Last December our colleagues at Orchestra London closed up shop. On a quiet Tuesday afternoon, with what appeared to be very little warning, they canceled concerts, and musicians were left with an uncertain future. The city of London, Ont, is now putting the process in place to figure out if there is any way to bring the organization back from the dead.
Why did it all happen so fast? From what I understand, they hit a point where they couldn’t make payroll as they came to the end of their cash flow deficit. A familiar story in the orchestra world.
A friend of mine who lives in London said to me “I was just at their last concert…it was packed. How could this happen?”
The business of orchestras is very complex; the business model relies entirely on volatile variables: ticket sales, funding, and patron and corporate support.
Ticket Sales – While many people think concert tickets can be expensive, the fact is that the ticket price covers only 1/3 of what it costs to put you in that seat for the night. To properly sustain the operations of the SSO we would have to move to a model where our “cheap seats” were $65….for students. Grand circle seats would be well over $200 a night. It’s important to remember that when you come to a concert you are covering not only the performers on stage, but also the staff behind the scenes, the tech crew, the folks at the door, the program you’re reading, and quite literally renting that seat you’re sitting in for the night.
We keep our prices accessible, because after all we’re here to engage a community in a creative dialogue – we want to keep our prices affordable for all. We want a vibrant audience who represents all facets of our city, no matter socio-economic background, age, or place in life. To move to a for-profit model where ticket sales created profit would go against the bigger picture.
Funding – now this is where it gets bleak. Earlier this year, the Canada Council for the Arts announced that it would be “simplifying” over the next three years. What does that mean exactly? Your guess is as good as mine. It likely means that we are in for major cuts to the arts. Hopefully what it means is that the money allocated to the Canada Council will end up being spent more directly in the arts community, creating more opportunities for the arts to have an impact. But I’m not holding my breath.
Also important to understand is that the SSO receives a great deal less funding than other orchestras our size in Canada – our funding from provincial and civic levels are half of what the Regina Symphony receives respectively.
Based on the recent work of the SSO, the new strategic plan and direction, the successful programming, and the truly remarkable renaissance that we’re experiencing I hope that our funding opportunities improve. But it’s going to take more than just me waving my arms to fix this situation.
Support – for the last many years I wasn’t giving to the SSO either. I would buy my tickets but I was not giving. I, like you, was worried that my support was going to a black hole of long term financial troubles.
This was a systemic problem that the SSO had – it dates back decades, and I know that the organization has had to cry wolf many times.
But, we’ve almost fixed it. No crying wolf after this…after this, there won’t be a need to.
Our ticket sales for the Masters series this year are up 33% over last year…and if the last few weeks are indicative of results, subscription sales are about to leap. We have exceptionally strong board leadership – a board that is not only passionate about the arts, but truly passionate about fixing the financial model for the organization.
People have told me for over a year that I just shouldn’t talk about deficit, but guess what folks, without facing these issues head on we can’t fix them. Our quiet Tuesday will come, and we could be exactly where Orchestra London is now.
Personally, I refuse to let this thing die when everything else is going so well.
People are loving our concerts…so much so they’re showing up in massive numbers. At countless different performances this year I’ve had people tell me that “this was the best SSO concert I’ve ever been to” – the orchestra is playing well, and people are taking notice. Each and every day a new opportunity for expansion comes up…a new conductor, new educational programs, new partnerships, new ideas for old partnerships, growth opportunities literally walk through the door each day.
Share in the Future moves the orchestra, the entire organization, past 20+ years of deficit. It’s some kind of magically time machine that catches us up to the speed of what we’re doing. Your gift then instantly matched by the Frank and Ellen Remai Foundation – not only is it incredibly generous but it’s pretty visionary.
You give. The gift is matched. You get your tax receipt, and we’ll give you a free concert in November so that we can properly say thank you. And your name is added to the list of 2000 that stand and say that for them an orchestra is an essential part of their city.
I’m telling you, begging you, to not let this opportunity slip through our fingers. To my knowledge, magical time machines like this don’t come along very often. And frankly if we miss this chance, I’m not sure I’d want to live in a city that didn’t seize this moment and make it clear that music matters.
Hopefully see you at the symphony,