“The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras”

Robert J. Flanagan

Stanford Emeritus Professor Robert J. Flanagan‘s book, The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras, Artistic Triumphs and Economic Challenges, was just released from Yale University Press and will be of interest to anyone working in, volunteering for, or listening to orchestras. The slim volume is jammed with interesting data, and its extensive bibliography will be helpful to readers who want to delve even deeper into the subject of the economics of symphony orchestras and their prospects for financial health and artistic vitality.

Flanagan’s study group was every symphony orchestra that was one of the largest 50 orchestras in the United States for at least two of the years during the period starting with the 1987-88 and ending with the 2005-6 season (which includes the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra). His research makes primary use of the federal tax returns and other publicly available reports coming directly from the study group, and data and information on members’ operations and finances provided by the League of American Orchestras and Opera America under the condition that individual performing arts organizations’ data cannot be identified in the publication.

The central thesis of the book is a search for changes in operating structures that would result in greater financial and artistic health for orchestras, given their long-standing economic challenges. Flanagan helpfully divides orchestras’ challenges between “the weather,” meaning the changes in economic cycles that bring ups and downs to the overall economy, and “the climate,” meaning the pervasive economic and societal trends and conditions that transcend the weather at any given moment and must be studied over longer periods. Weather and climate demand different responses, and in this study, Flanagan is focused on the climate.

Specifically, Flanagan looks at paths orchestras could take to arrive at a stronger operating platform.  He examines historical trends and prospects for growth in  “performance revenue,” meaning ticket sales, revenue from recordings or touring, and other direct performance revenue (school concerts, etc). He studies orchestras’ capabilities for growing “non-performance income,” defined as  government grants and subsidy, private contributions, and endowment/investment income. And finally he looks at ways orchestras have reduced or might consider reducing or slowing the growth of performance expenses.

Flanagan’s conclusion is that none of these paths, alone, is sufficient, and in fact “taken as a whole, this book documents the futility of single solutions.” We can conclude therefore that all three must be adopted. Along the way, Flanagan details some interesting facts derived from data. (And I do a bit of a disservice to the book to pick out a few points when the text is rich with much more data of interest.)

  • Changes in audience behavior are “climate” not “weather” and must be dealt with as such. The public is attending classical music concerts less frequently and those who do attend are purchasing ever-smaller ticket packages. “The decline in attendance at classical music concerts may reflect broad social shifts in the use of leisure time that have little to do with orchestra policies.”
  • Increasing marketing expense will not necessarily result in a larger audience since “incremental increases in marketing expenditures produce successively smaller gains in attendance per concert.”
  • “Even if every seat were filled, the vast majority of U.S. symphony orchestras still would face significant performance deficits.”
  • “As orchestras added concerts in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, attendance per concert declined for virtually all types of concerts.”
  • “Much private philanthropy rests on factors that are beyond the control of orchestras,” and is more likely to be affected by government policies to promote economic growth than an orchestra’s policies and practices.
  • There’s just too much to summarize in the chapter on “Artistic and Non Artistic Costs.” It is a significant addition to the analysis of orchestra expenditures, including a fascinating re-play of the effects of the Ford Foundation’s endowment giving to orchestras on musicians’ salaries and working conditions. If you don’t know much about what and how orchestra musicians are paid and how they do their (challenging) work, this is an informative read.

The fact that there’s “no silver bullet” (Flanagan’s conclusion) to the economic challenges faced by orchestras will come as no surprise to anyone working in the field today. What Flanagan has contributed to the discussion is a thorough and fact-based analysis of how orchestras’ past choices are playing out in today’s economic and social environment. By doing so he’s informed the best choices for leading our organizations forward. His final comment is that “management, musicians, and trustees each have a role in increasing the economic security of orchestras,” and that “no single group can solve the problem by itself.” Obvious, perhaps. Helpful, indeed.


Note: Flanagan’s 2008 paper for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation on “The Economic Environment of American Symphony Orchestras” is also a worthwhile field analysis.

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