A while ago I blogged about the Colorado Symphony, and its bold plan to remake itself. It had to remake itself because it was running out of money, and to describe the bold plan, the Denver Post used these words:
[T]he CSO plans to undergo nothing less than a complete culture change that rejects music-making offered with “little thought as to whether it truly was of interest and relevancy to a large part of the community” and plays up relaxed, consumer-friendly performances that meet audiences on their own terms and in their own towns.
I noted in my post that the orchestra had published a business plan, which I hadn’t read. Now I’ve read it. (You can, too, if you follow the link.) And I have two reactions:
- admiration for how boldly they state their problems and project solutions
- surprise at how little they say about what I’d think would be the most crucial thing, the financial projections I assume they’ve done, which presumably show them why they think their solutions will work
I’m especially surprised because the business plan has such an ambitious title: “Creating a 21st Century Orchestra: A Business Plan.” As if the plan might speak to any orchestra that wanted to thrive in the 21st century.
In my next post, I’ll say more about my surprise. But for now, here’s what I like. Start with the business plan’s opening sentences:
The Colorado Symphony Association, like other orchestras and many performing arts organizations, has struggled in the past three years with financial challenges. While to a degree this reflects the current economic conditions in Colorado and the country, the primary cause is that while the orchestra is recognized by many as one of the leading artistically accomplished orchestras in the country, it is not perceived as a critical community asset, relevant to its residents. This has resulted in constraining the ability to secure the level of contributed income necessary to augment earned income.
Translation: We’re in financial trouble. Yes, that’s in part due to the bad economy. But the main cause is that there’s less interest in classical music than there used to be. So fewer people care about us — so few, in fact, that they can’t give us as much support as we need if we’re going to survive.
(If the Colorado Symphony ever wants to learn how to write clear, forceful English, I’ll be happy to help.)
That’s the most important thing they say. I’ll repeat it — not enough people care about them to keep them alive.
But there’s powerful stuff (though, again, not powerfully expressed) elsewhere, too:
Historically, symphony orchestras have operated within a paradigm whose focus was on sustaining the institution. A schedule of performances was put in place and the invitation to come and experience the product was issued. This practice gave little thought as to whether it truly was of interest and relevancy to a large part of the community, convenient in time and location and of real service to the community in which it operated. Even activities such as touring and educational endeavors were based on a means to sustain the institution. The notion of relevance was defined by the institution, not by the community it served. A sense of entitlement pervaded.
(Translation: in the past, people cared about what we did, so we could just go out and do it. We didn’t have to think about whether they’d care. They just did. And we thought that was their job. We thought we were entitled to their support.)
The Colorado Symphony Association believes that the time has come to embrace a New Paradigm. In this paradigm, the focus will be on engaging with and connecting to the community. Relevance will be defined by the constituency whom the orchestra serves, including the citizens of Colorado, governmental institutions, educational institutions and the entire philanthropic community. Not only will there be an opportunity to experience the product at its traditional home concert hall, there will also be opportunities for audiences to experience the orchestra and its exceptional musicians in facilities, churches and schools within their communities. As a result of community involvement and relevance being the driving force behind the Colorado Symphony Association, the institution will be fully supported and enjoy a healthy and sustainable growth as a result of an increasing level of earned and contributed income.
The last two sentences state what’s at the heart of the plan — do performances in the community, become more relevant, and that way they’ll get more financial support. It’s the last part that they don’t even start to document, which leaves me surprised. Especially because they’re talking about doing smaller performances. How will these earn them as much money — and in fact more — than their full orchestra evenings have?
And, come to think of it, I’m surprised at something else. They’re right when they say that orchestras — and, in fact, the entire classical music enterprise, in our time — has taken for granted that it’s important. So important that it needed no justification. Support, we presumed, would follow. If we did what we cared about, the world would support us.
But when that stops happening, what’s the answer? To let people outside us define our importance? Tell us what we should do? I’m not a fan of that. We can’t lose our core. We can’t let the outside world define us out of existence.
So what we want to say, in my view, is that classical music still matters, but needs to be redefined for a world that has changed. And that once we’ve redefined what we do, we think that people will like it, not because we’re giving them what they want, but because we’ve found something they love, but didn’t know that they wanted. That’s the Steve Jobs model, which he was very firm in laying out: Don’t give your customers what they want. Give them something they never dreamed was possible.
So that’s another weakness, in my view, in this business plan. There’s no artistic plan attached to it — no thought (as far as I can see) about what might make an orchestra matter to people in its community, other than going out into the community, and playing for people wherever they happen to be. Not a bad idea. But doesn’t it matter what, exactly, you play?