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  • Writer's pictureMitchell Krieger

What is a subscription in 2019 (and beyond)?

I began my career as a classical musician, and now I'm a consumer of classical music. So an articles in the London Times got me thinking. The article ( discusses the short shrift given by the main music streaming services to classical works, and a couple of dedicated classical streaming services.

It got me thinking. Yes, I subscribe to the Philadelphia Orchestra (how could I resist); but I also have various subscriptions that I wouldn't have dreamed of twenty years ago. For example, while I subscribed to the paper version of the the New York Times for many years, I now subscribe on line, as well as to the London Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer. I also subscribe to Netflix and Sling Blue.

More interestingly, I think, I'm a member of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. When my wife and I moved to Philadelphia in fall 2017, the Museum was one of our first visits. Realizing the extent of its building and collection, we asked if we could convert our ticket to membership, and were enthusiastically told yes. And why not - the Museum continues to be a part of our lives on a regular basis; and we don't feel the obligation to "do" the museum that a purchaser of a single ticket might feel. We can (and do) drop in for an hour when we feel like it, or are in the area.

My career has been primarily in the performing arts, where subscription sales are a mantra, for several reasons. Subscribers to symphony orchestras, opera companies and theaters are the lifeblood of stable organizations; subscribers are an almost guaranteed regular income, and often become donors and more (and single-ticket buyers almost never do). The grandaddy of subscription, Danny Newman (whose 1977 book Subscribe Now! is a classic) built huge successes at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, with over 100% subscribed (the overage represented subscribers who turned in tickets they couldn't use, which were then resold) for years.

But something changed. When I grew up, your options for the arts included live performances, radio, television, movies, and LPs. Most of these were curated by other people such as artistic directors, broadcast programmers and the like. The only way you could make your own programming choices was to listen to LPs, and of course, that was only audio. There were no home video options, no streaming, and so on. If you were a devoted opera lover in Chicago, you naturally subscribed to the Lyric (if you could get a subscription - the demand was so great that seats were often passed on in wills).

Then home video became possible; you could buy a movie, a theater performance, or an opera on VHS and play it on your TV. You could curate your own evening. Perhaps it cost a bit less, but not much ($49.95 in 1980 dollars was typical for a Met telecast on VHS).

The Internet came next, and self-curation exploded. You could stream more than anyone could absorb, with or without paying (YouTube's offerings are seemingly endless). The latest twist on this is Netflix's release of movies both in theaters and online; why pay more to see it in the theater when you are already paying for Netflix at home? The couch is so nice, you can pause the movie to use the bathroom or get a cup of tea, etc. Sure, there's a special kind of focus in the group experience in a theater; the question will be what will be the value proposition for that.

So where does that leave performing arts institutions? Very few of them are selling as well as they used to. How can they achieve sustainability as attendance dwindles (eroding both earned and contributed income, since it's hard to raise money from people who don't attend)? And is there any future to the subscription model for live performance?

I'll have more to say about this in a coming blog; in the meantime, I hope this is food for thought.

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