A challenge for orchestras

Not so long ago, I happened to have dinner with a businessman — CEO of his not so small company — who’d been asked to join the board of his local orchestra. His take on the orchestra business, speaking as a businessman: All American orchestras seem to do more or less the same thing, and all of them are in trouble. Therefore the business model doesn’t work.

Seems simple enough. And a lot of people would agree. But what’s being done to change the business model?

My suggestion to this man, assuming he did join the board: First make sure that fundraising and marketing — as done in all the conventional ways — are being done as well as possible. Ditto for everything else that orchestras normally do.

And then turn attention to the artistic side. Stop being afraid of your audience. Stop thinking that you have to do things they already love, and — in all your public presence — stress that this is what you do. This might keep your audience content, but it makes them sleepy. And does nothing to attract anyone new.

Instead, project an artistic vision that’s uniquely yours. Don’t tell people you’re doing the music they love. Tell them you’re doing the music you love, and that you’re doing it in ways that you love. That your performances are uniquely yours, in ways that can be described in both concrete and poetic terms, ways that can be immediately felt when someone hears a performance — and, in fact, in ways that are immediately clear the moment anyone enters your concert hall, which should crackle with excitement and delight, even before a note of music is played.

Of course that’s not easy to do. Of course it’s not without risks. But how many orchestras even think of doing this?

Tomorrow I’ll offer an exercise that any orchestra could do. (Something I thought of this morning, when someone from the orchestra world asked my advice.) And then, the day after, I’ll tie what I’m saying here to what I’ve already said in recent weeks about how to find and build your own audience.

I also know that my proposal doesn’t touch the cost problems orchestras face — the longterm structural deficits, created by spending too much and taking in too little. But if you tried my idea, you might come up with some really lean concerts — without, for instance, expensive conductors or soloists — that might electrify your community. 

Which is yet another subject for discussion.

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  1. says

    We composers have vital new works for orchestras to play to distinguish themselves from museum pieces and commercial tools. Orchestras have a role in the living art of our culture’s highest ideals. If the boards step up to the task, the performers will rise to it handily and young, enthusiastic long-term audiences will come.

    • says

      I have to admit that one of the reasons (and possibly the biggest one) I never pursued a career as an orchestral musician was precisely the fact that orchestras generally don’t play newer works. I don’t know how many of the younger musicians (or the older ones for that matter) feel this way, but I’ve always felt that one way to give an orchestra a unique identity is by cultivating the other half of the classical music resources–namely, the composers.

      In an age where we’re increasingly seeing live casts of Orchestras and Opera companies it seems that now is the time to really take this seriously because local orchestras are going to be even harder pressed when their competition for dwindling leisure and recreational is something like a live cast of the Met Opera, or Berlin Phil or LA Phil. What better way to distinguish an orchestra (especially if more and more of them gain the ability to do live casts) than to cultivate their own repertoire, sound, and possibly instrumentation by developing relationships with living composers!

  2. says

    But Greg–not all orchestras are doing badly. That’s not to say many, if not most are having difficulties. But hyperbole might not be the wisest stance to take especially for those groups that are in the black. If the bottom line is just a financial one, then we should take a look at the organizations that are actually breaking even or better to see why that may be the case (and conversely see what those organizations who run a constant deficit have in common) but a blanket statement that all American orchestras (and other arts organizations) are in trouble and that the business model doesn’t work is making far too big a claim that they are all practically the same product or offering the same product. Which isn’t necessarily far from the truth, but the minor details could be the thing actually helps keep the org in the black for all we know.

    Not that I’m arguing with your suggestions at all–very good ones!

    • says

      Don’t drink the kool-aid, Jon. And don’t accept anyone’s anecdotal surveys of the issue, even Michael Kaiser’s. One line from the blog post you linked to really made me smile — the one about the Met Opera ending in the black for the first time in several years, this being presented as evidence that arts organizations aren’t all in bad shape. This isn’t analysis. It’s a snapshot — and, in fact, a snapshot of an organization which, if it’s been running deficits for years, has been in financial trouble. It’s in the black now? Well, why? How long can it stay in the black? Is its balanced budget sustainable? Not a word is said about those rather crucial questions. I remember Peter Gelb’s public comment sometime recently, when he received a giant gift from a donor: “This gets us through this year, but doesn’t solve our long-term problems.” Or words to that effect.

      Read the new (or maybe about to be published) book by Robert Flanagan, “The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras,” from Yale University Press. This is the first study of orchestra finances by an economist. Bob explains in some detail why orchestras run long-term structural deficits, something the orchestras themselves will confess (or at least I’ve heard some of the big ones do it), though not in public. Of course some orchestras do better than others. (And of course the “all orchestras” rubric I quoted was colloquial speech, meant as a general, but not all-encompassing truth.) Of course some might even be doing relatively well. Though even some that don’t, in public, appear to be having financial problems will look very different if the people inside talk honestly about what they see coming down the road. An orchestra hailed in the press as an example of financial health might be described in rather darker terms by those actually balancing its budget.

      • says

        True enough. I thought the bit about the Met Opera’s getting in the black being attributed (partially) to HD casts finally coming into its own financially was the most interesting and telling point–even at capacity, there’s never enough audience to sustain any of those organizations. Never has been and for the first time since actual recorded media a new technology might very well be doing something to change that. It might not be coincidence that LA Phil is also doing those theater casts now too.

        I’m just wondering why there isn’t similar talk for a popular entertainment industry like the NBA which had it’s fourth lockout after a season (2009-2010) in which 17 or 30 teams lost money (which seems to be relatively common in the smaller sports leagues).

        Of course, Baumol predicted this for arts, entertainment and service industries decades ago. I’m not saying there aren’t problems, and you’ve explained you “all orchestras” rubric so no need to rehash this.

        I’m assuming you’ve read an advance copy of Flanagan’s book as it looks like it won’t be out till January–will look very forward to reading that–thanks for the heads up!

  3. says

    I heard a great talk recently about the “cycle” of these things. The speaker said that orchestras program “conservatively” to get higher audience attendance, then when attendance does not grow, program even more conservatively.

    What is ironic about this is that audiences that are largely not musically trained I’ve found gravitate more to works that aren’t what they stereotypically think of as classical. For instance, my father, who has basically no musical knowledge, regularly enjoys the most contemporary works on my programs, like works for boombox and saxophone by Jacob T.V., and other works by Denisov, Bolcom, and more.

    Your point about projecting an artistic vision is spot on. The most important thing we can do with our music is to create a reaction, any reaction. That’s how we know the audience is listening. We’re overdue for another Rite of Spring!

  4. says

    Interesting thoughts by your friend, but one wonders to what extent orchestras – and the musicians comprising them – can actually decide to “do” anything. The current paradigm is that the conductor decides what the orchestra will do based on his artistic vision – and that is fine as far as it goes. But when an orchestra has a series of guest conductors, the artistic brand is bound to be muddled. And current management thinking is all too often about star power and which high-priced maestro they can book for this season…

    Maybe the orchestra members should have more input into the process, but given the adversarial relationship between musician and management over contracts these days, it seems a faint hope.

    • says

      Orchestras are dysfunctional, artistically, for the reasons you’ve just outlined. They don’t have coherent artistic direction, as a rule. And rarely do the artistic choices made by the music director translate into an overall programming/marketing/branding strategy. So the suggestion I made in my post really implies a larger revolution in how orchestras operate.

      • says

        Well sometimes the current system works – the Chicago Symphony under Solti, the NY Phil under Bernstein and – my favorite – the LA Phil under Esa-Pekka Salonen. But it is a bit like sports these days when your favorites move to other teams in search of bigger bucks. The elimination – or at any rate a moderation – of the current star system might go a long way to allowing orchestras to emerge with their own distinctive voice.

  5. Amy says

    If you look at concert programs from the years when our current white-haired audience members were cultivating a taste in classical music, you’ll find individual movements, cheesy arrangements of folk songs, modernized baroque music, and lots of “big sound” pieces. This is the same kind of mix that attracts people to “pops” concerts. Coincidence?

    • says

      Amy, I agree with you, generally speaking. In past generations, classical music felt a lot more relaxed. But I can’t quite say that the present older generation of concertgoers grew up on concerts with individual movements of pieces. I’m that age myself, and I don’t remember any such thing from my childhood. If you look at reviews from the 1940s or 1890s (I’ve read a bunch, because I’m a fan of Virgil Thomson’s criticism from the ’40s, and George Bernard Shaw’s from the 1890s), there don’t seem to be individual movements programmed. That practice might go back to earlier in the 19th century, along with the habit of putting opera arias on programs with symphonic pieces.

      Still, your point makes a lot of sense. People came into classical music in far greater numbers when things were more relaxed. And performances more individual.

  6. says

    Greg, I think this is a great idea! Because if it isn’t working, something needs to change (there is a definition of insanity which goes something like this: “to keep doing the same thing and then expect a different result”). Real change create LOTS of unknowns to face, lots of uncertainty to feel, and our knee-jerk reaction is often to check if it’s OK or not by looking for leaders before us who might have already done it – but we find there are none, and it’s only you (because it’s new). These very human factors sit on the “board” more loudly than any official members in any organisation. We need to invite the feelings of uncertainty and unknowns in and work with them as indicators of GOOD management practice, instead of turning a blind eye or worse, running away from them. Then see what happens. Isn’t this what makes a good performance? Isn’t this what inspiration is all about? – to let in the new, previously unimagined, fresh realities for us to make use of, which make us feel great, in order to grow new shoots. Interestingly it is the same process of being in the “zone” which music is founded on, simply now going upstream to management. Because otherwise the suffocating safety-seeking is going to slip downstream into the workings of the music, and that is the death of the whole musical ecosystem….

    • says

      I couldn’t agree more, Rupert and Greg, and I feel this applies across the board: from orchestras to chamber ensembles to soloists. Because orchestras are much, much larger they need boards and all the trappings of large organizations, and so are often far more cumbersome to maneuver than, say, a woodwind quintet. Or, in my case, a pianist. Increasingly, I feel that arts organizations trying to hard to fit their round selves into the square hole of what most business people see as good practice is just pointless. It strangles imagination and suffocates creativity. As artists, we need to be proud of what we do. An essential part of that is to bring to our professional lives the same imagination and daring on which we call when we’re with our instruments, or in the dance or acting studio. If we are businesses then we are enterprises of a fundamentally different model, and we need to accept that and glory in it.

  7. richard says

    In the new music community, many of us aren’t interested in writing big works for “19th century” orchestras. In fact, I would argue that some of the best work being written now is for smaller, more nimble forces.

    • says

      Speak for yourself! :) I would love to write more for symphony orchestra (and hear it played, of course). The simple reason so much chamber music is written these days is simply because it’s much cheaper and easier to put on.
      The symphony orchestra is not a “19th century” thing, though it grew over the 19th century from 18th century origins, into the monster of the early 20th century. Symphonic masterpieces were written throughout the 20th (Shostakovich … up to John Adams, even) and still are being written, albeit less frequently (Wolfgang Rihm, Harrison Birtwistle). I’m sure you don’t need a history lesson however, so apologies for that.
      I think the amount of chamber music being written and the lack of symphonic music does have an impact though. It’s mainly more established, older composers who get to write for the big orchestras, but where do they learn how to do it? We all get a go in our 20s if we go to a conservatoire, but we really need a chance in our 30s, 40s and 50s to make our mistakes and get to grips with this biggest of palettes – so that when the public finally comes to adulate us on our 60th birthday, we can write a good piece for orchestra :-)

  8. says

    There are plenty of orchestras around the world who aren’t doing badly financially, and who take plenty of risks with programming. However they are basically all state-funded. E.g. here in the UK we have two of the BBC orchestras who constantly play a huge range of music, much of it new, plus several other orchestras some of whom rake in plenty of cash (e.g. the LSO), and others who routinely play very “risky” music, often to packed halls (e.g. London Sinfonietta). We also have several opera-house orchestras who often perform as orchestras i.e. out of the pit. The only real complaint is the London-centricity of it all, writing as an ex-Londoner… I suppose, yes, their budgets are being cut a bit right now in these difficult times but not all that much, really, in the greater scheme of things.
    Elsewhere in Europe the situation is even better, take a look at Germany or Netherlands for example. I expect there are local grievances about the odd budget cut but the state funding model does seem to work much better over here than your endowment model over there. Unfortunately I guess our model would be branded “socialist” by many of your policitians!
    It would be interesting to know – and I have no idea about this – what state the Chinese orchestras are in. I would doubt they are allowed take many artistic risks given what happens to their visual artists (Ai Weiwei, e.g.), but the Chinese state does seem to like to fund some things to the hilt, and the Chinese do seem to have a taste for Western “classical” music, so … any idea?

    • says

      From what I’ve gleaned, the Chinese taste for classical music isn’t all that strong. I know someone who went on a Chinese tour by the National Symphony, and said the audiences weren’t large, and didn’t appear to know much about classical music. When I looked into the Shanghai Symphony’s recent history, I found that they give very few concerts. Partial information, but quite suggestive.

      • says

        Yes that chimes a bit with my limited experience. I was at the Vienna state opera, where you can get standing tickets for about 1 euro (amazing value but really uncomfortable). It was me, my wife, and a coach load of Chinese tourists crammed into a space about 15 ft by 15 ft, and the Marriage of Figaro. They (the Chinese) seemed oblivious to the music and more interested in the place as a tourist attraction to tick off their list – they spent the first act talking, taking photos, and spitting. Yes, spitting. On the floor. We left after Act 1, next time we’ll fork out for seats! (Although I guess this was quite an authentic Mozart experience, from what I know about 18th century opera houses…)
        On the other hand, I frequently hear in the media about the supposed X million piano students and the Y million violin students in China. Surely out of a music education program that big, something interesting must emerge?

        • says

          I suspect classical music education in China is aspirational. That is, people who, in the past generation, have found themselves with money, status, and — very important — an open window to the western world want classical music (violin or piano lessons) as something that will give their kids status. Once these kids start getting lessons, though, of course some of them love the music, and go on to be professionals. Or absolutely top-class concert artists. We all know the names.

          Something else that emerged from the China tour I mentioned, the one with the National Symphony. A number of Chinese cities had opera houses, but no opera company to put on performances. A case, apparently, of aspiration gone a little skewed, with not much coordination between one effort and another.

          Love the story about the Chinese audience in Vienna!

          On another note, I’d love to know how widespread a love of classical music is in Venezuela. So many of us genuflect before El Sistema. But, for whatever it’s worth, when a Venezuelan won this year’s Miss World competition, her official profile named two big Latin pop stars as her favorite music. Venezuela, by the way, is, as a nation, beauty mad, and has an amazingly high per capita rate of cosmetic surgery, and many more international beauty competition winners than you’d expect from a country its size.

  9. Robert Berger says

    The reasons o many orchestras are having financial difficulty has to do with the fact that it’s very expensive to run orchestras , and there’s very little help from the U.S. government.
    The reason so many orchestras stick to the same old warhorses is because they are held captive by extremely conservative audiences who would rather be waterboarded than listen to new music
    or interesting rarities from the past. If they offered a steady diet of Schoenberg,Berg,Webern,Messiaen,Carter,Lutoslawski, Penderecki, Boulez, etc, they would not be able to sell any tickets.
    But some orchestras ,such as the New York Philharmonic (even before Alan Gilbert !) do offer
    varied and interesting fare , and a re not afraid to play new or recent works. Ditto Cleveland,Los Angeles, San Francisco, St.Louis ,Detroit, etc.

    • Florian says

      But why would have it have to be a “steady diet of steady diet of Schoenberg,Berg,Webern,Messiaen,Carter,Lutoslawski, Penderecki, Boulez”? Why not mix things up? Why must it be all or nothing. All Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Haydn, etc., with a bit of Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Strauss, Mahler, etc., OR all the names you exist? And of course there is not an orchestra out there that would give us such fare, and when Schoenberg himself programmed music in Vienna, as when Boulez conducted the New York Philharmonic, neither went to such an extreme either. You certainly know this, I’m sure. if not, it’s in numerous books.

      Instead, why not mix things up? A program of sacred music that included figures ranging from Bach to Gubaidulina? A program of piano concerti featuring Schoenberg, Gerhard (his former student), and Kernis? Music inspired by bands, featuring Sousa, Ives, Janacek, and Nirvana? Music inspired by African American folk songs, which might include Dvorak, Still, Ellington, and Kay? And on and on. I mean, it’s just really sad how conservative these orchestras are. I think the opera companies are even worse though, but they may have a stronger excuse give how expensive operas are to stage.

  10. Allen Raymond says

    I’ve been a Norwalk (CT) Symphony Orchestra Board member for some time, and we all know that keeping an orchestra alive is not easy. Selling out the house doesn’t pay costs, unless we present a crowd-pleasing one-man-band; a symphony is just not a viable business model… it’s a charity.
    So, if we’re not good at raising tons of money from sponsors, we’re dead in the water. And finding lots of people who will raise lots of money – and who will “talk up” the orchestra – and the concert programs – among people in the community – is a tough task.
    Frankly, I think we should look at symphonies in the same way that we easterners look at New York’s giant Central Park – it’s beautiful, it’s perfectly maintained, it’s a miracle in New York – and it’s free – because the City, and probably lots of individuals and charitable foundations and corporations, foot the bill.
    We can’t give up, but we’ve got to think out-of-the-box. And probably someone in this vast and marvelous country has already figured it out. And, if they have, I hope hey’ll tell the rest of us.

    Allen Raymond

  11. says

    Very simple things can make a world of difference. I saw the Baltimore S O and National S O in the same week years ago. Similar programs, with Berg Violin Concerto on both. NSO played well, impressive. But before BSO played one note I had this good feeling about the concert because of their very simple act of walking on stage with purpose and collectively turning around in unison and suddenly beaming with smiles. The impact of 100 people turning around to face you and smiling at once — I practically wanted to cry as I actually felt moved by it. Their audience seemed enthused about being there too. I sought out their concerts much more after that…