The toll of the Covid-19 pandemic is measured most tragically in lives lost – nearly 800,000 documented to date in the US alone. The economic consequences also have been grim, especially among industries and workers that depend on discretionary or non-essential spending, such as travel and live entertainment.
Over the past 18 months, there has been mounting anecdotal evidence of symphony orchestras, along with other performing-arts organizations and venues, suffering massively from lost ticket revenue, leading to widespread salary cuts and layoffs. “[I]n the 178-year history of the [New York] Philharmonic, this is the single biggest crisis,” Deborah Borda, the orchestra’s president and chief executive, told The New York Times last year. Her comments were echoed by orchestra leaders across the country.
The clearest indication yet of the scale of the crisis – as well as some hopeful news – come in a new report from SMU Data Arts, a cultural research institute based at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
“Orchestras in Recovery: Ticket Sales and Donation Trends, 2019-21,” reports that orchestras’ ticket sales fell by 67 percent from pre-pandemic levels in the 12 months from November 2020 to October 2021. (The decline would have been even steeper had the study also covered the first six months of the pandemic, when concerts were either canceled or staged with drastic limitations on audience size.)
The first signs of recovery came in the spring and summer of this year, when orchestras announced resumption of regular concert schedules for the 2021-22 season and patrons began to purchase ticket subscriptions.
Losses in ticket revenue were partially offset by donations, which rose by 23 percent in the survey’s time frame. Much of that increase came from first-time givers, the report states. “This could be the result of a wide range of factors including donation asks associated with viewing digital programming and funding mission-driven, resiliency efforts.”
Post-pandemic, orchestras have “an opportunity to build new patron bases . . . recognizing that many patrons are having their first experience with the orchestra as a donor,” the report suggests.
“Acknowledging this new activity and inviting these new patrons into a carefully crafted next experience with the orchestra that builds on each patron’s interests could be a highly effective strategy for deepening and sustaining these new and valuable relationships.”
A summary and link to the full report: