The Post-Covid Concert Hall Catastrophe: Why Audience Attendance is the Least of Our Problems
Will Audiences Come Back to the Concert Hall?
When we return to the stage to present opera, dance, theatre, or symphonic works in our 2,000+ seat halls, will our subscribers be there with tickets in hand?
This is the question spreading like wildfire through every board meeting in America. It is the question keeping Artistic Directors, General Managers, agents, and artists up at night.
It is an interesting question.
But it is the wrong one.
The problem is not audience participation. It may drop, but, as my analysis to follow shows, even if it drops 20, 30, or even 40 percent, that is not the drop we should worry about.
What will matter more than anything else in consideration is that, without a vaccine, social distancing measures in large-scale venues must continue for months, potentially years.
The billion-dollar question that will determine the fate of Big Hall Classical Music in America is:
How do we present music to an audience in a socially distanced hall? Financially, is it even possible?
The following spatial and financial analysis will show that socially distancing a large concert hall would likely be a financial catastrophe for a presenter:
A 2,600-seat hall, under social distancing, may only seat fewer than 500.
If audience attendance holds at 2018 numbers, only about 25% of the audience could fit in a socially-distanced symphony hall. That is a mandated drop of 75% in audience attendance, not even taking into account the public’s attitudes towards attending socially distanced performances.
To break-even with last year’s ticket revenue over the same number of concerts, based on the lowered attendance ceiling, a company would have to charge more than four times the price of last year’s tickets.
Barring a donor miracle or a government intervention, there are only bad and worse options available for big hall concert presenters: either leave the large halls temporarily and present pared-down programs until a vaccine is available, making significant cuts to programming, staff, and artists; or stay in big halls and cut their budgets even further while raising ticket prices to stave off financial ruin.
Post-Covid Symphony Hall: A Quarter the Audience at 4 Times the Ticket Price
Below is a back-of-the-napkin spatial model of an American symphony hall. For a case study, I use the 2,625-seat home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The model assumes the following, based on the six-foot rule of social distancing and the dimensions of the hall:
Patrons will be seated in, roughly, every other row.
Within rows, patrons will be seated every three seats.
At least part of the second balcony will be reserved for Wind and Brass instruments, based on the Czech Philharmonic system of strings and conductor on stage with masks, and instruments that require blown air as far away from musicians and patrons as possible.
Orchestra and Stage
The first floor of Symphony Hall, under social distancing rules, would fit fewer than 300 people out of the 1,486-seat capacity, or about 20% of total seats.
The conductor and roughly 25-40 strings and percussion would fit on stage in face masks, all standing with monitors to the balcony for winds and brass.
The first balcony would fit 1-4 people per row on the sides and 4-5 per row in the back.
With a balcony capacity of 598, we would expect to have fewer than 130 seats available or 21% of total capacity.
One of the first orchestras to socially distance on stage, the Czech Philharmonic, placed the horns at the upper back of the stage next to a small organ. Unfortunately, this setup would not work at Boston’s Symphony Hall:
Wind and brass players, for a safe distance, would have to be moved to the upper balcony and to fit roughly 30 players, you would need to remove the first three side balcony rows on each side:
This would leave only 75 out of 541 seats in the second balcony available for patrons, or only 14% of total seat capacity.
Overall, the 2,625-seat Symphony Hall in Boston would seat only 492 people under this plan, roughly 19% of capacity.
The Boston Symphony, according to its 2017-2018 financial report, sells out about 81% of the 96 concerts in their BSO Winter Season, or around 2,100 seats a concert. And a mid-tier BSO Symphony Hall subscription ticket, according to my average calculation, costs about $57 a concert.
If the Boston Symphony were to switch from a 2,625-seat model to the social distancing model above, they would lose the capacity to seat 77% of their current audience.
For the 96 concerts in the BSO’s Winter Season, only about 16% of their entire yearly programming, the social distancing ticket model could result in a drop of nearly $9 million in a few months.
Now pulling back to Symphony Hall again: how much would the symphony have to charge to make the same as in the 2018-2019 season (2,120 seats sold, $57 a ticket)?
If we consider $57 the average ticket price, they will have to charge over four times as much for the average ticket to maintain the same revenue as last season: $246 a ticket.
To recap, to maintain a presence at a 2000+ seat symphony hall, a large presenter would need to cut about three out of every four audience members; and, keeping the number of performances the same, would have to increase the price of tickets, and even then it would likely result in a major net revenue loss for the company.
(Check my math for this section here.)
The Road Ahead for Big Hall Presenters.
Even if these estimates are off -let’s say we can fit 30-50 more people in a concert hall by adding a standing room or moving the horns to the stage, and average ticket prices were $75 before, not $57- the direction of change is still way, way in the red.
A well-endowed, superbly managed organization like the BSO may be able to maintain distance measures for years until a vaccine is readily available. But how can a mid-size seasonal presenter who uses 800, 1,000, and 1,500-seat halls maintain these measures for even a few months without facing catastrophic loss?
There are two paths for Big Hall Presenters when live music returns, and both will require tremendous sacrifice.
The first path is to leave the large symphony or opera hall and perform smaller works in smaller venues with a smaller orchestra or chamber group, paired with large scale performances posted online, with no audience attending in the symphony hall until social distancing is lifted. Live performances of major classical masterworks -Beethoven 9, the Verdi Requiem, the Messiah- that require 50+ person orchestral players, 100+ choral singers, and soloists will likely need to pause for the foreseeable future.
A symphony hall exit may not be possible for some organizations: the Canadian Opera Company, for example, not only owns its building -a smart investment in boom times- but rents it to other large presenters and makes a significant part of its revenue on concessions and parking. Likewise, such an exit may not be possible for companies with strong unions who require a certain number and type of performances.
It is a distinct possibility for financially robust organizations like the BSO, with chairs endowed in perpetuity and hundreds of millions in assets, to wait this out with professional videos online and small chamber works.
For everyone else, there is the second path, the concert hall catastrophe: raise prices and cut labor and management to the bone.
Not including a government bailout or a hail-Mary unprecedented donation, those stuck in large halls are left with only bad and worse options:
Artists would need to perform more often for fewer wages. If the COVID-19 crisis has shown us anything, it is that, in most cases, artist fees are the first cut. Not only will fees or salaries need to be slashed to account for reduced audiences, but in the cases where halls are sunk costs, rented weekly or monthly or owned by the organization, artists will likely need to perform more frequently on less rehearsal for lower pay.
Marketing budgets would be slashed to near zero and staff will likely need to be furloughed again or laid off. The idea of advertising a concert on TV, radio, and print, or hiring dozens of sales people to drum up subscriptions makes no sense when fewer than 500 can attend. A $5 million advertising budget would likely drop a few zeros, with concerts promoted on paid social media buys, Google ads, and through email marketing campaigns and online personal networks.
Ticket prices would need to increase markedly to present a viable season with so few people able to attend. Double the price of every ticket would be a start, in conjunction with additional performances. The wealthiest and most privileged would be able to see symphonic or opera works in person. A disaster for equity and the disadvantaged, but it may be the only way to bring in enough revenue in the medium-term to stay afloat.
The way forward will exact tremendous losses for everyone involved in the arts community, and it will likely hit the largest institutions, with major fixed costs of labor and capital, extraordinarily hard. It will be nearly impossible to make the financials of large concert hall performances work until the uncertainty of social distancing is solved and a vaccine is readily available. I pray it comes soon.