We’ve dealt with setbacks and myriad bullshit indignities of a pandemic that’s so old that the final season of M*A*S*H was still airing when it first began. [Edit: fact-check this.] We’re ready to move on, we’ve been ready. While we’re seeing positive signs — future orchestra seasons tendered! outdoor music all summer! — there will be setbacks. Covid’s here to stay.
Last year, wayyy back in prehistoric April 2020, Zach Finkelstein’s Middle Class Artist imagined what concert halls might look like when business came back online. He called it “The Post-Covid Concert Hall Catastrophe,” — post-Covid! how quaint — and looked at how social distancing might work in a place like the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Symphony Hall. The word “catastrophe” tells you how well Finkelstein expected this to go. The problem, as you’ll read, is that orchestras want to fill seats like champagne flutes at the head table of a wedding. But it’s not so easy.
For the 96 concerts in the BSO’s Winter Season, only about 16% of their entire yearly programming, the social distancing ticket model could result in a drop of nearly $9 million in a few months.
Now pulling back to Symphony Hall again: how much would the symphony have to charge to make the same as in the 2018-2019 season (2,120 seats sold, $57 a ticket)?
If we consider $57 the average ticket price, they will have to charge over four times as much for the average ticket to maintain the same revenue as last season: $246 a ticket.
Not great! And this for an institute of some stature and means. I reiterate this was written over a year ago when we were relatively stupid about Covid’s spread, and there were no vaccines available, just bleach and sunlight. And we’re not assessing outdoor performance spaces here either, only indoor shows. But it’s an important note of caution to sound amid the no-holds-barred, street-rules-only, falls-count-anywhere, Mick Foley-style bedlam this summer has turned into.
It’s hard to reconcile all the divergent scenarios. Either 1.) we’re careful, or 2.) we’re careless, or 3.) we care enough to tolerate some restrictions as life normalizes. Or 4.) we give the impression of caring by catering to or tolerating other people’s cautiousness (mask wearing, social distancing) without caring one bit, which isn’t outwardly dissimilar to number 3.
But these scenarios have more to do with individual choices. The assumption is that collectively orchestra groups act in risk-averse ways because nobody wants to be known as the joint that hosted a super-spreader for the Delta variant. It’s just not good business, you know?
Orchestras and operas are also money-making enterprises with musicians and staff to pay, and they’ve suffered long enough. (Not even talking about indie artists and freelancers, some of whom have been financially ruined by all this.) So it’s hard to blame anyone for wanting to pay bills.
The problems orchestras and choirs and wind bands and eclectic ensembles playing fucked up warbles of music are dealing with are basically three: 1.) how does it work to do our thing indoors? 2.) how do we take care of vulnerable customers? 3.) how can we make money when resources (time, money, attention) are directed towards safety and prevention?
It’s not just arts orgs trying to answer these questions, obviously. Offices, churches, malls, stadiums, casinos and the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park are all staring at the same checklist, more or less. In all these “after” scenarios it’s easy to judge where priorities lie based on how cautious everyone’s being. And as Finkelstein reminded us a year ago, the more careful you are, the less money you make, the closer you get to flirting with disaster: financial, epidemiological, and otherwise. And this is shaping up to be … highly flirtatious. I need a nap.