Triple whammy

I’m sure this is something we all know about — the management/musician disputes that have hit one orchestra after another,  leading to seasons not starting on time, with no clear sense, in some cases, of when they ever might start. Tony Woodcock (president of New England Conservatory, and former CEO of the Minnesota Orchestra) in a blog post mentions Atlanta, Minnesota, Chicago, Indianapolis, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (where all concerts to the end of 2012 have been cancelled), and Jacksonville.

To which we can add Spokane, where a strike was called Friday. And Delaware, where the season had been cancelled, but now is reinstated.  And Seattle, where a strike was averted.

And of course also Detroit, which had a near-death experience. And Philadelphia, which declared bankruptcy. And Columbus, Ohio,  where musicians without recriminations accepted drastic pay cuts. And New Mexico and Syracuse, which went out of business. I’m sure there are more orchestras in trouble, orchestras that Tony didn’t mention and that I don’t know about.

So why is this happening? What we see, as Tony rightly says (with great frustration), is recriminations. Musicians furious at management, management furious at musicians. And somehow, in this furor, we’ve missed the real issue. As if, in recriminations about rebuilding in the wake of Sandy, all parties forgot that there had been a hurricane.

What’s the hurricane for orchestras? A great financial crisis. I know that some musicians dispute this, as if (and this gets said in so many words) management just makes the whole thing up, to get an excuse to cut musicians’ pay. Or else orchestra managements (I’ve seen this said, too) are just incompetent, and aren’t selling enough tickets or raising enough money simply because they don’t know how to.

All of which begs a rather crucial question: Why now? Why, right now, do managements want to fake financial crises? Why, right now, should so many of them be incompetent. We’ve never seen a crisis like this for American orchestras, not in the Great Depression, not in the late 1960s, when in the wake of the expansion to 52-week seasons (and an increase in musicians’ weekly pay), the big orchestras faced a financial hole so huge they thought they’d go out of business. That sounds serious, but none of them (as far as I know) cancelled any part of any season, and soon enough they found a solution, which was to develop the professionally-run fundraising orchestras have now. (As I discussed in my last post.)

So there has to be a crisis now, a real one. Or else why would all of this be happening? Maybe orchestra managements always have been evil, maybe they’ve always been incompetent. But never before have they demanded the kind of cuts they’re asking for now.

And managements, too, have a lot to answer for. Mostly they seem only to see the short-term problem. For which the solution is cut! Cut! Cut! Which in fact might be necessary now, but where’s the long-term vision, the reason for cuts, the reason for thinking there’s a future — a workable, sustainable, even fulfilling one — beyond the cuts?

I’d say there are three reasons why the crisis is hitting us right now. First, the economy. That’s going to hurt orchestras, no matter what else is going on.

But it’s not the only thing going on. The second factor, as I see it, is the cost disease, a principle of economics that divides the economy roughly into two parts. One part (very roughly speaking) is manufacturing companies, which over time show gains in productivity. GM can, over time, produce more cars while paying less to make them, especially in labor costs. And the other part of the economy is made up of service organizations — the classic examples being hospitals, universities, and orchestras — which don’t show productivity gains. You’ll always need the same number of musicians to play a Mahler symphony.

But meanwhile service organizations have to — at least approximately — match the pay increases workers in the other sector get. And they have other expenses, which keep increasing. So they fall behind economically, and, over time, keep needing more money than they had before, simply to stay in the same place. (Which is why college tuition and healthcare costs have gone up so drastically in the past few decades.)

This, added to the economy, gives orchestras a double whammy. They’re always behind the financial eight ball, thanks to the cost disease. And now the economy hits them.

And then there’s the third factor — decreasing interest in classical music, at least in its traditional forms. Of course I’ve discussed this many times in my blog, so I won’t go into great detail now. But the loss of interest — or cultural relevance, or however you’d like to put it — is shown in many ways. One is the dramatic aging of the audience, from a time, 60 years ago, when half of it was under 35 (or at least that’s what one key study showed; there are others, with similar results), to now, when it’s quite a bit older. The older people in the audience aren’t being replaced, as they are. Or at least aren’t being replaced in anything like the numbers we’re used to seeing.

And a second sign of loss of interest is a longish-term decline in ticket sales, not reported publicly, but (according to my private sources) very real.

So this is a triple whammy, a perfect storm. Take an enterprise that’s always challenged financially. Add a crippling economy. And then on top of that add an ongoing loss of interest in what the enterprise does, which hits in very specific ways — declining ticket sales, a declining donor base.

Add these things together, and you’ve got major trouble. Which is exactly what we’re seeing.


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  1. says

    Greg, as always your perspective is astute. May I add two things, which are taken from my book recently released, as you know: ” Wie Großartige Musik Ensteht…oder auch nicht” (though not yet published in the original english). I am simply a musician who feels that music has the power to make a difference in people’s lives, but I am also a conductor who risks writing a book that addresses the anthropology of the orchestra, offering ideas and inviting others to participate in a discussion to help address our common issues. First of all, regarding cost disease- the major problem is that our business model is outdated and the middle class, who previously supported culture during a time of expansion, can no longer do so during a time of retraction. 2nd, the problem between musicians and management, or labor versus administration is an old story. The bigger issue is money: As you said, it requires just as many musicians to play a Mahler symphony. There is something missing in the equation. In service to our composers, we feel the music should be played to meet the intention of the composer. Yet, that intention become more and more impossible in a cultural landscape that values classical music less and less. What perhaps is more vital is to recognize the social relevance the instrument of Mahler, of classical music itself, has in its community. We need to be become more socially relevant, and less socially inept. Managers are not wrong to focus on the bottom line. That is the reason for which they are hired by their boards or their elected officials. Musicians are not wrong to demand financial support to sustain the quality of their performances and the quality of their livelihoods after so much personal investment in their art and careers. What is wrong is to ignore the role of the public. That is where I feel the equation is unbalanced. This is not about musicians versus management. This is about Musicians/Management vs Public. Integrate the public more in the process, and orchestras will have more support. Given this crisis, I think the ASOL should be more in the front lines, rather than the sidelines of this discussion. This is something we could have a national discussion about, to find solutions and common ground, rather than recriminations as you call it.

    • says

      Good points, John. Your book should be published in English. You’re addressing the bigger points that I think, as I said, get lost in the furor. First the financial crisis. But then what? Orchestras need to find a way to survive, and what you’re writing helps show some of the ways they can do that.

      The League, I should say, did take some courageous public positions about how serious the crisis is. And then, at their annual conference this spring, brought in representatives of labor and management from Ford, to show how another industry responded constructively to a crisis just as serious as the one orchestras face.

      That said, the League has limitations, because it’s a membership organization. It can’t get too far ahead of its members. So it can’t be as decisive as it might be if it were simply speaking for itself.

  2. BobG says

    Obviously what you say is pertinent and true. But other issues are in play. Concerts cost money and take place in time, and nowadays many people don’t have time or money. (Or at least don’t want to spend 2 or 3 hours in a concert hall.) For whatever reason, contemporary music does not excite the traditional audience base, so there’s no excitement generated by new music. And the entire repertory is available on line nowadays at the click of a button (e.g., Spotify) so that anyone who does care for classical music can get as much as they want (in great performances) without leaving their seat at the computer. (I have never heard Elliott Carter’s music live, and I would probably not go to a concert where it was played, but I’m listening to his piano concerto on Spotify as I write this.) I do not want to appear to deprecate live performance in any way–nothing beats it–but the alternatives can be very appealing.

  3. Larry says

    There’s also the “elephant in the room:” the fact that there now are too many arts organizations in this country. You have parts of he country where there are 3 or 4 professional orchestras within 20 or 30 miles of one another, and I don’t just mean New York or L.A. They can’t all possibly survive. According to Americans for the Arts: there are now about 113,000+ nonprofit arts organization of all kinds in the US – this includes professional and amateur. In the past decade, the number of arts organizations grew by 49 per cent (76,000 to 113,000), a greater rate than all nonprofit organizations which grew 32 per cent. To look at it another way, between 2003 – 2010, a new nonprofit arts organization was created every three hours.

  4. Ted Spickler says

    Agreed. Also consider that service industries have management “tools” such as “Lean Six Sigma” that are employed to make their processes more efficient, reduce non-value added steps, and in various precise, measurable ways trim costs while increasing productivity. In comparison orchestras have limits on that kind of cost cutting and productivity improvements. An engineer friend of mine once (tongue in cheek I hope) explained after observing a performance that orchestras are inefficient; look at that percussion section he complained, someone should be banging on all the drums all the time! Why isn’t the triangle tinkling constantly? All horns blaring in unison without a break! This absurdity reinforces the difference between not only manufacturing processes but also those of service industries relative to orchestras.

  5. HA Beasley says

    May I suggest a fourth problem, which is overinvestment in infrastructure at the expense of artists? Even small suburbs have increasingly moved toward funding facilities, which could conceivably be repurposed for needs other than classical music, rather than funding endowments or other means of direct support for performing artists. It’s easier to justify pretty buildings for civic expenditures, rather than to invest in artistic careers and trade fiscal for cultural capital. But in practice: do orchestras really need millions and millions of dollars invested in fabulous half-empty halls with great acoustics? Or would we be better off if the mid-size professional orchestras were playing in school and college and existing facilities, but with more job security?

    • says

      That’s very much worth thinking about. Facilities seem to be very fundable — donors and corporate sponsors love them. And cities seem to think they’re a great civic improvement. And then the new halls may sit empty much of the year, in a town without a full-time orchestra. There are only so many touring Broadway shows and pop acts.

      On the other side of the coin, though, is the genuine attraction a new hall can be. Typically an orchestra sees a bump in attendance the year a new hall opens. After a bit, the attendance falls again, typically, but the chance to play for new people is an opportunity orchestras might be able to make more of. The New Jersey Symphony was transformed when the New Jersey Performing Arts Center opened in Newark more than a decade ago. So sometimes a new hall does work. Which doesn’t mean you’re wrong to urge caution! I think — a larger question here — that orchestras would benefit by giving many more concerts outside their main halls, in places all over the community. Maybe not always full orchestra concerts, since the number of spaces that can accomodate a full orchestra might be limited. But some kind of concerts. Classical music needs to get out of its bubble.

  6. Jonathan Mayes says

    As ever, a clear explication of the situation facing – well, facing not just orchestras but many branches of the arts. Thank you, Greg.
    Am tempted to provoke a tirade by picking up on your choice of image for this post (it’s from the film, ‘Perfect Storm’, right?) It really got me thinking as to how organisations might weather the storm. For that boat to survive I’d have thought the ability to turn into a submarine momentarily (or permanently) would change its odds of survival quite dramatically. In searching for ways for orchestras to survive – or thrive (?!) – in the current climate, I’d posit that there’s a need to explore equally radical short/long-term tactics. Not quite sure what they look like, mind, though I know many of the discussions on this and other Arts Journal blogs have approached this subject quite creatively. Not least in terms of exactly what artistic output is provided and how this corresponds to public demand.

    Meanwhile, I’m going to get on to MI6 to see if they can’t provide a boat that turns into a sub, and see about changing my surname to Bond…

    • says

      Good thinking, Jonathan. And apologies for not posting your comment sooner. I was travelling, with little time for the blog, and somehow missed that you’d posted this.

      Radical changes absolutely are needed. Not easy for anyone, especially since, in the short to medium run, orchestras will have to keep doing the old things, and serving their old audience, at the same time that they’re going in radical new directions.

  7. Larry says

    Let’s not forget that attendance is down for everything — jazz concerts, rock concerts, sporting events, movies (other than the occasional blockbuster.) We’ve become a society which has unlimited entertainment available 24/7 in the comfort of our own homes.

    • says

      Yes, but the decline in attendance for everything didn’t start in 1990, when the fall in orchestra ticket-buying started. Or maybe it started earlier. I’ve only privately been shown figures going back that far. The decline may have started earlier.

      Nor do you see a collapse in ticket-buying by younger people, in other things people by tickets for. Movie ticket sales may be down, but you don’t see a multiplex crowd largely over 60. Because of the ongoing age shift in classical music attendance, without older people being replaced by younger ones in anything near the same numbers, it’s easy to see that the decline will accelerate in the future, whatever happens in other sectors. Unless, that is, something serious changes.

      • says

        Largely over 60. Please tell me where you have encountered this fountain of youth. Because I have taken my son to a few symphony concerts here in Edinburgh and there looked to me like a handful of people under 70 and a median way over 70. It is a really, really old audience at least in this town. Nor do I recall it looking much different when I saw Suisse Romande in Geneva.

        • says

          Hi, Eric. Are you in Edinburgh now? I’d love to know what you’re doing.

          I use general terms in describing age because we don’t have precise data. The NEA says the classical audience in the US has a median age of 49, higher than in previous decades. But orchestras have an older core audience.

          I certainly hear what you’re saying, and it fits my own anecdotal impressions. Especially of the audience at the one Met Opera HD movie-theater show I’ve seen outside New York. But I’m still going to be careful not to depend too much on anecdotal data.

          One thing I’m glad about — you’re confirming that audiences in Europe are just as old as in the US. Many people want to believe things are different (better) there. Not so.

  8. says

    I have spent one-half century in the professional classical music world, as a young symphony orchestra member ( of one of the recently threatened orchestras noted above ) studied and worked in Europe, observed the system there and elsewhere, and more recently, I have taught in a university music program in Canada where I have also worked and performed extensively. I have manage a high-level music festival in the US, and have given considerable thought to this complex and difficult subject. I have had decades of conversations and observations to draw upon and suggest that there are a couple of missing pieces in the conclusions above, while worthy and important themselves:

    The audience that valued the symphony orchestra experience in North America-simply discussing the recent history from the early 20th-Century-was a transplanted central European one, where “classical” culture was taken for granted, promoted exclusively and in fact, the only diversion of its kind. That generation’s children, also imbued with the background and context, had a similar hunger for the experience. That same generation came of age in the 50s and 60s, promoted and furthered the boom that allowed regional orchestras to flourish in the economy as well as for those in the larger metropolitan areas to actually begin to stabilize
    ( orchestra musicians were simply not well-paid, even at the top level until the 1970s and thereafter.) Further, the school systems across America promoted bands, orchestras and choirs, owned instruments, and the repertoire was narrowly geared to the “classics”. In addition, national efforts were made to continue the tradition. (I am sure many my age will remember the ” Standard School Broadcast”, a weekly radio program of orchestral classics
    with discussion piped into school rooms.) But the traditional hunger and need for this level
    of sophisticated listening has simply died out or has been driven out by pop culture and the availability of a vast assortment of diversions. Appreciation for Mahler and Debussy in the
    orchestral setting is less and less. The attention span has been significantly reduced across the entire population by constant exposure to mass culture, and the need for continual moving
    images and “entertaining” activity on the stage now trumps passive listening and the long-valued mythology of the veneration of “live” music. There is simply little context for Mahler and Debussy as there is even less for the string quartets of Haydn of the last Beethovens or Bartok. It is a highly refined, exclusive and narrow audience remaining. It is clear that limited exposure in school is not providing a motivated and educated audience as had naively been suggested, and we have seen the folly in the idea that the “boomers” would turn to high culture to fill the vacated seats of the aging and dying traditional audience.

    There will be an audience for symphony orchestra repertoire, however selective, at least the more durable, familiar, reassuring, canon. We have imagined for some decades that the orchestra in its present form is not sustainable, and I believe we will have to accept the fact that it has become comparable in cultural value to the museum. The Metropolitan Museum, the Getty and the Smithsonian can afford to acquire the masterpieces and display them, and if one wants the experience of seeing them first-hand, one will have to go there. Similarly, a few excellent orchestras in the largest metropolitan centers where the size of the population in its cross section can support such cultural luxury ( Mahler-sized orchestras that perform well) will provide a point of pilgrimage. Many fans of opera manage a trip to NY to the Met once or twice a year.

    Orchestras can try to manage with run-outs to the suburbs, chasing granting agencies with
    all manner of outreach, educational, multi-media and cross-cultural events, but the handwriting is on the wall. The audience is simply not there, is continuing to decline due to all the aforementioned reasons and therefore funding is not going to be available. Savvy donors are not going to continue to prop up an institution that simply does not have a viable future. This might sound terminally pessimistic, however it is a concept shared by many of us who have watched the situation unfold.

    There is often reference made to the situation in Europe, and how wonderfully stable the orchestra tradition is there, however even in Germany, orchestras are being amalgamated,
    trimmed, and in some cases closed. Holland, long thought to be a bastion of traditional
    orchestra audience and government support, has recently seen several orchestras combined, and others ( the radio orchestras ) closed entirely. Audiences are dwindling, except in the major cities,and there are many small orchestras and opera houses there and in other countries simply closing.

    One can conveniently blame management or musicians, and in both cases there are excesses around the contract histories, however no management can save a situation that does not have the fundamental and rational environment for health ( market). In better times musicians could reasonably ask for payment for work within the market conditions prevailing. The symphony orchestra is on the way to a marginalized and rarified position among other encrusted and
    outmoded institutions.

    Is there a silver lining? Not for the symphony orchestra. Not for all the musicians who will be eliminated in coming year, and certainly not for the hoards of young, talented, motivated and naive music students graduating by the thousands from music training programs around the world. It will be a difficult transition and it has already begun.

    • says

      Jesse, thanks for this. Though I do think you’re too pessimistic. You greatly underestimate (in my opinion) the sophistication of much of the pop culture audience. You have serious people, accustomed to serious art, and eager to be challenged. In music, as well as other areas. Our job is to show them that Debussy is as deep as The Wire or Bjork or Bruce Springsteen. The problem with the classical repertoire is that it comes from another age, as does the way we present it. We have to put it in a contemporary context, which is a long story. But if someone would rather hear Springsteen than Mahler, it’s because Springsteen speaks to our time, in a way that Mahler doesn’t. That doesn’t mean that Mahler is over. Just that he has to be resituated in our contemporary world — as routinely happens with classic theater, great painting from the past, classic novels, old movies. And, for that matter, pop music from the past,

      You mentioned the Met Museum, but don’t think they’re mostly in the business of showing old masterworks. Go to their website — visit other museums, too — and see what they’re offering. Museums draw some of their biggest crowds with contemporary art. I remember one moment, some years ago, when I went to the Met Museum website, and saw they were featuring three shows: Raphael (classic art of the past), Jeff Koons (very sexual contemporary art), and a Costume Institute show tracing the links between superhero costumes and high fashion.

      We have to understand the world we’re living in. Until we do that, we’ll never get anywhere with classical music. You and I, Jesse, will never see the day when Mahler and Brahms were some kind of central cultural norm. But we’ll see a better day, when classical music becomes a fully contemporary art.

      Footnote: I also wouldn’t overemphasize the role of immigrant populations in forming the core of a classical audience in the past. They had a role, especially in certain cities (New York, Cincinnati, for instance). But the classical audience was much wider than that. I’ve seen a study done in 1954 about what music college students in Atlanta liked. They were asked their favorite composers, not their favorite pop stars. Beethoven and Debussy were their choices, and they liked cool jazz as well as classical music. The study was done on the general college student population, not on any subset of them with any special interest in classical music. Which meant, of course, that the people doing the study — as well as everyone else — knew that college students liked classical music. I’m not going to believe that Atlanta college students in the ’50s came primarily from German immigrant families!

  9. Jason says

    One significant factor is missing from all of these posts. I read that the Atlanta Symphony used to have 15 administrative staff and now has more than 70. And universities are churning out “arts management” degrees who think they should be able to earn more than the musicians. And then management has to be further professionalized with “CEO”s that have to be paid competitively with the private sector, and so on. Why do we need so much administration? What should orchestra executives be making $250,000 or more when they are cutting players. Just like in public schools and other institutions can’t we start cutting in administration and find efficiencies on the admin side?

    • says

      Orchestra staffs are larger now because there’s more to do. As I’ve written in previous posts, orchestras up to the 1970s didn’t have development departments or marketers. Or, I’m sure, telemarketers. In order to survive in the present world, orchestras need these things. How else will they raise funds or sell tickets? The development department — the fundraisers — is typically the largest department in any orchestra, employing the largest staff. But that’s because these people are needed.

      It seems odd to many people that CEOs should be paid a lot when their orchestras are in trouble, but if you think about it, this is when orchestras most need top-quality leadership. Which doesn’t come cheap. An orchestral CEO who could reverse the current downward trend would be worth her weight in gold.

  10. says

    World economic collapse coincides with the defeat of global terrorism. Society and the arts change for generations. Sound familiar? It happened almost exactly 200 years ago – the defeat of Napoleon and a economic collapse that wiped out nearly sixty percent of wealth (we saw thirty- five to forty percent go away on 2008). The result? Music got easy for a while. Nobody could afford to commission Beethoven anymore so he turned to “pop” music (WOO) and earned more in the last ten years of his life than the previous forty. Rossini and the pack of simple harmonic rhythm composers (the true inventors of 4 bar rock and roll) get rich while tweeners like Schubert who were born too late in this societal shift never did make a living at music.

    My point is this. We’ve been here before and lived to tell about it. Darwin was right – adapt or die. Survival and growth are available only to those who embrace change.

  11. says

    At the risk of raising a firestorm of criticism, I wonder what would happen with the Symphony Orchestra and so many other art forms if they were forced to make-or-break without funding help from various governments, thus giving them greater incentive to break away from the stiff academic traditions of the last several decades and find out what their potential audience really wants. It seems to me it would force them into a supply-and-demand market; they either supply what their potential audiences want at a price they are willing/able to pay, or they cease to exist.

    I would think it would open all sorts of doors to the sort of creative thinking that we, as younger artists, were known for before we became mired in our collective comfort zones, demanding that our audiences come meet us on our terms and turf rather than going to meet them on theirs. If we had to make it on our own hard work, creative thinking, and perseverance it may change the face of our situation and what we are trying to accomplish.

    I, for one, want to know that I have a paycheck based on the desire of others to enjoy my art rather than the existence of a guaranteed check based on government funding and union contracts.

    I speak specifically of government funding because, in large part, it comes from people (taxpayers) who have no other reason to support our arts than the fact that they pay taxes, and who would otherwise not be likely to send one red penny our direction were we not providing them with something for which they perceive there is value. Other funding sources such as foundations and endowments fall into a different category, since they were generally started with the specific intent of helping to fund the arts, and those who contribute in this manner know the value of that which they support and do so voluntarily.

    Without knowing the ins and outs of the various union contracts for professional musicians, I wonder how many of them are dangerously Hostess-like, creating situations where it is virtually impossible for the orchestras to remain viable due to the demands placed on them?

    Certainly something worth considering…

    • says

      Interesting thought. Might apply more in Europe than here, because government funding is, in US, just a tiny part of the income orchestras have. They’re supported by their donors, so, for better or worse, they’re being supported by people who like exactly what they do. But those donors are growing older…

      • says

        Do you know, roughly, the percentage that comes through government funding, and the sources from which it comes? If you know, can you include amounts that may have been included in the construction of new venues, and whether or not those venues have other purposes? I ask because I truly don’t know.

        Many thanks! Your articles are putting forth some excellent ideas and getting good discussion going, causing many of us to re-think “the way we’ve always done it”.

        • says

          The percentage varies, depending on which kind of government funding groups get — federal, state, local. And besides arts grants, enterprising groups might find they can qualify for funding under non-arts headings, for education projects, for instance. And that’s a really good point about aid (from tax breaks to assuming the cost of construction) for new venues. All of this means that there isn’t a simple answer to your question, but the percentage of outright arts grants in the income of a large classical music institution is, roughly, well under 5%.

          Thanks for your warm words! Means a lot to me.