Symphony’s New Sales Strategy: More Cash Faster

With its strike-scarred centennial finally behind it and a looming deficit well in excess of $1.5 million, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is revamping its ticket-selling strategy. CSO executives are reluctant to acknowledge that the changes have anything to do with something so crass as generating more revenue faster, but key shifts in ticket policy appear to be aimed at achieving just that goal.

On September 13 the CSO will run newspaper ads listing the entire concert lineup for next season and announcing the start of single-ticket sales for all concerts. Late last week the symphony’s marketing chief, Joyce Idema, was busy putting the finishing touches on the ad campaign and the new marketing strategy. She said, “We think we’ve found a way to do the ad where we can list all of the concert dates, selected repertoire, and the soloists as well.”

This marks a departure from the previous 15-year-old policy, which dictated that single tickets for a specific concert would only be available eight weeks before the event by mail order and six weeks before at the box office. The new approach is certain to put more money in the CSO till much sooner. Idema says there was no particular rhyme or reason to the old policy: “It’s just the way we had always done things.”

Obviously the old ways no longer make much fiscal sense. The CSO has more tickets to peddle this Year than last, thanks to the addition of a new Saturday-night series of five concerts, which was only 60 percent subscribed as of last week. Idema expects to move a number of those seats when the tickets go on sale September 13. Tickets to the Saturday concerts are the priciest of the season; a single sold-out Saturday-night orchestra concert, according to Idema, could gross more than $120,000.

Another reason the CSO needs to sell more single tickets is a decline of about 3 percent (to around 86 percent from 89 percent last season) in subscription renewals. Although the decrease in subscriptions is not to be taken lightly at an institution that prides itself on world-class status, it is not that surprising given the economy and the changes the CSO has endured in the past year: a messy strike, the arrival of music director Daniel Barenboim, Sir Georg Solti’s departure, and more of the less-familiar 20th-century music on the programs. (Tough economic times, however, did not keep the CSO from boosting next season’s ticket prices by about 8 percent, with prime seats going for $65, up from $54 last year.)

The new policy not only caters to single-ticket buyers but also gives loyal subscribers new incentives to stick with the orchestra. For the first time in the symphony’s history subscribers will be allowed to exchange their tickets for any other concert during the season rather than just for another performance of the program to which they subscribed. The CSO has also dropped the exchange fee of $2 per ticket. “For a lot of subscribers the old policy didn’t work,” says Idema. “We want to make it easier for them to do what they need to do.”

Though money generated from concert ticket sales represents only about a third of the orchestras total budget, the CSO is clearly moving to ensure that it doesn’t lose out on that income at a time when foundation and corporate funding is harder to come by. If the CSO manages to sell all its tickets for the upcoming season it will earn about $12.5 million, up from around $10.8 million last season. The symphony’s operating budget for next season is $35 million.

Beleaguered Jazz Fest Finds Some Friends

In the best show-biz tradition, the 14th annual Chicago Jazz Festival will go on September 4 through 6 at the Petrillo Music Shell in Grant Park–but not without some setbacks.

Jazz aficionados cringed last winter when they learned that Mayor Daley’s Office of Special Events planned to cut the festival from four days to two. But according to Penny Tyler, the jazz festival coordinator in the special events office, the administration was merely facing reality. “The fact is, the festival had been running at a deficit for some time,” says Tyler, “and the city simply decided it was not going to cover those losses any longer.” For the past three years, when the festival ran for four days, Tyler says it lost between $75,000 and $120,000 each year. She says, “Taste of Chicago was covering the losses of a lot of other festivals the city was producing.”

The bad news about the shortened festival was leavened with some good last month when radio station WNUA-FM and the New York-based soft-core-jazz label GRP stepped forward and offered to underwrite a third day of the festival, at a cost of about $100,000, provided they could feature artists from the GRP roster. The request was approved by the Jazz Institute of Chicago, which programs the festival, though some purists might frown on the additions of Spyro Gyra and Diane Schuur to the lineup.

This year’s festival budget is $240,500, with the majority of the funds supplied by corporate underwriters, vendor fees, and beverage and souvenir sales. Major underwriters include United Airlines, Hyatt Hotels, Eastman Kodak, and Kemper Financial Services. The city also contributed $47,500 from its hotel/motel tax fund, down from $50,000 last year. Tyler says she hopes to find enough money to extend the festival next year, adding, “There are sources we haven’t tapped yet.” Among other things she is applying for a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Hollywood at the Vic?

Remember Barry Schain, the man who would have transformed the Royal George Theatre Center into the never well defined but ridiculous-sounding Hollywood by the Lake? Schain has dropped that project for now, but early next month he plans to unveil a different venture called Brew & View. Schain will take over the Vic Theatre at 3145 N. Sheffield for approximately 26 nights a month to show second-run films, serve viewers finger food and beer, and generally let the good times roll. Schain thinks he can’t go wrong with the concept and a $2.50 adult admission charge. While touting his film-and-food venture, Schain confessed he had envisioned something along the same lines for the Royal George complex, but not for the current theater space.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.