Slow ticket sales have forced Duke Performances to offer free tickets to three events in the last two weeks.
Officials said an overbooked season, a preponderance of local options and competition from the presidential race were likely culprits in slow sales at the shows. But they added that overall sales numbers, as calculated by percentage of tickets sold, were not behind last year's levels.
"I succumbed to the common affliction of programmers, which is that I programmed too much stuff," Director Aaron Greenwald said. "It's good stuff, but on a campus that is already busy and in a community that already has a ton of stuff, we can't say, 'No, this is what's really important.'"
In a Nov. 12 e-mail to a small list of addresses he compiled, Greenwald offered free tickets, via e-mail request, to performances by David Dorfman Dance Nov. 13 and 14.
"Ticket sales are, to this point, [very] slow," he wrote. "It's important that we turn out a respectable audience, so I'm simply going to start giving away [tickets]."
In a second e-mail Nov. 17, sent to a listserv composed of previous ticket buyers, Marketing Director Ken Rumble wrote to announce free tickets to a concert that day by folk musicians Greg Brown and Chava Albertstein and a Nov. 21 performance by pianists Fred Hersch and Christopher O'Riley.
In that message, Rumble suggested that "the global economic downturn is pinching everyone's pockets and that different choices must be made as a consequence." In an interview Monday, however, Rumble and Greenwald said that claim might have been "hyperbolic." They said there was no evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, to suggest the sputtering economy had affected sales.
After a schedule filled with big-name artists centered around two major themes, Duke Performances opted for a more diffuse season this year, booking more acts in more series but fewer marquee names.
"When you're dealing with artists who are all obscure, it's hard to know who's truly obscure," Greenwald said, explaining that he often did not know which artists would sell and which would not.
Duke Performances has given away tickets before, he added. During the last season, they offered complimentary entry using methods including neighborhood listservs. He said drumming up attendance was important for keeping appearances and relationships with artists he would like to bring back to campus.
"One thing that we are trying to do is, it's really important to us that we have a good reputation with the performers," he said.
One problem was that Duke Performances has stumbled in targeted marketing efforts in a few instances this season, Rumble said. For example, he said the show by Alberstein, an Israeli, could and should have been more directly sold to the local Jewish community. Rumble said he is already making plans to aggressively market shows that may otherwise underperform.
Greenwald also said Page Auditorium, a hall acknowledged to have subpar acoustics and facilities, was likely a net negative in attracting concertgoers. The venue hosted the Alberstein/Brown and Hersch/O'Riley shows.
Sales have been uneven this season, even as student ticket sales increased to 30 percent-up 5 percent from last year and 15 percent from 2006-2007.
Performances by singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, singer Milton Nascimento and saxophonist Branford Marsalis have packed patrons in. Compañia Flamenco José Porcel and tap dancer Savion Glover both performed to sold-out crowds. But others, such as jazz bassist Charlie Haden, played to partially filled houses.
Greenwald said the free offers had been warmly received. The Dorfman shows were about 65 and 80 percent full, and Duke Performances received about 700 requests for tickets to the Hersch/O'Riley show after the e-mail went out.
"It's one of those opportunities we have to turn a negative into a positive," Greenwald said. "Bring people out, show them a good show, and they are more likely then to take another look at your brochure."
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