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Apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln…

0 Robert Levine

… how was your summer?

While not as bad as Mrs. Lincoln’s, the summer was a downer for the orchestra industry. I’ve long suspected that orchestras were trailing indicators for the health of the economy as a whole, which is to say that orchestras get sicker and get well later in an economic downturn than many other institutions. If this is indeed the case, it might be because orchestras tend to raise money, and sell tickets, in advance of spending it, which would suggest that economic conditions when the decision to purchase season tickets, or make donations, matter most to orchestras’ ability to pay for their spending.

So I didn’t find it surprising that orchestras are, if anything, in worse shape this summer than last. But it was still hard to be around so much gloom and doom.

My summer as an observer of the orchestra scene began in Atlanta with the national conference of the League of American Orchestras, which I attended both as a presenter and as a member of the League board. The most talked-about events were the two keynote speeches.

The first was by Ben Cameron, program director for the arts, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, who asked at least some of the right questions (and quoted from Copland’s Lincoln Portrait in doing so):

Abraham Lincoln, who in his second inaugural address said, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. As our case is new, so must we think anew and act anew.”

And Wayne Gretzky, who when asked to account for his greatness, replied, “I skate to where the puck will be.”

How do we in the arts skate to where the puck will be?

We can begin by asking ourselves, “Why must we exist today?” Because we have a building and a history is not enough. Because we have an endowment and a staff is not enough. Because we have scrapbooks full of glowing reviews and awards is not enough. What is it in the world—in the external world—that mandates we continue to exist today?

And how might my organization be structured, organized and behave to be my community’s ideal conduit to the symphonic repertoire—a question that invites us, not to jettison everything we do, but to hold on to those things that are working, yes to discard those practices that have not or will not serve us in the future regardless of how emotionally attached to them we might be, and to expand to embrace the new possibilities we may not have seized heretofore?

Symphonies who wish to survive for the long term must ask themselves four basic questions:

  • What is the value of symphonic music—not just of my orchestra- to my community?
  • What is the value symphonic music alone provides or provides better than anything else? Second rate or duplicative value will not—especially in this economy—stand for long.
  • How would my community be damaged if deprived of symphonic music tomorrow?

This was followed by a second keynote speech by Russell Willis Taylor, President of the National Arts Stabilization Fund, who came up with some spectacularly wrong-headed answers:

At the start of my career 30 years ago, I became fascinated with how businesses go out of business. I began to read up on corporate and nonprofit history to form my own version of Belloc’s cautionary tales, and those of you who have read Jim Collins recent book on How the Mighty Fall will know the names of some of these businesses – Motorola, A&P, Zenith, to name but a few. My research methodology over the past 30 years would be no threat to Jim, but I was interested in a simple analysis of what behaviors rather than characteristics (the latter Jim describes very well in his book) were coincidental with failure. What seeds do we need to sow to script our own Greek tragedy?…In the great tradition of Jonathan Swift and A Modest Proposal, here is my formula for how to be absolutely sure you go out of business, quickly and efficiently.

How to fail in business without really trying

Rule Number 1

  • Keep fixed costs as high as possible, and variable costs as low as you can.

This is important. It removes flexibility and makes managing during required periods of contraction very difficult.

It’s a little discouraging when a keynote speaker at a national conference identifies high fixed costs as the single biggest problem of our field, when every single person in the room understood that, in our business, “high fixed costs” is exactly and precisely equivalent to “paying 90 musicians negotiated salaries.” Fortunately, it’s also wrong. I’ll go into why in a later post.

In fairness, most of the work at the League’s annual conference is positive; networking, education, and in general helping staffs and boards do the work of running orchestras better. For the past few years there’s been a morning session when a large number of experts sit at tables and make short presentations to anyone who cares to join them. This year, the table devoted to the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s experiment in lowering ticket prices received a lot of attention, and deservedly so. Digital media was also a popular topic, with several tables devoted to various permutations (social networking seemed of particular interest this year).

From Atlanta I flew directly to Las Vegas for the AFM’s triennial Convention. I wrote about this extensively on my AFM blogs, so I won’t waste any more bandwidth on that topic except that it was a very positive event. If you want to read why I thought so, you can click on this post from my convention diary.

My next adventure was in August, when I traveled to Houston for the ICSOM Conference (and why all the hot cities this year, industry bosses?) It was, through no one’s fault at all, a slightly odd meeting, although good in many ways. There was, on the hand, much good feeling about what had happened at the AFM Convention. The new AFM President, Ray Hair, had scheduled the first meeting of the new IEB to be in the same hotel as ICSOM at the same time, so conference attendees saw quite a bit of the new board. Of course they haven’t yet done anything, so there was not a lot to talk about.

And then there were the reports from the various negotiating orchestras, which were pretty grim. I’ve been to a lot of these negotiating orchestra meetings over the years; I can’t recall one I found quite as depressing. But the mood of the conference as a whole was surprisingly positive.

Last weekend, to mark the official end of summer, I drove to Detroit to march in the Labor Day parade with the musicians of the Detroit Symphony. This was not quite the event that industry observers were expecting; what was supposed to have happened was that DSO management would have implemented their so-called “Plan B” and the musicians would have struck. But, due to DSO management not having filed the proper paperwork with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service in a timely manner, they were obligated to pay the orchestra for another few weeks. The work stoppage following the implementation of the draconian Plan B will have to wait a few more weeks. But no one seems to doubt that it’s coming.

Nonetheless, the march, with the musicians in the lead, was quite an event. Several AFM VIPs were there, including President Ray Hair, ICSOM Chairman Bruce Ridge and President Brian Rood, and ROPA President Carla Lehmeier-Tatum, all of whom spoke at the subsequent rally. And I was surprised to discover that downtown Detroit is not quite the wasteland that the national media so loves to describe.

So that was my summer as an orchestra activist. The good news for me is that I get to go back to work next week and be reminded of why we do all this.

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