[1] The study analyzes the consumer markets for classical music performance (existing and prospective) among fifteen symphony orchestras across the United States.[2] These include the:[3]

  • Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra
  • Charlotte Symphony Orchestra
  • Colorado Symphony Association
  • Detroit Symphony Orchestra Hall
  • Fort Wayne Philharmonic Orchestra
  • Kansas City Symphony
  • Long Beach Symphony Association
  • Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra
  • New World Symphony
  • Oregon Symphony Association
  • The Philadelphia Orchestra Association
  • Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra
  • Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
  • Symphony Society of San Antonio
  • Wichita Symphony Society

With more than 750 interviews conducted at each location, the study reveals valuable insights into consumer behaviors, frequency and patterns of attendance, as well as the values and benefits that audiences associate with the classical music concert experience.[4]

The research initiative stems from the preceding Magic of Music project commissioned by the Knight Foundation with the primary goal of strengthening the connection, or the bond, between audiences and orchestra musicians in the concert hall (phase 1, 1994).[5]  Innovative programs were designed as points of entry for new and younger (ages currently associated with members of the Millennial generation) patrons and evaluated based on the engagement of these audiences.[6]  Phase 2 of the project (1999) involved the continuation of program innovation and audience development,[7] and led to the national Classical Music Consumer Segmentation Study by Audience Insight LLC (2000 – 2002).[8]

The comprehensive two-year study shows how symphony orchestras across the U.S. have “accumulated large numbers of inactive, former buyers – people who have attended a concert at some point in their lives but who do not attend now with any regularity.”[9] Declining attendance at symphony orchestras concerts (that is, having difficulty filling concert halls and attracting new audiences) is a prominent concern.[10] Unfortunately, similar patterns of poor audience retention and decline in overall attendance emerge in other landmark studies conducted by highly reputable arts researchers.

The League of American Orchestra’s Audience Growth Initiative (2005 – 2009), for example, revealed that 65% of symphony orchestra patrons are “one-time/uncommitted buyers.”[11] Despite the large number of individuals belonging to this segment, these patrons provided only 7% of the orchestras’ total revenue.[12]  Conversely, “loyal subscribers” and “extreme patrons,” or patrons that demonstrated greater commitment to larger average gifts and paying more for tickets and subscription packages, represented less than 10% patron households.[13]  This small group is also responsible for providing nearly 75% of the orchestras’ revenue.[14]  The disproportionate levels of support exist among concert ticket buyers and symphony orchestra donors.[15]

The lead researcher, Oliver Wyman, released the findings in the 2008 “Churn Report.”[16] As Wyman explains, “while the orchestras were good at attracting newcomers to concerts, they were having trouble getting people to come back for a second concert or sign up for a multi-concert subscription.”[17]  Churn has become particularly concerning as symphony orchestras face the increasing challenges of aging audiences and declining attendance at classical music concerts.[18] Researchers and consultants at TRG Arts have uncovered similarly disturbing trends in cultural arts attendance over decades of research.[19]

According to their Patron Loyalty Index, a measurement tool that gauges the level of loyalty patrons have to arts organizations, “Tryers” are considered the least loyal patrons and make up more than 90% of arts constituencies.[20]  Lack of loyalty, therefore, makes these patrons some of the most difficult to retain.[21] Churn and inactivity are understandably common behaviors at this level.  “Buyers” account for approximately 10% of patrons,[22] and are considered moderately loyal and more willing to make a donation in addition to ticket purchases.  The most loyal constituents are the “Advocates,” representing 2% of most patron bases.[23]  Advocates are typically the most frequent, consistent, and recent attendants.[24]

TRG Arts: The Loyalty Pyramid

LoyaltyPyramid

In order to mitigate associated risk and revenue loss, cultural arts organizations (symphony orchestras in this case) must actively seek the “re-engagement of Tryers, either from first time to second or last time to now.”[25]  Developing stronger, long-lasting patron relationships fosters greater patron loyalty and audience retention, effectively moving them from “Tryers,” to “Buyers,” to “Advocates.”[26]  With this approach, symphony orchestras can develop patron loyalty programs that strategically engage cultural consumers and encourage greater loyalty and increasingly philanthropic behavior.  In turn, the growth and redistribution of patrons displaying “Buyer” and “Advocate” behavior and loyalty serves to fortify and help sustain the organization.[27]

Subscription programs are seen as one way to escalate audience and donor loyalty.[28] Although researchers in the Audience Insight LLC’s 2002 consumer segmentation study believe that subscription campaign marketing can limit concert attendance for U.S. symphony orchestras.[29] Subscription marketing is often at odds with the needs and preferences of “younger audiences” – defined by Audience Insight LLC as ticket buyers between 18 and 34 years old (2002).[30] Many Millennials are simply uninterested in making a commitment to concert subscriptions.[31] Attracting these new and younger audiences, therefore, “may require a loosening of the definitional boundaries around ‘classical music’ and structural changes to the concert experience that recognize the underlying values and benefits that consumers seek from listening to classical music and attending live concerts.”[32]


[1] Alan Brown (Project Director), “Classical Music Consumer Segmentation Study: How Americans Relate to Classical Music and Their Local Orchestras, commissioned by 15 American Orchestras and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation,” Southport, Connecticut: Audience Insight LLC, 2002, 5.
[2] Alan Brown (Project Director), “Classical Music Consumer Segmentation Study,” 2002.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid 127.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid 5.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid 6, 9.
[10] Ibid 12.
[11] PRESCOTT & ASSOCIATES, “Churning Butter into Gold: Patron Growth Initiative.” In League of American Orchestras 2011 National Conference. Minneapolis, Minnesota: League of American Orchestras, 2011.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Oliver Wyman, “Audience Growth Initiative Detailed Findings and Recommendations,” in Orchestra Audience Growth Initiative: Oliver Wyman, 2008.
[17] Oliver Wyman, “Oliver Wyman » Churn Report Facts and Stats.” last modified 2013, accessed March 20, 2013, http://www.oliverwyman.com/4071.htm.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Jill Robinson, “Too Many Tryers to Sustain the Arts,” in Analysis from TRG Arts: A Blog on Cultural Consumer Behavior, blogspot: Blogger, 2012, http://trgarts.blogspot.com/2012/03/too-many-tryers-to-sustain-arts.html.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Jill Robinson, “Too Many Tryers to Sustain the Arts.”
[29] Ibid.
[30] Alan Brown (Project Director), “Classical Music Consumer Segmentation Study.”
[31] Ibid.
[32] Ibid 2.

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