Are Classical Music Concerts Too Cheap?

I flinched when reading the title of this article over at the Future Symphony Institute: ‘In memory of David Modell, and a few things orchestras might learn from the NFL’. What could classical music have to do with American football? Moreover, I feared a certain business-minded approach to classical music, an artform most often ill-served by the free market. Attempts to market it in conventional advertising ways seems to end in sexy glamour or an eye-rolling informality or a ‘greatest hits’ approach.

Fortunately this article takes a different tact. The author recollects a conversation he had with ‘football legend’ David Modell:

Over the years, I would chat with Dave about the challenge we orchestras believe we faced: asking ourselves how we could manage to charge less for tickets. “That’s crazy,” Dave would say. “You have to make your product seem as valuable to people as possible. Even the folks with little money spring for NFL tickets and the team jerseys if that’s something they really want. What’s so hard to understand about that?”

At first this was annoying to read. Price gouging to enhance a product’s status always seems silly and pretentious. For instance, those who spout the virtues of Voss water over tap water or other bottled water should be wholly ridiculed for it. Anyway, the author continues:

It simply rubs an arts administrator with an egalitarian mindset the wrong way to try to push up prices. Yet, people from all economic strata in Baltimore do fork over the big bucks for Ravens games. The Ravens and the Orioles, with their legendary Camden Yards, are the best shows in town – aside from the BSO, of course. Not everyone attends every game or every concert. Some people don’t attend any, but those who do pony up gladly

Ah, well there’s to greater insult than to be lumped together with egalitarian arts administrators! The author wants to make a greater event of concerts, he has a

dream of redesigning our concert experience, changing it from a two-hour sit-down-listen-and-leave routine to a five-hour window during which people show up in time to eat, drink, and be merry, the orchestra playing not just a world-class concert but also the world-class host. In short, the concert hall would become a destination for atmosphere, music, and hospitality.

He clearly placing great emphasis on the social function of music, something classical music has arguably abdicated, happy to let pop music fill that role. Where I sympathise is that more expensive tickets may well breed a more dynamic concert life. By virtue of my youth, I get extraordinarily cheap tickets. So I have reason to be very grateful for the push towards concessions and cheap tickets. And even without concessions, you can see a world-class orchestra for a fraction of the price of a world-famous pop group. The trouble is, this can soften one’s inner critic. If I pay a fiver for a Barbican ticket, say, I won’t be let down and will probably not give it much thought. I’ve been to a couple of bad concerts, of course, but as the ticket prices were so low, I just shrugged them off.

I did exactly that for a recent semi-staged performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio, part of the Southbank’s silly Belief and Beyond Belief concert series, which ruined the opera by interrupting the performance with naval-gazing on issues such as Saddam Hussein and Stalin, and the etymological root of the word ‘hope’. (This is not to mention the director’s decision to stage the first act as if it were a stage rehearsal.) Had I paid, say, £50 and not £10 I would probably have been utterly livid, rather than just disappointed. Would not the discourse around performances — and the quality and quantity of public music criticism — greatly improve, then, if prices were higher? I know if I’d paid £50 I would have written a full irritated review, whereas at £10 I thought ‘ah well’, and left it — but perhaps I’m unusual.

There is, for sure, a comparable effect when it comes to how we listen to albums. In the era when I and others had to buy albums, as a teenager rationed heavily by my pitiful allowance, each album would be listened to intently many times, each minute and each second given its due importance. Music streaming has further pushed the music to the background. And when searching for things to listen to, it can transform into a kind of speed dating, giving a recording no more than a minute to enchant you, or else it’s onto the next. The music costs practically nothing. We’ve discovered the utopia wherein free stuff really is free. Yet it isn’t that much of a utopia. You only get out what you put in, and in a population of musically illiterate freeloaders, we put in so little.

I’m not advocating a sharp price increase, if only because I cherish the ridiculously generous concessions I get. But as well as bankrupting orchestras, it may not be the best thing for the future of the artform. Maybe classical music needs the prestige that only money can buy?