Why I Don’t Like Free Concerts

outdoor free orchestra concert in the park
Both management and musicians offer free concerts, always on different occasions but for mostly the same reasons, and in all cases, it’s an ineffective strategy.

I think offering free concerts is one of those things in arts and culture that’s been considered a generally accepted practice for years without much consideration as to why it’s considered that way. We just sort of do them and don’t really question that there may be a downside — or five downsides as I describe below. Here’s what I think is interesting though: both management and musicians offer free concerts, always on different occasions but for mostly the same reasons. For management, it’s often about providing access or community engagement in order to bring attention to who we are (raise awareness). For musicians, it’s often during a work stoppage, to…well, bring attention to who we are (raise awareness). In both cases, I think this is an ineffective strategy.

To be fair, I am completely in favor of brand awareness. Anyone who reads my stuff knows that, so at the end of this post I’ll share other ways to achieve the visibility we desire. For now, know that giving it away for free, whether by regularly scheduled programming or by striking or locked out musicians, is not getting the job done. It’s not growing audiences, it’s not building tons of new support, and — please hear this — it hurts us when people don’t see how much it costs to produce this art. There are five reasons why free concerts are not serving us well.

1. We have misconstrued the meaning of “access.”

Sure, price is a part of access, and all but the lowest income individuals are able and willing to pay something for entertainment. Even charging $5 a ticket is better than free (more below on why a transaction, even if small, is important). Plus, given that on a normal night at the symphony, a lot of orchestras do offer entry level pricing — many for $20 or $25 a ticket — why then are all those orchestras not seeing thousands of people flock to the concert hall like they do to the free concerts? It’s because there are other barriers to entry.

In other words, access is not just about price; it’s about lowering barriers to entry. And because most orchestras do offer relatively affordable pricing on some seats, the data is showing that there are other barriers greater than price. These other barriers include location (I’ll come to the concert in the park but not the concert hall), feeling un-intimidated (I know what I would wear to <insert alternative venue> but I don’t know what to wear to the concert hall), feeling welcome (I think it’s ok if my kid cries or cheers or claps at the amphitheater, but I don’t think that’s ok, or know when that’s ok, in the indoor theater), and lack of familiarity with the genre (I loved the orchestra pop cover songs and the Beethoven, but I don’t know what a ‘concerto’ is, how long each piece will last, or how to pronounce a lot of the words I’m reading in the program book).

For some people, a free or incredibly low-priced ticket will overcome those barriers — that’s why thousands of people come to those concerts — but that’s a one-time-only mask that covers up a lot of underlying issues with the concert experience.

I know there’s someone reading this thinking, “We have XYZ sponsor or foundation that underwrites the cost of our free concert(s) for us because they think free access is important.” If this is you, ask yourself:

1) Is this one of those scenarios where the funder only pays for part of the cost of the work, and the organization has to fundraise from other sources to cover the rest? Like, it’s a big gift, so it’s nice and shiny, but it’s not big enough to cover the full production total of our very costly art form? If so, how much is that gift actually worth to the organization? The answer is a negative amount to the bottom line.

2) If funder(s) do cover the cost in full, is it the actual, real, full cost, including the staff time it takes, and every other true expense to produce that concert? If not, see point number one: no matter how big the gift, it is resulting in a net negative to the budget.

So often, because we have misconstrued the definition of “access,” we are inadvertently hurting our already lean and fragile nonprofit organizations. There are other ways to provide access besides being free.

“Access isn’t a binary issue.”

2. It trains for behavior we don’t want.

As arts organizations, by comparison, giving away our product for free is incentivizing the wrong behavior. We are not, unfortunately, offering something that humans need to survive. This is so true that for a lot of people, coming to our institution is something they’re keen to do once and never again — it’s a bucket list item.

A tweet I saw back in 2016 and saved. Yes, I’ve been thinking about this issue and wanting to write about it for a while now.

We already know that among paying first-time attendees, about 90% never come back again. So why do we make the argument that a free concert could be a gateway to future purchase behavior? It wasn’t even a purchase the first time around. It wasn’t even a sample that we gave away; it was the whole damn enchilada. Why pay for it when you can get the entire thing at no cost?

Similarly, during a labor dispute, giving it away does the same thing. If the message is that we need to be paid top dollar to play, why are we telegraphing that we’re actually willing to perform for zero dollars? Ironically, even when raising awareness, what we — all of us as employees of the organization — are doing is making people very aware that what we offer is at times available at no charge whatsoever.

This is true for museums too. Free admission doesn’t result in greater future attendance there either. The museum data goes so far to say that definitively, offering free admission does not attract lower household incomes among visitors, nor younger visitors, nor more diverse, non-white visitors. The report also says that “being welcoming is more than being free” (see point #1 above…again, free does not equal access).

How many people are reading this thinking, “We can’t get rid of our free summer concert! People would go bananas over that!”? My point exactly. The behavior that has been reinforced is to want—even expect—to get it for free. We must stop incentivizing this behavior that’s not helping advance our institutions.

3. Can’t capture patron info for future marketing.

I know someone at an orchestra or opera company somewhere will say they do capture patron info for free tickets because people have to register. In that case, pat yourself on the back. Actually do that — I’m not being snarky — because you are seriously ahead of a lot of institutions if that’s the case. Then, unless you have hard data that a fair amount of those unpaid accounts are coming back for paid tickets, see the other four reasons why free concerts aren’t serving us well.

4. It says our product has no value.

“When you play for ticket-holders,” Bell explained in the Washington Post story covering this experiment, “you are already validated.” In different words, when people pay for something, they are projecting value onto that thing. This is because of psychological mental accounting as described by Nobel Prize-winning economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman.

Also, free has a high dropout rate. An organization that has produced free events and required advanced registration knows that the no-show rate for the free performance is higher than the no-show rate at a regular, paid performance. Again, this is due to mental accounting. People are more prone to loss aversion than a gain of the same value. What this means is that a free concert, even though valued at $X per ticket, is a gain to the patron (a gift), rather than the same ticket valued at $X that they paid for at a regular concert, which would be an out-of-pocket loss if they decided not to attend. As Kahneman says in a paper published with Stanford psychologist Amos Tversky, “a loss of $X is more aversive than a gain of $X is attractive.”

All of this is to say that people pay for what they value, take more seriously the things they pay for, and when arts organizations don’t charge for our product, we are reinforcing the message that what we do lacks said value.

“It’s not just nonsense to run our organizations this way; it’s rudimentary if not incompetent.”

5. It makes the case for support harder.

Why does it matter that people think our product has value? Because we need revenue to fund what we do — both earned revenue through ticket sales and contributed revenue through donations. It matters that people think what we do has high value in order to make the case for support.

An industry going through a similar challenge of the general public not understanding its value, or at least its need for funding, is journalism. Pew Research states that on only 24% of Americans realize there is a problem with the business model for news media while 71% think their local media outlets are doing fine. The same is true for orchestras, as evidenced by how shocked people are when they hear of another orchestra on the brink of collapse. Washington Post classical music critic Anne Midgette reported on this earlier this year; her story on a local orchestra’s impending closure garnered more reader responses than almost anything else she had written over the summer. In both industries, there is a widespread lack of awareness of the precarious business model. (Ironically, I wonder if anyone reading Midgette’s article was thinking about how that coverage was funded.)

Just as getting news for free for decades has led the vast majority of the general public to believe that the product should continue to be free (Pew says only 14% of Americans have paid or given money to any news source over the last year via subscribing, donating or becoming a member), orchestras continuing to offer free concerts is laying this same groundwork. And while free performances only make up a small fraction of our annual offerings, as arts administrators we know that every concert we produce loses money, that even at a sold out paid concert, ticket revenue does not cover the full cost of that performance. Sending out an annual fund appeal stating that “ticket sales only cover X% of our costs” is not an effective way to help the general public understand this. We are sending mixed messages day in and day out throughout the year about the cost and value of what we provide.

Also sending a mixed message is during a work stoppage when free concerts are presented. If the idea is that the musicians deserve a better compensation package, which is almost always the crux of the labor dispute, then performing for free to draw attention to the matter or for any other reason is the exact opposite of commanding the desired wage. I think it would be far more convincing and help everyone at the table if the community realized that without these amazing artists performing, their community has radio silence — nothing else close to comparable in terms of artistic talent or entertainment — when those artists are not on stage. I’m sure there will be musicians somewhere who disagree with this. I said this is an unpopular opinion, and I’m holding all of us, administrators and performers to this same argument.

One final example: superstar artists of any genre or discipline don’t give their performances away for free either, unless on rare occasion for charity. Yet, as arts organizations, we ARE charities. We are nonprofit organizations who rely on others to make philanthropic contributions for our survival, so giving our product away makes us look less like a nonprofit entertainment option and more like a for-profit enterprise (we don’t need the money if we are offering it for free is the perception we create). Again, we enforce a confusing, mixed message. When we give it away, it makes the case for support harder, period.

What to Do Instead — Other Ways to Raise Awareness

Advertising. Take whatever net sum is lost from the expenses of doing a concert for free and put it toward more and better advertising. I hear time and again from arts organizations of all sizes who reduce the marketing budget and somehow simultaneously budget to maintain or increase their sales revenue. Stop that. Cut the expense from a free concert and reallocate it to invest in savvy digital advertising like remarketing and search.

Content. I’ve written before about why content marketing is king and why every orchestra should be doing it. In short, content marketing is about producing and disseminating interesting and educational information as a means to stimulate interest in a brand or product. And content marketing strategy works best when there is a ton of it…lots of content regularly created and shared. Stop producing one-off free performances thinking that is effectively raising awareness, and instead produce lots of content. And then when combined with savvy SEO (search engine optimization) and remarketing advertising as mentioned above, you’ll have created a nice little marketing engine. Side note: if you are reading this and not sure what I’m talking about with words like SEO and remarketing, make sure someone on the team does, and if there is no one that knows how to do this, find new people that do; it matters that much.

Referral incentives. If giving the product away for free incentivizes the behavior we don’t want, referral programs are designed to incentivize the behavior we do want. Brands ranging from Dropbox (get more storage when you get a friend to sign up) to online investing platforms ($50 for you and for a friend to start investing when they set up an account), to mail order smoothies (get 3 free shakes when they set up their first delivery) use referral incentives to raise awareness. As I write this, I feel like I already hear someone complaining that their ticketing system makes this difficult. Please complain to the vendor, because they need to hear from us that this is now a basic business practice for brands everywhere, and as a service provider they need to offer this service.

Freemium and Streaming. This is the one place where offering something for free does work in a brand’s favor, because the freemium model is where only a partial or lesser version of the product is available at no cost, and the premium or full product experience is available for a price. In the performing arts sector, streaming is hands down the best example of this. Eventbrite, one of the world’s largest ticket sellers, goes so far as to say that events can’t afford to ignore live streaming. They set out to understand the link between music discovery and live concert attendance in a nationwide survey conducted in partnership with independent research company MusicWatch, Inc., and here’s what they learned:

  • 42% of respondents cited streaming as the top channel for music discovery
  • 51% of respondents said they buy tickets to see artists they first discovered through streaming
  • 57% said they buy tickets to see artists they discovered through social media (see the point above on content, content, content)
  • 70% of live streaming participants say they are more likely to attend a future live event after participating in the experience online
  • Only 8% of respondents cited going to a live performance — even a free one — as a means to discover music for future live attendance
  • Looking at Coachella’s data specifically, Eventbrite says that after they first live-streamed the festival in 2011, ticket sales skyrocketed.

Lest anyone complain that union agreements and the national IMA (Integrated Media Agreement) make streaming difficult and costly, you’re not wrong. I agree that we have big issues to work out with musicians on streaming in particular. I also know that given where we are today, it costs less to pay unionized musicians for streaming than for a full-on entire free concert (especially at a per-service orchestra that doesn’t have extra guaranteed weeks to fill), and that the data shows that streaming leads to future purchases more than does free live performance (which is true regardless of per-service quotas or guaranteed weeks, or any other condition in the CBA). I’ve also done it at a regional orchestra (read: shoestring budget) and wrote one of my first blog posts on how streaming isn’t THAT hard or expensive.

There are so many other ways to effectively raise awareness, offer access, train for the audience behavior we want, and develop the case for support besides offering free concerts. I hope this post helps us all — performers, administrators, board members, and funders — see that and isn’t just an unpopular opinion.

About the Author

A graduate of Rice University with degrees in Music Performance and Business, for the last 15 years Bergauer has used music to make the world around her better, through programs that champion social justice and equality, through marketing and audience development tactics on the forefront of trends and technology, and through proving and sharing what works in the rapidly changing landscape of funding, philanthropy, and consumer behavior.

Bergauer has shared her ideas in speaking engagements across North America, including conferences for Adobe’s Magento, Capacity Interactive, Opera America, Orchestras Canada, and the League of American Orchestras. Praised for her leadership which “points the way to a new style of audience outreach,” (Wall Street Journal) and which drove the California Symphony to become “the most forward-looking music organization around” (San Jose Mercury News), Bergauer’s ability to strategically and holistically examine and advance every facet of the organization, instilling and achieving common goals and vision across what are usually siloed marketing, development, and artistic departments, is creating a transformational change in the audience, in the office, on the stage, in the community, and is changing the narrative for the classical music industry. aubreybergauer.com

“The Steve Jobs of classical music.” (Observer) Working to change the narrative for this business.

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