By Jim McCarthy Mar 23, 2012 2 comments

Why Do You Care if You Sell Out or Not?

There’s a phenomenon in live entertainment marketing that’s fundamentally childish, and yet on some level, just about everyone who markets our products falls victim to it.

It’s the desire to “sell out.”

I put “sell out” in quotes because everyone who markets live entertainment professionally understands that this term can be defined in all kinds of ways and manipulated in even more.

There was a theatre production in a major city in California that ran for several years and actually tried somewhat successfully to build a Broadway and then touring brand for itself on the basis of the fact that it had “sold out” every date for x consecutive weeks, months, years or whatever.

The reality, of course, was much more complicated: the house they chose to play was dinky; they created a system whereby about 10 or 15% of the seats could be flexed in our out for a given show, and the price was quite low.

So, yes, they “sold out” the show, but what did that really mean?  Did it mean people loved the show?  Goldstar members gave it middling reviews, actually.  Did it mean they made a ton of money? I haven’t seen their books, but I’m guessing no.  Did it help them leverage the show into productions elsewhere?  Possibly, and if that was the strategy, terrific, but it only goes so far, because ultimately the show’s franchise faded.  It wasn’t fundamentally strong enough.

Maybe focusing less on “selling out” and focusing more on building a bigger and bigger audience willing to pay more for your tickets (and btw, managing Revenue Per Seat)  would have made a difference in the long term, but that’s not how this group decided to play it.

Bragging about “selling out” when there are so many levers you can manipulate to make it happen is like bragging about straight A’s on your report card, when everyone knows that if you wanted to, you could take Remedial Math and that English course where the professor doesn’t believe in grades and so anyone who turns in the final term paper gets an ‘A.’  It’s like bragging that you won a Beauty Contest of which you were the judge.

Instead, worry about building a better product and building a better, stronger connection to an audience that’s going to last.

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    • Damon Runnals

      Thanks for the post.
      While my company is not focused on “selling out”, we are quite concerned about “audience attendance”. This is due to the fact that for the show we are currently producing “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)” [currently a hot seller on the Goldstar Minneapolis site], we have a vast amount of audience participation about the show. So our focus is making sure butts are in seats as doing this show for a small house is going to be a very big challenge for the actors.
      How would you describe the subtle difference in approach to getting audience attendance and selling out? Are there differences in process that you think can work toward one or the other?


    • Jim McCarthy

      That’s actually a great question, Damon.

      I’d answer that it’s about “selling” rather than “selling out.” Selling out is about filling some capacity that you can manipulate or change.

      For example, you could “sell out” a house half your size right now, but what good would that do, which is exactly what you’re pointing out.

      The difference in approach is subtle but important: a selling out mentality looks at all the seats and says “we have to fill them.” An audience attendance model, as you’re saying, says, “how do we get more people interested in the show?” One is fundamentally about chairs and the other is fundamentally about fans, support, and revenue streams that last.

      I guess my big point about those who are obsessed with selling out is that focusing on being able to claim that is in large part ego driven rather than driven by the types of worthier organizational goals that you mention.

      If this isn’t clear enough or helpful, drop me a line in email and I’m happy to share more of my thoughts on this with you.