A Post-Season Overview with John Candler, President and CEO of the Brevard Music Center
by Roger A. Cope
Brevard, NC, August 25, 2006: The Brevard Music Center closed out its 70th season on August 6. It was a vigorous Institute and Festival. There were 22 headliner concerts among nearly 80 programs over the course of seven weeks. The place is 140 acres with seven primary buildings, numerous camper and faculty cabins, two lakes and three primary performance venues. On average there are 60 faculty members working with 400 students. When the 2005 season closed, an eight-month construction project to install a hydraulic stage extension began; 61 people worked 1,280 hours to complete it on time. Oh, they invite the public in for concerts too, so they have an office for marketing and ticket sales, so we need to add another statistic: 965 public parking places.
It produces a dizzying to-do list for just seven weeks of occupation. Somewhere in the loop there is a person who must bear the burden of making it happen. Well, lots of people make BMC work, but there is only one person to blame if something goes wrong. That would be John Candler, President and CEO.
We sat down for a conversation at the close of the season, as we had done last year. This time we talked about how the season went and what the future holds. I learned quite a bit. For example, BMC polls the student body to get a feel for the educational experience. In a survey completed during the festival's last week, nine out of ten students said they would recommend the BMC to fellow students and that they had improved as musicians. On a separate scale, a high majority (again close to 90%) said they would rate their lessons and the concerts they heard as superior.... Speaking in a relaxed, measured bass, Candler understated the obvious, "We're an educational institution, students are the primary customers, and they had a reasonable year."
So I asked about the other side of the equation – ticket sales and concert attendance. Again speaking in a calm voice, he said, "We had an all-time record for season ticket sales this year. We're obviously very pleased with that. Setting aside our Variations concerts, our core programming mission sales were up as well."
CVNC: Why? Are you really good at marketing, or are demographic shifts influencing these increases?
JC: Hopefully it is both. We do keep track of buying patterns and data such as what they buy, who they are, where they come from, and where they live. That enables us to better market to those slices of the demographic. We are finding the patterns are changing: there are fewer subscription purchasers. We have responded to that in some different ways. Another trend is later buying by single ticket purchasers than we used to see three or four years ago. And like all organizations like ours, we're trying to understand more about that. What you read about is that people are busy - two income families, a lot of competition for all the entertainment dollar, busy lives, and they just don't like to commit more than four or five days before an event. So it creates some tension before an event when it looks like it is not going as we had hoped. Then in the last few days, bam! It comes together. So out of that, we'll be looking at are we doing – if it is the right kind of marketing.... We've been adjusting. We've seen it changing for the last few years, and we've been making changes.
CVNC: Has the Internet been a good tool?
JC: The Internet has been a benefit for us, particularly in the area of ticket sales. We sell on-line, and each year those sales increase. You've got to make it easy for [the customer to use] the Internet as a tool, not just for this business but all business, has been a great leveler. It levels the playing field between the big guys and the little guys.
CVNC: The obvious conclusion suggests that if you tell the public three months ahead of time what's going to happen, that effort is wasted when they are making their decisions at the last minute. What about donors? The Whittington-Pfohl stage extension was made possible by a specific gift from Fran Sykes with support from the Sykes Family Preservation Fund. Do you know the percent relationship of patrons to general ticket purchasers?
JC: Generally, patrons don't contribute unless they have been here for an event. If they buy a ticket just to be entertained, that's fine. But that's the beginning. The development of a relationship begins there, and what we really want them to know about us is our main mission of educating our students. We try to tell them that in a variety of ways, one is Overture Magazine, which is made available to everyone for free. Once they are here, we want them to know we are an educational institution. The support that grows from that ten dollars or fifty thousand dollars comes from the one’s who know it's all about the kids. People don't give you money because they came to a concert. They might come to the next concert, but that's not where the donations come from.
CVNC: How's the budget?
JC: BMC has been in the black since 1978. We still are. We haven't had to do any short-term borrowing or open any lines of credit to remain operational. There is no debt.
CVNC: What about the transition of Artistic Director David Effron away from BMC in August 2007 and Keith Lockhart coming in as Artistic Advisor in October 2007 – how will the future be different? What is the plan?
JC: It's a very broad question, and we can't approach it too specifically. The plan is to continue to support our mission, our educational mission. To get into what will be different..., Keith will not be here for the full season as David has [been] in the past. That's the difference. The focus on educating these kids doesn't change. But the structure during the season will have to change in some ways. Keith met with the faculty when he was here, he has talked with administrative people, he's talked with the trustees, and he is understanding more about what the needs are when he can't be here. I don't view it as a problem. It's just different. Over at [the] Eastern [Music Festival], [Gerard] Schwarz is there for three of the five weeks. We'll [have] internal structural adjustments by someone with the authority to make those kinds of changes when he is not here. Fortunately, we have time to make the plans. I've been talking with David (Effron) for many years. We knew this was coming.
CVNC: When Keith Lockhart held a question-and-answer session after his concert this year, he teased a little, suggesting future seasons – we might see John Williams (the composer and former conductor of Boston Pops), the entire Boston Pops orchestra, and possibly a choral program at BMC. Any truth to that?
JC: Those are "maybes" but all [are] certainly doable.
CVNC: What about a choral program? That would bump repertoire wide open, make an additional curriculum base, and even invite the community into the center in new ways. Is that real?
JC: Where the other things you mentioned are maybes, this one is a "we're going to do" for all the reasons you just mentioned. Details of the plan are to be determined, but Keith wants to look seriously at it and make it happen.
CVNC: What has been the impact of David Effron, who will retire at the close of the 2007 season?
JC: David has made a substantive, positive impact during his tenure. I think the result of all of that can best be summarized: he has continued to raise the bar [of] artistic quality integrated with the educational mission – what we do on that stage. That has to do with the basic building blocks – the faculty – who not only perform but also set examples with their performances and for the students by showing that they can play. He has brought in faculty that attracts students.
CVNC: You record concerts here and have an archive. Have you considered Internet sales?
JC: Yes, we record for archival purposes. Regarding the Internet, we have discussed that. There are always the problems of what is public domain, what is still copyrighted, guest artists, and other credits.... It's very complicated. We haven't seriously considered it or made an effort to answer all those questions. But it's an idea we haven't closed out.
CVNC: How is this property used during the off-season?
JC: Any enterprise wants to get everything out of its assets. We have the charter school, Brevard Academy (K through 8), which is here as we speak. They started earlier this week. They lease a number of our facilities (near the Broyhill Administration Building) during the off-season for classrooms and all the things that go with the teaching mission. That works very nicely for us. That leaves our performance venues under-utilized. We're exploring ways to use those. Of course, weather is a big factor that influences how and when they can be used. Any outdoor facility would face the same problems.
CVNC: What's the great question we haven't asked?
JC: Well, there isn't one. But I would [like] more of the world to know we're here and know what we do and that we do it reasonably well and that we make a difference in the lives of these young people, both musically and personally. And that it's worth investing in, whether you work here or are a ticket purchaser.
CVNC: So you're pleased with how things are going?
JC: I get accused – by some of the people I work with closely – of not being happy with what we've done or with the progress we've made. I suppose that's true. Put another way, I'm never satisfied with it. I can be pleased with the progress but at the same time I'm never satisfied because you never get to the end of that road. If you stop striving for that perfection that you'll never attain, then you start going the wrong direction. So I try to recognize the progress and be happy and pleased about it but at the same time make it clear that I'm not satisfied and I won't be.
CVNC: This would be good advice for a musician, too!