'A dire situation': Regina Symphony Orchestra at financial risk due to dwindling audiences
Things are not looking good for the Regina Symphony Orchestra.
Audiences at RSO concerts have been much smaller than they were pre-pandemic — so much so that the orchestra has had to cancel three of its April shows, including one that was to feature a choir.
"This is sort of our plan to mitigate some of the financial risk that we are feeling very acutely," said Gordon Gerrard, musical director of the RSO.
"But I would say that if people don't start supporting us — both in terms of attending concerts and also if we don't find other means of support — then we are in a dire situation and we are at great risk, certainly."
At the beginning of the season in September, Gerrard says, the orchestra took a conservative view of ticket sales.
Even so, he said, "we haven't got anywhere close in terms of audience. We're seeing halls that are 20 per cent full, which, you know, just is heartbreaking for us."
"We know that we have lots of folks who love the RSO in our community, but we're just not seeing people returning in the way we expected."
Before the pandemic began, Gerrard says, the RSO could expect to fill 1,200 to 1,500 seats in the 1,900-seat Conexus Arts Centre.
"Now, we're seeing as low as 400 people so it's really a different world now, for sure. That much has become clear through the course of this season," Gerrard said
Gerrard says he believes the pandemic has changed people's habits, influencing many to stay home and get their entertainment online or through apps.
"I think we're now in a position where we need to change people's habits back," he said, "and to encourage people to come out to remind people what we can offer them."
That means the RSO will work to increase its social media presence and find new ways to reach potential audience members.
However, Gerrard added, low ticket sales are not just a problem in Regina.
"I do know that most of my colleagues across the country are experiencing what we're experiencing in that [there's] a huge downturn in ticket sales to the point where organizations are at risk," he said.
Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra sees uptick in sales
It's a different story in Saskatoon: The Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra is doing just fine, according to management.
Mark Turner, CEO and creative producer of the SSO, says ticket sales since September have exceeded their expectations.
"This year we are actually seeing a return to pre-pandemic levels, which has been really great for us. We've had a number of full sellouts of TCU Place and other venues … so we've been very fortunate," Turner said.
The SSO is hosting a special Disney in concert program, featuring the music of Frozen, on March 18 at TCU Place. At first, Turner says, ticket sales for the event were slow, but now the production is on track to sell out.
"When we built this season, we were sort of rolling the dice — particularly, you know, we had two Disney shows. We had a big pop show [Dancing Queen] and those come at big price points, and so they were kind of calculated risks," Turner said.
The SSO scheduled that lineup with the assumption it would break even financially. Instead, it made a profit.
"We are seeing a lot of new people in our audience," Turner said. "When we live-streamed throughout the 2020/21 season, we were able to attract a different group of people — people who had been maybe symphony-curious but hadn't come out."
Over the weekend, Turner says, 25 per cent of an SSO concert audience of 1,300 were people under the age of 25.