Picky Patrons Skip Subscriptions, Making Managers Hustle

Phyllis Feinberg is any arts marketing director’s dream.

She’s on the membership rolls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art and subscribed to the Roundabout Theatre Company, the city’s biggest nonprofit theater group.

A Bronx-born retired New York State employee, Feinberg dropped the axe on the Roundabout after six years.

“It just got too expensive,” she said of the Roundabout, which for the remainder of the season offers a three-show series starting at $219. “There are so many different ways of getting theater discounts.”

Subscriptions, which date from the Theatre Guild in the first half of the last century, are meant to provide a financial cushion to groups offering challenging work.

But a dragging economy, a growing aversion to long-range planning and competition from an ever-expanding range of cheap entertainment options are reconfiguring the culture business in New York and elsewhere.

Revenue from subscribers fell 18 percent in the five years ending in 2011, according to a survey of 113 nonprofit theater groups by the Theatre Communications Group. Renewals at the Metropolitan Opera have fallen from 89 percent in 2007-08 to 84 percent last season, according to a December filing for bond investors.

Subscriptions “have been trending downward for most performing arts groups, and the Met is no exception,” Peter Clark, a spokesman, said in an e-mail.

Members Bail

The Roundabout has seen a 40 percent drop in subscribers, from a peak of 47,000 in 1998-99 to 28,000 last season, according to filings and tax returns. Subscription sales for the company, which operates three Broadway and two off-Broadway houses, fell by a quarter since 2008-09 to $9 million.

Some nonprofits are circumventing the trend by selling memberships, in which a small annual fee gives theatergoers a first shot at low-price tickets.

Lincoln Center Theater’s roughly 30,000 members pay $50 a year for access to discounted seats. The company instituted the program in 1986 and last admitted new members in August 2010.

The Met Museum had a record 170,398 members at the end of June, up 22 percent from a year earlier. Members get easier access to hit shows like the fashion designs of the late Alexander McQueen, where non-members waited as long as three hours.

“We had people buy memberships so they could go to the front of the queue,” said Thomas Campbell, the Met’s director, in an interview.

Ambiguous Model

The membership model, however, brings far less upfront money into the coffers of companies already dealing with reduced public support for the arts. That’s left more managers scrambling to make up the difference.

“Subscription theaters aren’t competing with Broadway,” said Greg Mosher, the former director of Lincoln Center Theater. “They’re competing with every possible other thing an audience member might do.”

Roundabout is exploring how to maintain and expand its audience, Managing Director Harold Wolpert said.

“Consumer behavior has changed, yet subscriptions remain viable and desired,” he said in a statement to Bloomberg. “We have to provide flexibility within our subscription model and are offering a range of ways audience members can have a relationship with us.”

Subscriptions tumbled at many theaters after 9/11, said Andrew Hamingson, executive director of Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse since 2012.

‘Accelerated Erosion’

“Whether it had to do with mortality, whatever the psychology of that was, we saw an accelerated erosion,” said Hamingson, who helped run the Public Theater and has done consulting for other groups.

Retaining subscribers costs less than finding single-ticket buyers. And losing subscribers weakens the donor base, said Ben Cameron, who supervises the arts program at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

“Subscribers have traditionally been low-hanging fruit for donor drives,” Cameron said. “If we no longer have subscribers, the path to donors is harder to find.”

The Roundabout is launching a $50 million fundraising campaign, according to a filing. It’s also updated its look with a sleek new logo.

Subscriptions remain theater’s second-largest revenue source after single-ticket sales. Theatre Communications Group Executive Director Teresa Eyring said that while managers contemplate new business models, they’re reluctant to eliminate subscriptions.

Trend Buckers

“Now they say, ‘We’re not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater,’” she said.

Among those bucking the decline is New York Theatre Workshop. With its public profile increasing from two shows that transferred to Broadway --“Peter and the Starcatcher” and “Once” -- subscriptions have nearly doubled since 2009 to pre-recession levels of about 4,000.

And subscriptions are up 40 percent since 2010-11 at New York’s Signature Theatre, where tickets to initial runs are all $25. The number of subscribers, now about 7,000, is capped to create a balance between subscribers and single ticket buyers, the Signature said in a statement.

For companies lacking a hedge-fund manager to subsidize seats -- the Signature has Pershing Square Capital Management’s William Ackman, who donated $25 million -- there are no easy answers.

Younger audiences that have grown up with the instant gratification of the Internet want what they want when they want it, said Mosher, the former Lincoln Center Theater chief. “And it’s hard to think of anything more antithetical to this habit than the subscription season.”

Muse highlights include Jason Harper on cars and Rich Jaroslovsky on tech.

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