Subscriptions going bust... or are they?
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Subscriptions going bust... or are they?

Rick Lester | May 31, 2013 5:29 AM

The Wall Street Journal didn't tell the whole story

This article is cross-posted on TCG Circle, the National Center for Arts Research blog, and NAMP's

Is the subscription model dead? Photo by Daimon Eklund via flickr.
Photo by Daimon Eklund via flickr.
Terry Teachout, the drama critic at The Wall Street Journal, suggested a few weeks ago a correlation between regional theatre’s “play-it-safe” programming strategies and the collapse of the American theatre subscription.

He wrote: “(T)here seems little doubt that the [subscription] model itself is going bust.” Citing Theatre Facts 2011, Theatre Communications Group’s (TCG) annual study of industry financial and business trends, he noted, “nationwide revenues from subscribers plunged 18% between 2007 and 2011.”

That’s just one number, but it’s not the whole story.

America’s leading business and financial newspaper is too important an information source to cite – unchallenged – just one research fact when suggesting causality. Mr. Teachout’s cherry-picked data point provided a titillating headline – “Theater’s Expiring Subscription Model.” But any serious study of Theatre Facts finds data pointing in a number of directions – some good and some worrisome – yet entirely overlooked in Mr. Teachout’s piece.

While Theatre Facts 2011 did indeed report that theatre subscription revenues dropped (11% in actual dollars, or 18% when adjusted for inflation), it also finds that subscription attendance – the number of tickets sold to subscribers – dropped 16%. Lower subscriber attendance is the far more troubling statistic.  It means fewer actively engaged patrons.  

The lost lifetime value of diminished subscriber loyalty is enormous, and its cause is more deeply rooted than Mr. Teachout’s headline assumption. Theatre Facts indicates several trends affecting subscriptions in American theatres today. I’ll address three:

1.  Flat single tickets sales are the real threat.

The TCG study reports stagnating single ticket sales (table on right). As the economy cratered in 2008-2010, the average number of single tickets sold slipped downward before recovering in 2011.

This tracks with another Theatre Facts data point. As single sales were languishing, our analysis shows that new subscriber acquisition sales dropped more than 20%.

Subscribers almost always begin as single ticket buyers. TRG Arts analysis of arts consumer behavior corroborates this finding, as we discussed in a recent webinar. Fewer single ticket buyers mean fewer new subscribers. Even with fairly consistent subscriber renewal rates of 72-75%, theatres did not produce enough new subscribers to offset subscriber attrition. Therefore, subscription numbers and associated revenue declined. 

Theatre Facts also reports cost-of-sale metrics that indicate marketing spending declined for subscriptions during this period. One might ask: Did theatres consistently promote new subscriber sales during the recession? This is a reasonable question, given the facts, and begs another posed in Mr. Teachout’s post.

2. If so many audience-pleasing programs were onstage, why didn’t bigger sales result?

I'm no theatre critic or dramaturge, and not equipped to judge artistic content for the field. I accept Mr. Teachout’s assessment that artistic directors are planning safer seasons in the hope of finding bigger audiences. 

But if that was the course theatres felt compelled to follow, where is the bigger audience? Subscriber attendance is down and single ticket sales are flat. This “safe” programming strategy obviously did not have the intended effect.

The fact is: whatever was on stage, fewer people came.

Why might that be? Theatres cut the number of performance weeks over the study period. Fewer performances mean fewer opportunities to attend theatre. As noted above, 2010 produced the smallest number of single tickets sales during the five-year study period. This was also the year with the fewest number of performance weeks: 33, down from 35 in 2007.

3. Subscribers keep coming year after year.

Theatre Facts states, “If we focus only on productions offered on subscription, subscribers filled 32% of the capacity in 2011.” Plus, three-quarters of those subscribers came back each year via renewal.

Whatever was offered – be it blockbuster or more challenging work - subscribers continued to attend.  The bottom line?  Subscriber numbers may have diminished, but a significant core of loyal theatre patrons keep returning year after year. 

Is the subscription ‘going bust’?

Like it or not, subscriptions are still one of the most reliable sources of revenues for most theatre companies. As Theatre Facts reports, subscription income is the second largest source of a theatre’s earned revenues. 

Single ticket buyers are individually less loyal and are much less likely to become donors. Ongoing TRG Arts analysis of patron data shows that only 29% of single ticket buyers ever return to an organization for a second visit. Until or unless they can be coaxed back, they are less reliable and less invested. If anyone thought building a business model around subscribers was hard, a single ticket buyer model is riskier, less scalable and more costly.

Mr. Teachout concluded his article by asking if the subscription model can be modernized. I would suggest that the basic product itself is just fine. The missing ingredient is a new subscriber acquisition sales model based on a data-driven understanding of actual patron behaviors.  That approach works every time.  

This post is analysis from TRG Arts of TCG’s Theatre Facts 2011 which was co-authored by the person to whom I report as distinguished visiting professor at SMU—Zannie Giraud Voss, Chair and Professor, Department of Arts Management and Arts Entrepreneurship—and by Glenn B. Voss, Professor, Marketing Department, Cox School of Business, SMU, along with Christopher Shuff, Director of Management Programs, TCG, and Ilana B. Rose, Management Programs Research Manager, TCG.

See subscription case studies at TRG Insights, including these recent postings: Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts Center, Albany Symphony, and 5th Avenue Theatre


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2.12.2015 Webinar: The death of the subscription has been greatly exaggerated

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Case Study: Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma

Annual operating budget up 32% in 5 seasons

Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma 
 Photo: Joseph Mills

After a poor year for earned revenue in 2012, Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma (LTO) had rebounded and was experiencing a growth spurt. In 2013, Director of Marketing Danyel Siler had turned her attention to single tickets.

Her hard work had paid off, but season tickets were still a challenge. “Season tickets were steadily declining,” she said. “The season ticket campaign had been done the same way for years, maybe even decades. And we blamed the fall on the trend that subs were declining everywhere. Our executive director, artistic director, and I all knew something needed to change, but we didn’t know what.”

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