3 Questions Union Musicians Should Ask About Marketing

If you’re a classical musician who has studied hard, practiced endless hours and earned significant professional expertise, and the nonprofit organization you perform for says it can’t sell enough tickets to keep you gainfully employed, you have right to know what “can’t” means.

Sadly, what it often means is, “We’ve been selling the same thing the same way to the same people for several decades and they’re not buying anymore.” So when arts leaders say “can’t,” what they may actually be saying is “don’t know how to” and that’s an entirely different argument. Not knowing how to sell tickets is a dubious excuse for curtailing artists’ pay.

If you’re faced with this situation and you’re interested in learning why your employer “can’t” sell enough tickets, here are three questions you might want to ask:

  • Who is making the marketing decisions for this organization?
  • Where did this person study marketing?
  • Where did this person earn his or her professional marketing expertise?

Responsibility – In most organizations, final marketing decisions are made by the chief executive, although artistic directors often have considerable influence. In organizations with weak leaders or poorly defined leadership structures, board members and major donors can have significant influence on marketing decisions. And in some organizations, marketing decisions are arrived at by consensus among staff, designers, artists and executives without without the guidance of an authoritative expert. If your organization says it “can’t” sell enough tickets, it may be useful to identify exactly who is responsible for that incapacity.

Scholarship – Like classical music, marketing is a profession that is complex and difficult to master. Good marketers can study for years to acquire the necessary theoretical basis for honing their skills, and they continually refresh their knowledge through professional development, ongoing practice and high stakes performance. In the arts, meanwhile, you’d be hard-pressedBoy raising hand to find executive decision makers with academic backgrounds in marketing – or significant professional training for that matter – even though their positions call for them to make life and death marketing decisions on a regular basis. If the executive leader is asking you to sacrifice because she can’t sell enough tickets, and she’s the one making the final marketing decisions, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask if she has the necessary education.

Professional Expertise – Classical musicians earn their positions through hard work in rigorous professional settings. Many perform under the finest and most demanding conductors in the industry. The classical music world expects an exceedingly high level of professionalism and artistry from its musicians, and the best – who work for large nonprofit arts institutions – enjoy status at the very pinnacle of their art form. But marketing in these nonprofit institutions is usually a quasi-professional affair that’s governed by amateurs. Arts marketers take their cues not from the marketing profession at large, but rather from insular, self-centered nonprofit traditions and leaders who have limited professional marketing expertise. You won’t find marketers who’ve risen to the top of the marketing profession in the arts; the standards are too low and the people they report to, when it comes to marketing, are underprepared to lead. If you’re being told that your organization can’t sell enough tickets, and the person who makes the ultimate marketing decisions learned what he knows on his way up through the nonprofit arts – which is a terrible place to learn marketing – you might want to ask for an in-depth, external, professional examination of what the word “can’t” actually means.

In past months I’ve written about amateur marketing at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Minnesota Orchestra, San Diego Opera, Nashville Symphony, Vancouver Opera, Hartford Symphony OrchestraPittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra and various other organizations that made headlines for financial difficulties. And in recent weeks we’ve been reading about continuing woes in Pittsburgh, Fort Worth and other communities. The link between amateur marketing and shrinking audiences is becoming clear enough to cast doubt on leaders who say they can’t afford to fully employ professional artists when they refuse to employ professional marketing practices.

Understanding how the lack of sophisticated marketing influences ticket sales – and thus the industry’s ability to support professional artists – won’t necessarily win labor disputes; amateur marketing traditions are too deeply woven into classical music industry culture. But refusing to accept the word “can’t” from leaders who lack the education, experience and expertise to defend such a claim may provide useful leverage.

You studied and worked hard to make it to the top of your profession. There’s nothing wrong with asking the people who sell the tickets to be as well prepared to do their jobs as you are to do yours.

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