ST. PETERSBURG — What will it take to get more people to attend Florida Orchestra concerts and become supporters of classical music in the community?
Perhaps dramatically less expensive tickets will do it. The orchestra is poised to announce that it is lowering prices in the 2011-12 season to $15, $30 and $45 per concert, down from the current range of $20 to $67. More than half of the tickets available will cost $30 or less. Student tickets will remain $10.
"To any extent that we're not playing to a sold-out house is the extent that we're not serving our mission," president Michael Pastreich said. "Ticket prices have increased at a rate higher than inflation, and now there are a lot of people who just can't afford to go to a concert. We think that if we lower that barrier of price, we will start to serve the broadest public we are capable of reaching."
The idea behind the orchestra's plan — in the works for the past year, Pastreich said — is that lower ticket prices will generate enough of an increase in attendance to prevent a loss of revenue. Of course, the danger is that even though attendance goes up, the increase is not enough to stem a drop in revenue. This is no small risk to the Florida Orchestra, which had a $500,000 deficit in the previous fiscal year.
Cutting ticket prices has worked for orchestras. The Baltimore Symphony cut the price of all tickets to $25 to celebrate the arrival of Marin Alsop as music director in the 2007-08 season. Alsop was the first woman to lead a major orchestra.
"We dropped prices to make a really big statement that we're no longer your grandfather's orchestra, and the impact was great," chief executive officer Paul Meecham said. "Our hall went from 58 percent full on average to 72 percent full."
Baltimore had a $1 million grant from PNC Bank to underwrite any loss of revenue, a safety net that the Florida Orchestra does not have now. Baltimore has since tweaked its pricing, but 45 percent of seats in Meyerhoff Hall remain at $25.
Attendance at Florida Orchestra concerts varies. Last Friday's masterworks program at Morsani Hall of the Straz Center had a sparse crowd of less than 1,000, but other programs draw well, depending on repertoire and time of year. Tchaikovsky at the height of winter tourist season often does great business; a contemporary work can mean emptier halls. Pastreich said the orchestra played to virtually sold-out houses for masterworks programs from the end of January through April last season.
The orchestra plays in 2,600-seat Morsani and 1,042-seat Ferguson Hall at the Straz in Tampa, 2,030-seat Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg and 2,180-seat Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater.
"In general, so far this season our masterworks are averaging 60 percent full, pops are averaging 70 percent full, and coffee concerts at Mahaffey are averaging 85 percent full," marketing director Sherry Powell said in an e-mail.
More than just ticket revenue is involved in the plan to cut prices. U.S. orchestras that are experimenting with the strategy hope increased attendance will lead to greater support from contributions.
"The thinking in this is that the more people who come in the door, the more people the orchestra has to cultivate and move down the pipeline from coming once, to twice, to three times, to buying a subscription, to ultimately becoming a donor," said Jesse Rosen, CEO of the League of American Orchestras. "So along with the mission of serving more people, there is a business plan here that says if you maximize the number of prospective patrons, you increase the likelihood of more philanthropy."
Indeed, Pastreich said that as much as 65 percent of the Florida Orchestra's $8 million budget comes from contributions, while so-called earned income, mainly ticket sales, accounts for about one-third. "Symphony orchestras as a whole are not in the ticket-selling business," he said. "We are in the fundraising business."
This ratio is quite different from that of other arts organizations. The budget of American Stage, for example, is almost exactly the reverse: 63 percent from ticket sales, 37 percent from contributions, according to producing artistic director Todd Olson.
Lowering ticket prices may not be the total answer to getting more people to orchestra concerts, according to Robert Freedman, CEO of Ruth Eckerd Hall, which prizes its relationship with the orchestra and presents classical music on its own.
"We're seeing classical music decline in attendance, but I think that's having more to do with generational changes than pricing," Freedman said. "We've got a generation now that did not have classical music in the schools, and it did not have classical music in the home because their parents were listening to rock 'n' roll."
John Bannon, the orchestra's timpanist, said musicians are cautiously optimistic about the "potential upside for growth" in the new pricing plan, which will ultimately impact them as much as anyone. Their pay has been cut significantly in recent years.
"The one question I hear most often backstage is why are we lowering ticket prices for people who don't care what they cost," Bannon said, referring to affluent concertgoers. The orchestra plans to encourage subscribers to donate the difference between the price of their old and new ticket packages.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.