Story Seeker: Blanche Israël
Person interviewed: Hugh Donnan
Interview date: June 30, 2021
Through its Pay-It-Forward Subscriptions and Seniors Outreach programs, the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra (NSO) generated new revenue streams, sustained its concert offering at regular season levels, and reached audiences virtually in remote parts of Newfoundland and Labrador where the orchestra had never toured before.
The Innovation: A new subscription model and extensive outreach
The NSO’s pandemic successes start and end with relationships. As the St. John’s based orchestra quickly pivoted their activities online, it started offering digital subscriptions at a fraction of the cost of a regular live subscription. CEO Hugh Donnan noticed that NSO subscribers and donors were open to contributing more than the cost of one at-home subscription, because they had been accustomed to purchasing two live subscriptions. From this shift in purchasing patterns emerged an opportunity: Pay-It-Forward Subscriptions, a program that offered loyal NSO audiences the opportunity to purchase additional subscriptions that would give strangers access to the symphony’s digital programming.
The NSO recognized the need in the community: “One of the groups most impacted right from the get-go by the pandemic were the residents in seniors’ homes,” said Hugh. “They weren’t able to see other people in the home, had no community programming, couldn’t do a lot of the things they normally do, like outside entertainment or trips out. They were really being isolated.”
With a modest new revenue stream and a mandate to pay it forward, the NSO set out to connect with new audiences, including offering their season’s programming free of charge to seniors’ residences. The uptake was enthusiastic: 46 seniors’ facilities in rural areas like Lewisporte, Newfoundland and Nain, Labrador were given access to the NSO’s 16-concert digital season. Most of these rural areas “we had never been to, and may never ever go to physically”, Hugh noted. “We now had the ability to give them access to a concert.” Some facilities chose to connect residents with the concerts via the distribution of iPads in the living facilities, while others held screenings of the concerts for groups of residents.
Sustaining their programming digitally offered the NSO opportunities to get creative in a variety of other ways. In St. John’s, the NSO partnered with local restaurants to create signature cocktail mixes that could be ordered ahead of time for the show. Internally, the organization redeployed its volunteers, usually tasked with interacting with audiences at concerts, to help manage social distancing, sanitizing, and mask distribution among musicians at rehearsals. When the NSO had trouble sourcing plexiglass, it contacted a sign company and asked for a prototype of a see-through pop-up banner, which the sign company then branded as the “Band Mate”.
According to Hugh, “What we did was not rocket science. We used YouTube; we used our website. Really I feel like the biggest innovation was the process – the way we delivered it. We worked hard to make it feel like you were ‘doing symphony’”: making the digital concert experience mimic the feel of a live concert through elements like pre-show chats, audience interaction, and a signature cocktail.
The Challenges: Geographical and legal questions
The St. John’s-based symphony had long been confronted with a challenge related to its provincial mandate: tours every few years did not allow it to reach many parts of the vast province. For example, there had never been a significant NSO tour to Labrador in the symphony’s nearly 50-year history. But the NSO had also never done digital concerts before. “Without our production manager, it would have been impossible,” said Hugh. It was the skill set and go-getter attitude of a single team member, not long-term planning and strategy, that got them through. The global shortage of equipment meant that cameras of different brands had to be sourced in a piecemeal fashion to ensure the NSO was ready in time for the first concert.
The NSO unionized three years ago and has worked with a collective bargaining agreement since that time. The orchestra’s ability to pivot online was made possible by timely policy changes from the Canadian Federation of Musicians, including provisions that enabled orchestras with collective bargaining agreements to stream concerts.
Another key consideration was the need to make it financially worthwhile for the musicians to perform with NSO rather than just collecting the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). This meant that NSO had to find a way to keep musicians employed at a threshold of 85% of a typical season.
The Financials: New revenue streams, subscribers, and performance opportunities
While the NSO’s Seniors Outreach program was not designed to bring in revenues, it did have several positive financial impacts. “As much as our regular subscribers joined us online, we also have a ton of new subscribers.” The symphony’s outreach activities allowed them to connect with some better-resourced private seniors’ residences in St. John’s that might choose to supplement digital offerings with tailor-made, paid live performances throughout the year. Such avenues would allow the NSO to offer its players more paid performance opportunities throughout the year.
Although the NSO, like many organizations, saw a decrease in its overall revenues during the pandemic, Hugh was pleased with the results, which included about 230 subscribers and $50,000 in subscription revenues during the 2020/21 season. “It was amazing that we were able to maintain that level while going from $800-$900 [in subscription revenue for a] couple to just $150 for a whole household.” Even single ticket sales, which the NSO treated as incidental because of the low price point between $10 and $20, brought in between $20,000 and $30,000 during the season.
The Takeaway: Prioritizing people pays off
The NSO capitalized on an unexpected opportunity for visibility, with two key drivers: provincial health restrictions in Newfoundland and Labrador were generally more relaxed than those in other provinces due to lower COVID-19 case numbers; and top Newfoundland classical music talent, artists who were grounded at home during the pandemic, were available to perform with the NSO. “When we did Messiah, Classic FM listed us as one of the top Messiahs to listen to in Canada,” Hugh said. While the choir was smaller than it would have been in a typical year, it “was like the all-star team – people who were just luckily here because of COVID.” The live, distanced Messiah performances sold out: as Hugh pointed out, “we had more people go to our Messiah this year virtually than we ever would have had in a regular year”.
Reflecting on a challenging year, Hugh expressed great pride at what the NSO was able to accomplish, especially for their most important demographic: their musicians. “Everybody had choices,” he says. “We could have put our heads in the sand and just caretake. But we didn’t just want to disappear for a year. Right from the beginning, the goal was, because we weren’t as hard-hit as other places, to get as many musicians on stage as possible so we could pay them.” The NSO’s focused attitude allowed the organization to maintain its level of activity, unlike many other arts organizations: “our normal season is 16 concerts, and this season was 16 concerts.”
Beyond their musicians, Hugh noted that the NSO worked to be “there for our people: for our patrons, for our subscribers, and for the people of our province.”
As Hugh sees it, the Seniors Outreach project “has given us an ability, which we have never had before, to reach people all over the province. This is a permanent arm of our operations, for sure.” The project forged warm and wide-reaching connections that the NSO can now leverage to offer hybrid in-person/virtual programming post-pandemic. As the province reopens, the NSO is seeing more live performance opportunities in seniors residences as well as movie theatres, schools, and mental health facilities across the province.
The NSO now has the opportunity to connect with the whole province in brand new ways. Reflecting this, the NSO will soon include Labrador in its new name as the NLSO. In a globalized world, where identity and place are increasingly separate, the NSO can now envision its presence for the “large diaspora of Newfoundlanders across Canada and around the world.”