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Are orchestras like newspapers?

0 Robert Levine

Anne Midgette, Washington Post music critic, has her own take on the Michael Kaiser article of a few days ago:

Michael Kaiser, in the Huffington Post, has this week addressed the elephant in the living room: some orchestras are not going to make it.

There are striking parallels between orchestras and newspapers in this recession. For a couple of years (even longer, in fact, in the orchestra world) there have been talks of imminent closings. So far, nearly everyone has managed to struggle along, with a few exceptions: the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Rocky Mountain News in the newspaper world, the Honolulu Symphony, which has just filed for bankruptcy protection, in the orchestral one…But a number of institutions are threatened, or on the verge of bankruptcy.

The main problem is that both fields seem to be incapable of coming up with an actual new business model, in part because both fields are so deeply invested in their own traditions that they tend to confuse those traditions with their function. It’s possible for a thriving symphony orchestra to try doing things in new ways: look at the New World Symphony, which solves some of the funding issues by being classed as an educational institution (it’s a training orchestra for young professionals), and therefore is able to get all kinds of grant money that non-educational institutions aren’t eligible for. (It puts that money where its mouth is with a strong investment in training, not only of its own members but with a wide array of outreach and education programs.)

I love the line about how both orchestras and newspapers “are so deeply invested in their own traditions that they tend to confuse those traditions with their function.” I wish I could have written it.

But I don’t find her analysis really convincing. Orchestras have always struggled financially. They’re non-profits, and that’s what non-profits do. Because they don’t make profits, they work to break even financially, but not do more than that. “Profits” are plowed back into services, generating… non-profits. With non-profits, the bottom line is not the bottom lin. Newspapers, on the other hand,  have historically been licenses to print money.

And, of course, the underlying cause of the problems of the newspaper business are very different than what is causing us such distress. To be blunt, newspapers are rapidly being made obsolete by the Internet and Craigslist. The question with orchestras is not technological obsolescence, but rather one of relevance of both the music and the concert experience to 21st century society.

I continue to believe that, if there is a significant number of people who want to hear orchestra concerts, our business will find a way to put them on. The real threat to our existence is not Baumol’s Curse, or iTunes, or funders swamped with unmet social needs. The only thing that will kill orchestras is if no one wants to hear Beethoven symphonies in concert anymore.

I do wish, though, that people would stop citing groups like the New World Symphony as viable alternative business models. It’s a training orchestra, people. Citing NWS as a model for how orchestras could work is like saying that law firms would function better with fewer lawyers and more interns. Not only would there be a quality issue; why in the world would someone got to New World, or law school, if they didn’t think there was a real job at the end of the road. What’s supposed to happen to the cheap labor that NWS supplies once it’s kicked out after three years? Go play in another training orchestra? Eliminating the possibility of employment at the end of the pipeline will rapidly dry up said pipeline.

Our business is a kind of ecosystem. Or, to paraphrase the terrifying and beautiful Meditation XVII of John Donne:

No orchestra is an island, entire of itself. Every orchestra is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or thine own were.

No music schools means no orchestras. But no orchestras also means no music schools. Replace professional orchestras with outfits like NWS, and pretty soon no one will want to go to NWS - because what happens when they leave?

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