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September 19, 2007

Cheaper by the dozen

John Stoehr

That is, a dozen one-time-only performances. Far cheaper than paying for a full-time orchestra and 130-plus services per season.

I'll explain. Some years ago, I wrote a story for the Savannah Morning News about outsourcing classical music in Savannah.

It was late 2005 and the Savannah Symphony Orchestra by that time had been bankrupt for two years. During the interregnum, a few former board members were doing a couple of things that undermined fledgling efforts to re-form the symphony.

They were busing themselves to experience concerts by orchestras in Charleston, Hilton Head Island and Jacksonville. They were busing in those same orchestras to perform in venues around Savannah.

In the story, I called this "outsourcing" even though, strictly speaking, this is not quite accurate. Bringing in people to perform concerts of classical music isn't really like sending labor offshore.

But the use of the term in a business and economic sense was the same: in the absence of an enterprise (a hometown orchestra) to serve local costumers (patrons) their need for a product (classical music), a group of contractors (the former board members) were outsourcing the supply to out-of-town concerns (orchestras in Jacksonville, et al.).

Bottom-line: Just as outsourcing textile manufacturing to Pakistan is cheaper than hiring unionized American workers, so too is outsourcing classical music to out-of-town orchestras cheaper than organizing, administrating, managing and directing a unionized hometown orchestra.

It cost $3 million a year to run the Savannah Symphony Orchestra (that includes the cost of administration, salaries, benefits, insurance, library maintanence and upkeep, artists' fees and so on). On the other hand, it cost very little to contract the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. It cost Savannah only the price of admission (in fact, Savannah made money since the JSO had to pay to rent the Lucas Theatre; ticket sales merely offset the travels costs for the orchestra).

The point is that in strictly economic terms, hometown orchestras can't compete with cheap. And they can't really compete in terms of quality. The former associate concertmaster of the Savannah Symphony told me that there's a negligible difference between the SSO and other regional orchestras. One is as good as the other. So you're getting the same thing, only one is far, far more inexpensive.

Which one would you choose if the choice is narrowed down to sheer cost?

A possible escape from this conundrum, as I found in the course of writing the story, is less focus on economics (yes, economic impact studies are all the rage, but there's more to music than fueling the local economy) and more on the people who make up arts organizations.

As I say in the piece:

Orchestras are civic institutions made up of people who provide cultural knowledge, teach private lessons and maintain an artistic presence in the community.

"How much impact does the Jacksonville Symphony have after the concert is over?" said Ken Carter, director of the Lucas Theatre for the Arts here in Savannah. "It has no impact."

The difference between a visiting and resident orchestra, Carter said, is like the difference between renting and buying a house. When you rent, you get convenience and short-term cost-effectiveness, Carter said. But when you buy, you get an asset that increases in value and provides greater future returns.

"We have to ask ourselves do we want to rent or do we want to own classical music," Carter said.

Posted by John Stoehr at September 19, 2007 8:20 AM