“Last time I checked there isn’t an orchestra in the US that can fill an auditorium like major pop names.”

The quote in the title of this post is from a Chip Michael’s piece from a few years ago.

It’s also something that is symptomatic about what’s wrong with comparisons between different kinds of musical genres. In the end, yes, what we’re talking about is live music played by live musicians for a live audience, but as the old adage goes, “The Devil’s in the Details.”

While I was actively gigging in the Indianapolis area, there was an online site, Indianapolismusic.net, which hosted an online forum for local musicians. As a precursor to more contemporary social networking technology like blogs and Facebook type sites, copious amounts of pixels were spent having heated discussions. Many of those discussions are simply the same ones musicians would have in real life. I’ve blogged about some of those perennial debates (i.e. Covers vs. Originals) and in many ways, these discussions define which musical tribe you belong to–as well as defining how much you are actually a part of the broader musical scene merely by the participation in them. *

The National Symphony Orchestra performs at "A Capitol Fourth" on the West Lawn of the Whitehouse. The event averages 700,000--just shy of the 800,000 in attendance at the New York Philharmonic's attendance during their Liberty Weekend performance in 1986 (see top blog image).
The National Symphony Orchestra performs at “A Capitol Fourth” on the West Lawn of the Whitehouse. The event averages 700,000–just shy of the 800,000 in attendance at the New York Philharmonic’s attendance during their Liberty Weekend performance in 1986 (see top blog image).

Local versus National (and International)

Let’s go back to that quote:

“Last time I checked there isn’t an orchestra in the US that can fill an auditorium like major pop names.”

Orchestras are inherently local.  In general, they are not touring ensembles like National (or International) touring Pop acts are. I’ve discussed the different structural ways various musical acts function in society in a previous post so won’t rehash that here. The implication of Michael’s quote is that Orchestras aren’t using social media (Facebook is his primary example) in effective ways to reach that savior demographic (i.e. younger audiences) like smaller pop groups are doing.  This wuote appears after comments on big name superstars: “So, they need to start thinking like the smaller groups and work on their self promotion.”

I remember when the Indianapolis Monthly published a list of the largest Arts organizations in Indianapolis (I believe it was the 2004 year)  and the attendance revenue for the organizations.  The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra was at the top of the list (as usual) with something near $10 million in audience revenue. While this may seem to be a pittance compared to Pop superstar revenue, and doesn’t come close to covering the operating budget (which is currently about $27 million) even if we factor in the average salary per musician, very few local acts would come close to this earning potential.

And that’s part of the point, the ISO is a local act. Sometimes the running joke on the Indianapolismusic.net bulletin board was that it’s just a big local cover band–which, in a sense, it is. That’s a part of its function, and the function in general of cover bands.  These aren’t acts performing original tunes that they’ve written. And part of the touring function, is to make those original tunes more well known to a larger audience in the hopes that the tunes become something as familiar as the tunes being covered by other groups (that’s part of the big label model for advertising their product by using live performing acts to sell records). Making comparisons like this title quote masks the fact that on the whole, Orchestras are likely the most successful local cover bands in any city.

To compare, the Indianapolis Monthly also did an expose of another local cover band (around 2003) which was a 6 piece which often played big corporate events.  The annual earning of the group for that year was around $200,000.  Which is not bad for a local cover band, but the average take for each individual (approximately $33,333) is well under half of the average salary of an ISO member was at the time (around $70,000).**

It should be noted that nearly all local original acts will never make anywhere near the above (or near the equivalent pay rates in their city or region). Jack Conti’s recent post about Pomplamoose’s 2014 tour profits only highlights how different the climate is for an Indie act versus major label act with tour support. Their total tour revenue was over $100,000. Their profit from the tour minus all the expenses: -$11,819. Yes, they lost $11,819–but it could have been worse since even the big label supported acts have lost sometimes millions during their tours. (cf.  Land of Hope and Dreams: Rock and Roll, Economics, and Rebuilding the Middle Class)

32,000 folks watch the San Francisco Opera's production of "Aida" at the ATT Ballpark in 2010
32,000 folks watch the San Francisco Opera’s production of “Aida” at the ATT Ballpark in 2010


Let’s go back to the ISO example. Here’s an act that performs about 200 shows a year in the same area. Many of the most successful cover acts have weekly (or some sort of regular) gigs in a club or bar. Most local original acts will say that performing once a month in your city is pushing it and most settle for a 6-8 week gap in between local shows.

This is something Superstar touring acts never have to consider since they never perform this kind of function in any one community. Often, there will be restrictions on how close the touring cities can be because venues want to maximize their audiences for their show and don’t want other nearby shows (especially if the pricing is different) to cannibalize theirs. Superstar touring acts just don’t stay in one region for any extended period of time which means there is also no need to have a broad repertoire to change up the shows from one day to the next. More often than not touring acts will be performing tunes from their latest album release and will do so for the length of time until the next album so that the next time they are in the same region, there is new material.

The Exceptions are the legacy acts which generally tour the most popular material from their entire career. Since these are acts tend to be the highest grossing touring artists that means they’re pricing younger audiences out of their concerts if the median ages of their audiences is any indication.  Since one of the reasons Michael wrote the post–how Classical Music can draw in a younger crowd like the big name pop acts do–then maybe we can just say that there’s nothing inherently economically sustainable about hitting that savior demographic anyway.

This means that repertoire choice becomes crucial. Having the variety that Orchestras and Cover Bands do in their repertoire means that the groups can play shows back to back and never have to overlap tunes. As I mentioned in my Marathon Show post, my group il Troubadore can play a 9 hour gig catering to several different groups at different times with completely different sets of repertoire that never overlap and still have plenty of material we hadn’t even begun to touch.

On the other hand, the high grossing acts and their repertoire choices, and their older audience demographic begs the question on the premise that Michael giving in answer to in response to Greg Sandow’s post which he linked to his post from. Namely, that younger audiences matter in pop music, and that nature of the presentation and repertoire. The median age of the highest growing acts, and the decades old repertoire they are touring (some of those acts haven’t had a hit since the early 80s) simply means there’s just more money to be made from an older and more affluent demographic playing older repertoire even if we’re just talking about Pop Superstars.

15,000 people watched the Dallas Opera's Simulcast of Mozart's "Magic Flute" at the Cowboys Stadium.
15,000 people watched the Dallas Opera’s Simulcast of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” at the Cowboys Stadium.

Facebook and Online Social Media

To be fair, Michael’s post is about connecting with the younger audiences through social media (and in this case, Facebook) and how Orchestras seem to fail to do that. Let’s set aside how the new Facebook Pages policy has changed how much businesses can interact with their fans now (especially since the original post was written four years ago–long before this current policy) and just recognize that like other social media platforms Facebook will eventually be replaced by the next new thing. Kids are increasingly using other social networking sites and services (simply a reflection of creating their own space free of their parents). Those of us who have gone through the listserve, online forums, blogging software, Friendster, MySpace, Ning.com, and other sites recognize we’ll have to move on to the next new thing to connect with certain demographics.

That is, if you’re interested in Chasing Young Audiences. Maybe, if you’re lucky, and acquire the huge budgets required to create a renewably young audience as some of the largest media conglomerations are doing, then you’ll have some success. By that point, your product (e.g. Music Performance) won’t matter anyway since your income will come from the licensing, merchandising, and the hidden-from-the-public public funding and then you’ll be in an endless cycle of building a bigger marketing budget to continue chasing that young audience.

And in the end, while there might not be “an orchestra in the US that can fill an auditorium like major pop names” I daresay I see no major pop names that can consistently play year round in one location and provide two or more entirely different sets throughout that whole year. Of course, for those of you who have read this post and viewed the pictures, you see some of the Stadium sized audiences that some US Classical Music group have had over the years.


*Note that all the Classical Music Crises debates and discussions invariably don’t have these discussions, which begs the question of what does it mean to become a part of the so-called “bigger world” if you apparently don’t know enough about the culture of that world which is a daily part of its existence.

**I’ll try to find those copies of those issues of the Indianapolis Monthly so I can give exact amounts–I’m sure these are pretty close, but there is some room for error


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