Upgrade Your Theatre Seat For More Legroom?

I caught a story on NPR’s Marketplace yesterday that discussed the way airlines use premium seating.  One of the people interviewed mentioned that airlines craftily use the separation of time to get people to upgrade. Because the flyer is offered the opportunity to change to premium economy around the time they check in, months or weeks after they purchased the ticket, consumers view the upgrade payment as a different transaction from the initial seat purchase rather than thinking about the total amount they have spent.

Of course, that got me thinking about how this could be applied in the arts realm. While there are performing arts venues that employ dynamic pricing to extract additional revenue from ticket sales, by and large most organizations don’t have the interest or the computing infrastructure to implement that sort of ticketing.

However, many venues have ticketing systems that are capable of providing the view of the stage from a particular seat or notes about which seats have more leg room.  There may be other characteristics about the performance space people value that can be integrated into seating choice as well.

An email can be sent out a week before the event with information about how to prepare for the visit, including parking, restaurants, etc., and offering an opportunity for an upgrade in terms of sight lines, leg room, or whatever.

The offer of the upgrade doesn’t have to wholly be driven by a profit motive. It can be offered as a loyalty incentive to help fill houses now and in the future. Because you have been a loyal attendee or purchased well in advance, you can upgrade from the $35 seat to a $60 seat for an additional $10 rather than $25.

If you know that part of your audience base are price sensitive, last minute purchasers, you have just freed up a cheaper seat that can be sold and incentivized loyal patrons who plan in advance to continue to do so.

While I was thinking about all this, I recalled an instance where a person on my staff suggested that a renter do something of an inversion of the usual seat pricing approach and price seats up close less than those further back. I was a little conflicted about this because while we as insiders felt that seats in rows G-L are among the best seats, pricing should be based more on what seats the buyer thinks are the best.

But I also wondered if people have been trained by the way things are priced to think the highest priced, closest seats are the best? Given their choice in a general admission setting at a live, non-festival experience, people rarely head immediately to the front and fill in as close as they can possibly get.  More often than not, the front 2-3 rows are virtually empty by the time the show starts unless the event is close to sold out.

Is there a psychological element inherent to reserve seating events that changes the calculus for people? If the front few rows are priced less than those behind, do people think the venue management are fools and they are getting away with something by paying less?  And is that necessarily a bad thing if it has people watching closely for when tickets will go on sale so they can grab those great seats at a cut rate? Will they relent and buy slightly higher tickets if the cheaper ones sell out before they get there?

Of course they need to be confident those seats did sell and weren’t held back to manipulate sales or weren’t grabbed by resellers. This approach wouldn’t work well in places that are subject to scalpers with an automated purchase process.

They’re Back! But Not Because They Waited For The Audiences To Return

Apparently the pandemic was good for classical music stations. In a story on the Current site, the general manager WDAV in Charlotte, NC had a hard time believing his station had achieved number one market share for the first time ever.

WDAV wasn’t alone, a number of other stations had similar successes. But before you assume that the value of classical music suddenly became apparent to people in a “if you play it, they will come” sort of way, it didn’t happen in a vacuum. Stations have been working to frame the music for their communities.

But by emphasizing long-held values of classical radio — to be soothing, to clear the mind, to remind people of aesthetic beauty — stations rose to the occasion to provide refuge from a world that felt scary and uncertain. That has translated into ratings records, strong fundraising and a reminder of the value of classical stations to local arts organizations.

“We heard from a significant number of listeners thanking us for being a place that was normal for them,” said Brenda Barnes, CEO of KING FM in Seattle. WDAV’s Dominguez and leaders at WXXI in Rochester, N.Y., and the USC Radio Group, which consists of KUSC in Los Angeles and KDFC in San Francisco, all said they heard the same from their listeners.

WDAV also got out into the community with their Small Batch music series where they had classical musicians perform at a local microbrewery. Will Keible, the station’s director of marketing and corporate support cited the intimidating environment of a formal concert hall and not wanting to passively wait for people to find them on the radio dial as drivers for their partnership with the brewery.

Other stations cultivated stronger relationships with the artists in their areas. The article also talks about how WXXI had reached out to ensembles and chamber groups in New York’s Finger Lakes region during the pandemic requesting recent performance recordings which they broadcast as part of a 10 week series. Many stations like WXXI have recognized the need to provide programming by musicians and composers of color and that has also helped to broaden their appeal.

“We are changing our library and our rotation cycles so that … you’re hearing representation from all different composers and performers all the time,” said WXXI’s Ruth Phinney. The station also profiles classical musicians of African descent on its website. “We’ve actually had classical musicians contact us and say, ‘I’m a classical musician, I’m not on your site yet. Can you put me on there?’”

Monopolies, Not Lack of Curiosity May Have Killed American Theater

Scott Walters is a blogger I started following 15+ years ago. His work has gone through various focuses and iterations, but is always very interesting and insightful. He recently returned to the blogosphere with posts on Theatre Inspiration. He started out with a series on the wrong turns theater has made in the United States. Just as you will often see articles about how classical music concerts weren’t always the staid, rule-bound affairs they are today, Walters points out we didn’t always do things  in theatre the way we do now.

Walters says the first wrong turn theatre made was the birth of The Syndicate. While it no longer exists its influence is deeply entrenched in current practices.  One of the first blow your mind facts he lays on readers is that there used to be TONS of performances spaces around the country from which artists made a relatively good living.  In 1900 Iowa alone had 1300 opera houses. I looked it up, the population of Iowa was 2.2 million in 1900 and about 3.1 million today. I think it is safe to say there are far fewer venues now than there were then despite the increase in population. This somewhat belies the notion that a lack of interest and investment in the arts is the result of the United States’ founding by stoic Puritans.

Walters writes:

The same was true across the country. Often, one of the first things that was built in towns as they were founded were “opera houses” (i.e., rooms for performances to take place). They weren’t necessarily elaborate, but they were important to townspeople. Music, theatre, dance were all important to communities, no matter how small, and performers were able to support themselves providing that work.

Basically actor-managers would travel the country with their troupes arranging for gigs for themselves. This changed in 1896 when a group of six men who owned a string of theaters across the country got together and formed The Syndicate, in part to cut down on competition with each other and increase efficiency so that a tour didn’t show up to the same town ready to present the same show. However, as they gained power and influence they were quickly able to squash competition and require artists that wanted to perform to contract with them for whatever price they decided to pay.

If you are thinking, with thousands of performance spaces scattered throughout every state how could they have possibly ended up controlling them all? The very decentralized nature of venue ownership should work against them, right? Well that was the same thought about the internet, wasn’t it and look how that turned out.

But the reality is, they didn’t need to control it all. Walters quotes Landis K. Magnuson:

Although the Syndicate controlled the bulk of first-class theaters in the major metropolitan centers, the fact that it controlled the theaters in communities located between such theater centers provided its true source of power. Without access to these smaller towns, non-Syndicate companies simply could not afford the long jumps from one chief city to another. Thus the Syndicate actually needed to own or manage only a small percentage of this nation’s theaters in order to effectively dominate the business of touring theatrical productions–to monopolize “the road.”

The Syndicate used their power to drive artist managed groups and rival venues out of business. Many tried to resist. Sarah Bernhardt would only perform in tents in an attempt to avoid Syndicate controlled theaters. The Syndicate would tend to book lighter, entertaining fare instead of serious drama. Walters quotes writer Norman Hapgood who observed this suppressed the work of many talented playwrights and actors.

Since The Syndicate was based out of New York City, that was where the tours originated and therefore where all the shows were cast. The impact of this persists today and people have long wondered why it is necessary for actors who live in NC need to move to NYC so that they can return to NC to perform.

Walters writes:

If all this sounds familiar, it’s not surprising–little has changed since 1900. Theatre is still controlled by risk-averse commercial producers and theatre owners who are interested only in using theatre to make a tremendous profit through the production of shallow, pleasant plays. And theatre artists still feel pressured to live in New York in order to have a hope of making a living, because regional theatres across America do most if not all of their casting there. Artists are thought of and think of themselves as employees who must ask permission (i.e., audition) in order to do their art, and are told who they will work with, when they will work, and where they will work.

Walters’ work is deeply interesting in a time when the performing arts industry is considering what changes will be necessary to adapt to changing expectations and operational environment. Take the time to read it and reflect on some of the forces and events that have gotten us where we are today.

Museums Are Secretly Controlled By Big White Paint

On Hyperallergic today, Isabella Segalovich had a piece, 15 Things Museums Do That Piss Me Off . An avowed museum junkie, she lists what areas in which she would like museums to do a better job.

She roped me in with her first criticism about museums being too quiet by admitting she was the one shushing her mother (who stuck her tongue out at Isabella in response).

Some of the points on her list are familiar gripes – the cost, not allowing pictures, no-touch policy, accessibility for those with disabilities, picture taking policy. She also brings up issues that have arisen comparatively recently in regard to fair pay, more than superficial motions of inclusivity, and the issue of buildings and spaces being named for problematic individuals.

But she makes some newer critiques like the lack of artists living in the towns and cities whose name appears on the building while the same superstar artists’ work is shown again and again. The lack of indigenous works and folk art in “American galleries.” She complains that galleries are too white—as in the paint on the walls–creating the idea that art has to be viewed in a sterile environment.

There is a lot more nuance to her case than I am providing here. I enjoyed the TikTok video she included showing the reason why one was not permitted to touch the art–which actually might make you want to touch the art.