Earlier this year, I wrote about studies funded by the Wallace Foundation that helped Ballet Austin gain some insight about their audiences. Recently I discovered the Wallace Foundation had supported a similar study by the Seattle Symphony.
The piece is a short read, but if you don’t even have time for that, watch the accompanying video. There are some interesting contrasts between what the symphony assumed and the reality.
The study focused on three programs the symphony felt would connect with younger and newer audiences: Untuxed, an informal series where the musicians perform sans-tux (and black dress). Start time is earlier and program duration is no longer than 75 minutes.
Sonic Evolution – a series that draws on the influences and music of Seattle area pop music bands and incorporates video.
The third series is Untitled, a late night (10 pm start) chamber series set in the lobby with alternative seating and special mood lighting featuring “challenging 20th and 21st century compositions.”
What they found was that only the Untuxed series had a significant draw for new audiences. They were also interested to learn that the audience for the edgy Untitled series skewed older than they had anticipated.
Somewhat to the administration’s initial disappointment, the Untuxed audience seemed to prefer the “greatest hits” of classical music, making the tastes of the Masterworks audience look progressive by comparison.
They appreciated works like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Copland’s Symphony No. 3 and Bernstein’s Candide Overture—nothing more adventurous. “Untuxed is actually the most conservative audience that we have,” said Wade; they wanted music that they “know and love.”
…said one audience member. “I love the fact that it is ‘the best of’.” Another, who found the music “relaxing,” agreed and voiced appreciation for Untuxed’s other key draw—its early start and short span. “I am going to be able to make it home for my kids’ bedtime, and that means a lot to me,” she said.
They had also hoped that Untuxed would be an on-ramp to transition audiences to their core Masterworks series. Unfortunately, few have made that transition. In fact, most people who attended Untuxed had attended a Masterworks concert first. The good news, however, was that the cheaper Untuxed series didn’t cannibalize the Masterworks audience as was first feared.
…Untuxed, like Sonic Evolution and Untitled, is a separate program—or brand extension—neither more nor less. But all three are valuable, even without affecting attendance at the core Masterworks concerts, because they draw new audiences to Benaroya Hall. They are providing, as Wade says, “another lens on the orchestra,” taking SSO deeper into the community.
Among the other steps Seattle Symphony Orchestra is taking to grow their audiences is directly approaching businesses, hotels, condominiums and apartment complexes in the downtown area with ticket offers for employees and residents. That effort brought in $177,000 in sales to new or lapsed audiences.
They are really focusing on customer service training at every level and making a special effort to welcome new attendees.
SSO has also created a “Surprise and Delight” program for new subscribers. In it, staff members greet them by name when they arrive at Benaroya Hall and tell them SSO is glad they’ve come. “What we found,” said Wade, “is that, in fact, the people that we greet renew at a significantly higher rate than people that we don’t greet.” In the 2016-17 season, that tally was 41 percent versus 29 percent.
At each concert, about 35 new members also hear a buzz when their ticket is scanned, and are told to go to the information desk. “They are looking curious,” Kunkel said—and about five to seven of the 35 never go to the desk, he added. Those who do, however, are thanked and given free drink tickets. “Their concern falls away,” said Kunkel, who works the desk, “and they get a big smile on their faces.”
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