What I Subscribe To

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For this, my 200th article for you dating back almost two years, I decided some taking of stock was called for. I went back to my first article for Operavore and was pleased to discover that I have indeed followed through on the tasks I set for myself and the promises I made to you, my cherished readers. After 200 stories written in the context of all of the arts, but most especially opera, I have asked myself anew: What do I stand for? More specifically, I asked myself, What do I subscribe to?

As I customarily do when a word captures my thought and imagination, I go to the dictionary to assure that I am aware of the complexities and subtleties of that word. In the case of the verb, to subscribe, it is everything I thought and more:

subscribe [səbˈskraɪb] [from Latin subscrībere to write underneath, from sub- + scrībere to write]

  1. to pay or promise to pay (a sum of money) as a contribution (to a fund or charity, for a magazine, etc.), especially at regular intervals.
  2. to give support or approval.
  3. to offer to buy, as of stocks or shares--to invest.
  4. to mark with one’s signature.
  5. to adopt as a belief.
  6. to receive or obtain regularly.

One answer to the question to myself: I believe in subscriptions. Having high percentages of subscribers in their audience is essential for the health of arts institutions. This enables them to do budgeting and advance planning based on a more accurate projection of income. The stability inherent in financial consistency means that companies can devote more of their time and energy to creating art than to paying the bills. Of course, all non-profit arts institutions (in the United States, at least) must spend time and human resources on fundraising. This is the reality, whether we like it or not.

The great impresario of subscriptions to performing arts organizations was Danny Newman (1919-2007). I had the pleasure of knowing Danny since 1972, when he took an interest in me as a teenager with boundless curiosity and considerable passion for the classical arts, as well as old-time popular entertainment. He was a Chicagoan through and through with the swaggery bravado and civic boosterism typical of people from his city. He began working at the age of 14 and, through the decades, became as much a legend and Second City talisman as the people and institutions he promoted. 

My master’s thesis in journalism school was about the newspaper Variety, its role in show business and its effect on the English language. Danny was a vivid source about vaudeville, strippers, comedians, lion tamers, movie musicals, sports heroes, as well as opera singers and orchestra conductors. He always began his stories to me with a clasp on the shoulder and the word, “Son, ... .” He would spin an informative and colorful narrative, but it was always rich in knowledge and experience. One never felt that Danny was “marketing” to you but, rather, seeking to gain your interest in — and adherence to — something truly special. From 1954 onward, that special something was the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Danny was one of the original employees of the company created that year.

One of Danny’s lasting legacies was his advocacy of subscriptions as the glue that emotionally ties audiences and performing arts institutions to one another — with these bonds being equally strong in both directions. To that end, in 1977 he wrote (and shamelessly promoted) an excellent book called “Subscribe Now!: Building Arts Audiences Through Dynamic Subscription Promotion.” His ideas were sought by arts organizations around the world and he often arrived in foreign countries, part consultant and part evangelist, to give his blessing.

When he died, the obituary in The Chicago Tribune contained a paragraph that explained Danny’s approach: “Committing patrons in advance to a season-long slate of performances was, in his view, the most cost-effective, longest-lasting solution to the ongoing problem of empty seats in theaters, concert halls and opera houses. Everywhere he went, he talked up the subscription concept. His evangelical rants against ‘the slothful, fickle single-ticket buyer’ versus ‘the saintly season subscriber’ became enshrined in legend.”

An article in the same newspaper in 2011, recalled his impact and noted that numerous Chicago arts organizations, including the Lyric Opera, have been less subject to a severe decline in attendance because of the Chicago tradition of purchasing subscriptions to whole seasons that was part of the Danny Newman mantra. In this regard, Chicago stands in stark contrast to New York and most other cities with rich cultural offerings.

Something I subscribe to, in the sense of believing, is that it is incumbent upon me as an arts lover to have memberships or subscriptions in many arts organizations. It is a show of support for the arts in general and an expression of faith in the potential for good work in the organizations I “belong” to. It is part of my citizenship as someone who cares about the state of the arts.

Many people assume that tickets for most of the arts events I attend come to me for free. This is not so. While I do receive so-called “press tickets” for some performances, I have always purchased tickets (as a single sale or on subscription) to all of the companies from which I have received press tickets. The great majority of performances I attend in all of the arts are on tickets I pay for.

In preparing this article, I toted up a list of the theater companies and performing arts institutions in New York where I either subscribe or have a membership. They are:

Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM); Carnegie Hall; City Center; Classic Stage Company; the Culture Project; Flea; Irish Repertory Theater; Juilliard School; Keen Company; LAByrinth; Lincoln Center’s many constituents; Manhattan Theatre Club; Mint Theater; New York Theater Workshop; Pearl Theater; Playwrights Horizons; Primary Stages; Public Theater; Roundabout; Signature Theater; and Symphony Space. Plus a couple of museums and more than one non-profit radio station in the city.

You may well ask how and why I do this. I am not rich and never have been. In fact, I have been self-employed for 25 years, with all the vagaries and insecurities attendant to that choice. Part of the answer is, I believe, that our society saturates us with values that suggest we are fulfilled if we can and will spend vast amounts of money on material things. Central to my thinking is that there is a great difference between what we want and what we truly need. We need food, shelter, enough clothes, and good health care. Everything else falls under the category of what we want.

Because I write a lot about food, people assume I am an habitué of restaurants. In fact, I prefer to cook at home. This enables me to limit my consumption of salt, sugar and unhealthy fats. Most people, especially New Yorkers, eat out a lot and spend a lot of money on food they could prepare at home. Also, most restaurants are incredibly noisy and I think it is important to protect my hearing. I do not own a car and always use public transport.

My belief in not acquiring and consuming material things dates back to my childhood. I lived in a home with no television but had a radio that brought the sounds and news of the world — but no advertising — to my ears. My imagination was nourished as an active listener rather than being a passive TV watcher. Books came from the library, another institution that thrives when people “belong” to it. 

When I was 10, I read an article in the National Geographic about DDT and how people were destroying land, water and living beings through chemical pollution. This article led me to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, perhaps the most influential book I have ever read. I also was steeped in the folk tales of Native Americans, who believed that we all borrow the elements and must return them to the next generation better than we found them. Stewardship of the land is, in effect, a subscription. Before the term “carbon footprint” had been coined, I had vowed to tread very lightly on this earth. My love for Wagner’s Ring cycle, in addition to the glorious music, is that to me the story is a narrative of the disaster that can happen if you fool with Mother Nature.

If I did not want material things, then what did I want? Beauty, ideas, provocation, insight, laughter, music. All of these are in the arts, none more so than opera.

Subscribing is not just about people putting faith in arts organizations and cash in their coffers. It is a compact, an article of faith, a two-way street. In my next article, I will address what I consider a crisis in the way subscriptions are and are not sold. Some audience members have lost faith in arts institutions. People have become so busy with things that are unimportant--for one thing, they are captives to their personal electronic devices--that they no longer plan to go to performances. And many, though not all, arts institutions have done a terrible job in keeping their end of the bargain with what Danny Newman called the sainted season subscriber.

In my next article, I will explore the disintegration of the compact between audiences and arts institutions and the consequent decline in subscribers. I invite readers to post comments here about whether you have given up subscriptions to performing arts institutions and why. Let me know what it would take for you to become a subscriber again.