Common sense

When I asked in a post two weeks ago why we don’t know precisely how orchestras (and other classical music institutions) are doing, I got some fascinating pushback. (As, of course, I’ve gotten before.)

I’d made what I thought was the commonsense point that we do know how newspapers are doing (badly), and how the US auto industry did when it was in trouble. There was no dispute about these judgments, or about the data that supports them.

So why are we in classical music so out of it? Why can’t we agree on what’s happening on our turf? Don’t we have any data?

That, to me, was simply common sense. But then came objections. Like this one: We can’t compare orchestras and newspapers, or orchestras and the auto industry, because cars and newspapers are supposed to make a profit, while orchestras are nonprofit.

Here’s the commonsense answer. Of course there are differences between for-profit and nonprofit enterprises. But here’s one crucial similarity: Both have balance sheets. Both have income and expenses. And if expenses exceed income for any number of years, both kinds of institution are in trouble.

Why isn’t that obvious?

I’ll offer a suggestion, with some sympathy for those who pushed back against me.

Everyone understands, I’m sure, that a profit-making company can increase sales by only so much. Coca-Cola sells a lot of Coke (and all the rest of its products). But it can’t sell an infinite amount. At some point, not even the sharpest marketing can keep on increasing sales.

As I said, that’s obvious. But may take a moment to understand that nonprofits are in the same boat. Nonprofits, after all, don’t depend only on sales. They have donors, who give them money. Wealthy donors. Generous donors.

So maybe we think donations are unlimited. That more money can always be raised. But that’s not true. Donors reach the limit of what they can give. The population of a city might shrink, leaving fewer donors in town. Tastes may change, and a new wealthy generation might not love orchestras and classical music as much as the older generation did. These younger wealthy people might rather give to social causes.

And donors get tired of giving, if they think an institution has problems it isn’t fixing. Or if they think that they’re being spun, that they’re being told that the institution is in better shape than it really is.

All of which, when you think of it, is simple common sense. But we don’t see it that way, maybe because, in the past, the donors orchestras needed were always there. Our mistake would be to assume they’re still there today. At some point, you may have talked to every donor who wants to talk to you, and they just won’t give any more.

So back to the balance sheet. For-profit companies and nonprofit enterprises both have income and expenses. The income comes from different sources, but those sources aren’t infinite. And if the income isn’t enough to cover expenses, both kinds of institution are in trouble.

 Footnote: large nonprofits — universities, for instance, or arts institutions — have endowments. Maybe large endowments, worth tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. So these institutions seem to be rich.

But that’s deceptive. They can’t just spend that money. First because it may have been restricted by the people who donated it, so it can’t be used for operating expenses. But that’s just the start. You can’t keep spending the endowment because, if you do, soon enough you won’t have it.

Maybe you’re an orchestra with a $50 million endowment. Seems like a lot of money. Now suppose that for 10 years, you spend $5 million more than you take in — you run a $5 million deficit each year — and you raid your endowment to make up the difference. No more endowment.



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  1. says

    I agree with you. It may also have to do with how these donors are approached now, especially new donors, and how their support affects the organization, and how it affects them as a donor. Donors are hit on by so many, and the unique and attractive side of why your organization will benefit from their support needs to be spelled out. Another method to be sure current and future donors maintain interest is knowing their support might serve their communities through educational outreach. Older patrons and parents would rest easy knowing a good deal of effort is placed on education, for the next generation. I know this is not related totally to your post, but we are addressing why supporting non-profits have the same checks and balances that profits do. And–never spend more than you can afford!!

  2. Ken LaFave says

    Perhaps classical music needs to move radically away from the non-profit model into some other model — profit-making, maybe, or cooperative (non-profit but without boards of directors, etc.) Everywhere I look, and to judge from the comments of friends I know in the “industry,” boards of directors are increasingly manipulative and management increasingly philistine. In the current model, non-musicians are in charge of musical decisions. Musicians need to be in charge of their own art.

  3. Kevin James says

    Greg – It is often terribly frustrating to be in the business and have so few people recognize it as such. A business that is. I find myself very often having to explain to folks that a “non-profit” is a BUSINESS that has embraced a BUSINESS MODEL which allows an organization which somehow serves the public to TAKE A PROFIT without paying TAXES on it. The common perception that the word “non-profit” is a descriptor of a social service model can be difficult to overcome. Especially in the music world, where despite our desire as artists to be lauded for our service to our community (at least I know I have that desire), the health of our organizations almost always relies on our ability to generate earned income. Ticket sales. Fees for services. CD (or other system of delivery) sales. (I know – we rely on lots of other sources of un-earned income in at least equal measure, but the likelihood of growing that support without first growing an audience is less than slim). So this is my longwinded way of saying I think the car and newspaper analogies are perfect. Time for the music community to act like a community, lift the veil and work out the solutions.

    • says

      It might help to think of non-profits as targeting a niche market…i.e. wealthy doners. I mean, if you don’t wanna get into making music videos or selling merch I can understand that, but the music has to appeal to *someone* out there. And if you’re not thinking about who, what, how, etc. you’re just taking things for granted.

      Believing in its own superiority, a lot of classical musicians just sort of assumed that people would get interested in their medium “once they got older”. But this transition, I don’t think is as “natural” as they thought it would be. I know lots of educated, successful, older people whom classical music just isn’t a concern for them.

      If the medium is to survive we have to fight for our audiences again. And it can’t be done in a patronizing kind of way.

      • says

        You’re so right. This week I talked to someone I’d guess to be about 50, who may become involved with classical music for professional reasons that have nothing to do with her interest in it. Or lack of some. I suggested that she was a perfect outside observer of the field, because she was the kind of person classical music institutions would like to have in their audience, but don’t.

        Her answer? Yes, she said, she was raised by parents who loved classical music, and was taken to classical concerts when she was young. But it just didn’t take with her, and while she has nothing against classical music, she just doesn’t go.

        This is a very common story. For a notable written example of it, see John Seabrook’s well-known book Nobrow.

        One audience that’s notably missing from classical music — artists in other fields, scholars, intellectuals. In 1950, Virgil Thomson wrote what became a famous piece called “The Intellectual Audience.” (I mean an article, not a composition.) He talked about an audience of artists in non-music fields, intellectuals, scholars, and, more generally, people interested in the arts, who’d show up to hear certain classical artists, and certain programs at the NY Philharmonic. Especially new or unusual music.

        That audience simply doesn’t exist anymore, at least not in the classical music mainstream. There’s a younger version of it, the indie classical audience (or alt-classical), as I like to call it. But they almost never go to mainstream classical events.

        The classical music world needs to understand this.

        • says

          Yes, even Schoenberg had the adamant support of people like Adorno that helped him push his career along. That’s something you just don’t hear happening nowadays, even in the new music worlds.

          Can what we’re doing be justified on broader intellectual levels? If you want to capture “high-end” patrons, they usually have concerns that are different than that of the average consumer. Do musicians know what those concerns are? Do they even care?

          I do remember some experiences where some musicians have gotten very angry at the suggestion that their music should address an audience. That in itself speaks volumes right there.

          • says

            In our time, the prominent composers with support outside the field were — of course — Steve Reich and Philip Glass. They started with support from the NYC art world. As did a whole range of what then were called “downtown” composers and performance artists (a thin line between these things, back then). Laurie Anderson, for instance. Just to name someone else who went on to become very famous.

            And also, a generation onward, Bang on a Can, which found an audience for its first concerts by handing out flyers at downtown theater and dance performances and art galleries.

  4. Al Jacobsen says

    A word (or few words for that matter) about for-profit vs. non-profit. For-profits exist, at the end of the day, to make money for their owners or shareholders. Yes, Apple makes technology products. But it’s mission is to make money for its investors. Non-profits (which are really called not-for-profits) exist for a reason/mission that is different from making money. BUT NON-PROFITS CAN MAKE A PROFIT AND SHOULD TO KEEP THEIR ORGANIZATIONS FISCALLY SOUND. Anyone who says that orchestras are non-profit and should thus not expect/want/be allowed to make a profit is completely wrong. The most financially successful Orchestras in this country are, in fact, usually making money each year. Unlike for-profits which are always distributing their profits in the form of dividends to stockholders, these non-profit orchestras reinvest profits into the organization so 1) They can make capital improvements to their theaters 2) Offer musicians and staff raises and stronger benefit packages 3) Present more innovative programming that might be expensive 4) Grow endowments and 5) Improve cash flow for the organization. I’m sure there are more examples.

    For-profit = If there is profit, it goes to owners or shareholders. Mission (for Apple, Walmart, Bank of America, or Joe’s Crab Shack—pick any for-profit company) is to make money.
    Non-profit Orchestra = If there is profit, it goes back into the organization. Mission (usually) relates to being an artistic force in the community, focusing on music presentation and education.

    Anyone who disagrees with this is ignoring federal laws that detail the establishment of for-profit and non-profit corporations.

  5. says

    Might be more useful to compare apples to apples–like the NBA issue that seems to be having issues not unlike what and how it is being reported for orchestras. Functionally, it’s a much better comparison, just substitute team and players with orchestra and musicians and donors with corporate sponsors.

    Helps that [some] management in both industries are calling for player/musician salary cuts in the name of sustainability that happens almost invariably right before negotiations with player and musician unions for new CBAs, but that’s normal.

    “Doubtless, some alleged crises represent a tactical stance — cries of woe intended to help in raising funds or in negotiating with unions.” (pg. 3, Performing Arts — The Economic Dilemma, 1966)

    Add in the fact that the economic impact and sustainability of Sports Stadiums is a contentious topic of debate, especially for the cities subsidizing the construction of them, and we have a perfectly good for profit industry that doesn’t seem to be unambiguously open to “common sense.”

    Industries that create a physical products (newspapers and automobiles) are invariably much easier to measure than entertainment industries (sports and orchestras) whether they are for profit or non profit. And when the bottom line is so close (no one is debating whether of not the NFL is a failing industry any more than people need to question why there’s no real rugby industry in the US) how you analyze the data can easily shape what trends you need (or want) to see.

    • says

      Hmm, orchestras and the NBA are an apple/apple fit? Here’s one big difference. The NBA, like other big-time sports enterprises, is all about money. Huge amounts of money to be made. Whereas with orchestras there’s no huge amount to be made. The only issue is sustainability. Which is where money crises come down. So a claim of not having money has a very different meaning for an orchestra than it does for a sports league. For a sports league, people who expected to make huge profits — for their personal benefit — aren’t making them. For an orchestra, the enterprise could sag and fail.

      One point where there’s a big difference: rebutting claims that the NBA is in trouble, by saying that there’s no shortage of people who want to buy NBA teams. Switch now to orchestras. There _is_, in the orchestra world, a shortage of A-list people who want to take CEO jobs at the largest American orchestras. The people running the second-tier orchestras (I mean that in relation to budget size, not quality), often don’t want to move up, because they consider the jobs impossibly difficult, in part because of sustainability issues.

      If you’re going to quote “Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma,” you might want to quote the part — which was the core of the book — about orchestra finances. The authors of the book were Baumol and Bowen, and it was there that Baumol presented the theory and data on the cost disease, the understanding that the cost of running an orchestra keeps falling short of revenues, by an increasing amount. So orchestras are always up against it financially. The simplest demonstration of this is the fall of ticket sales as a percentage of overall income — from 90%, in the distant past, to perhaps 30% today.

      This thinking is the basis of Robert Flanagan’s view of orchestra finances, as set forth in his current book, “The Perilous Lives of Symphony Orchestras.” It was also the reason that orchestra CEOs in the mid-2000s began being concerned, privately, about long-term structural deficits.

      As for the quote you cite, Jon, from that long-ago book — orchestra fundraising, and the relation of orchestras to the larger community have drastically changed since the mid-1960s, when the book was published. Orchestras in those days engaged in no systematic fundraising. They had no development departments. Nor did they do systematic marketing. They needed money from their supporters, but these supporters were a relatively small group, who were at the top of what then was considered high society, and had been supporting the orchestra for years, if not generations. You might exaggerate a crisis to shake a little more loose from these people, without causing much public commotion, and very little (if any) harm to your image.

      Things are very different now, when orchestras seek and need widespread community support, and for that matter want and get public funds. They’re far more potently accountable than they were then, and have to be careful of what they say in public. That’s especially true in a time of declining overall support (ticket sales, interest, media coverage, and more). The NBA at the very least has a large and passionate fan base. (Which also suggests the possibility that money isn’t the only motive for buying a franchise, and fear of losing money perhaps not a decisive deterrent. There’s glamour involved, and fame, and the thrill of going to a championship. Which then suggests a situation in which people might be ready to deceive themselves financially.)

      A few years after the Baumol and Bowen book was published, orchestras had their most serious crisis ever, due to the huge expansion in season length and musicians’ pay that took place in the late 1960s. Income didn’t nearly keep pace with expenses, and orchestras legitimately feared they’d go out of business. (Though one projection I saw privately from one of the largest orchestras around 2004 was just as dramatically dire.) They didn’t campaign to cut musicians’ pay. Instead, they campaigned for public funds. The study they commissioned extended hope that 25% of the budgets might be covered by the Federal government, which of course was a pipe dream. But in response to this crisis (and to overall changes in the nonprofit financial situation, driven by the cost disease), orchestras evolved the current mode of funding themselves, with huge fundraising efforts, gigantic development departments, and active marketing campaigns to sell tickets. I don’t think anyone studying this crisis can say it wasn’t real.

  6. says

    Hmm, orchestras and the NBA are an apple/apple fit? Here’s one big difference. The NBA, like other big-time sports enterprises, is all about money. Huge amounts of money to be made. Whereas with orchestras there’s no huge amount to be made. The only issue is sustainability. Which is where money crises come down. So a claim of not having money has a very different meaning for an orchestra than it does for a sports league. For a sports league, people who expected to make huge profits — for their personal benefit — aren’t making them. For an orchestra, the enterprise could sag and fail.

    from your blogpost above:

    Here’s the commonsense answer. Of course there are differences between for-profit and nonprofit enterprises. But here’s one crucial similarity: Both have balance sheets. Both have income and expenses. And if expenses exceed income for any number of years, both kinds of institution are in trouble.

    Either we’re talking about the bottom line, or we’re not, Greg, and the answer to your question about “Why We Don’t Know!” Management is claiming the NBA teams don’t make enough money to cover the cost of the players’ salaries, which they are claiming are the biggest expenses (roughly half the operating costs). They claimed that the recent lockout (which is the fifth one for the NBA so far) was specifically because 23 teams (approximately half of the teams) actually operated in the red. Forbes called them out on it, and said only 17 (closer to a third) are operating in the red.

    And most economists say that sports stadiums in general almost never cover their start-up costs (which ends up getting absorbed by tax dollars) and less than half of stadiums actually even come close to covering their annual operating costs and yet cities and municipalities continue to advocate building stadiums to attract (or retain) teams, which (unless they are NFL or MLB teams) aren’t guaranteed to make money all in the name of generating a positive economic impact which most economists say just doesn’t happen.

    On top of that, we know that sports teams are no different than any other service or performing arts organizations in that it will always take the same amount of players to play the game (just as it takes the same amount of musicians to play a Beethoven Symphony) so labor costs will never go down, which means sports teams will inevitably fall prey to the cost disease for exactly the same reasons that any performing arts organization will.

    Add then there’s the fact that ticket sales and audiences are declining for sports events (as the NEA includes sports events in their “Benchmark Events” category which they analyzed data for) just as they are for any other benchmark events (as well as most genres of music, as Flanagan himself states that all genres of music have declining audiences, according to his understanding of the 2009 NEA SSPA).

    I brought up the Baumol and Bowen quote simply to emphasize that this is something management has done, and been doing. It’s a normal part of negotiations with Unions and obviously happens in the for profit sector. No one is denying that the NBA has teams that lose money–the management, Forbes and other dependant auditors are only arguing over how many are doing so. No one is arguing that Stadiums, overall, do not recoup their losses which then have to be made up (usually) with taxpayer money–or at least the professional economists aren’t. Politicians and lobbyists and fans who want do draw in a team or retain a team usually do so without really understanding the the full implications of the economic impact (or lack thereof) of certain tiers of sports teams.

    Ironically, Baumol’s most recent work with Gomory deals with Scale Economies (nearly exactly the opposite direction from the cultural economics field and the cost disease phenomenon he pioneered) and how that affects retainable industries and global trade. In light of how entrenched sports teams are in American culture and specific regions, their analysis could just as easily apply to regional or between state trade (as it applies to sports teams). I’ve brought this up here before, but in Baumol and Gomory’s analysis, sometimes some Industries are too “big” to fail even if they aren’t necessarily the most efficient producer of a product. Merely has to do with an entrenched incumbent (which we could also argue is the case for, example, Orchestras) that keep their competitive advantage by an historic accident rather than any real competitive advantage.

    Point is, we’re arguing about a field now, that is a for profit industry, and that isn’t particularly doing well by economists or management standards, so why don’t we know? Why do cities continue to build economically draining stadiums? Why are NBA teams that aren’t making money in a for prof world still operating? If we can’t answer those questions, then maybe we don’t necessarily have the answers to your questions as it pertains to the classical music industry.

    • says

      Jon, despite your thorough studies here, I really think this is a digression, a sidebar to the main issue. Of course there are varied things in the world, and industries vary in how well they’re understood and how much agreement there may be about what goes on in them. So when you say, hey, look at the NBA, there’s controversy there about whether there’s financial health or not, so what? Did I say that in every case, when we look at something other than orchestras, we have a consensus about what’s going on?

      I didn’t say that. And also, Jon, I asked a question. Why don’t we know? Questions have answers. You’ve shown why we don’t know about the NBA, or more precisely why many smart people don’t believe what the NBA says about team finances. And why the NBA has an interest in shading the truth. So that starts to answer the “why don’t we know?” question about basketball. The question, asked about orchestras, has answers, too. The first one I’d think of is that much of the relevant data — orchestra ticket sales, for instance — isn’t publicly available, which means that we start out in a fog, when we try to assess how orchestras are doing.

      So what I was saying is this: Since about two very famous cases of industries in trouble — far more talked about, and employing far more people, than the NBA — there’s agreement about what’s happening, why can’t we agree about orchestras? To ask that question doesn’t imply that we agree about every other industry’s status. It just asks why we don’t know about orchestras. I wish you’d focus on answering that, rather than bring up things that, in the end, and with respect, I believe are mostly irrelevant.

      • says

        And that’s why I brought this up, Greg, just because there are industries where there’s agreement in what’s happening, it doesn’t mean there has to be agreement about what’s happening in every industry. I’m simply bringing up an industry (the NBA) with a much more similar economic infrastructure to the one in question (Classical Music–more specifically, Orchestras and other large performing arts organizations).

        Flanagan himself brings up the Educational Industry (in his book) to compare and contrast with Orchestras, since it is similar in much more appropriate ways for comparison.

        Yes, there is much fog–especially regarding ticket sales which (when we have it) usually have to be averaged from total ticket revenue which will show a distorted picture of actual attendance (same holds for both non profs as well as for profs like sports) and while both the NEA SPPA and McKinsey Reports had a relatively large sample base (18,000 and 25,000 respectively), every statistician understands the relative pitfalls of self-reporting in surveys and how that especially affect parametric measures.

        I think the idea of an Classical Music is existing in an Economic Bubble might be appropriate here especially given all the money put into creating the infrastructure for live performance (the proliferation of concert halls) that’s also similar to the sports stadium example. So while concert halls and stadiums are probably never going to make back the money put into building and operating them it’s usually Economic Impact Studies that what advocates of both types of structures rely on when lobbying for them. Of course, Economic Impact Studies deal more with externalities, which are difficult to accurately monetize.

        And as far as the cost disease is concerned, it applies equally to sports as it does to the performing arts. Sometimes, as in the case of the NFL and MLB, the industry as a whole can manage it (which is not to say there aren’t teams in both those leagues that aren’t also losing money). In other cases, they can’t manage it–point is, it is managable. So while Flanagan’s work does a good job of tracking that effect on the 63 largest orchestras in the US, the biggest problem is that the data from the OSRs (which he stated as being his principle data source) are self-reported, and by parametizing only the largest budget orchestras, all the problems with self-reportage for that kind of parametric measure doesn’t tell us a darn thing about how well smaller budget orchestras can manage the cost disease. And before you tell me again not to argue economics with you and that I should take this up with the economics field, these things are precisely what the wife and I are planning on doing with our review of Flanagan’s book (since she’s hungry for publication after freshly completing her MBA). 😉

        So the pushback your experiencing in your posts could simply be because we don’t really know. Which is not to say that we can recognize some obvious problems in the field.

        • says

          At some point, you need to know. If, let’s say, you’re running an orchestra, and you’re having a good or bad time financially, of course you have to know what the experience of the whole industry is. So you know if your results are atypical or typical. If you’re doing well financially, and that turns out to be atypical, you very much need to know that. So you can protect yourself in advance, in case the overall trend starts to hit you. You’d have to understand what made you different. Was it the particular circumstances of your city? Was it your management skill? Was it because some of your expenses were paid for you by someone else? (As happens with the National Symphony in DC, where the Kennedy Center does for the National Symphony a good deal of what most orchestras do for themselves.

          The orchestras that, apart from Philadelphia, have had the most serious problems, are far from the largest: Syracuse and New Mexico, for instance. Columbus, OH (which recovered, thanks to cooperation between management and musicians).

          I’ve worked rather closely with some people at or close to the League, on and off, about the problems caused by self-reporting. And, in fact, not simply from the fact of self-reporting, but from a lack of clarity in the way the reports are asked for.

          But does that mean the information is _completely_ unreliable?

          For instance, I was the one who, some years ago, got the League to release some aggregate figures for concert attendance. Which showed a notable decline from the mid-90s into the next decade. There were obvious problems with the data. Concerts with paid attendance weren’t separated with anything like 100% reliability from free concerts. Any attempt to _firmly_ pin down what happened, attendance-wise, to what kind of concerts was foiled by an “other” category large enough — in the % of concerts it covered — to drive several trucks through.

          But did this mean that the overall drop in attendance didn’t happen? Just because you can’t be certain about all the details doesn’t mean that the broad trends aren’t there. If I started going broke, I doubt I’d need a complete budget of all that I made and spent, broken down into detailed categories, to be aware of that. If the decline in attendance had been small, or if the trend fluctuated a lot from year to year, going up and down by minute amounts, and then going down, over the many year period, very little — well, we could say that data didn’t mean much. As surely we would even if we had detailed info, to our complete satisfaction.

          But a long-term decline in every kind of concert attendance over many years? Seems like that surely happened, even if the details aren’t always clear.

          The notion that sports teams suffer from the cost disease is novel, I think. Yes, you need the same number of people on the field now as you did in 1913, but that’s not the sole measure of productivity. How, for instance, should we gauge the effect of minor league systems, which major league baseball just didn’t have in the 1920s? That surely improves the productivity of the effort to find new players. Which is part of what a team needs to do.

          And where is the data showing the effect of the cost disease on sports? With orchestras, it’s clear. The % of earned income in orchestra budgets has plummeted over the past few generations. Exactly as the cost disease theory would predict. Has something similar happened in sports? Certainly the percentage of gate receipts in the budget has fallen, since now there’s enormous TV revenue. But that would have happened whether costs rose or not. It was there for the taking. And really should be counted as another form of gate receipt — more earned income. Orchestras, by contrast, only found dramatic new ways to increase their unearned income when they were forced to.

          What orchestras suffer from is a growing gap between what they can earn and what they can take in. Which can be demonstrated statistically, and which, in the 1970s, forced them to revolutionize their ways of raising unearned income, so they’d get a lot more of it. Not sure you can show something similar for sports, though I’m always ready to be convinced.

          I’d consult an economist on this, though. It’s beyond my pay grade, and would be — with no disrespect to your wife — if I had an MBA. Different training. Some overlap, but not the same thing.

  7. David gaudry says

    Don’t mean to burst your bubble, but the arts are not a “product” at all in the commercial or capital sense. Its closer to education or road-building. The arts are considered to serve the public good. The budget required to service a thriving arts community is minimal in the US. The budget of 20 orchestras yearly costs less than 1 stealth bomber. In other countries orchestras are financed by governments, and in the US the large philanthropist substitutes as a surrogate through the tax system. Your salary at juilliard is not covered by tuition.
    I know you like simple answers

    • richard says

      What Greg is trying to say are the traditional philanthropists are getting old and dieing out, and not being replaced by younger folks. As to govt. support, if the number of classical music supporters gets smaller and smaller they will have less political clout.

      • says

        Thanks, Richard. Yet another point is that many large nonprofits involved with classical music — including the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and a major music school I’ll have to be discreet and not name — have said outright that they can’t raise enough funds to stay in business, and will have to find profit-making enterprises to make up the difference.

        Of couse, one could conclude that they don’t do fundraising well enough. But in the case of the music school, that wouldn’t be a very convincing notion, because the school is known as a monster success when it raises money.

  8. says

    Ask an educated and successful person what kind of art, theater or books he/she likes and you will almost always get erudite and insightful answers. Ask the same person what type of music they like and you get answers ranging from “LOVE classic rock” to “anything I can dance to.” Nothing wrong with those responses, but perhaps the *concept* of concert music where there is a “plot” – themes not only happen but are developed and re-examined – is completely lost on even our most intelligent potential patrons.

    • says

      Although they’re completely familiar with music that follows a narrative, from film scores, including those for cartoons. Hard to believe that someone who follows the music of a Bugs Bunny cartoon couldn’t follow Til Eulenspiegel.

      As for thematic development, is there anyone who can’t follow the permutations of the All Things Considered theme, or some of the James Bond music, as it morphs into new forms as it’s repeated? I completely agree that classical music isn’t listened to by people who know the equivalent painting, novels, or plays. But I don’t think these people would have much trouble with the musical principles involved.

      • richard says

        True enough, Greg, but I’ve known avant-garde artists who, when exposed to Ive’s “Three Places”, thought it was incomprehensible noise. It’s a work I play for these type of folks when I’m feeling in the missionary mode. Of course this cuts to the quick as I’ve loved the piece since I was a teen. Sigh!

        • says

          Sigh indeed!

          I was once in a museum of contemporary art, a small one in a suburban community outside New York. Wafting softly through the galleries were recordings of standard classical pieces — Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and the like. I was speechless. To use that music to create an “artistic” atmosphere seemed like a violation of every bit of art on display.

          • says

            Perhaps for some, Greg, but I’ve spent a great deal of time explaining sotata-allegro form and playing recordings of historical music for intelligent folks who simply can’t recognize even the simplest theme when it comes back in the recap – much less when motives are being developed. And, if the theme appears in the bass or anywhere except the top voice, it might as well not be there at all for these listeners. Imagine if you will trying to read a book where a character is introduced in Chapter 1 but, when he re-appears in Chapter 3 you have no idea who he is and you have some insight into the plight of many of our potential subscribers. The skill to follow the “plot” of concert music is not innate, and how many really have the time to learn to listen at the level our beloved music demands?

          • says

            With all respect, I don’t think classical music demands any of that. People can, and have, enjoyed it without the least comprehension of anything you mention. Much of the current audience is very likely in that position. I once met a lifelong orchestra subscriber who couldn’t identify the instruments when he heard them, and nothing in my experience of orchestra audiences makes me think he’s atypical.

            More to the point, do you think there are things you enjoy, in the arts or elsewhere, without understanding things equivalent to the classical music things you listed?

  9. says

    Good question! Yes, I appreciate hockey, but I’m not going to pay money to see it live very often because I don’t understand the intricacies of the game. I’ll probably just watch it on TV, because it costs me nothing. Unfortunately, that puts zero ticket dollars in the hands of my local hockey team.

    Similarly, the people who don’t “get” concert music may listen to it free on the radio, or on CD in the background, but I doubt they’ll be buying many high-priced tickets to hear it live, much less becoming season subscribers. Unlike your example who was a “lifelong orchestra subscriber,” I don’t think many new listeners who can’t recognize themes and instruments will be springing for season tickets. If the reverse were true, there would not be so many orchestras on life support.

    One of my friends once asked me, “Not every town has a football team, or an art museum. Do we *really* need an orchestra in every middle-sized town and above, all playing the same historical repertoire?” I don’t have a good answer for him to this day, but it is my fear that because of high operating costs and an almost exclusive focus on the music of the dead, the heyday of the orchestra may have passed. As a composer who has a lifelong love affair with the symphony orchestra, I hope that I’m wrong.

    • says

      Dave, here’s a quote I found in a business book I’m reading: “Almost every successful company has to radically alter course at some point.” This was an observation made in passing, treated as something everybody knows. It’s widely accepted in the business world today, and we see examples of it everywhere. GM, Ford, and Chrysler, for instance.

      But in classical music, this is news. Orchestras need to radically alter their course, in order to survive. I wouldn’t be surprised, once the alteration happens, if they’re playing fewer full orchestra concerts. But I think they’ll also be playing more new music, so for you I’d think the change will be a plus.

      As for buying tickets to live concerts, I think the barrier isn’t lack of understanding of the music. It’s two things, in my view: first, the stultifying concert atmosphere. You walk into the hall, and nobody — not the audience, not the musicians — looks as if they expect something striking to happen. Business as usual.

      Second, and related, is the lack of differentiation of one concert to another. The orchestra (as a rule) does nothing to make concerts stand out as events. So it’s common to have people say (I’ve encountered this many times in my work), “Oh, I’d love to go to the orchestra sometime.” But sometime never comes, because when they look at the PR and marketing for this week’s concert, it looks pretty much like last week’s and next week’s. Only the names change — composers, conductor, soloists. But we’re talking about people who don’t know these names. It’s all a blank to them. (A Finnish college student, asked why he didn’t go to orchestra concerts, said the ads for them look like “obituaries.”)

      And about following musical forms…do most classical musicians really make the forms come alive when they play? I won’t talk now about thematic development, but the standard classical forms, sonata form and the rest, are really very simple. So the question would be, does someone play even a simple ABA form so that the B section sounds like a distinct contrast? And do we make every moment of a sonata-form narrative come alive, so nobody can miss it?

      I’m afraid the answer is too often no. So that’s another reason why people think classical music is nice enough, but not very compelling.