Monday, April 21, 2014

Where Did the Audience Go?

Last year, The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra (KCJO) rode a peak.

An orchestra which struggled to draw an audience of 600 fans for its fall concert at its previous home, attracted more than 1000 to their September premiere in the Kauffman Center. The Christmas concert filled 1200 seats, maybe a KCJO record. Season ticket sales approached historic highs. A first-ever gala reportedly raised $120,000.

But this season opened, I am told, with less than 260 season ticket renewals, an inauspicious base for filling 1600 seat Helzberg Hall. For the fall opener, fewer than a third of those seats were filled. The Christmas show filled less than half the hall, KCJO’s first Christmas concert in at least four years to fail to reach at least 1000 fans.

Where did the audience go?

A few years ago, when founders Jim and Mary Mair stepped aside, I managed KCJO for a few months, and I’ve maintained contacts since. So my interest is more than cursory.

Start with where the problem decidedly is not: The orchestra’s artistic quality. Losing artistic director Kerry Strayer, who succumbed to cancer last year, was a blow to KCJO and to the Kansas City jazz community. But Clint Ashlock stepped in to lead this outstanding collection jazz musicians to continued performance highs.

Next, identify the most obvious issue for one of the concerts: The Christmas show was performed not on its traditional weekend night but on a Tuesday early in December. Apparently, if you want to perform in the Kauffman Center in December and your organization’s name isn’t Kansas City Symphony or Lyric Opera, you’re relegated to trying to promote a night of the week when few people go out. That’s especially tough when the Christmas concert is traditionally your biggest show.

Other reasons require more guessing. But I’d look to guest artists.

When I managed KCJO, members of the board of directors as a whole were rightly excited about the quality of the orchestra. But some were dubious of the importance of guest artists. One contingent felt guests were allotted entirely too much time during some shows and that the audience would be better served by more attention to the orchestra. This contingent was mostly older and saw KCJO as the modern day equivalent of the Count Basie Orchestra, or the Duke Ellington Orchestra, or the orchestras of Benny Goodman or Tommy Dorsey, or any of the others they courted to in their youth. And those orchestras didn’t tour with an outsider dominating the show.

That argument assumes KCJO has built an audience that will follow it no matter who guests. It has, but the following is minimal. In its previous home at Unity on the Plaza, for many, KCJO was the highlight of an evening which included free covered parking and a stroll to a nearby restaurant. Previous attempts to move the orchestra downtown cost it a significant number of subscribers. Downtown is still a different experience.

Last season’s guest artists included Karrin Allyson and Kevin Mahogany. These jazz stars, who built their careers in Kansas City, remain exceptionally popular in their former hometown. This season’s guests – Deborah Brown, Kelley Hunt and Wycliffe Gordon – have maintained an extraordinary artistic level. But they don’t bring the commercial draw of Karrin or Kevin.

Despite how some board member prefer to view KCJO, this orchestra cannot fill Helzberg Hall like the symphony playing Mahler. This orchestra’s appeal is closer to a symphony pops concert. The guest star matters.

I’ll argue that the local popularity of Karrin and Kevin skewed last season’s ticket sales. More season ticket holders wanted to hear them in Helzberg Hall. This year, The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra is reeling from the lack of a similar commercial draw.

I’ll also argue price matters. In moving to the Kauffman Center last year, KCJO’s board raised ticket prices and ended the $25 seat. I wonder if they first looked at the preponderance of $25 seats among season ticket holders. Add $7 to use the Kauffman Center’s garage, and what was a night of convenient parking and jazz for as little as $25 nearly doubled to at least $47. For their last show, KCJO reinstated the $25 ticket, though it wasn’t well promoted.

Promotion is where KCJO can also improve. A few ads in The Star and post cards to tell people who bought tickets before that they can buy a ticket again is insufficient. Direct mail isn’t cheap, but business studies will tell you that well executed and well targeted direct mail is among the more effective ways to build an audience. The few months I managed KCJO’s office, I carried on the Mair’s efforts to trade for mailing lists and possibly purchase new ones. It’s tough for a board to approve the cost of a mailing where, by industry standards, a two to three percent response rate is considered good. And, through business contacts, during my time there I arranged for printing and mailhouse services to be donated, which made a big difference in cost.

But as tough as the marketing expense is to swallow, isn’t it tougher to swallow a season ticket base below 260?

Some will argue a jazz orchestra in 2014 is an anachronism and why should it surprise anybody they play to more seats empty than filled.

Baloney. Thousands of people loved hearing Bobby Watson’s big band with Jon Faddis at last year’s Prairie Village Jazz Festival. Kansas City will turn out for an outstanding big band.

When I managed KCJO, it was hindered by a mostly older board of directors who wanted to program and market to their demographic. That may still be part of the problem. Program and market an orchestra as magnificent as The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra to a broader audience, and they will come.

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Comments are welcome. If you prefer, you can reach me directly at kcjazzlark(at)gmail(dot)com.