On Filling the Met Opera’s Empty Seats

Last week, the New York Times featured a major piece looking at the ongoing challenges facing the Metropolitan Opera.  The key question it tackled—a question that perennially haunts the dreams of all performing arts organizations—was how the Met could fill all those empty seats, performance after performance?  Most of the Times’s top critics weighed in, offering a lightning round of suggestions on how to put “butts in seats.”

Sparked by the Times’s article, many others took up this question as well.  For example, La Cieca over at Parterre.com shared some additional recommendations of how to increase ticket sales.  The discussion has continued among groups online, via Twitter, and even here in Minnesota; one local news organization, MinnPost, actually put forward a hilarious parody video showing what happens when an orchestra follows the advice of consultants to boost ticket sales.  Days later Times itself published a follow-up article by Michael Cooper, purporting to look at the root causes of the Met’s box office woes.  Everyone seems to have an opinion on this topic.

Well, the Met Opera hasn’t asked for my thoughts (this isn’t entirely a surprise—due to my coverage of the Met’s contentious contract negotiations a few years back, I’m sure Peter Gelb thinks of me as The Harlot of Babylon), but since everyone else is chiming in, I feel like I should add my two cents too. 

* * *

First, a couple observations.  One of the strengths of the Times’s original piece is, paradoxically, a potential weakness.

On the positive side of the equation, the Times has reached out to a group of writers with deep wells of knowledge, and lengthy histories with the Met (and performing arts as a whole).  They’ve seen a vast number of performances in a wide range of companies, and their voices absolutely should be heard.

But I can’t escape the fact that all these opinions come from a very specific vantage point—that of opera-loving music writers.  The very fact that these writers have such deep knowledge and a high level of expertise makes them unrepresentative of the public at large, and somewhat unsuited to answer the question of what would cause a casual, music-loving member of the general public to buy a ticket.  Nor is it clear that these critics have actually been in the trenches trying to grow audiences.

I don’t wish to downplay their views, and I certainly appreciate their willingness to bring forward their suggestions, but I’d love to see a follow-up article with feedback from arts administrators and members of the general public to get a more comprehensive, holistic picture.

The need for these other perspectives is made clear in looking at the article’s comment section.  One family, for example, notes that they were long-standing subscribers, but in 2009 their seats were abruptly re-categorized to premium price seats… with a 70% price increase.  They attempted to talk to someone about this abrupt change and find some sort of solution, but they were never called back and ultimately cancelled their subscription outright.  Their departure was the result of a garden-variety bout of bad customer service—a problem that plagues many business and organizations.  So while suggestions such as Sunday performances, discounted tickets or diverse programming are interesting, they don’t necessarily address the reasons this family’s seats are now vacant.

So to put it bluntly, arts writers might not necessarily come up with “improve customer service” as one of their recommendations for improving ticket sales… but arts administrators and the ticket-buying public probably would.

But this family’s reason for dropping their subscription hits at another problem with the Times’s analysis—a problem I’ve addressed many times here on my blog, and is addressed in the Parterre.com article as well.

Capacity sold is not a particularly useful metric on which to base an art organization’s success.

At a glance, looking at the fact that the Met’s ticket sales are at 66% of capacity looks alarming.  And I admit it’s not ideal.  But capacity sold is not a metric tied to the actual budget.  For example, the Met could sell all its tickets to $5 apiece to fill every seat… and still lose a ton of money on its productions.  It is far better to look at ticket revenue, or earned revenue as a whole—those are metrics tied to the budget, and far better indicators of financial success.

Also, as that same family’s anecdote reveals, not all seats are equal… or priced equally. A $100 seat has a very different effect on the budget than a $50 seat, and the reasons why one or the other seat is vacant can be quite different.

And what does it mean if premium seats are filled by budget-conscious buyers who bought discounted tickets at a student or public rush line?  Is it a net positive because the seat is occupied, or a net negative because it represents unrealized potential? Does the short term gain of having a seat occupied outweigh the potential long-term problem of training ticket buyers to wait for the last minute and get a discount, so that they never buy full-price tickets in the future?

Clearly, the issue of having “butts in seats” is complicated.

In the end, I would counter that the real question we should be asking is not just how do we fill seats, but how do we grow audiences.  And with that, how do we grow ticket revenue more broadly?  Those are very different questions.

* * *

So what should the Met to do to grow its audience, and ultimately increase ticket sales?

The Times article does a good job of bringing practical, tactical suggestions forward.  But for me, there’s something missing—the larger, more important strategic concerns that have to be put into place before the Met can implement any tactical suggestions.  So let me step back and take a larger look at what the Met needs to do to grow audiences.  And please note that while these are particularly germane for the Met, I suspect other arts groups could follow them, too.

Change the Organizational Culture.  There is a long-standing truism, often associated with Peter Drucker, that “culture will always eat strategy for breakfast.”  The quote itself may or may not be apocryphal, but the sentiment is spot-on.  More than a great strategy, more than a perfect blueprint, more than a perfectly crafted mission statement… an organization needs a strong organizational culture based on shared responsibility, teamwork, mutual trust, and respect.

This culture of unity is critical because of another long-standing truism that no battle plan survives past the first shot fired.  Things change all the time.  As an organization goes about its business, it will be forced to deal with unexpected challenges and uncover unforeseen opportunities.  How will it react?  How will it make course corrections?  How will it survive the surprising setback?  Without a positive culture, the organization will be too busy assessing blame for unexpected setbacks, or taking credit for ideas or initiatives they had nothing to do with.

Right now, my fear is that the Met’s culture—specifically its leadership culture—is so toxic that it wouldn’t be able to implement any of the recommendations being offered, making this whole argument moot.  It should instead throw its resources into building a new, collaborative culture where all members work together.  A culture that responds well to changing circumstances, and manages inevitable disagreements with respect, honesty, and a sense of shared vision.

If this cannot happen with the current leadership in place, remove it.  For the good of the organization.

Do Not Be Afraid of Failure.  I say this with the utmost conviction—in order to succeed, the Met has to be willing to try a variety of initiatives, and it has to be comfortable with the fact that several ideas are going to bomb.  An organization that is terrified of failure is going to be tentative, defensive, and unable to solve the problems as they arrive.

Take risks. If something is a great success… great!  See how it can be replicated, and move forward.  If something is a failure… that’s okay too.  Individuals and organizations alike learn from their mistakes.  Was the problem with the original idea?  In its execution? Did a surprising result suggest a new path to take?

I know, I know.  It’s terrifying to make big mistakes, and arts organizations usually don’t have a surplus of resources they can cavalierly cast away.  And I don’t propose chasing down every ridiculous notion an organization comes up with; this isn’t a green light to uncritically embrace risky behavior.

But again and again, I’ve found that fortune favors the bold.  People—and funders—get excited about challenges. Plus, the creative problem-solving needed to solve a challenge can inspire new ideas or new ways of doing things that would never have come up if the organization simply kept on keeping on. Creative thinking does not happen if an organization is paralyzed by the fear of failure—in those organizations, people are usually focused on keeping their heads down and not making waves.

All the more reason to foster a positive, collaborative work culture.

So the Met I would say: test ideas, and evaluate the results.  And do not punish folks for thinking outside the box.  As noted above, this requires building a positive, collaborative work culture that doesn’t seek to find scapegoats, or to deflect blame.

Create a Strong Artistic Strategic Plan.  In order for an arts organization to truly thrive, it needs to have an artistic strategic plan—a plan that clarifies and makes sense of the art it is producing, considers the needs of the audience, and takes into account the financial and human resources that are at hand.

Some people think this step is nothing more than putting together a solid season, but it goes deeper than that.  An artistic strategic plan sets the parameters for an organization to create a solid season, and helps provide the rationale for how each of the performances fit together to further the organization’s mission. What kind of art should it do, so that it engages its performing artists and workers as well as the audience?  How does its art speak to the community?  How does its art highlight the organization’s strengths and set it apart from peers?  Ideally, this plan will ensure that all artistic productions mutually support each other, so that the season as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Every arts organization has to make choices about what it does—a strategic plan provides the guidance to make wise choices.  And related to the point above, these wise choices allow an organization to make calculated risks, to ensure that when it does take a bold action, it will maximally help the organization and not divert precious resources into less important activities.

Right now, it feels like Met productions aren’t being created as part of a holistic, self-supporting plan, but as part of a melee where ideas are being wildly thrown around in the hopes that something sticks. Diversifying repertoire or focusing on shorter repertoire are not in and of themselves bad ideas, but rather than adopting them as ends unto themselves, they should be evaluated against an artistic strategic plan to ensure the Met isn’t squandering time, money, or organizational energy on ideas that don’t support its main artistic mission.

* * *

This moves pretty far afield from the Times’s original article about how to put butts in seats… but that’s the point.  Before any of the specific recommendations can be considered, the Met needs to make some larger structural changes to ensure any new initiatives it does implement will have the best chance to succeed.

The same goes for any other organization seeking to “fill the house.”




1 thought on “On Filling the Met Opera’s Empty Seats

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on the Met’s “Box Office Slide” and its Implications | Mask of the Flower Prince

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