For the past 20 years, I have been a member and volunteer in a Toronto-based music organization. I value this organization highly and have put in a ton of effort to help build out their website and ticketing systems. Between September and June, over 150 members play and sing together, and eventually have the opportunity to perform to adoring friends and family. Being part of this organization for 2 decades has been a key part of my life and an escape from my day to day routine.
When the pandemic hit in spring 2020, our rehearsals stopped. Most members in the organization were hopeful we could get back to playing soon, but after a few Zoom sessions with the various groups, it was clear that nothing was going to be the same this year.
- We stopped having in-person rehearsals mid-March.
- We cancelled 3 annual gala concerts that were to occur in June.
- We will not have a final outdoor public concert to finish our season.
In mid-June all the members received a message from the president of the organization. The message was hopeful and encouraged us to keep playing and that we would be playing again together soon. The attached financial accounts over the past 2 fiscal years were sound: the organization was running extraordinarily well with a small surplus and a decent savings account.
The yearly membership fees collected from each member amply paid for the conductors who are exceptional professionals. Without conductors, an organization like ours simply would not have musical direction and could not survive. Membership fees ensured that musically the organization prospered. Our musicians improved every year by preparing an agenda of fun concerts that engage ever-growing audiences.
The concert ticket fees and sponsorship of our galas paid for the music, operational overhead of running concerts, renting venues and other administrative costs. Our organization was able to build a library of our own music, legally purchased to perform by us. We even commissioned several musical arrangements commissioned by local arrangers and musicians. The organization steadily grew the number of ensembles, the size of the membership and the sizes of our concert audiences.
This fiscal year without our gala concerts and events, the revenue stream of our organizations will be halved this year. Without the gala concerts, the ongoing operational costs will eventually deplete the savings of the organization. We could pay our conductors or we could run the organization, but without concert revenue the organization will not be able to maintain itself in its current form. This is the reality that many art and music organizations face today across the world. More importantly, this financial reality applies to many membership-based organizations that depend on large in-person events as a form of value delivery and fundraising.
If in-person events don’t occur, the membership may lose interest and the membership fee revenue will also start to fall. Does this lead to the organization shutting down in just a few years? Unless we find a way to reduce operational spend and possibly create other revenue streams beyond in-person concerts, it will be difficult for our organization to survive.
So what to do?
At this point, many tactical aspects of running the organization are out of control of the board. In-person concerts will only be viable when it is safe to hold gatherings of several hundred people together in one place. When in-person sporting events and large concerts can be held again, we most likely will be able to hold concerts as well. We may have to get creative!
For example, what if we play outdoor concerts and forego in-door venues altogether for now? What if each section practices in smaller settings (i.e. sectional rehearsals in homes) rather than in larger settings? Or how each musician getting some music work on and review as a section on Zoom? And then recording the recording on your own to submit for review and feedback. This way you can “keep the music going”!
Other ideas could be music appreciation classes held on Zoom for both members of the organization and the public. The conducts are professional speakers and can bring music appreciation to many people! Guest lectures can be introduced as well to help inform and entertain the organization and create new reasons to be part of the organization.
Finally, the organization could record our concerts by audio or video, and rather than having concerts in person they could be distributed online? We could charge a sponsorship fee and include visual and audio ads from businesses and organizations who would like to advertise to our virtual audience during each recording.
Hard decisions will need to be made. The organization has already suspended their agreements for ongoing operational costs like the cost of website maintenance and purchasing new music. It is possible that there will be restrictions on in-person assembly of even 50 people, our typical practice group. Our practice halls may not be available for rental. There are many unknowns at this point, and it is really difficult to plan in such an environment.
This may sound familiar to you if you are running a membership-based arts organization. This may be the time to consider downsizing your organization or suspending operations temporarily. Rushing to restart operations in the face of very restrictive public gathering policies or going “virtual” may simply not be possible for certain organizations. This is a good time to adapt and reinvent the value proposition of your organization and start thinking about how to create alternative and supplementary revenue streams that have not been considered before.