The Resurrection of the Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera
only thing Orchestras have in common is that they are all
Christopher Stager, CRStager marketing & audience development
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years, the Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera (SPO) went from
closing its doors to selling out its concerts. How did it happen? I
will share the details after this cautionary note…
no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to marketing
orchestras. Purported “industry trends” are most often
based on limited information and draw inaccurate and misleading
conclusions. They often confuse correlation with causation factors.
Whatever trends are national, solutions are invariably local. The
“magic bullet” – sought by many – does not
exist. What works is a laser focus on marketing fundamentals.
before we begin let me state: Nearly every marketing problem is
really a math problem. To gauge our performance and market
potential we need data, history and a benchmark to understanding
whether marketing performance is good or bad from the start. It is
the equations that matter most. Percentages can impress, but can
often mean little. Consider this extreme fictional case as an
Marketing: “We increased subscription sales by 56%.
CRStager: “Wow, that sounds amazing. How many classical concerts do you perform?”
CRStager: “How many seats are in your hall?”
CRStager: “How many subscriptions were you selling before?”
CRStager: “So you sold 84 more subscriptions.”
Marketing: “Yes! That’s 56%!”
CRStager: “It sure is. You were subscribing 19% of the capacity your hall before, and now you’re selling 29%.”
CRStager: “How many people live in your community?”
Marketing: “1.3 million.”
CRStager: “I think I see the problem.”
Marketing: “What problem?”
variables in this extreme example illustrate “the problem.”
There are few seats, a handful of concerts, and a large population
from which to draw. The margin for error is great, and mediocre
marketing will fill the hall under these conditions. The percentages
will sound impressive, but the Orchestra’s reach is slim. 113
subscriber households, and even presuming all the singles for five
concert were purchased, one per household, for 1,415 households, the
total reach is just 1,528 patron households, or one-tenth of one
percent of the market.
percentages. Great numbers to report. But the reach into the
community is negligible. And whatever the tactics to fill the
seats, are they likely to translate to a larger orchestra, with more
seats, in a smaller market?
That would take an entirely different strategy. So now let us
consider the Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera.
Sacramento Symphony went bankrupt in 1992 and out of business in
1996. A year later, the Sacramento Philharmonic was formed, and
within a year or two this organization was also facing big financial
the Sacramento Philharmonic merged with the opera. A perplexing
union – how could a weak orchestra and a weaker opera company
forge their troubled forces into something stronger?
didn’t. In late 2014 the SPO went dark – for the third
time in the span of 22 years. The organization produced a large-scale
opera without a workable funding plan. Ticket sales and fundraising
missed the mark. The combined organizations failed, with a
struggling symphony as the collateral damage.
board member, Laurie Nelson, continued to believe and single-handedly
rallied support. In 2015, Alice Sauro, the newly appointed
Executive Director, brought together a team of people (including me)
who had worked together to turnaround the Detroit Symphony after its
6-month strike in 2011. (I want here to thank Alice for reviewing
and revising my “Rashomon” recall of facts and figures.)
2019, four seasons later: The Sacramento Community Center Theater
has 1,800 seats.* With 1,332 subscribed seats, capacity on
subscription is 74%. The renewal rate hovers around a very healthy
83%, and each year an additional 220 or so new subscriptions are sold
through the traditional channels of direct mail and telemarketing.
it has 2,350 seats. But I’ll explain what I mean in the section
below about scaling the hall.)
things first – It all begins with Programming. Programming
is the number one driver of ticket sales. On one hand, each
individual program attracts its single ticket buyers. On the other,
how this collection of concerts aligns should create an attractive
series for subscribers. As a “driver,” however,
programming doesn’t mean just populist works. I have worked
with many orchestras with compelling, singular programming
philosophies and when deviating from those values ticket sales will
suffer. So when I mention programming, I’m not necessarily
talking about more Rachmaninoff Concertos and “Boléro”
every other week.
Sacramento we wanted programming to be a mix of the populist and the
challenging. We wanted the orchestra to be able to play a full
spectrum of music including Baroque, Mozart and Beethoven, Russian
masterworks, American music and, very important, opera. We balanced
programming warhorses with pieces that people don’t know as
beyond that, we proposed a new model – an
orchestra without a music director
–and invited guest conductors suited to the specific corners of
the repertoire that was programmed. A conductor appropriate for
Bach’s Brandenburgs is unlikely to be ideal for “Rigoletto.”
Audiences, as well as the musicians, have embraced this artistic
season programming includes one opera. Due to the high costs
associated with a fully-staged opera, there has been a measured
approach to bringing opera back to the stage, beginning with scenes
from opera, then concert opera, then semi-staged, and a goal of
staged opera with the opening of the renovated hall in the 2020-21
we scaled the hall.
Each year the SPO performs six programs, including one opera. There
is one performance of each program in a hall that has 2,350 seats. I
know, earlier I said the hall had 1,800 seats. Let me explain:
The return concert in summer
of 2015, appropriately Mahler’s “Resurrection”
Symphony, surprised me by drawing a paying audience of over 1,600.
From this, I divined that the demand, with a well-executed
subscription campaign and single tickets on sale for a longer period
than that initial Mahler return concert, would be met at 1,800.
easy: There are 500 upper balcony seats in the Community Center
Theater. I simply closed the upper balcony to stabilize capacity at
1,800. This created scarcity and drove demand. We only open the
balcony when demand warrants employing variable pricing (inspired by
airlines). It’s a virtuous cycle – demand for and
scarcity of tickets drives single ticket prices higher. Customers
learn quickly that if they want a good seat they have to purchase
sooner, or better yet, subscribe to guarantee their seat and enjoy a
lower price. In the FY19 season, we opened the balcony for all six
beginning, the reborn Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera embraced a
“patron friendly” pricing model. Tickets start at just
$15 and subscription packages range from $156 to $205 for all six
concerts. With lower prices, a new and growing subscriber base
could (and has) more quickly morph into Annual Fund donors.
is the market potential and how are we performing? It’s
a good question and astute executive directors want to know the
answer. How a market is likely to fill a hall is a simple math
problem. In my experience of compiling data from dozens of
orchestras, I always want to know the ratio of available seats in
relation to the market size. When that ratio exceeds 3% it becomes
more difficult to regularly fill all of the seats.
pulls its audience from the greater Sacramento area consisting of
2-million people.** The hall has 2,400 seats available for six
concerts, which is a total of 14,400 available seats in a season.
This seat availability represents less than 1% of the market (14,400
seats ÷ 2,000,000 people = .0072%), which means the size of
the hall in relation to the population makes it easier to keep full.
This is a very favorable condition. **Metro
population 12+, as defined by The Nielsen Company.
Philharmonic & Opera has found its sweet spot – and the
market size suggests there is room to grow.
fictitious example with which I began, a hall with 800 seats
performing five classical concerts has 4,000 seats to fill in a
season. If the population is 1.3 million, their ratio of seats to
the size of the community is .003% or one third of 1%. The accounts
we earlier calculated in our exercise represent one-tenth of 1% of
the available market. Very slim reach and very few seats. Success
is easy to have and easy to claim.
we keep the house full. We
sold all subscriptions in a conventional manner: multiple mailings
from February through August and into the season, supported by
professional telemarketing. We offered patron-friendly pricing to
get skeptical people in the door. (The institution’s closure
left many people holding tickets to concerts they had paid for but
were cancelled. Lower prices lowered the risk and residual
resentment.) We have followed these dicta:
Launch the renewal and new acquisition subscription campaigns at
the same time
in January or no later than February***. Yes, launch Renewal and
New Acquisition campaigns concurrently,
promising the first new subscribers the best seats when they become
available (in essence, the unrenewed seats.) ***I’ll
write in depth about why launching your season early is so important
at a later time. Suffice it to say, if new subscriptions are to sell
they need a lot of time to sell. The earlier you start, the better
– Deploy a 6-week renewal period for subscribers with 3 to 4
mailings, followed by a round of telemarketing for a final chance to
close renewals. After the calling, release all unrenewed seats to
– Make a compelling offer with a deadline. SPO offers at least
one concert free with the purchase of the basic 6-concert (one
subscriptions to all
single ticket buyers through a Perpetual
Subscription Acquisition Campaign.
been noted and reliably supported that patrons who attend at least
two concerts are three times more likely to subscribe than those who
attend just once. Frequently the custom is to cultivate that second
transaction before asking people to subscribe. But there’s a
the base of people who only attend once is at least three times
larger than those who attend two or more times. Thus, one-time
buyers generate nearly as many new subscriptions as those who attend
two or more times, albeit at a higher cost of sale because there are
more of them to mail to and call.
dilemma. What is the answer?
everyone to subscribe – everyone, all the time.
Yes, continue to steer the first time single ticket buyers towards
that second event, but simultaneously persuade them to subscribe. You
will find recency is just as much a predictor of subscribing as
come to learn that the consumer’s need for immediate return on
investment (not to mention our own insatiable need to keep
subscriptions growing) requires a perpetual
subscription acquisition campaign:
365 / 24 / 7. If people come to a great concert and have a
transcendent experience, we want to get them into a series beginning
with the next soonest concert.
send a single ticket buyer a subscription brochure in March, why
should it only present concerts that begin in October? Aren’t
there great concerts still in April and May? And don’t those
impending dates provide that important direct mail motivator of
Sacramento, as in other markets, we have accelerated new subscription
sales by linking the current season to the next, bundling final
Spring concerts along with the following season. A February
subscription brochure could include April and May concerts for the
current season along with the full season for the following year. In
this example, an 8-concert subscription package is created that
crosses over two fiscal years. New subscribers begin attending
concerts within six weeks of subscribing (if not sooner) and enjoy a
more immediate return on their investment.
Sacramento, where subscriber demand is high in the popular sections
of the house, up to 25% of single tickets are sold in the balcony.
All balcony seat buyers are immediately approached to subscribe and
attend right away. The high demand and scarcity for “good
seats” fuels subscription sales in the more desirable
Driving this single ticket demand is a traditional single ticket
campaign. Past buyers are re-engaged through direct mail and
e-mail. New, first time patrons are attracted through radio
commercials on non-classical commercial stations. And there are the
requisite one-column, color print ads in the weekend entertainment
section of the Sacramento
(The investment in digital advertising is minimal.)
season, with single ticket demand so high, more costly commercial
radio could be eliminated as direct mail to past patrons liquidated
remaining inventory and built their attendance frequency. They fuel
the subsequent season’s subscription campaign.
was first asked by then Board Chair Laurie Nelson to head the
marketing effort of the turnaround team, I said, “It’s
closed three times. Maybe they’re just not that into you.”
found I was very wrong. There is a hunger for orchestral music and
opera in Sacramento, and we fed it with strong programming, diversity
in artistic leadership, popular prices and limited seat availability,
a myopic focus on rebuilding subscriptions, and timely execution of
my fictional exchange at the beginning of this article? Sacramento
shares one of the posed challenges: low market penetration.
market of 2-million people there are less than 13,000 patron accounts
documented as past buyers. It’s very low penetration, masked
by a scarcity of seats and very high subscription levels.
2019-20 season, the Sacramento Philharmonic will be displaced as its
hall undergoes renovation. The orchestra will perform in three
regional venues and the repertoire has been tailored specifically to
each. The subscription season concludes not in the spring of 2020,
but in the fall with the return to the Community Center Theatre. By
adding on that fall concert, essentially a 12-month season, I was
able to keep renewal levels high (though not as high.) To retain
your seat in the new hall, you had to renew to this nomadic season.
This kept those fickle “I’ll just skip this season and
come next season” buyers to a minimum.
last four years, the reformed Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera has
wisely favored caution over aspiration. They have not repeated the
mistakes of the past. The organization has been transformed from
insolvency, to stability, to sustainability.
been working with Executive Director Alice Sauro on strategic
planning. Once the Orchestra returns to its post-renovated home in
Fall of 2020, that house will be 200 seats smaller. Should prices
increase – and be less “patron friendly”? Should
some programs be performed twice? Should another performance week
be added? Should opera offerings be expanded?
2020-21 season, the challenges must be carefully considered and
wisely implemented so that the Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera’s
success will continue.
CRStager marketing & audience development in 1999 to help
orchestras, opera companies and performing arts presenters focus
their marketing and fundraising challenges around the specific
contour of their community, rather than solely on presumed national
trends or industry averages. In close collaboration with each client,
the institution's specific values and its market potential are
defined. Marketing plans are developed to communicate those values
and build the base of active ticket buyers.
"values-based" philosophy has had positive results for
institutions throughout the nation. CRStager marketing clients have
included the Baltimore Symphony, Boston Pops, The Cleveland
Orchestra, Dallas Symphony, Detroit Symphony, Houston Grand Opera,
Houston Symphony, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Milwaukee Symphony,
The Philadelphia Orchestra, Philharmonia Baroque, the Pittsburgh
Symphony, Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera, Saint Louis Symphony,
San Francisco Symphony, Toronto Symphony, and numerous others. He
has also provided creative materials to these organizations, as well
as to the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, and others.
directed the marketing for all four years (2011-2014) of Spring
For Music, showcasing American
orchestras at Carnegie Hall. In 2016, he aided the producers
of Mozart in the Jungle,
developing capacity utilization and sales models to accurately
reflect dramatic plot points. He has been a guest speaker on
Marketing for Musicians at the San Francisco Conservatory and
Roosevelt University, and is often quoted in the media on issues
relating to orchestra marketing.
30 years of classical music marketing experience in collaboration
more than 100 organizations, Christopher Stager has developed
marketing strategies specific to each that have generated over
$500,000,000 in ticket sales –unprecedented in the
(917) 940-1748 • www.CRStager.com