MUSIC

Selling the music

For beleaguered orchestras, marketing is key

SHOWWEI CHU March 25 1996
MUSIC

Selling the music

For beleaguered orchestras, marketing is key

SHOWWEI CHU March 25 1996

Selling the music

MUSIC

For beleaguered orchestras, marketing is key

At the American Marketing Association’s annual awards night in Calgary early this year, crystal trophies were given to the marketing

directors responsible for 1994’s most outstanding campaigns. Among the 400 conservatively dressed people in the hotel ballroom, Graeme Menzies stood out in his bright yellow blazer. But it was his marketing strategies that caught the association’s eye. Menzies’ campaign for the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra made him the first person working for a symphony to win an award from the 50,000-member association, the world’s largest marketing association. Says Menzies, the orchestra’s marketing director, whose aggressive program helped to double the number of subscribers to 12,300 in just one year, 1994: “We identified the target and went after them ruthlessly.” Adds Leonard Stone, the orchestra’s executive director: “All we’re trying to do is make the Calgary orchestra as successful as McDonald’s.”

The Calgary Philharmonic’s success notwithstanding, these are tough times for Canadian orchestras. According to the Canada Council, federal funding to symphonies has dropped an average of one to two per cent each year since 1990. Although no precise figures are available, private money also appears to be drying up. With the steady diminution of funding, all but two of the country’s 13 major orchestras—those with annual budgets of at least $2 million—are running deficits (only the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and the Victoria Symphony Orches-

tra are debt free). Many of the more than 100 smaller orchestras and ensembles are also suffering. Even the internationally acclaimed Montreal Symphony Orchestra and the revitalized Toronto Symphony Orchestra are substantially in the hole, to the tune of $4.2 million and $3.3 million, respectively.

Debt has already paralyzed the 113-yearold Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra and threatened the demise of the Vancouver and Atlantic symphony orchestras (the latter was reborn in 1983 as Symphony Nova Scotia) . ‘We have to achieve our budgets either through increased attendance or increased prices,” says Bob McPhee, managing director of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. “And to just rapidly increase prices is not a reality of the market right now.”

Some are putting their hopes in demographic trends. According to University of Toronto economist David Foot and journalist Daniel Stoffman, authors of the upcoming Boom, Bust and Echo, there will soon be a renaissance for symphonies as baby boomers finally give up their tenuous hold on youth and trade in their rock albums for the classics. Foot maintains that the 30-to-49-yearold age group is starting to opt for the peace and quiet of the concert hall. “Culture is on the way back in,” he asserts, “as a result of the aging of the Canadian population.”

In the meantime, many organizations are following the Calgary Philharmonic’s example of more aggressive, innovative marketing. Indeed, the annual conference of the Association of Canadian Orchestras in Toronto in May will focus on how to sell the music.

In the case of the Calgary orchestra, that has involved a barrage of mailings and an intense telemarketing campaign aimed at 50,000 current and past subscribers. As a result of those efforts, the 40-year-old organization—under music director Hans Graf since last season—has managed to sell out such annual events as Mozart on the Mountain, which attracted 13,000 peopie to the side of Mount Allan, one hour from Calgary, last September, and the first annual Maestro Ambassador’s Ball the same month, which raised $50,000.

Stone and Menzies are largely responsible for reducing the organization’s near-fatal 1993 debt of $1.6 million to $900,000. “I never book an artist without thinking, ‘Can this artist help me raise money?’ ” Stone says.

Time is definitely running out for the Hamilton Philharmonic. Under a $1.2-million debt, it had to suspend operations in January, cancelling 24 concerts. Former Hamilton mayor Jack MacDonald and onetime Ontario Liberal leader Stuart Smith are chairing a study exploring various options, including a merger of the Hamilton orchestra with its counterparts in nearby KitchenerWaterloo and London, Ont.

If the experience of other symphonies is any indication, there may be hope for Hamilton. The Vancouver Symphony cancelled the last 40 of its 90 scheduled concerts in its 1987-1988 season and laid off 76 full-time musicians because of its $2.3-million debt, but was reborn the following season after a huge community campaign raised more than $400,000, and a one-time federal government grant of $500,000 was received. “Sometimes it’s just a wake-up call,” says Peter Tiefenbach, host of CBC Radio’s The Arts Tonight. “Orchestras are very expensive organisms and they need constant care and feeding.” Many orchestras are trying to increase attendance through pre-concert lectures, meetings with guest artists and music directors, and other add-on attractions. This year, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s fifth annual du Maurier Arts Ltd. New Music Festival attracted 14,000 patrons during nine days of contemporary fare. Since 1989, the Vancouver Symphony has held an annual concert at the Whistler ski resort. The Victoria Symphony draws about 50,000 people to its annual performances from a barge in the city’s inner harbor—the program always includes Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, with its crowd-pleasing cannon blast. For their own survival, Canadian orchestras themselves are having to rely on heavier marketing artillery.

SHOWWEI CHU