About Me

I ramble about a number of things - but travel experiences, movies and music feature prominently. See my label cloud for a better idea. All comnments and opinions on this blog are my own, and do not in any way reflect the opinions/position of my employer (past/current/future).

15 March 2014

Thoughts on the JPO's Future

Despite the multi-million Rand Lotto grant, it is quite clear that the survival of the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra is far from certain. Financially, an orchestra is an expensive company to run. Based on the information provided during the business rescue, a full time 70 odd person orchestra would require R1.7 million a month on salaries alone (1). In addition there are expenses such as hall hire, payment of conductor, soloists, performance rights, etc. which would mean that the cost that a season would need to recover before the JPO even makes a profit is approximately R6.2 million (since a season will on average cover 3 months).

To try to survive, the orchestra has certainly tried a few things - performers are no longer permanent, the seasons are shorter (too short in my opinion), and the music is mostly in the public domain. In my opinion however, these actions have just extended the lifetime by a few months; this is not a sustainable solution.

In my view the problem with finances boil down to the audience - or rather the lack thereof. Ultimately the JPO's performances are its product, and the fact that the Linder Auditorium does not have close to a full house in each performance is the underlying cause of financial problems. 

For a 12 performance season (2 concerts a week), at an average price R250 a ticket, the orchestra will need to sell 2066 seats per performance. I don't think the Linder Auditorium has that many seats! In fact, in my rough calculation there are about 1200 seats, which would put the average price of R430 - way too high for South African market in my opinion; and that is based on a full house each night!

So clearly sponsorship, whether it's from the the Lotto or from corporates is necessary in order to fill the shortgap. However, the current scenario of half full halls do not help with getting sponsorships; and ultimately makes the survival of the JPO difficult at best. 

This is not a new phenomenon - orchestras around the world are struggling; and the survival of the art itself is effectively under threat. But there are orchestra houses that have made it work. For example, I tried to look for tickets for the Berlin Philharmonic (for my forthcoming trip), and the tickets were sold out - in December, 3 months out. Likewise, when I went to the San Francisco Symphony or the Munich Opera in 2012 only the last few seats were left. Berlin makes a good case study in some respects; the city size and population is similar to Jo'burg, it is a city with a lot of young people, and economically more similar than other German cities. It however does have a rich tradition, and it is one of the top orchestras in the world - so it does help in filling up the seats I suppose!

So ultimately, the discussion does come to; how to fill the seats. Maybe some of these ideas have been tried;  and some do require investment. But here are my thoughts on how to increase audience numbers.

1. Choose another day, perhaps over the weekend
Weekday concerts are hard to attend if you are working in a corporate. It often translates to long days - starting office around 8:00 could mean waking up at 6 or even earlier; leaving JPO at 22:30 means getting to bed at almost midnight. Furthermore, from a few discussions a number of colleagues and friends also mentioned the late time makes it difficult if they have school going kids as it may mean not seeing them at all, or impact getting the kids to school the next day. 

So why not make one of the concerts on a Saturday or Friday. Even a Sunday afternoon may work better. And it would also allow younger children to attend concerts.

2. Have a second venue
Johannesburg is a massive city; and it is linked to two other metros; so audience numbers should really not be a problem. But one venue, in CBD area makes it unattractive for people who stays further north, east or west. 

One thought could be to make a second venue in a different area; perhaps even third and fourth nights if it works in the future. True, there is a lack of large venues, but some such as Montecasino, State Theatre or the Soweto Theatre could be particularly attractive in this case.

3. Make the music more accessible
Most of the write-ups give a short history of the composition followed by a shorter overview of the piece itself in fairly technical jargon. I often find that the Wikipedia overview is far more understandable and accessible; and this mix needs to be corrected in the program notes. It could also be more interesting if the conductor, or the concertmaster gave a short introduction at the beginning. Richard Cock's introductions during the various non JPO concerts in the year are a good example of making the pieces more accessible and keeping the audience engaged in the performance.

4. More contemporary classical music
The current repertoire of old pieces makes it cheaper to perform, but it's not necessarily accessible, especially to people who are unfamiliar with classical music. 

That does not mean people are not familiar with classical music. Music from the movies are the best examples, but there is also music from computer games, advertising, TV series and stage shows. 

This might also open up a new stream of sponsorships - partnership with media companies such as Multichoice and e-TV to perhaps synchronize the music with the movie or TV series; or partner with Sony or Microsoft to perform music related to new (or existing) games. 

That is not to say that classical pieces should not be played at all - just that there should be a balance. And these new pieces would be something new to the established audience.

5. Have a theme
To the non musically trained, such as myself, the programme often comes across as a set of random pieces. They are also often not linked to easy themes - be it a quasi celebration such as Valentine's Day or Halloween; or national holidays such as Freedom Day, Women's Day, etc. In my opinion, last year's Halloween concert was the step in the right direction, and from the audience reaction, it was very well received.

6. More South African music
There have been a few South African composers over the past few years I have attended the JPO; but there could have been much more. Some conductors such as Robert Maxym have quite a few compositions for orchestra in their CV, and perhaps they could conduct their own compositions. This may mean more choral pieces or be unfamiliar, but part of being a South African orchestra should be about playing South African music. 

This could also be extended to cover other heritages that influence South Africa; via the various immigration waves - be it initial European immigration, to Asian immigration to more modern African immigrations. 

7. Advertise more
The JPO hardly advertises, and I have only ever heard event announcements on Classic FM. Advertising is important - wen those who enjoy classical do not necessarily listen to Classic FM; and even if they do; many do not even know a JPO exists (based on a very unscientific poll amongst colleagues and friends). 

 The JPO should really advertise on all the major Gauteng radio stations an make itself known. Billboard adverts etc maybe a step too far (in terms of expenses), but radio ads across multiple stations should be standard.

8. Multimedia Immersion
There are classical pieces that specifically lend themselves to a wider immersive experience. For example, Musorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition or Holst's Planets could be accompanied by projections of the pictures or photos of planets respectively. This could extend to other pieces, especially those linked to operas, musicals or movies. This is not an easy idea to implement, and perhaps the costs do not warrant the implementation - but it could create more context for the audience and thus make the pieces more accessible.

9. Fusion with modern music
Finally, a radical idea. Quite a few years back, the number 1 song on South African radio was "The Goodbye Song" by DJ Cleo. The song featured the famous "Time to Say Goodbye" sung by two young opera singers, with DJ Cleo playing electronic music as the accompanying music. This is hardly a new phenomenon, Deep Purple has an album - Orchestra and Band; Metallica had Symphony&Metallica; Within Temptation had a concert with a full orchestra and choir and locally there was Symphony Rocks. 

Something like this would be more once off; but it potentially gets different audiences to attend, and that is a good thing.


I am not saying that the ideas above are the only ways to increase audience numbers. They are purely my observations and thoughts in the course of last year, since the JPO's financial crisis was publicized. I hope these ideas give some ideas on resurrecting the finances of the orchestra. I do believe that a fully functional classical music orchestra is a good thing for a city; and it is an important art form to preserve. But time is running out for the JPO, and it needs to turn around soon. If there is another financial crunch - I don't think it will survive another business rescue operation.

(1) using an average of R25k a month, slightly higher than what was reflected in the business rescue documents. 

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