I am finally sitting down to write this after the effervescent and ebullient football legend David Modell was laid to rest – at the age of only 55 – at the Baltimore Basilica, a few blocks down the street from my home this morning. I have procrastinated in writing this piece for years. It was originally intended to be an article about the lessons that American football can teach orchestras; it was to be anecdotal and prescriptive – something I wanted the Future Symphony Institute (FSI) to get into much later, only after the philosophical foundations of our argument were firmly established.
But God orders life according to His timing, and my esteemed friend left this world before I could show him that I really was taking notes during our many talks. Dave was one of my very first supporters and not only encouraged me, but backed me in the hard work of establishing FSI. He was rooting for me to help not only our home team, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO), but perhaps other orchestras all around the country to seize the many opportunities that he and I plainly saw waiting for them.
I met Dave sometime around 2003, when we were serving together on a committee formed by the BSO. That committee was charged with the task of getting more young people to attend concerts. Symphony Rocks was the BSO’s early version of the efforts now undertaken by orchestras everywhere to try to make themselves “cool” and to get more “young professionals” to attend. Dave and I hit it off immediately for we shared a similar roving and imaginative conversational style – what might sound a lot like ADD to someone overhearing us. But each time we bantered back and forth, what seemed pretty obvious to both of us was that what was lacking at symphony concerts was simply something about the social experience around the music. Together we would envision what might be done with our concert hall lobby and beyond it, stepping out of this or that event, where we regularly collided, to enjoy his really great Cuban cigars.
Back then, as now, the main impetus of the music community’s conversation across the nation is what we might call “declinism.” Driven by the idea that our art form was in a tailspin, leaders of the major foundations and the League of American Orchestras concluded that we had to keep up with the times, embody “cool,” get over our fixation on the music of dead, white, European men, and mimic the successes of mass entertainment through marketing and “innovations” in programming while breaking down the walls of musical styles – and thus becoming somehow relevant to people who had never before shown interest in what we were doing.
Dave, who was himself a smashing success, quickly earning a Super Bowl victory in only the fifth year at the helm of his father’s team, shared my sense that our greatest achievement as Baltimore’s orchestra would not come through trying to be something that we were not, or through trying be all things to all people, but by being even more of what an orchestra is really and already inherently about. The opportunity for us lay in the possibility of enhancing the overall patron experience – and this is something the NFL knew all about.
Before moving to Baltimore in 1996 to establish the Baltimore Ravens, Dave was raised in Cleveland where his adoptive father, the storied Art Modell, had been owner of the NFL franchise the Cleveland Browns. Cleveland has long been a city facing challenges very similar to Baltimore’s: a post-industrial city struggling with class conflict and high unemployment. They also have a world-class orchestra, to which Art was a subscriber from 1977 to 1996. As Dave told me in our last meeting together on a bright, sunny afternoon,
My dad loved classical music, especially The Cleveland Orchestra, and introduced me to it by taking me out to the car where we would sit in the driveway, listening to the radio. I’ll never forget the first piece he taught me, Scheherazade. I still love that piece because he opened up a whole world of music to me through a story I could follow in the music. As I grew up, we frequently attended the Cleveland Orchestra together as a guys’ night out. There was never any mistake about what we were witnessing: greatness, an A -team to the last player, and that it was the orchestra that was main thing. Like another sports team, the Cleveland Orchestra was highly respected in our home and was a main source of the city’s pride.
It’s hard to think of the Cleveland Orchestra or the NFL as anything but wildly successful, but Dave reminded me,
Back in the 60s, professional football was lagging behind college football, baseball, and even boxing and horse racing. Of course, television changed everything, especially Monday Night Football, but we also did a bunch of other things that really expanded our audience and gained us huge sponsorships, which was really the name of the game.
Speaking broadly from the perspective of the NFL, “Building better, more comfortable stadiums like we did in Baltimore made a huge difference. The luxury skybox with all its amenities has been great for revenue but even more so for sponsorships. We were able to make great gains from the people who could afford it.” Indeed, the average ticket price for the Baltimore Ravens in 2016 was $216. Clearly, the NFL doesn’t lose sleep over the fear that they might be charging too much for tickets. Over the years, I would chat with Dave about the challenge we orchestras believe we faced: asking ourselves how we could manage to charge less for tickets. “That’s crazy,” Dave would say. “You have to make your product seem as valuable to people as possible. Even the folks with little money spring for NFL tickets and the team jerseys if that’s something they really want. What’s so hard to understand about that?”
It simply rubs an arts administrator with an egalitarian mindset the wrong way to try to push up prices. Yet, people from all economic strata in Baltimore do fork over the big bucks for Ravens games. The Ravens and the Orioles, with their legendary Camden Yards, are the best shows in town – aside from the BSO, of course. Not everyone attends every game or every concert. Some people don’t attend any, but those who do pony up gladly.
I told Dave about my dream of redesigning our concert experience, changing it from a two-hour sit-down-listen-and-leave routine to a five-hour window during which people show up in time to eat, drink, and be merry, the orchestra playing not just a world-class concert but also the world-class host. In short, the concert hall would become a destination for atmosphere, music, and hospitality. And Dave jumped all over this one:
Well, that’s exactly what the NFL did. We expanded the whole concept of the game into a bigger time slot – an event with tons of pregame and postgame activities. Tailgating in our parking lots has been huge. For lots of people, that’s the best part: the socializing and drinking.
So, social context matters. The event brings people together to enjoy each other under a pretext that for some might even be secondary. It’s not the game but who one goes to the game with – and the opportunity to spend the day and make memories with them. That was the truth I was trying to get to. In this day and age, I think it is too much to expect most people to come to a concert simply because we are playing Mozart or Stravinsky or whatnot. But to have a great time with others while they get know this thing called classical music, that seems entirely plausible and in keeping with the times. The idea of wedding our art form, the concert, with other forms of high quality diversion became what I hoped we could pull off. And history apparently supports the notion: concerts used to be fun and lavish social events before some puritans got hold of the concert format.
Dave would go on about all the perks you get by being a season ticket holder. “It just keeps getting better the more you buy into the team. For so many people it becomes a lifestyle that consumes them.” Yes, a sense of membership, and a membership that had its privileges. Being a cheeseheaded Green Bay Packers fan from Wisconsin, I certainly could relate. The closer one gets to Green Bay, the more one notices everything being painted green and gold, including people’s garage doors, cars, and the occasional dog. Their football stadium, Lambeau Field, is one of the top places for weddings in Green Bay – right on the 50-yard line. As the Toscanini of football, Vince Lombardi once said, “Think of only three things: your God, your family, and the Green Bay Packers – in that order.” But, I digress.
The idea I got from Dave was how welcoming the NFL tried to make itself, getting fans to regard the stadium as a home away from home, a Great Third Place, as we call it. I wanted to make our concert hall lobby into our own version of such a home. After all, so many of our patrons had been coming to the BSO for 50 years or more! Talk about loyal fans. They certainly deserve a comfortable place to sit when they come to “their happy place.” That so many of our patrons are retired made it seem to me that it was even more incumbent upon us that we make our friends comfortable first and foremost.
Dave once asked me, “Why do you guys care if your audience is so old? That’s your niche.” For his own part, he seemed to have no illusions that the NFL could or should be for everyone. He said that he got that part, but he also recounted some important forward progress they made. The NFL nearly doubled its audience when it figured out how to appeal to women:
We learned a lot by asking women what it would take to make them want to come to games. It boiled down to making it easy for them to understand what was going on in the game, selling women’s sports apparel, which is a big part of fan life, having comfortable seats, good bathrooms and enough of them, food they liked, and places to keep warm. They also really liked knowing the backstory to the players’ lives, the human interest. In sports, the focus is always right on the team itself – where it has to be. It’s not about the coaching staff or the conductor, really. It’s about you guys. I want to know you guys. You know, to this day, women are still our biggest growth segment.
Indeed, today women account for 45% of NFL attendees.
It was about that same time that I discovered from the Knight Foundation’s report published in the late 90s that women bought the vast majority of orchestra tickets – and that for every four people who attend a concert, it was another person (a women usually) who had bought their tickets for them. It became really important to me that we get to the women who are doing the purchasing and to get their men to go along with them. Since concert audiences skew towards women, Dave and I mused about what we might learn if we did something like what the NFL did, but in reverse – if we asked men what it would take to make them more excited about coming to concerts.
Dave, releasing a luxurious cloud of hand-rolled Cuban puffery, declared, “Easy. A killer single-malt Scotch list, great beers, a place to smoke cigars, and more legroom.” Sounded familiar: cater to their creature comforts. The Cleveland Orchestra was spending a small fortune on gingersnaps that were of such great repute in their donors’ lounge that they didn’t dare cut them lest they incur donor backlash. They learned this the hard way, I was told.
It wasn’t long before orchestras got into the Great Cupholder Debate, while Dave and I sat on the sidelines asking, “Why the heck not?” Besides wanting to get the full service bar going at our hall, I wanted the high rollers that we needed to court to be able to have drinks brought to them – and for everyone to be able to take their drinks to their seats. We needed cupholders. Apparently, the NFL has already figured that one out. But to this day, it would seem this is an insurmountable challenge for symphony orchestras, raising grave concerns over red wine and carpets or something like that. I did hear that recently the cupholder barrier was broken down somewhere. I wish I had had a chance to tell Dave about that.