If the Philadelphia Orchestra really does declare bankruptcy this weekend, as news stories suggest (here and here) — that’s huge. People in the orchestra world, speaking privately, have been wondering which large orchestra might be the first to crash, with Philadelphia normally mentioned as a likely candidate. 

And now, maybe, it’s happening. This should be a wakeup call for the entire classical music business. Because, yes, the Philadelphia Orchestra has had serious problems, but those problems can’t the sole cause of the bankruptcy. Orchestras have had management/board/musician problems before, and survived, because the financial and cultural climate wasn’t dealing them death blows. 

The orchestra management says (according to the New York Times) that “The orchestra has more than $46 million in costs, but our revenues are only a little more than $31 million.” I assume they mean annual costs and revenues. You can blame the management, if you like, and say they should have gotten more income, from all the usual sources (ticket sales, donations, grants). But you should also understand that these figures aren’t static. They’re a moving target. The pressures on them get worse every year. Orchestras — speaking very generally here —  face a ghastly spiral, as declining revenues (over many years) meet rising expenses. Of course some orchestras do better than others, but they’re all feeling this pressure. 

Hence the need for a new financial model, as I said in my last post. Philadelphia, if they do declare bankruptcy, is proving it. Especially since behind the financial pressures lies a loss of interest in mainstream classical music, which is happening culture-wide. 

This bankruptcy is big, big news.

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  1. William says

    Greg: I was having a conversation with a few of my peers and music professors earlier this week when this bankruptcy story was brought up. I mentioned New York City Opera’s continuing financial struggles, too. One of my professors contrasted NYCO and Philadelphia with the story of the strike ending in Detroit, and “standing room only” attendance at the return concert.

    My prof was saying that we had both bad news and good news. I guess I’m wondering what you make of Detroit, and how Detroit compares with Philadelphia.

    For me, Detroit and Philadelphia are manifestations of the same problem. With Detroit’s situation maybe worse, because of the trouble the city is in. In any case, the standing room audience for the first return concert doesn’t prove much. Neither will a bump in Philadelphia fundraising, if they manage that, in response to their bankruptcy. The problem is long-term — a long-term rise in expenses not matched by any rise in income. Income, in fact, is falling, again long-term. So any solution that works will have to prove itself over the long run. The institutions know that. Let’s see how they do.

  2. bill Brice says

    It seems like a sad reprise of the Detroit Symphony — and, even though they did come back, their underlying problems are certainly not solved.

    Part of the answer (a small part, I admit) seems to me for orchestras to ease away from their need for big-name “star” performers for so much of their schedules. I recognize the need for a major symphony to bring celebrity performers to their venues. But I think it’s a bit overdone, and it has to be a major part of an orchestra’s budget.

    I was sorry to see Detroit musicians objecting so strenuously to the demand for more services in outlying communities. I would think a smart allocation of those services would go far to keeping the orchestra visible as a service the community wants and needs.

    Let’s hope Philadelphia sees the path back as something more than just increased appeals for donations.

  3. richard says

    The full-time, large modern orchestra is an anachronistic artifact of the late 19th century. As a composer, I’m not even very interested in writing for it, it’s just too unwieldly and rhythmically flat-footed. It’s great for putting out a lot dbs, but that doesn’t interest me anymore.

    Rarely do my wife and I go to the symphony anymore unless there is a particular work

    I want to hear. I have become very jaded with regards to most of the 18th-19th century repetoire. I’ve studied it, I’ve played it and I love it, but I’ve gotten bored with it. I can say in all honesty that I will not seek out another live performance of, say, a Beethoven symphony. If, in the course of a concert of 20th-21st music that that I do want to hear there is a Beethoven symphony programmed, I will sit through it, though, if possible, I’ll sneak out.

    I wonder if I’m the only person in the the world who feels this way.

  4. says

    I read in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer that the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra’s attendance for its main subscription series has fallen from 255,000 in 1989 to a dismal 155,000 today.

    That’s beyond sad, and an audience that small can hardly sustain an orchestra of the PSO’s size and ambitions. All of your and others’ suggestions about how to liven things up, draw in more people, and so forth sound great (though one commenter’s presumptuousness about people who listen to Bjork not knowing Pärt, for example, or Radiohead enthusiasts not listening to Reich, grates), but unfortunately some classical music organizations–and I don’t know if PSO is like this–are going to have to fail or be dragged kicking and streaming into sustainability, because they want to tinker around the edges but will not make substantive changes, whether it involves different kinds of program, a sincere outreach to the surrounding communities, figuring out ways to move beyond a repertoire that unfortunately has little meaning for the vast majority of Americans, a pricing model aimed a middle and upper-middle-class audience that is dwindling in the face of numerous economic assaults, and so on.

    I think of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, which peppers me with requests to attend its pieces, but it’s the same repertoire, usually with one distinctive, 20th century opera thrown in. I know their wealthy and multimillionaire patrons cannot get enough of Mozart, Verdi, Rossini, Bizet’s Carmen, etc., but year after year, it’s as if nothing written since 1925 or so existed. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is better–and Daniel Barenboim could be quite adventurous, at least when it came to early 20th century European art music–but again, the offerings tend to be a steady diet of the 18th and 19th century, most-Germany composers, with a few trinkets and debut pieces thrown in.

    Personally I enjoy going to concerts (which are increasingly unaffordable) to hear performances of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms, and I enjoy Mahler, Bartok, Debussy, and Berg much more, but the failure to connect these composers–and it can be done–to the contemporary storehouse of music, to try new and different things, like pairing Debussy with the work of a musician who listened to him eagerly, Miles Davis, and then connecting them to very contemporary composers inspired by Davis, for example, is going to mean that that dwindling band shrinks ever more. I’m sad to hear about the PSO, but really, if you refuse to change and adapt, there are consequences.

  5. Larry says

    The plain (sad) truth is that there is no city in America which can support a 52 week orchestra any more. The only reason that the LA Philharmonic is performing at 93% capacity is because they have a “glamrous” new music director. That honeymoon will end soon.

    There has been a complete disconnect in the laws of supply and demand for the arts in this country. At the exact moment in time when audiences started to decline — the 1970s — we had an explosion in the number of arts organizations being created and existing ones being expanded.

    When you combine this with all of the other “external” factors — poor economy, lack of music in the public schools, increasing competition from other forms of entertainment, etc. — it’s no wonder that we are in this mess.

    I agree. And we should note that 93% of capacity is less than the LA Phil got when the big attraction was their new hall. Then they were selling close to 100% of their tickets. Which means that even with Dudamel, their attendance is down.

  6. JonJ says

    As a Philly resident with a sporadic Phila. Orch. attendance record, let me say that it seems to me like a top-notch orchestra being mostly wasted on not very interesting repertoire.

    They are doing some good things with community outreach and are experimenting with all the multimedia stuff that is currently all the rage, but I look at program after program stuffed with Beethoven and Brahms, and say to myself, “Eh…”

    Again, I admit that Beethoven and Brahms are supreme geniuses, and the Philly folks play them splendidly, but do I need to walk the few blocks down Spruce St. to the Kimmel and hear them yet once more?

    Apparently, the powers that be in that organization believe that more of the B”s (shades of “more cowbell”) is the only thing that pulls in the audience, and yet it’s not pulling in the audience now, obviously. Could it be that their potential audience is hoping for a more lively repertoire, as I am? The orchestra performs that repertoire splendidly too, when given the chance.

    Perhaps this bankruptcy will shake the organization up enough so that they make some revolutionary changes. But why am I dreaming? Revolution from the Phila. Orch.? Never happen, I fear.

    Like so many big classical music institutions, they’re stuck. Their core audience, and many of their donors, want the old repertoire. Can’t alienate those people! For the moment, they’re paying a large part of the bills. But in the long run, they’re fading away. So the institutions also have to do something new, at the same time as they do all the old stuff. That’s sometimes more than they can handle.

  7. Larry says

    One of the strangest examples of “too much product” is the Las Colinas Symphony/Garland Symphony, in the Dallas – Fort Worth area. This is the SAME orchestra: the same musicians and same conductor play the same program in two different cities (only about 25 miles apart) using the two different names. They even have the same web site design. BUT, they have separate boards and administrative staffs. To make things even more confusing, the Las Colinas Symphony actually plays in the city of Irving, which has its own orchestra!

    Can someone please explain how this makes any sense at all?