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December 5, 2007

The Hidden Costs of the Holidays

Joe Nickell

Good cheer can be expensive, apparently. My colleague at the Missoulian, Rob Chaney, wrote an excellent behind-the-scenes piece for our paper this week about the surprising costs of putting on Christmas concerts, specifically related to sheet-music rentals. It's an issue that is likely shared by every school orchestra, community band, and small-town orchestra in this country -- and really not just at this time of year.

This story is just the tip of the iceberg. In speaking with John Driscoll, the executive director of the Missoula Symphony Orchestra, a couple of months ago, I was surprised to learn that his biggest challenge in trying to program modern music isn't his audience's willingness to listen to it.

The problem is the cost.

"It's really not cheap to program great music, and it's particularly not cheap to program contemporary music, be it contemporary classical, or pops, or movie themes," said Driscoll. "We have to be very cognizant of budget when programming the repertoire for all our concerts. That's often disappointing. For example, we program one or two big pieces on the summer (pops) concert; for the rest, a lot of that is music we either own or borrow from the other members of Montana Association of Symphony Orchestras, just so that we can afford to present the concert."

Driscoll cited numerous examples of works he had tried to secure for the orchestra at his music director's behest, only to find that he couldn't afford the part rentals. Somewhat tangentially, he further pointed out that, for the money he spends, he usually gets disorganized sheaves of instrumental parts that are often marked up willy-nilly by musicians who have used the parts previously.

This seems like a shockingly absurd problem in this modern era of cheap, on-demand printing -- to say nothing of digital distribution. I'm almost afraid to opine on the problem from where I stand, since I fear I'm maybe just missing a basic point of economics in this equation.

But what I do see now, more clearly, is that there are hazards beyond audience acceptance that make it hard for new music to reach listeners; and meantime, there are exorbitant hidden costs that can truly bruise a small or struggling orchestra.

Posted by Joe Nickell at December 5, 2007 10:36 PM


For the schools and community orchestras, this seems like a money problem in search of a single national endowment (or a number of regional endowments), plus some sort of united purchasing consortium to lower costs and create efficiencies in purchasing published music. Schools and local orchestras all over the country need this music? Well, maybe they could organize a single one-agency-fits-all purchasing and distribution rep to get them what they need, efficiently and inexpensively. Who knows, maybe somebody has already done that and the word hasn't reached Missoula.

As far as smaller professional orchestras not being able to afford sheet music for new works: I wonder if it's a money problem, or a problem of donors not wanting to fork over for programming that has considerably more risk of laying an egg than Mozart or Brahms. Seems like the orchestra should target somebody weatlhy and/or passionately tuned in to new music, and see if they can spearhead or even singlehandedly fund an endowment for new-music scores. Seems like a good cause for benefit concerts as well, luring big-name soloists, especially the ones who talk a good game about wanting to play new music, to come play for cheap or gratis to help eliminate any financial roadblocks. First it would behoove the orchestra to work up a plan for incorporating new works regularly into its programs (and providing education/lectures/written guides and background to help the audience get the most out of it).

Joe Nickell replies: Good thoughts on both counts, Mike. You know I have asked the MSO director if he has thought about trying to put together a specific donor pool for new music. Though it risks a little bit of conflict of interest (since I write about the orchestra), I've even volunteered some effort toward that. I made this offer about two months ago and haven't heard back; so it's possible that the cost isn't the only point of resistence.

Posted by: Mike Boehm at December 6, 2007 12:26 AM

Dear Flyover- I really like your blog. The reason for my writing is to introduce you to heartsinthearts.com, a new discussion blog about how the Arts are presented, and about Arts Education in the public schools systems throughout the nation. It is appropriate to any educational discussion, as the performance of the Arts is a cumulative process, the direct result of the educational years through which the students learned and grew as artists

The blog is for teachers, parents, elected officials, educational planners, community program planners, students and other interested parties, to bring together thoughts and ideas the airing of the problems now faced and for the fixing of the Arts and Arts Education in public schools- lack of budgets, severe space inequalities, demoralized and unmotivated teachers, educated parents (as support groups/mentors/artists), area artistic input; the list is exhaustive.

There is a great deal wrong with the Arts educational system in the pre-K-through high school years, but I prefer to bring awareness to the subject as a believer in the public school system, with a whole-hearted desire to fix what is wrong. "To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair inevitable" (Raymond Williams).

While there are many websites to promote the Arts Education programs in schools, I don't know of any that actually ask the grass-roots of the Arts Education community to offer their thoughts. It is vitally important that those who are participating in the system have the ability to speak out from this unique vantage point. It is in this way that the Boards of Education on every level will have real insight into what is happening now and what can happen in the future. It is at heartsinthearts.com that they can speak their minds, too.

The nation cries out for innovation- what better way to teach innovation than creativity? Students have a right to literacy, numeracy and creativity. The Arts teach creativity and they teach the process of achieving a higher plane of achievement.
I am hoping that you will visit and comment at heartsinthearts.com often and that you will suggest it to others.

Thanks for your time and attention, I hope to be hearing from you at heartsinthearts.com,

Katrina S. Axelrod

Posted by: Katrina S. Axelrod at December 6, 2007 6:38 AM

George Zack, the Lexington Philharmonic's outgoing music director, shared the same frustration with both the cost and condition of new music, in an interview last spring. Then, at this fall's NEA Arts Journalism Institute on Classical Music and Opera, we heard from a composer who shared the financial frustrations of making a living as a composer today. So, it seems to be a bit of a Catch 22. Still, there are orchestras around the country that program fairly liberal doses of contemporary music, so someone has found a formula to make it work. I do have to think that if audiences got behind new work more and told their orchestras and other ensembles they'd like to hear contemporary composers, both in writing and at the box office, that would help alleviate the problem.

Joe Nickell responds: George Zack is retiring? Wow. Rich I doubt I've mentioned that I grew up in Lexington. My first orchestra concerts I ever attended as a child were led by George. And I'm 39 now! He's an institution in that town. That's a big departure.

Anyway, to your point, I do think that you're right that if there's a will -- either at the orchestra or among patrons -- there will be a way.

All that said, I find myself more intrigued at this point in the more basic and widespread problems of parts being so expensive (whether new or old music) and in such bad condition. In this digital era it seems to me that this is a situation that is absurdly antiquated.

Posted by: Rich Copley at December 6, 2007 7:15 AM

I am a chamber orchestra conductor.One method I have found to be effective is to develop your own arrangements of public domain carols and music. This should be done in a program such as Finale or Sibelius so you can print out parts, and change keys on demand. Usually it is also cheaper to do your own arrangements of copyright works because the royalties are lower if you don't use the standard versions. It is a lot of work, but you end up with music specifically tailored to your ensemble.

Posted by: Colin Mendez Morris at December 10, 2007 10:32 AM