Ben Rosen, former Board Member of the Met, has a fascinating post at his blog about the Met’s turnaround under the leadership of Peter Gelb. (Thanks to Alex Ross for pointing it out.) The whole essay is worth reading if you have any interest in the future of the classical music business or in the fortunes of the Met, but I want to highlight one passage in particular, concerning the marketing of Philip Glass’s opera “Satyagraha.” Apparently, prior to Gelb’s arrival the Met had no marketing team–marketing wasn’t seen as necessary with the number of sold-out performances they were playing. But in 2002, after years of steadily running at around 92% box office capacity, box office collapsed to 82% and began a steady decline to 77% in 2006. Rosen says that in the 90s the Met was selling out most nights, but in 2006 they sold out only 10% of performances.

As the 2007-08 season began, here’s what happened: Seven performances of Satyagraha was scheduled for the spring of 2008. Many subscribers who found Satyagraha included in their series decided to opt out of the Glass opera — they traded in their seats for other operas. And single-ticker buyers turned out to be equally cool to the prospect of watching a Sanskrit work. Normally, as a season progresses, single-ticket sales start out filling up the house. But a funny thing happened in this case. The forecasted box office of Satyagraha started declining, and at an alarming rate. The more time that passed, the worse the box office ahead looked. If this continued, there was a chance the opera would play to near-empty houses.

So a marketing task force was put together. For a modest budget, aided by contributions from a board member, the team was able to create dozens of different marketing initiatives designed to attract specialized audiences. New-age magazines yoga groups, anti-apartheid organizations, India groups, South African organizations, et al.

It worked. By the end of its run, Satyagraha had sold out its run. (By the way, it was a terrific production. I like to quip that Satyagraha is now my favorite Sanskrit opera.) Next year, the same team will have an opportunity to apply its narrow-focus marketing techniques to selling the John Adams opera, Doctor Atomic — a contemporary work about the creation of the atomic bomb.

Classical music organizations often fear that contemporary music scares away subscribers, and in this case it was true. The solution, usually, is either to program less new music or to essentially subsidise the new music performances with revenue (ticket sales and fundraising) from other more “audience-friendly” performances. But in this case all that was needed was an intelligent marketing campaign. Too few organizations do any real marketing efforts, and many of the ones that do focus on existing audiences. Note that the advertising strategy for Satyagraha wasn’t to push the opera harder to the existing audience base or to try to find an existing base of new-music fans–they targeted their advertising to people interested in the themes of the opera. Note also that the advertising matched a specific program with specific groups of people rather than trying to sell the organization or classical music in general to specific groups or to a general audience, or worrying about selling the specific program to a general audience. We don’t think of new age magazines or anti-apartheid groups as full of classical music lovers or potential classical music converts, and so we don’t advertise to them, but it turns out that when the program has direct relevance to their affinity advertising pays off handsomely. We shouldn’t be surprised–this is how modern marketing works–and yet I see very little of it in classical music.

My secondary point is that the success of the Satyagraha marketing campaign illustrates an important feature of industry trends. The subscription model of ticket sales is failing, and the main reason is simply that people have many options for entertainment and prefer to diversify. Attempts to salvage the subscription model may show short-term success (in fact, Met subscriptions are back up do to the fact that subscribers get first dibs on shows that are likely to sell out) but are doomed to failure over the long term. The solution, however, isn’t to appeal to the mythical “general audience,” it’s to use modern marketing strategies to pitch specific events to specific populations. I look forward to seeing how the marketing stratgy for “Doctor Atomic” plays out.

6 Responses to “The Right Kind of Advertising”
  1. Phil Fried says:

    It is perhaps hard to understand conclusions developed from aggregate statistics, used for a specific case, in this case “contemporary music.” Of course it would be no surprise if our definitions of contemporary music differ, and in the extreme at that.

    I could be wrong but besides the production, spectacle, stars, etc. I thought people go to the opera for the voice, the emotions, and the music/drama.

    Unless these content issues are addressed your going to need a lot of advertising.

    Phil Fried

  2. zeno says:

    For the new opera scene to flourish, at least in San Francisco, has required a group of committed donors — as well as the Grants for the Arts/San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund– who believe in new opera and who are willing to donate millions of dollars toward new opera commissioning over dozens of years. Bernard and Barbro Osher and others have donated significant amounts to the San Francisco Opera provided the funding go to the commissioning of new operatic works. Hence, the almost biennial [or better] commissioning of new operas by that progressive and wealthy opera company. [Interestingly, the recent world premiere, in London, of Birtwistle’s ‘The Minotaur’ was funded, in part, by the Columbia Foundation of San Francisco, using tax-preferred funding under U.S. tax law. It remains to be seen whether the work will also be staged by the San Francisco Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, the Seattle Opera, the Chicago Lyric Opera … Also, interesting, at least to me, is that San Francisco venture capitalist Michael Moritz, and his wife Harriet Heyman, last Wednesday gave $50 million to Oxford University in appreciation for the history and humanities instruction Mr Moritz received at Christ Church College in the 1970s.]

    The Washington, D.C. region, unfortunately, lacks major cultural patrons willing to donate tax-preferred funding to the Washington NATIONAL Opera for purposes of new operas. Thus, it was unusual when, a few years back, the Washington Opera petitioned Congress for permission to rename itself the Washington NATIONAL Opera, in exchange for its explicit promise — now held in balance since the company has announced no American opera for next season, and some Board members are reported to be clammoring to abrogate the promise to Congress — to produce one American opera each and every season. [That was a promise to produce 10 American operas every decade; 100 every century…]

    I recall that the MET Opera still receives major funding from the Texas-based Don and Sybil B. Harrington Foundation, which is made with the provision that the funding support traditional productions and no modern or new operas. Ms. Harrington, who passed away a decade ago, provided underwriting support for the exemplary, though conservative, Met productions — almost all televised — of ”Don Carlo,” ”Manon Lescaut,” ”La Boheme,” ”Francesca da Rimini,” ”Die Fledermaus,” ”Turandot,” ”Das Rheingold,” ”Aida,” ”Don Giovanni,” ”La Fanciulla del West,” ”Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg” and ”Otello.”

  3. Jim says:

    Yes, but… 1) It is expensive to pull together a unique audience for each concert 2) casual or occasional audience members are unlikely to turn into donors. For the new music scene to flourish, at least here in Boston, we need a group of committed supporters who will give far more than the price of the ticket.

  4. Doug Fox says:

    I was delighted to read about the niche-marketing focus for Satyagraha. I very much appreciate the Met’s content-specific focus that relied upon making connections with specific audiences and did not try the tried but ineffective strategy of pushing “the opera harder to the existing audience base.”

    This content-specific marketing strategy would be ideal, I believe, for many dance companies. Too often dance is promoted to traditional dance audiences. Little or no effort is devoted to what I’ll call the Sanskrit question: With whom would this work resonate whether or not they had seen much, little or any dance?

  5. zeno says:

    “Apparently, prior to Gelb’s arrival the Met had no marketing team–marketing wasn’t seen as necessary with the number of sold-out performances they were playing. But in 2002, after years of steadily running at around 92% box office capacity [annualized], box office collapsed to 82% …”

    I recall that the March 2002 revival of Alban Berg’s Lulu — with Christine Schafer in the title role — was not well attended. And there was the earlier production of Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice — I can’t recall the season off-hand — that was not well promoted or attended.

    I’d also be curious as to whether Samuel Ramey’s and Jessye Norman’s names assured respectable-sized crowds for the double-bill of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Schoenberg’s Erwartung in 1989. I vaguely recall that at one point Peter Sellars was slated for this evening, and that it originally was to have closed with Dallapiccola’s Il Prigioniero. [I was unfortunately too preoccupied, and had already attended the NYCO’s stunning Achim Freyer Bonn Opera production of Moses und Aron, to have attended in person the MET premiere of that work, under today’s birthday boy James Levine.]


    Will the Gelb [and Maazel] eras see MET Opera premieres of such operas as Dallapiccola’s Ulisse, Sessions’s Montezuma, Messiaen’s Saint-Francois d’Assis, Saariaho’s L’amour de Loin, Birtwistle’s The Minotaur, and Wallace’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter — as well as Shostakovich’s The Nose and Janacek’s From the House of the Dead?

  6. J.C. Combs says:

    I’ve been trying to point that out as much as possible lately. There is an audience there for new music, yet trying to market it to an audience longing for the really old sound and scoffing at different ideas won’t work. But who wants them anyway? And as that article points out, there are free thinking people out there, lots of them, ready to experience new and current works.