In recession, performance groups cut back

Budget cuts: The phrase has become Anna Wood’s ’09 “worst fear this year.”

But Wood is not an economics major pursuing a job in the financial sector. She is the business manager for the all-female senior a cappella group Whim ’n Rhythm, which, like many student performance groups, is feeling the effects of the nation’s economic downturn.

The biggest sources of revenue for many Yale a cappella and improv groups are off-campus performances at venues ranging from bar mitzvahs to nursing homes. But with the current economic climate, some groups are having trouble booking — and retaining — clients.

To some extent, student performers said, their clients are already committed, both by will and by contract, to hire them. But extenuating circumstances surrounding the current economic crisis have left many student groups making budget adjustments to ensure sufficient funds for operating expenses.

‘A LUXURY ITEM’

Elis might associate traditional a cappella concerts with posh suits and dresses, ritzy performance spaces and a well-to-do clientele. And where this stereotype holds true, today’s singing groups are better off financially because of it.

With a cappella groups in particular, many returning clients already willing to shell out money for performances are still able to do so in the midst of a recession, explained Jamie Warlick ’09, the business manager for the Yale Whiffenpoofs.

“We are, to a certain extent, a luxury item,” he said of the Whiffenpoofs. “We haven’t been hit that hard; we’ve been lucky.”

Most interviewed a cappella and improv business managers declined to disclose their performance fees, but among those that did, prices ranged from $800 to $1,500 for sessions 40 minutes to one hour in length.

“In general, it’s usually pretty wealthy businesses or institutions that hire a cappella groups,” said Jake Meyer ’10, the business manager for the Duke’s Men. “If they’re going to book you, they’re going to book you. And if not, they aren’t.”

For some groups, immunity from the economic downturn has also been a matter of timing. Because the Duke’s Men signed contracts with most of their upcoming clients last semester, Meyer added, shows planned for the spring semester have already been “locked in.”

Just Add Water’s business manager, Matthew George ’11, said the improv group is in a similar situation. But while JAW has not been hit hard yet, he added, “We’ll probably feel it in a month or two, when we try to plan next year’s budget.”

A SOUR NOTE

But not all clients are willing to pay top dollar for musical or comedic entertainment.

Evan Gogel ’10, the business manager for the a cappella group the Baker’s Dozen, explained that the BDs have two main clientele: “private” clients requesting performances at parties, weddings and other events and “institutional” clients, such as schools, retirement homes and country clubs.

“Certainly in the second group we’ve noticed a decline this year,” Gogel explained.

Particularly among elementary, middle and highschools, Warlick said, some of the Whiffenpoofs’ returning customers can no longer “justify the costs” of hiring an a cappella group. Because singing at schools is a part of the Whiffenpoofs’ goal to be “ambassadors for Yale,” as Warlick put it, the group has made an effort to lower fees when needed.

“Schools have tighter budgets, and we’re trying our best to accommodate them,” he said.

Whim ’n Rhythm has also seen “strikingly lower numbers” in terms of performance revenue over the last several months, Wood said.

“It’s been really difficult this year,” Wood explained, pointing to multiple finance-related client cancellations. In some instances, Whim has had to cut performance fees for clients — including law firms and Yale Clubs — by as much as 30 to 50 percent.

THE SHOW MUST GO ON

It was when the financial crisis deepened early last fall that some groups began to notice effects on their business dealings.

“All of the sudden we realized that we really needed to get on our game to catch up,” said Nathan Griffith ’10, co-business manager for the a cappella group Out of the Blue. “And I think we did.”

OOTB has not had trouble booking gigs, Griffith explained, “it’s just that people are not willing to pay as much.” To make up for lost revenue, the group has scheduled more performances than usual for the spring.

Wood said Whim ’n Rhythm, however, may end up cutting back. For example, she said it is possible they will have to shorten their world tour in the summer, visiting fewer destinations while abroad.

Erica Irving ’11, the a cappella group Something Extra’s business manager, said her group will likewise make adjustments to its spring tour plans. For one, she explained, the group will make an effort to tap into its alumni base for further funds.

Indeed, making and keeping connections has been key for lining up shows, said Ashley Tallevi ’09, the bookings manager for the Purple Crayon, an improv group.

“We’ve just been going back to schools that we’ve performed at before,” she said, where clients are more likely to hire the group again.

PLEASE DON’T STOP THE MUSIC

Comparisons between today’s recession and the Great Depression have been common in recent news media. Just as movies were a popular means of escape from real-world woes during the 1930s, could comedy and music offer relief today?

“One can only hope that trend will carry over to improv comedy,” George noted.

But “when [schools] cut the budget, the first thing to go is guests coming to perform,” he added.

Students in a cappella and improv groups lamented this reality.

“Music is, and should be, a fundamental part of a child’s education,” Nathan Little ’10, the Yale Spizzwinks(?) business manager, wrote in an e-mail message. “Administrators who readily cut music from the curriculum are doing a great disservice to their students.”

If anything, Wood said, she and other performance group business managers have gotten taste of the “real-world” problems plaguing individuals negatively affected by the economy. Her negotiating tactics have changed, she explained, as she has backed off from immediately attempting to “push big numbers” with her clients.

“I know these times are tough,” she said.

Echoed Gogel: “It has certainly, I think, made my job a bit more difficult.”

Comments

  • Anonymous

    I'm surprised that Margy didn't contact Magevet, the Jewish, Hebrew, and Israeli A Cappella group. Given the Madoff scandal and its effect on Jewish organizations, I'm sure it has been harder for this group to book higher-paying concerts.

  • Anonymous

    From what I understand, Magevet has been pretty well insulated so far, but the reverberations of Madoff et al. won't really be noticeable for a few months.