Colorado Bold

A while ago I blogged about the Colorado Symphony, and its bold plan to remake itself. It had to remake itself because it was running out of money, and to describe the bold plan, the Denver Post used these words:

[T]he CSO plans to undergo nothing less than a complete culture change that rejects music-making offered with “little thought as to whether it truly was of interest and relevancy to a large part of the community” and plays up relaxed, consumer-friendly performances that meet audiences on their own terms and in their own towns.

I noted in my post that the orchestra had published a business plan, which I hadn’t read. Now I’ve read it. (You can, too, if you follow the link.) And I have two reactions:

  • admiration for how boldly they state their problems and project solutions
  • surprise at how little they say about what I’d think would be the most crucial thing, the financial projections I assume they’ve done,  which presumably show them why they think their solutions will work

I’m especially surprised because the business plan has such an ambitious title: “Creating a 21st Century Orchestra: A Business Plan.” As if the plan might speak to any orchestra that wanted to thrive in the 21st century.

In my next post, I’ll say more about my surprise. But for now, here’s what I like. Start with the business plan’s opening sentences:

The Colorado Symphony Association, like other orchestras and many performing arts organizations, has struggled in the past three years with financial challenges. While to a degree this reflects the current economic conditions in Colorado and the country, the primary cause is that while the orchestra is recognized by many as one of the leading artistically accomplished orchestras in the country, it is not perceived as a critical community asset, relevant to its residents. This has resulted in constraining the ability to secure the level of contributed income necessary to augment earned income.

Translation: We’re in financial trouble. Yes, that’s in part due to the bad economy. But the main cause is that there’s less interest in classical music than there used to be. So fewer people care about us — so few, in fact, that they can’t give us as much support as we need if we’re going to survive.

(If the Colorado Symphony ever wants to learn how to write clear, forceful English, I’ll be happy to help.)

That’s the most important thing they say. I’ll repeat it — not enough people care about them to keep them alive.

But there’s powerful stuff (though, again, not powerfully expressed) elsewhere, too:

Historically, symphony orchestras have operated within a paradigm whose focus was on sustaining the institution. A schedule of performances was put in place and the invitation to come and experience the product was issued. This practice gave little thought as to whether it truly was of interest and relevancy to a large part of the community, convenient in time and location and of real service to the community in which it operated. Even activities such as touring and educational endeavors were based on a means to sustain the institution. The notion of relevance was defined by the institution, not by the community it served. A sense of entitlement pervaded.

(Translation: in the past, people cared about what we did, so we could just go out and do it. We didn’t have to think about whether they’d care. They just did. And we thought that was their job. We thought we were entitled to their support.)

The Colorado Symphony Association believes that the time has come to embrace a New Paradigm. In this paradigm, the focus will be on engaging with and connecting to the community. Relevance will be defined by the constituency whom the orchestra serves, including the citizens of Colorado, governmental institutions, educational institutions and the entire philanthropic community. Not only will there be an opportunity to experience the product at its traditional home concert hall, there will also be opportunities for audiences to experience the orchestra and its exceptional musicians in facilities, churches and schools within their communities. As a result of community involvement and relevance being the driving force behind the Colorado Symphony Association, the institution will be fully supported and enjoy a healthy and sustainable growth as a result of an increasing level of earned and contributed income.

The last two sentences state what’s at the heart of the plan — do performances in the community, become more relevant, and that way they’ll get more financial support. It’s the last part that they don’t even start to document, which leaves me surprised. Especially because they’re talking about doing smaller performances. How will these earn them as much money — and in fact more — than their full orchestra evenings have?

And, come to think of it, I’m surprised at something else. They’re right when they say that orchestras — and, in fact, the entire classical music enterprise, in our time — has taken for granted that it’s important. So important that it needed no justification. Support, we presumed, would follow. If we did what we cared about, the world would support us.

But when that stops happening, what’s the answer? To let people outside us define our importance? Tell us what we should do? I’m not a fan of that. We can’t lose our core. We can’t let the outside world define us out of existence.

So what we want to say, in my view, is that classical music still matters, but needs to be redefined for a world that has changed. And that once we’ve redefined what we do, we think that people will like it, not because we’re giving them what they want, but because we’ve found something they love, but didn’t know that they wanted. That’s the Steve Jobs model, which he was very firm in laying out: Don’t give your customers what they want. Give them something they never dreamed was possible.

So that’s another weakness, in my view, in this business plan. There’s no artistic plan attached to it — no thought (as far as I can see) about what might make an orchestra matter to people in its community, other than going out into the community, and playing for people wherever they happen to be. Not a bad idea. But doesn’t it matter what, exactly, you play?

More coming.

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  1. Helen Matthews says

    I agree that a plan of action is missing in the business plan. I think that children are the key to a long term plan to engage the future generations.

    • thad says

      By the time you engage the children, everyone associated with this project will be fired or dead.

      Repeat after me: Neither ‘education’ nor ‘outreach’ will solve the crisis in classical music.

      The institutions presenting classical music (i.e. The Colorado Symphony) must cease being institutions and start being artists. Artists don’t produce this kind of coroporate crap. They produce art. Nobody pays to go see or hear an institution.

      Okay, maybe the Vienna Philharmonic, but they’re the exception that proves the rule.

  2. thad says

    Reads like it was written by Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss. Sack everyone who had anything to do with it.

  3. scott says

    It’s a complicated situation. I can see good things comming out or getting involved in the community more. But I also agree that we(classical muscians?) shouldn’t let other people define us. Personally I am not a fan of orchestras mixing with pop music. I want to compose classica music and I like the older Romantic era and early music. But that is why I am getting a technical degree that will actually make me money before I really try my hand at being a composer. It’s a sad thing. But if noone cares about what you’re doing. You just can’t make any money. That being said, we live in an amazing world where new and wonderful things are popping up. Maybe the Colorady Symphony will come up with some genius way to make more money and continue doing what they love.

  4. says

    Indeed, going more into the schools and exposing our young people to Classical music would be very worthwhile. They will learn about orchestras…their music and instruments. It could spark an interest in wanting to learn an instrument. This will in turn involve the parents. And hopefully, a push for including music education as an important part of the curriculum. Those who learn an instrument develop more of their left brain and general crative ability. An enhanced ability of being creative translates to better performance in other subjects, test scores go up…something everyone is striving for, but in doing so are not including the arts and music in their curriculum, a vital teaching tool. Stress levels go down. Cortisol levels go down, health improves. For more on the value of music education, see my article on my website which includes a partial biography of all the literature I have read on this and used in my advocacy for the arts and music in education……………………. The children will want to go to concerts, their parents will have to take them.

  5. David Graham says

    Greg, your points are well taken. The business plan would be strengthened if did not rest its case on only the last three years. Context is important in any plan. It is well documented that there has been a loss of personality and electricity in orchestra performances in general for over 30 years. There has also been a gradual decline in audiences dating well before the 2008 financial downturn. This orchestra, and all arts organizations, need a compelling case to exist. If they don’t have one, or can not articulate it, times will be tough, especially when there is a down economy. An Executive Summary would be helpful along with an objective Situation Analysis that looks back at least 5 years as a reference to their future projections in terms of an objective artistic quality audit and financial review. I wish them well.

  6. says

    love the Steve Jobs analogy, Greg. “Don’t give your customers what they want. Give them something they never dreamed was possible.” It goes along with one of your previous blogs–make sure your audience knows that you are performing this music because you love it. in our experience, the most difficult part is to get people to the concert. the fine performances and excitement of the audience speak for themselves–especially after some good wine and hors d’oeuvres.

    alas, the Colorado Symphony sounds like they are willing to play music they don’t love, just to stay alive. that could be deadly dull for performers and audience.

    • richard says

      “alas, the Colorado Symphony sounds like they are willing to play music they don’t love, just to stay alive. that could be deadly dull for performers and audience.”

      Of course, that depends on the music and the musician. Trust me, for a trumpet player, most anything by Mozart or Haydn are pretty boring. Most percussionists sit around counting rests for the most part.

  7. says

    I am the host of a FaceBook page called “Save the Colorado Symphony”, the state purpose of which is ‘To stimulate information-sharing, positive and open discussion, and a future-focused sharing of ideas for raising awareness and increasing support for the Colorado Symphony.’ It has over 900 subscribers, most of whom are from Colorado, but a sizeable number come from around the country and world. I have posted Greg’s and other bloggers’ posts on that page, and it has become something of a community forum to discuss the CSO’s progress and process (or, in the views of some, lack of) in its recovery from near dissolution. I invite any readers with a strong interest in how a major regional orchestra is progressing to ‘like’ this page and stay tuned.

    Like Greg, I am in the process of studying the CSO business plan and soon will post my thoughts here and on that page. Greg, I think we are having a similar response to this plan. Long on generalities, short on specifics, especially financial specifics. And that this was drawn up without input from an as-yet-to-be-named music director, one has to hope that the new MD will be proactive toward change and have strong input into this plan.

    More later…

  8. HA Beasley says

    This approach to community engagement seems to have a contradiction at its heart. Why would a community without a solid fan base for orchestral music pay anything to have the CSO perform there?

    Touring like this costs money, and schools and local cities don’t have it to spare. Perhaps the CSO are expecting grant funding to support this kind of community engagement work. This then creates a situation where private and corporate funders pay to support work they don’t actually experience, and they can also stop supporting it as soon as the foundation winds blow in a different direction. It also means the musical selections come from “the experts,” not from interest within local communities, so once again someone is choosing music they think it’s good for the “uncultured masses” to hear, or that they might like.

    All the “key outcomes” are about what’s good for the CSO, not about what’s good for the communities. The CSO will need to work much harder to justify the value of classical music to audiences that don’t automatically equate it with a worthy use of time or resources.

  9. says

    As an unadulterated fan and supporter of composers (and many other artists), I would like to see an overview of the characteristics of regional orchestras that have REVERSED the trend and successfully grown their audiences (Orlando Philharmonic comes to mind). There may be local conditions that reasons that render successes elsewhere irreplicable (is that a word?) but at least we’d have plans based on data and art rather than strategic mumbo-jumbo and hope.
    Secondly, I have long wanted to see a chart correlating the work of outside consultants to the success of the marketing and strategic plans they’ve shepherded. Too many times, these shepherds have no clothes. Yet they keep getting contracts. A little consumer-watchdog kind of activism would help artists and the organizations that employ them, I think. (my apologies for the mixed metaphor)

    • says

      Excellent ideas, both of them. About the first one: We get too little news about regional orchestras. Of course there are success stories, and understanding what they might have in common would be quite wonderful.

      One piece of research that does exist, comparable to what you’d like to know about consultants: Robert Flanagan, in his book on orchestra finances, studied strategies for managing endowment funds. Some orchestras stressed security, some stressed growth. But their results essentially were random! The orchestras that stressed growth showed no more growth, on the average, than the orchestras that weren’t looking for it, and the orchestras that stressed security were no more likely to preserve the value of their endowments than the orchestras that took more risks.

  10. Paul Lindemeyer says

    >> (If the Colorado Symphony ever wants to learn how to write clear, forceful English, I’ll be happy to help.) <<

    That might be one step further than they're ready to go just yet.