Case study: Horsham Music Circle makes sustainable changes

Jill Elsworthy discusses how promoter group Horsham Music Circle broke with tradition to make its yearly concert programme robust for the future

Horsham Music Circle is an annual concert series taking place in Horsham, West Sussex. Subscribers pay an annual membership fee that secures them tickets to the main concerts each season at a discounted rate, with individual tickets for each concert also available for non-members to buy. Last season (2018-19) the society had 32 subscribers. For the last two years (2017/18 and 2018/19 seasons) the series has comprised four subscription concerts, one fundraising concert and three or four free organ recitals (with retiring collection) per season (September to May).

The audience size during these two seasons ranged from 45 to 114. Concerts take place in various venues across Horsham, including The Capitol, The Drill Hall, St Mark’s Church and Horsham Parish Church. The subscription concerts include chamber music, solo recitals, jazz, and lighter programmes, and have showcased many high profile artists and ensembles, together with younger musicians.

The challenges
Changing audience lifestyles has meant that Music Circle subscriptions have been declining. Reduced income from ticket sales and fewer people to help run the concerts gave rise to concern for the society’s future. Our long-standing chairman stepped down for health reasons and our treasurer also resigned. The group were unable to find anyone to take over these roles and these gaps put our charity status at risk.

What we did
After some deliberation and consultation with subscribers, it was clear that the Music Circle had to re-invent itself to survive. There was still sufficient support to make live music performances sustainable, but only if we adopted a scaled-down format. To establish the new setup, we:

  • Revised our constitution; With the help of Making Music, we amended our constitution in order to better reflect the new vision we had for the society, and to help ease worries about our charitable status.
  • Sought the support of local musicians; Many professional musicians live in the area and welcomed the opportunity to perform locally for their own audience. This meant we received offers of support and ideas for future programmes.
  • Changed the format of the concert season; The subscription season, which had run from September to June, was no longer working. Many people found they were unable to commit to concert dates so far in advance. As a result, we abandoned the subscription model and, as a trial run, presented an Autumn series of ad hoc concerts – two main performances and two fundraising lunchtime organ recitals with retiring collections.
  • Streamlined our marketing; We used the existing subscriber contact base to send out publicity with a ticket application form. Rather than producing a season brochure, we opted for a ‘Concerts for Autumn’ flyer with some additional posters, which reduced our printing costs by a few hundred pounds. We reduced the distribution area and mainly focused on targeting the town centre.

The results
After abandoning the subscription model, we felt a bit on edge not knowing how big our audience would be. There were reasonable advance sales but most came on the night. Those not known to us had the opportunity to sign up to our mailing list, and we gained six new signups! We could possibly have gained more had we dedicated someone to this particular task on concert nights.

Numbers for each concert ranged from 45 to 73. Audiences were very supportive of the new venture and received each performance with enthusiasm and we heard really accomplished playing from all the artists. The presentations involving local professional musicians and other music groups often brought in new audiences and a lower age range! In light of this discovery, we decided to present an additional spring series of three main concerts and three fundraising lunchtime organ recitals.

The organising team greatly enjoyed this new experience and were lucky almost everything went to plan. With such a small team, there would have been problems if anyone had dropped out at the last minute. Unfortunately, we had to cancel our last two performances due to the coronavirus lockdown, but we still made an overall profit, which gives us confidence in the new model. Audience numbers of between 45 and 73 would be the lowest sustainable level, so we will need to be careful when planning and budgeting for the next series of concerts in this format.

What we learned

  • Be determined – always remember the aim is to keep live music performance going in the town and surrounding area, even if on a smaller scale
  • Talk to local professional musicians to create special programmes, from duos to sextets, as they are supportive of home-grown music-making
  • Aim for high quality but accept it will be an abridged season compared to previous years
  • Remember finances also need to be adjusted accordingly to keep to a strict budget
  • Make sure there is a person dedicated to collecting new signups to the mailing list on concert night!

​​​​Having been established for so many years in the tried and tested format which a subscription series offers, it may initially be a little daunting to break with tradition. In the end, however, it was worth rethinking the series to suit today’s audiences, and we can use what we have learnt to make many more improvements to Horsham Music Circle over time.

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