More history

Here — from a 1975 book by George Seltzer, The Professional Symphony Orchestra in the United States — is another bit of history. (To go along with the 1951 scene of audiences applauding after each movement of a piece, that I shared in my last post.)

Seltzer’s book is a collection of many articles, some short, some quite long, including a New Yorker piece from 1960 (if I remember correctly; I don’t have the book with me) by Joseph Wechsler that gives the best account of what it’s like to play an orchestra piece -— from the musicians’ point of view — that I’ve ever seen.

But what interests me here is something from “Musings on the Duties of the Orchestral Manager,” a short piece by Helen M. Thompson, which was originally published (the book doesn’t say when, or in what form) by the American Symphony Orchestra League. (Which of course is what the League of American Orchestras used to call itself.)

Here’s the quote, from a paragraph titled “Fund raising and ticket sale campaigns”:

The manager cannot personally raise the funds and sell the tickets, but he is responsible (unless otherwise directed by the board of directors) for all phases of the planning, supervision and execution of the campaigns, ticket sales plans, special fund raising schemes, etc. His task is to do all possible to enable the volunteer campaign workers from the board, women’s association and community to work effectively, efficiently and constructively.

What jumped out at me here was the list of people who raise funds for the orchestra: “volunteer campaign workers from the board, women’s association and community.” Or, in other words, not professionals from the orchestra’s development department. Orchestras, from everything I’ve seen, didn’t have development departments back then, or for that matter, marketing departments. In two Philadelphia Orchestra budgets I’ve seen from the late ’60s, there’s almost no expense for marketing or fundraising. And Helen M. Thompson seems to be telling us why; The fundraising was done by volunteers.

I’m a little surprised to see that said in a 1975 book, because it was in the ’70s, as far as I know, that the present forms of fundraising came in. Late in the ’60s, big American orchestras had a giant financial crisis, the result of expansion to 52-week seasons, along with a rise in musicians’ weekly salaries. Consultants were brought in (I’ve read their reports, courtesy of the New York Philharmonic’s wonderful archives), and the conclusions were that orchestras would go out of business unless new money was found. That money should, the consultants said, come from the federal government, which — if European governments funded 90% of their orchestras’ budgets — could easily fund 25% of orchestra budgets in the US.

A writer in Seltzer’s book says much the same thing. The federal government never came through, of course, and instead orchestras (and other nonprofits in the arts) developed the funding  process we have now. A story, by the way, that hasn’t been written about in any detail, or at least not in anything I’ve seen. If anyone knows any published accounts of how our present forms of fundraising evolved , I’d love to hear about them.

So again we have a snapshot — a very brief one, this time — of an age very different from ours. Orchestras, I should add, didn’t need professional, year-round fundraising, because ticket sales still paid a large part of the bills. How that changed — how we went from ticket sales in the 1930s making up 70 to 90 percent of an orchestra’s income, to 30% or so now — is a major financial story. Illustrating (though I won’t go into detail now) the progress of the cost disease, the principle of economics that tells us how institutions like orchestras, hospitals, and universities don’t, over time, show the productivity gains that manufacturing companies do, and therefore fall further and further behind financially. Scrambling, year after year, for new sources of funds.

One footnote: Sometimes people laugh at concerns for the future of classical music, saying that these fears have always been with us, but classical music survived. Reading these old books, I can’t find evidence for that. There’s no talk about classical music being threatened. Orchestras had a financial crisis, yes, but for specific, understandable reasons. Nobody thought that classical music itself was threatened — something that, by the way, i can confirm from my own experience, since I’ve been eagerly active in classical music, in one way or another, since my college days in the ’60s. I never heard people talk about danger to classical music until somewhere in the 1990s.

But that’s a story for another time.


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  1. says

    I think many people, even within the industry, use the words classical, symphony and orchestras somewhat interchangeably. (Which is why I think we should be prepared to explain the origins of these words to curious new listeners.) Classical music will never die as long as there are millions of us interested to play it. Orchestras, particularly symphony orchestras and the music we play in them, are the topic of the day because they are the culmination of the classical music tradition.

    Greg, you’ll probably want to read into the birth of ICSOM in 1962 and the investments of the Ford Foundation in the late 1960s. Here’s one very brief account (3rd & 4th paragraphs) from NEC’s Tony Woodcock at , but there are many others. Try Robert Levine at or Bruce Ridge at

    Keeping in mind that we’re looking at the same coin, I think that which side we come down on will depend on our job, coworkers, friends and family more than objectivity. The world is full of tradeoffs. Few of us seem to be willing to accept there are two sides to consider and eternally balance. Which is why I appreciate YOU Greg. You are considering the 90% of Americans who don’t seek out traditional classical concerts but might enjoy some in a different context.

    • says

      Thanks, Rick. I know something about the Ford Foundation’s push in the ’60s for orchestras to expand and pay their musicians more. But I don’t know ICSOM’s history. So much to learn! Thanks for the references.

  2. Brian Hughes says

    I greatly appreciate these history lessons, Greg. It is beneficial to look back in time at views toward our art. It is unfortunate that so many in contemporary society continue to sound a death knell for our art form. Of course, this reflects our inability to keep up with changing society. Is technology largely to blame? I know that my own live performance attendance has changed because I have access to so much music via my own media sources as well as (God forbid) NPR…

    • says

      Hi, Brian. I tend to think of technology as neutral. It changes things, but gives many new opportunities to do things better. I think the biggest changes are cultural. People think in ways that the old classical masterworks don’t reflect, so it’s no surprise that an audience today — outside classical music — won’t want a steady diet of mostly the old music

  3. Ken Nielsen says

    The drop in percentage of revenue from box office interests me. I’d love to see – or do – some analysis of this. How have ticket prices related to average hourly salaries ( a better comparison than inflation) and where has the cost increases in budgets come from? How much is musicians’ salaries?
    Do you know of any work on this?

    • says

      These subjects are woefully understudied. The key book on orchestra finance, which touches on some of the questions you raise, is Robert Flanagan’s The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras, published in the US perhaps a year ago. Bob did a search of scholarly social science publications for me, at one point, and couldn’t find any papers on classical music finance. An earlier, also seminal book, dating from 1966, is Performing Arts, the Economic Dilemma, by William J. Baumol and William G. Bowen. There’s information there about the percentage of income that comes from ticket prices, over many years. This is also the book in which Baumol first set forth his notion of the cost disease, which has since been accepted as a basic principle of economics, and which affects the performing arts were seriously.

      But much, much, much work remains to be done. It’s generally accepted in the orchestra sector in the US that big orchestras raised ticket prices way in excess of the inflation rate, during the ’80s and ’90s. But I’ve never seen a comparison of ticket prices and hourly wages.

      Dick Letts, who runs (or ran) the Australian Music Council may have information, or sources for it, about many countries. When he prepared readings for the classical music summit that brought me to Australia (which led to you and me meeting in person, a wonderful moment!), I saw that he had the broadest knowledge of pertinent statistics, at least about the current functioning of classical music, that I’d ever seen.

      • John Federico says

        When you want to compare ticket prices to hourly wages — do you mean hourly wages in the overall community where the orchestra makes its home, or hourly wages of the orchestra members themselves? I know that TCG, the service organization for nonprofit theatres, used to look at box office revenue, expenses and contributions, on a raw average and adjusted for inflation, for a sample group of its member theatres that participated in the survey for five consecutive years.I imagine the League of American Orchestras produced similar research.

  4. Laura Kennelly says

    Could part of this be another unintended consequence of more women working in salaried jobs? I was struck by this passage:(below) and once again thought about economists who have noted that when women moved into the paid workforce in great number, things changed in many areas. While it’s nice to be appreciated (and paid) when one leaves the house for the office, it’s also too bad for society that the contribution of homemakers (housewives) couldn’t have been noticed before it has to be noticed by its absence.

    But then, my grandmother would have made an awesome CEO (at least that’s what her husband said wryly).

    “What jumped out at me here was the list of people who raise funds for the orchestra: “volunteer campaign workers from the board, women’s association and community.” Or, in other words, not professionals from the orchestra’s development department. Orchestras, from everything I’ve seen, didn’t have development departments back then, or for that matter, marketing departments. In two Philadelphia Orchestra budgets I’ve seen from the late ’60s, there’s almost no expense for marketing or fundraising. And Helen M. Thompson seems to be telling us why; The fundraising was done by volunteers.

    • says

      Laura, thanks so much for this line of thought. It’s well worth following. The role of women in past generations tracks very well with the history of classical music institutions. I’ve seen a study of American orchestras done in 1937 that says the two dominant groups in the audience were “housewives” (as the term was then) and students. There’s also a study done in 1955 in Minneapolis that notes housewives as one of the four main occupational segments of the symphony audience. (Students, professionals, and “businessmen” were the others.)

      And then there are Robert and Helen Lynd’s 1925 and 1935 studies of the city they called “Middletown” (which actually was Muncie, IN). These are pioneering works of sociology. In the first book, there’s not a word about classical music concerts in Middletown. In the second book, there’s talk of a concert series (recitals and chamber music; no orchestra existed), where the audience is made up of, again, housewives and students. I’m going to guess that the “housewives” were upper-crust women in the town who founded, ran, and funded the concerts.

      The Metropolitan Opera Guild was founded in 1936, by volunteer women, in order to raise funds for the opera company. (The Met had actually run at a profit in the ’20s, but was hurt by the depression. And, I’d guess, by the ongoing depredations of the cost disease.)

      This said, though, I don’t think the change in women’s status starting in the ’60s plays any large role in the change to professional fundraising. That is, I don’t think professional fundraising was needed because volunteer women were no longer available. I’m speculating, of course, but my speculation is founded (very reasonably, I’d think) on two things there isn’t much doubt about. First, that the change to professional fundraising happened in the 1970s, when the change in women’s status was still in an early stage. And second, that women still predominate among classical music volunteers even today. Or at least that’s my strong impression. I haven’t seen numbers, but from my observations of classical music institutions over the years, I’d say this is so.

      In my view, fundraising for orchestras became professional and male at the same time, for a fairly clear reason. Once fundraising became a central preoccupation, to be pursued rigorously, then men took it over, because men, at the time, ran things. One piece of suggestive evidence for this: The Met Opera first set up its endowment only in 1966, when the company moved to Lincoln Center, sold its old building, and used the funds from the sale to create the endowment. The people in charge of this — including its financial side — were men, no surprise.

      Thanks again for putting me on this train of thought, Laura. Very fascinating, on many counts.

      • Laura Kennelly says

        One resource for finding out more about the relationship between women and orchestras might be the collection of Cleveland Orchestra programs held in the Riemenschneider Bach Institute where I work (or elsewhere). A look at the advertisers over the years could be informative–perhaps someone would like to apply for our Martha Arnold Fellowship grant and take a look at the evidence found via material culture (for example, in 1936, just pulled one at random, there’s a back cover ad [great placement] for The May Co French Room on the Third Floor that touts “Dramatics in Velvet.” Today’s ads are different.
        The Bach Festival here at Baldwin Wallace University began in the 1930s and, again, the women of the community (small town, not particularly up scale, but a mix of college and town people) did the fund-raising and publicity and associated entertainments (receptions). Today there’s still a Women’s Committee, but there are few young women in it.

        • says

          Good idea. And of course programs can be found for other orchestras, for instance in the fabulous New York Philharmonic archives. The Philharmonic has other uncollated data — handwritten ledgers with names of subscribers from 100 years ago, for instance. And also internal documents, including office memos.

          I’d add that, to my knowledge, almost all aspects of orchestra history apart from musical matters are just about untouched by scholars.

      • Bill Moskin says

        To get a sense of the full transformation: from stockholders; sponsorship for profit; conductors given a percentage of profit as part of their pay; to the beginnings of guilds, fundraising, etc., take a look at Kolodin’s The Metropolitan Opera 1883-1935. I believe this has been digitized and is available. Extraordinary reading.

        • says

          Thanks, Bill. I love that book. Got a used copy of it some years ago. Invaluable information on finances. And also on performances! I’ve read it with the greatest pleasure, speaking both as a student of this history, and as an opera lover.