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Up and Down the Musical Scale: Carey Gibbons Stays Sharp in the Peoria Symphony Orchestra Box Office

By Monica Friedman May 29, 2012
Carey Gibbons, Ticketing and Audience Services Manager for the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, claims that she used to have a photo of herself with Joshua Bell, but now the only image she can find of herself at work is this one of her broken ankle.

Modern Marketing for Classical Music

For one hundred fourteen consecutive years, the Peoria Symphony Orchestra has been producing traditional and sometimes not-so-traditional concert series for music lovers in central Illinois, and for the last five of those years, Carey Gibbons has been keeping patrons happy as Ticketing and Audience Services Manager. Her struggles are many—maintaining the ticketing software that keeps sales steady, giving patrons what they want when they don’t even know what they want, glad handling big personalities with big demands—but some days the rewards hit just the right note.

Her job is a vast balancing act. On one occasion, equipment issues caused her to lose one hundred seats. Gibbon had three days to individually contact and relocate forty patrons. Another time, she spent two days of a Midwestern winter without a coat, because Joshua

Joshua Bell

Bell chose to set his Stradivarius on top of hers and she couldn’t bring herself to move a three million dollar violin, “even in its case.” Whether she’s smiling over the Vienna Boys’ Choir’s request for “the most adorable rider ever—cookies and chocolate milk” or failing to accommodate impossible demands (“make the lights reflect less off of the brass [because t]he glare was hurting [the patron’s] eyes”), Gibbons has to keep her cool under every condition, in an industry that is rapidly changing.

 

Selling Tickets in Tough Times

Season ticket sales are down, she notes, but individual concert sales are up. A constant tug-of-war between traditionalists expecting classical music and those who like to shake it up with symphonic pops, big band, and Broadway tunes makes programming a challenge. “Most symphony orchestras in America are suffering massive declines in concert attendance,” Gibbons explains, and “there are a million reasons why.”

One of her main responsibilities, “maintaining our ticketing software, keeping it up to date, building the new season into it every year, setting pricing and discount codes, and managing/processing all ticketing sales,” can be a tall order for a woman whose degree is in creative writing. She’s had to “become an expert on ticketing software,” while dealing with (and explaining to her superiors) the limitations of the technology. For instance, while PSO offers online ticket sales, the multi-venue nature of their series makes it impossible to purchase an entire season online. They can’t sell discounted seats online, because they need to verify that the purchaser (for instance, a student) is entitled to the discount, and it’s impossible to ensure that online subscribers receive the same seats two years in a row. These issues still need to be handled in person, through the box office.

Home of the PSO Box Office

Digital Media for Musical Marketing

Gibbons notes that, “going completely digital is impossible because many of our older patrons don’t use the Internet.”

On the plus side, she sees that, “I do get a good amount of online business. I think people like that they can just have the transaction done in a few clicks and their tickets will either be in the mail in a couple of days or at the box office will call window.”

The Peoria Symphony Orchestra at work

Other digital tools employed by the Symphony include a website where all concert information can be found, Facebook and Twitter accounts (maintained by a dedicated social network expert) where they “do trivia contests, post information, pictures, videos, and interesting articles from other orchestral organizations and publications,” their own YouTube channel, and the online newsletter generator Constant Contact, which she has learned to use to create newsletters and “notices for anything connected to the PSO.”

Don’t Forget the Classics

Gibbons still needs to rely a great deal on print publicity, however. Most of her sales come in response to “mailers and brochures—especially in regard to season package purchases.” While she doesn’t print many posters, in some cases, they do strike a chord with patrons for certain “special events. We did a Led Zeppelin tribute concert a couple of years ago,” she recalls, “and I personally took print media to every tattoo parlor and bar in town. Well, a lot of bars. I’m sure I didn’t hit all of them.” She also sends “thank you letters to individual ticket buyers after every concert. Even though these letters are through snail mail, we invite them to like our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter, and we’ve gotten a lot of response from those.”

PSO also relies on other media advertising. “People who buy single tickets,” Gibbons reports, “usually hear an ad on the radio or see a commercial on television or an ad in the local paper.”

Staying Relevant and Pleasing Everybody

Like most modern symphonies, PSO continues to navigate the challenge of a modern world, trying to appease “young people

The Led Zeppelin Tribute Concert

[who] want more than Bach, Beethoven, and Brahams” and “[t]raditionalists [who] only want Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.” How contentious is the debate? “We’ve had people threaten to cancel their subscriptions over non-traditional programming,” Gibbons recalls. “But our best selling single ticket concert in the last five years was when we did almost all movie music. We did Star Wars music and the 501st Legion came in from Chicago, all decked out and the people loved it!” While the symphony tends to be a hard sell for young people, “there were a lot of kids in their teens and younger at that concert. It was amazing and fun.”

Still, she concedes, “Staying relevant is hard,” and that, “all orchestras have to accept that classical music, like every other genre, is evolving.” She laments the divide between highbrow and lowbrow, reminding music lovers that people “conveniently forget that what is now high-brow was once low-brow.” Case in point: “People beat each other up in the aisles at the opening of Stravinski’s Rites of Spring because they hated it so much. Now, it’s a season staple.”

A Juggling Act, with Chainsaws

Gibbons has learned a lot about music and marketing during her tenure as Ticketing and Audience Services Manager. “Musicians,”

Rehearsal at the PSO

she reminds us, never just show up and play. …there is a ridiculous amount of work that goes on behind the scenes [but a] really good orchestral organization makes it look easy and flawless.” As for selling the symphony, “getting new patrons to a concert is a lot harder than it seems. We have to expend tremendous amounts of effort to make concerts appealing to people who have never come to a concert, while still managing to appease the folks who have loyally supported us for years and sometimes decades.” She sees marketing as “a juggling act. With chainsaws. Running chainsaws.”

Gibbons’ job is making people happy. In the course of her work she’s found that “some people just like to complain. I’ve had to learn not to take this personally.” But some people share her ability to make someone else’s day. She still recalls, fondly, her encounters with violinist Mark O’Connor, “a gracious, generous guy” who taught a free master class before his concert.

Mark O’Connor

After the show, he signed CDs for everyone, including Gibbons, who “thanked him for rocking.” O’Connor “pulled out a copy of his new CD, which wasn’t going to drop for another month…and gave it to me. He then walked off into the sunset, I assume to go be awesome elsewhere.”