The High Cost of Tickets

This article was originally published in February, 2006, at San Francisco Classical Voice, but it was lost in a bad migration. This is the unedited original, with some typos fixed.

Ever wondered how the classical music ticket prices are determined? Or thought about whether ticket prices are just plain too high?

If you have, you’re not alone. Ticket pricing is a hot topic of discussion among arts management professionals, and among journalists and bloggers covering the classical music scene. Are high ticket prices responsible for the apparent decline of interest in classical programming? Are ticket prices too high? Too low? Complicating this discussion is the fact that for most organizations, income from ticket sales rarely covers more than 50% of the cost of putting on the performance. Every organization, regardless of its size or prestige, has to do a lot of fund raising just to break even.

So what goes into a ticket price, anyway? Let’s start with the musical side of things.

If you’re an amateur chorus, the musical costs will be comparatively low, because the chorus itself isn’t paid. Soli Deo Gloria, which gives three sets of concerts each year and has 35 to 45 members for any given concert, pays its conductor about $9,000 per year. A particular program may require an orchestra. Hiring an orchestra of free-lance musicians for a rehearsal or two and three concerts can cost $10,000 or more, even if it’s a small orchestra. A program of unaccompanied music, or one requiring only a pianist, is less costly to present. And of course a chorus needs a rehearsal pianist, which can run $2,500 or more for a season, depending on the length and complexity of the repertory and number of rehearsals. 

Berkeley Opera, which stages consistently interesting opera performances on something less than a shoestring, spent about $34,000 on solo singers (its chorus consists of volunteers) and $43,000 on orchestral musicians during the company’s 2003 tax year. Music rental for the year ran about $4,000, and the music staff received $9,200. Additionally, the drama staff, presumably directors, received a total of $12,000. You can’t tell from the company’s 990 tax return, a public document, how much Artistic Director Jonathan Khuner was paid. (Figures cited in this article are largely from the most recent 990 I could find for a particular organization; figures for the San Francisco Opera are from the financial statement for the year ending July 31, 2005.) Berkeley Opera had one unusual expense for so small a company, a $12,500 payment toward an original work, presumably Clark Suprynowicz’s Chrysalis, libretto by John O’Keefe, which will be performed this year.

At the other end of the musical scale are financial behemoths such as the San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Opera. Donald Runnicles, the highest-paid member of the Opera’s musical staff, makes nearly $600,000, while concertmaster Kay Stern is paid about $126,000 per year. Orchestral salaries for the year were $8,865,444. Members of the chorus and ballet earned a total of $4,572,851. Payments to solo singers, conductors other than Runnicles, directors, and designers ran $7,282,228.

Across the street at Davies, it’s more difficult to determine the total cost of orchestra salaries and fees for guest conductors and soloists. The 990 format allows the organization to roll up orchestra salaries into a category that also includes administrative and other salaries, and fees for guest conductors and soloists appear to be subsumed in a general category covering program expenses. Still, there are about 115 members of the orchestra, and their minimum salary is more than $105,000 per year, so the total expenditure is more than $12 million annually. (That doesn’t include benefit and pension costs, of course.) Some of the musicians make well over the minimum, such as concertmaster Alexander Barantschik, at just over $345,000 and principal oboeist William Bennet, at about $187,000. Associate concertmaster Nadya Tichman and principal cellist Michael Grebanier each make a bit more than $170,000. (Principal violist Geraldine Walther is on leave from the Symphony for her first year in the Takács Quartet, but her SFS salary was also about $170,000.) Far and away the highest-paid entity is the independent contractor listed on the 990 as MTT, Inc., the compensation for which is $1,582,460. (The second-highest entity is Columbia Artists Management, at $958,250, but there’s no explanation of what that’s for.)

If you’re running an opera company, though, your production expenses go far beyond paying the musicians who are on stage and in the pit. Opera, with all of its grandeur, costumes, and sets, involves many people you never see, whose names don’t make it into the programs. They’re the staff members who build sets or get them on and off stage, run the lighting system, sew and fit costumes, dress or make up the stars and chorus. the At San Francisco Opera, “scenery, properties, stagehands, and technical staff“ make up the biggest line item on the Production and Artistic Expenses page of the financial statement, at $11,397,561. Some individuals make very large salaries; technical carpenter Robert Urban earns $155,000 and master audio engineer Max Christensen makes $133,000. Costumes, wardrobe, wigs, and makeup cost $3,512,980.  

Without sets, lighting, costumes, and props, though, we’d be listening to concert opera, and the physical side of a new production can cost millions. San Francisco Opera reportedly spent about $4 million on Louise, for example, and Seattle Opera’s magnificent Ring cycle cost more than $16 million. Berkeley Opera, though, spent $7,565 on sets, $3,637 on lighting, $3,468 on costumes, $3,454 for props, and $11 (yes, eleven dollars) on wigs and makeup, for a grand total of $18,135, which might pay one San Francisco Opera soloist for a couple of performances.

And there’s a whole other side to putting on classical music performances: the cost of administration. This doesn’t just include the salaries of top administrators and their staffs, such as the Opera’s David Gockley (whose predecessor Pamela Rosenberg made about $400,000) and the Symphony’s Brent Assink ($357,663). Large organizations have large costs for marketing and fund-raising. These expenses include advertising, fees to advertising agencies, printing and postage costs for season prospectuses and other marketing vehicles, and staff salaries. For example, the Symphony’s Web page lists 28 administrators between the Development and Marketing & Sales departments, and only 13 in the Artistic Planning and Education Programs/Youth Orchestra departments. The cost of fund-raising is listed on the 990 as about $3.5 million. 

Why spend so much money on fund-raising? Because the San Francisco Symphony’s concert revenues – ticket sales – ran about $21.5 million and overall annual expenses are about $52 million. Now, the Symphony has other sources of income other than ticket sales and donations: more than $2.8 million from dividends and interest on securities, and more than $8.4 million from sale of assets. That still leaves an enormous gap to be filled, and the gap between ticket sales and expenses is a significant one for all classical music organizations, regardless of size. Soli Deo Gloria, with a budget of $40,000 annually, gets less than half its revenue from ticket sales, just like the giants. There’s very little government support for the arts in the United States, so every organization hustles as best it can to raise funds.

But what kinds of ticket prices result from these expenses? Here are some representative single-ticket prices for different organizations (subscriptions usually result in a lower per-ticket cost):

  • Soli Deo Gloria is $18 general admission or $13 senior/student in advance, with students from K-8th grade free.
  • California Bach Society charges $25 general admission, $18 senior, $10 student
  • Berkeley Opera tickets are $40 general/senior, $15 youth/disabled
  • Philharmonia Baroque charges from $28 to $62
  • San Francisco Symphony tickets cost $20 to $107 at Davies, $29-55 at the Flint Center
  • Los Angeles Philharmonic seats cost $20 to $89 for their most recent visit to Davies, but $15 to $129 at home in Disney Hall
  • San Francisco Ballet tickets are $10 to $199
  • San Francisco Opera tickets range from $25 to $215

Are these prices unreasonable, given the cost of putting on these events? It might depend on what you compare the prices to. They’re undeniably higher than renting a DVD ($3) or attending a first-run film ($10). They’re in about the same price range as a ticket to the Oakland Raiders ($26 to $101). Rock concerts for big-name acts can be stratospheric: the Rolling Stones charge anywhere from $60 to $472 for a seat at one of their concerts, making a box seat at the Opera look like a bargain. Coldplay tickets run $40 to $80 in Chicago, while Sheryl Crow will set you back $16 to $300 at one venue.

But it’s easy to see a lot of great classical music in the Bay Area without spending a lot of money. In general, you will be able to hear the music well from the lower-priced seats in the house, so it’s reasonable to economize by buying less-expensive tickets. There are many excellent choruses (amateur, semi-pro, and professional) whose concerts cost no more than $20 to $30 per seat for general admission. Most organizations make discounts available for seniors and students. Same-day rush seats are available from many organizations, too. San Francisco Opera has $15 rushes for students, $30 for seniors and military personnel, plus $10 to $15 standing-room tickets. Berkeley Opera offers side seats for $16 one hour before the performance. San Francisco Symphony’s center terrace seats are sold for $15-20 two hours before the performance; additionally, student rushes may be available for $20. (Call the organization’s box office the day of the performance to ask whether rushes are available or not.) Some organizations simply feature very low prices: for example, Old First Church on Van Ness offers a well-programmed series, Old First Concerts, featuring excellent local and visiting musicians for the bargain price of $15 general admission and $12 seniors/students.

There is one area where performing organizations could make it a little easier and less frustrating for audience members to buy tickets, and that’s those pesky per-order surcharges, often called “convenience fees.” They’re sometimes charged for Web purchase, even though there is no apparent human intervention, sometimes for phone orders. These range from nothing (Soli Deo Gloria) to California Bach Society’s very reasonable $2 for shipping and handling (via PayPal!) to the outrageous $8 charged by SF Ballet and $9 charged by the San Francisco Symphony. (The LA Philharmonic uses TicketMaster for Web sales, and TicketMaster adds a fee on top of a $9 surcharge. A test purchase of one ticket resulted in an additional TicketMaster fee of $4.10, for a total of $13.10.)

It’s generally thought that audiences today are less willing to plan ahead sufficiently to commit to a subscription than in the past. That may well be true, given the range of entertainment and arts events out there. Charges for purchasing tickets are a great way to discourage an audience member from buying a single ticket. A patron who lives out of town, or who works in Contra Costa County, may not be able to subscribe to the San Francisco Symphony and isn’t in a position to walk into Davies and buy from the box office. A ticket price may be perfectly reasonable, but a $9 fee on top of a $30 or $45 or even $70 ticket looks like a pretty big surcharge.

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