Thursday, October 09, 2008

Salesmanship in the symphony orchestra and performing arts "business"

In April 2002, having been forced to “retire” by an anticipated, 9/11-related corporate downsizing, and collecting severance in a very poor main job market, I was welcoming the idea of interim jobs. Once night, when I went to the disco, I noticed, in the local Minneapolis-St. Paul magazine “Lavender,” that the Minnesota Orchestra was hiring people to its phone bank to call for donations.

I went ahead and bit. A few days later, I started an evening shift job from 5 PM-9 PM calling for donations for the Minnesota Orchestra Guaranty Fund. (The “development” fund still exists; website now is this: I would actually work there, perhaps 4 evenings (and/or Saturday mornings) a week for 14 months. It actually gave me a sense of stability, a softened landing. Since I had my nine years of piano as a boy, it made sense. And since I wanted to get myself into the media (ultimately, the movies for my book), it made sense. Maybe this could open doors. We had office space and cubicles on the second floor of a luxury highrise apartment building two blocks from the Minnesota Symphony Hall.

We were paid $6.50 an hour plus a commission, which was more for new money than renewals. But renewals were easier to get. Everything was manual. We would get our lead sheets at the start of the shift. The renewals were color coded into different groups (call it “rainbow coded”). We wrote our contributions on a white board. The best money was “blue money on credit” (new money). The job was manual; we did everything with paper and pencil and phone. Only the manager had a computer. I was told by others that donations had gotten harder since 9/11 (the activity closed for a month after 9/11 in 2001). I was actually reasonably successful at this. My best night was in June 2002.

In the same are, a couple doors down, the Orchestra sold subscriptions, and in March 2003 turned over that activity to a Canadian company called Arts Marketing. Their sales activity was automated, with all reps having PC’s.

As a perk, we did get great comp tickets. I heard Mahler’s Third and Eighth Symphonies performed, as well as Rachmaninoff’s Second during that period with complimentary tickets.

Then (after two months at a debt collection company in the summer of 2003), I came back to the DC area for family reasons. I found that Arts Marketing also sold subscriptions for the National Symphony Orchestra in the Kennedy Center in Washington. I tried working there for six weeks. It was a bit of a sweat shop, and had no automation. We called from 3x5 lead cards. It is much more difficult to sell a subscription for a season that to get donations for an associated charitable activity as in Minnesota. The only way people made money was to work there every season and build up a group of leads that one called every year (a bit the way an agent works).

For a week we had sales coaching from a young man from Toronto who himself had a music degree. I though it was bizarre to get a degree in the arts and then work managing sales in a phone bank.

I sold only five subscriptions in six weeks, but one person I called said that I was a "good salesman." I've never heard that from anyone before.

Telemarketing activities, as we know, have become unwelcome in our culture in the past few years, and have been restricted by federal law, as was changed in 2003 with the “Telemarketing Sales Rule” which is here in the Federal Register. The company was breaking the law by calling people after 9 PM (we worked until 9:30).

The National Symphony's website (which is slow!!) is here, as a subdomain of the Kennedy Center site.

Picture: Kennedy Center view from a nearby construction site on Constitution Ave in Washington; the only "original" picture that I have of it at the moment.

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