Subscribing to the New Century; the Reigning Arts-Marketing Philosophy Still Gets a Lot Right-But It's Time for an Update

By Snead, David | American Theatre, November 2008 | Go to article overview

Subscribing to the New Century; the Reigning Arts-Marketing Philosophy Still Gets a Lot Right-But It's Time for an Update


Snead, David, American Theatre


IN 1977, THE MOST IMPORTANT BOOK IN THE history of arts marketing was published: Subscribe Now! Building Arts Audiences Through Dynamic Subscription Promotion, by a high-octane Chicago press agent named Danny Newman.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

More than 30 years later, Subscribe Now!, with its memorable cover--showing a herd of eager customers stampeding toward an unseen something (presumably an arts event, or maybe a subscription office) while one shy couple, alone, gazes at the fray with a mixture of longing and apprehension--remains for many people the book on arts marketing. It is in its 11th printing, its lessons applied across more than 30 countries with equal gusto by organizations large and small.

The book is an impassioned, take-no-prisoners manifesto for subscription-based marketing. In one vivid anecdote after another, Newman rails against the vagaries of the uncommitted single-ticket buyer and extols the benefits of a strong, loyal subscription audience. By virtue of their frequent attendance, Newman points out, subscribers become more knowledgeable and engaged about the art form and the organization. They turn into donors and volunteers, as well as salespeople when they eagerly bring their friends along to concerts. Subscribers provide a solid base of financial stability and community support that fuels organizational vitality. And because they're coming to a season almost regardless of what's programmed, the argument goes, a strong subscription audience gives the artistic leadership the freedom it needs to risk, experiment and grow.

It may be this last point that resonates the loudest in Subscribe Now! today. Newman's passion for the art jumps off every page, and he argues persuasively that great art does not happen without a great audience. There is nothing wrong with an arts organization, he seems to say, that can't be solved with a season sold out on subscription.

The book literally changed how arts organizations sell tickets. By 1984, according to American Symphony Orchestra League (now the League of American Orchestras) statistics, subscribers comprised a monolithic 95 percent of the audience to the nation's largest orchestras. Today, though, that figure is down to 75 percent. And while subscription income consistently surpassed single-ticket income at TCG member theatres prior to 2000, that's no longer the norm. TCG's annual Theatre Facts (summarized in this issue; see page 40) states that the average number of theatre subscribers has dropped 8 percent in the last five years alone. As Wisconsin-based Walrus Research puts it, "Reality has a way of eventually getting your attention." The reality of 2008 is an environment much less hospitable to subscribing than in 1977, due to several factors:

LIFESTYLE: The proportion of American households that rely on dual incomes is up 77 percent, squeezing time for the arts. Meanwhile, the proportion of single-person households is up 58 percent, a concern for any marketer who's seen survey results citing "lack of someone to go with" as a major barrier to subscribing.

DEMAND-BUILDING: Public school arts programs, the great feeders of future subscription audiences, have been under attack for a decade or more. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, just 54 percent of American public high schools offered classes in theatre in 1995; four years later, in 1999, the number had slipped to 48 percent.

SUPPLY IS UP, AND SO ARE PRICES: Paradoxically, even as these demand-building "feeder systems" are declining, there is far more supply than ever before. Since 1977, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of arts organizations has exploded 180 percent. With demand down and supply up, basic economics would suggest that prices must have dropped. And yet the exact opposite has occurred--it's not more expensive than ever to go a show. In 1980, the average top price for a TCG theatre was $10. …

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