Thoughts on the Met’s “Box Office Slide” and its Implications

Last week the New York Times’s published article on how to fill the empty seats over at the Metropolitan Opera—a piece that I responded to yesterday.  Shortly after the original article appeared, writer Michael Cooper published a companion article in the Times to give a bit of context to the situation, and provide a deeper analysis about why those seats were empty in the first place.  Based on the Met’s financial data, interviews with the Met’s General Manager Peter Gelb and Opera America’s Marc Scorca, and reports by the National Endowment for the Arts, he sees the Met’s drop in ticket sales as part of a larger decline in participation in the arts going on across the country.

I greatly respect his writing and his sourcing, and fully understand his point.  But based on my own experience, and my own dives into the data, I have a somewhat different take on the situation.

* * *

“‘We have more individual ticket-buyers than ever before, but because they are relatively new to the Met, they are not yet converted to the kind of opera fanaticism that would result in enough multiple ticket purchases to make up for the loss of the older subscribers,’ [Peter Gelb] said in a telephone interview. ‘That’s basically the math that’s going on.’ The number of new ticket buyers, however, ‘gives us reasons for hope,’ he said.”

Having a banner year for individual tickets is a good thing, and suggests an area for future growth. How is Mr. Gelb taking advantage of this promising situation?  How is he integrating this new development into his financial plans? Does this suggest a change in organizational priorities is in order?  What’s the strategy? Or more specifically, the strategic response to these changing circumstances?

This is the key.  Throughout this interview, Mr. Gelb argues that the subscribers from days of yore are gone, and with them the days of high ticket sales.  But the buyers are there, just not the ones he expected. And their buying habits are different.  This should be a call to change strategy—to re-think the outmoded financial model based on subscriptions and consider a new one that better reflects our increasingly on-demand world. Rather than bemoaning that individuals’ buying habits don’t mesh with past marketing models, Mr. Gelb should meet them where they are.

Right now, it feels like his primary goal is to make an excuse about why the Met isn’t hitting ticketing goals.


“Attendance at classical music, opera and ballet fell between 2002 and 2012, according to the National Endowment for the Arts, as organizations struggle to make their programs affordable and appealing to new audiences.”

An observation. I agree that the NEA report does indeed show a decline in attendance between 2002 and 2012 (here’s the key section of the report: NEA Report Chapter 1 – Visual and Performing Arts Attendance). But a deeper dive into the data suggests that the story is more complicated.

For one, this chosen time period ends up distorting the data—the decade between 2002 and 2012 is tailor-made to show a devastating decline in arts attendance.  In 2003, the country entered into a huge economic decline brought on by the dot-com bust.  I was working in the Development department of the Minnesota Orchestra at that time, and remember it vividly.  What followed was several years of reduced individual contributions, a sharp decline in corporate partnerships… and a big dip in ticket sales.  The Minnesota Orchestra was fortunate that Osmo Vänskä took over as Music Director in 2003, and curious ticket buyers helped boost sales, but the overall industry trend was fairly weak. There was a gradual recovery thereafter, but things came crashing down with the Great Recession in 2008.  The economic recovery was underway by 2012, which in fact helped President Obama win reelection, but it only really took hold after that, and many people are still feeling shell-shocked even today.

Between these two economic shocks, it’s absolutely no surprise that ticket sales are lower between 2002 and 2012. I made essentially the same point responding to an article by Greg Sandow, who based his analysis on numbers from this same time period.

But I also think there are some caveats in the NEA report that further muddle the idea of a general decline.

Right on page 2, as part of the key findings, the report states: “Older adults are the only demographic subgroup to show an increase in performing arts attendance over a decade ago. Their rates of attendance at classical music, opera, musicals, and non-musicals were significantly higher in 2012 than in 2002.”

So clearly, although the report notes an overall decline in participation, a key demographic group—essentially the Baby Boomers—are turning in greater numbers.  This is huge.  Boomers, after all, are the natural audience for the Met, with levels of disposable income that Millennials and Gen Xers do not yet match.  Yes of course arts organizations need to attract younger people to expand the pipeline of donors and ticket buyers; and indeed, many opera companies are working hard to bring them on board (this story from Opera Philadelphia is particularly interesting in this regard). But in the meantime, the Boomers are at the peak of their economic capacity, and their high rates of attendance is welcome, stabilizing news.

There is also the important point of clarification about participation rates that go beyond just the raw number of audience members attending classical music performances.  Andrew Doe made a powerful point on the blog “Proper Discord” about this:

In the UK, the percentage of adults attending concerts has increased over the last decade. In the US, the percentage has dropped because of population growth, but the actual audience size has held steady for at least 30 years.

Exactly.  This is reinforced by the NEA report, particularly in Figure 1-8: in 2002, 11.6% of U.S. adults attended classical music, versus 8.8% in 2012. Opera has seen more of a decline, from 3.2% down to 2.1%. This looks alarming at first glance, but population matters. In 2002, the United States’ population was approximately 282 million, and in 2012 it was 315 million.   This means in real terms, the “decline” in audience members attending an opera production is from 6,880,000 to 6,615,000 … which isn’t too bad, considering the two major recessions the country went through.

But there are even more interesting nuggets to uncover.  As Figure 1-9 points out, total attendance figures declined from 13.3 million to 10.0 million between 2002 and 2012 (most opera goers attend more than one production per year).  Yes, that’s a drop-off, but it’s hardly catastrophic.  Moreover, it doesn’t account for the Met’s much sharper decline over the same time period.

This would suggest that there’s something deeper going on at the Met than a general, nation-wide decline in ticket sales.


“Marc A. Scorca, president and chief executive of Opera America, a service organization, said, ‘This [decline] is emphatically not specific to New York, and not specific to the Met,’ adding that attendance at main stage performances dropped in the last 10 years ‘almost across our entire field.’”

I understand Mr. Scorca’s point, but I think he greatly underestimates the very real good news in the industry—both in terms of ticket sales and fundraising.

This week, for example, the major news here in my hometown of Minneapolis is that the Minnesota Opera’s world premiere of Paul Moravec’s The Shining (based on Stephen King’s bestselling novel) completely sold out its entire run, weeks before the show even opened. Moreover, International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSO) Chair Bruce Ridge has recently provided a run down for 2014-2015:

  • The Atlanta Symphony announced that it ended the season with a surplus, and raised $13 million [see Orchestra Newslets]
  • The Arizona Opera exceeded its fundraising goals
  • The Buffalo Philharmonic saw record season ticket sales and subscription revenues for the third consecutive year
  • The Charlotte Symphony received a $2 million gift
  • The Cincinnati Symphony raised over $26 million and signed a new contract that adds 15 new musicians over the next five years [see the July 2015 Senza Sordino]
  • The Dallas Symphony achieved a balanced budget and received a $5 million gift
  • The Detroit Symphony raised $1.4 million in one evening
  • The Houston Grand Opera exceeded its fundraising goal, raising almost $173 million
  • The Houston Symphony received a $5 million donation, the largest gift in nearly a decade
  • The Indianapolis Symphony saw ticket sales increase 15%, and subscriptions rose 24%.
  • The Memphis Symphony received a $1 million gift for education programs
  • The Minnesota Orchestra received $6 million in special gifts and embarked on a historic tour to Cuba [see the July 2015 Senza Sordino]
  • The Nashville Symphony set fundraising and ticket sales records [see Orchestra Newslets]
  • The Omaha Symphony saw record attendance
  • The Oregon Symphony set records for ticket sales and contributions, and its gala raised a record $700,000 [see Orchestra Newslets]
  • The Pacific Symphony’s gala raised a record $1.6 million
  • The Richmond Symphony received a $1 million gift for outdoor concerts
  • The Rochester Philharmonic reported a 19% increase in single ticket sales
  • The St. Louis Symphony received a $10 million gift
  • The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra saw its highest attendance in 20 years

I don’t want to suggest that classical music is some magical era of endless ticket sales—as the Board President of a local arts organization, I am all too familiar with the challenges of getting people in the door to hear our concerts.  But I don’t want to overstate the issues either.  Many arts organizations have rebounded nicely from the Great Recession, and are finding solid footing.

So when Marc Scorca and Peter Gelb imply that the Met’s problems are being caused by a decline in attendance at classical music events around the country… I’m skeptical.

* * *

In the end, I agree broadly with the point that the last 10-15 years have been tough on arts organizations, particularly orchestras and opera companies.  These various economic shocks and cultural shifts have been a drag on Met, as well as everyone else.

But as is often the case, the details show a much more interesting story—and one that doesn’t necessarily support Peter Gelb’s view that a falling tide drops all ships.

Several orchestras and opera companies have been able to increase ticket sales and donations, even though they are in the same economic environment the Met is in.  Why is the Met specifically experiencing greater difficulties than its peers?  Why isn’t the Met more aggressively capitalizing on the positive developments that it is experiencing?

A general, nation-wide decline in ticket sales can explain many things… but it can’t fully explain what’s going on at the Met.  Perhaps the Met should explore other areas as well.



1 thought on “Thoughts on the Met’s “Box Office Slide” and its Implications

  1. Pingback: Clichés Abound in WSJ’s Analysis of the Met Opera | Mask of the Flower Prince

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