Beginning in fall, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra will offer monthly memberships which allow patrons to attend as many concerts as they wish.
The plan is likely to grab the attention of the orchestra world because the cost of membership will be relatively inexpensive.
Currently, a top ticket for the SPCO costs $40. There are also $20 and $10 tickets. But come this fall, there will be a whole new option, said SPCO Senior Director of Marketing and Communication Jessica Etten.
"You are signing for a $5 per month deduction to come from your credit card," Etten said. "For that $5 per month you can come to as many SPCO concerts as you like."
Members will select their tickets online. Top-dollar seats will be reserved for subscribers and single-ticket sales, but 80 percent of seats at each concert will available for members on a first-come, first-served basis. While subscribers get first dibs when tickets for a new season go on sale, there will be a week reserved for members to choose tickets before single-ticket sales open up.
There is careful thinking behind the strategy, and its price, Etten said. The reality is ticket sales are not a large source of revenue for the orchestra. Four-fifths of the SPCO's expenses are covered by philanthropy of various kinds.
That's because the SPCO defines its mission as sharing its music with as many people as possible, Etten said.
"We want to lower all the barriers to experiencing the SPCO," she said.
Like most arts organizations, the SPCO is seeing change in how people buy tickets. Subscriptions have become a harder sell over the years. Paying a lot of money and committing to a determined number of dates as far as a year in advance no longer fits with many people's constantly changing schedules, particularly the younger audience.
Single tickets sell well, Etten said, but that does not always help to build and maintain a loyal base of patrons. She said the SPCO musicians and staff want people to come regularly and fall in love with what the orchestra does.
"We want to meet them where they are at, and provide something that allows them to do that allow them, but in a very affordable way that encourages them to do that," she said.
No other major orchestra has tried memberships, Etten said, but it has been successful at some theaters.
The ACT Theatre in Seattle offers what it calls an ACTpass. Patrons pay a monthly fee for unlimited access to any of ACT's five performance spaces. Communications and Marketing Director Becky Lathrop says the program began in 2009. It now has 1,200 members, who are making good use of their passes.
"I'd say about two-thirds of our ACTpass members are definitely using it on a monthly basis," she said.
Lathrop says research shows the ACTpass helping to diversify the theater's audience, and pulls in the desired younger patrons, including those with children. It has also cut marketing costs for the theater, by no longer having to spend as much to push subscription packages.
But here's the kicker: the ACT is pulling down its numbers with fees of $25 a month. Hearing the SPCO intends to charge a fifth of that stopped Lathrop dead in her tracks.
"Wow, that's incredible," she said. "Five dollars a month!"
The SPCO plan is likely to cause a stir in the orchestra world, too.
"If I can use the hockey analogy, it's another shot on goal," said Jesse Rosen, President of the League of American Orchestras.
The question now is whether the SPCO scores, Rosen said. He said League members across the country are wrestling with how to cater to patrons' desire for maximum flexibility. He doesn't know if other orchestras will follow the SPCO's lead.
"The answer to that question is going to be in what are the results," he said.
However, Rosen said the SPCO set a national trend a few years back when it cut ticket prices, and brought higher attendance and increased net revenue. He believes other orchestras will again watch closely.
At the SPCO, Etten said they've been running projections, but don't know yet how the membership system could play out. They are optimistic when SPCO memberships go on sale in the fall many people will find them very attractive.