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A Tale of Two Meetings

0 Robert Levine
league_of_american_orchestras Editor's Abstract

I spent all last week (June 17 - 23, 2007) attending two meetings: the 97th Convention of the American Federation of Musicians in Las Vegas and the 62nd National Conference of the American Symphony Orchestra League in Nashville. They couldn’t have been more different.

Robert Levine

The AFM and the ASOL are, of course, inherently different organizations. The AFM is a labor union; the League is a service organization for the entire field of American orchestras, from youth orchestras to the “Big Five.” The AFM negotiates for musicians; the League doesn’t negotiate for anyone (and only with its own vendors). The AFM’s money comes from individual musicians in the form of membership dues and work dues. The League’s revenue (which is less than the AFM’s, by the way) comes from donations, dues from orchestras, and the annual conference.

So it’s no surprise that the national meetings of the AFM and the ASOL differ both in substance and in vibe. Most conventions of national unions are about governance; who will run the union and under what rules. That’s exactly what the AFM convention in Vegas was about. The League meeting has almost no governance component at all – a pro forma annual meeting and a very short board meeting. But a service organization is really governed by whether its constituencies want, and are willing to pay for, its services. No one has to pay dues to the ASOL, which gives those who do a lot of influence. Musicians working under CBAs are legally required (except in right-to-work states) to pay dues to the union, so the real governance work has to be done formally through the democratic process.

I attended the AFM convention as a voting delegate from the Milwaukee Musicians Asssociation, AFM Local 8. I’ve written extensively about the convention on a blog I started before the 2005 convention called AFM Observer. It’s actually a combination of three blogs: the main one, which is pre- and post-convention analysis and bloviating, one devoted to campaign materials from candidates for AFM office, and a convention diary (which this year only covered the first two days). There are also several other blogs about the AFM and the convention that can be reached via links at AFM Observer. Rather than repeat what I’ve already written, you should go take a look if you’re interested about what happened in Vegas. If you do, please understand that all the content was done on my own time and represents my views exclusively. If you don’t like what I’ve written, don’t blame Polyphonic, or the League, or the AFM, or the American Viola Society – blame me.

What happens at League meetings, if not governance? It’s a combination of networking, learning, and trade show. It can feel like a gathering of the clans; I’ve met people at League meetings I hadn’t seen for years. Not everyone important in the field shows up, but many do. The range of seminars of varying lengths and sizes is impressive. And there are vendors (some with impressive booths) that I had never heard of, as well as the usual suspects (publishers, agents, and the like).


The name-change button passed out at the League's Annual Meeting.

This year I attended both as faculty (I helped with a seminar on electronic media strategies that was also taught by Joe Kluger and Laura Brownell) and as a member of the League board. The big news out of the conference is that the League is changing its name from the American Symphony Orchestra League to the League of American Orchestras. At the annual meeting they passed out buttons to make the point (see sidebar) as well as presented a very funny country-western song to add a Nashville twang to the message.

The League always has a concert by the host orchestra at its national conference. This year it was a concert by the Nashville Symphony in their new hall. The orchestra sounded great; the hall sounded pretty good. I had been looking forward to hearing the hall ever since I saw it, still under construction, last August. It is a near-copy of the Musikvereinsalle in Vienna in size, shape, and architectural style. It doesn’t quite match that hall’s legendary acoustics, though. In particular I was expecting a little more “ring” to the sound, and I was far from alone in that observation. But, as a friend pointed out afterwards, it’s hard for any hall to provide the kind of impact to the audience that the musicians experience on stage. Having said all that, it’s still a very attractive sound, and much better than any of the other new halls I’ve heard recently.

Because there is so much activity in such a short time, it’s literally impossible to attend everything (and many of the meetings are constituency meetings that are closed). The three most interesting sessions for me were one held for musicians with former San Francisco Symphony CEO Peter Pastreich, the Thursday plenary session called “Engaging Art – A Public Discussion,” and the Saturday morning session called “A Radical New Revenue Model for Orchestras.”

The first was a brilliant presentation by Pastreich of some of the fundamentals of orchestra management, including core concepts of orchestra governance. As part of it, he talked extensively about music director searches and to what extent musicians can affect the behavior of the board and management. It’s a presentation that should be seen by lots more musicians than were in the room.

The second was the session most publicized prior to the conference. As part of that promotion, the League and ArtsJournal did a joint blog, with thirteen people from inside and outside the field invited to argue in public for a week in advance (I was one of the 13). It proved an interesting discussion, and can be read here.

The session itself was set up so that anyone with a laptop could log on and send in comments to the blog during the session. Selections from those comments, as well as the pre-session blog, were shown on display screens above the tables.

Comments came in from all over the world, and people at the session were blogging in such volume that the servers finally crashed. There were around 3,500 unique visitors to the blog during the session. It was certainly a success in terms of getting noticed and audience participation. In terms of content absorbed, it was probably less successful. But it was the first such session ever attempted by an arts support organization, so I wasn’t expecting it to be a perfect experience. As an experiment it was wildly successful, and I’m sure it will be tweaked and repeated.

The final session of the conference was about a new way of thinking about revenue coming from discussions at the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Pittsburgh Symphony. The panel consisted of Paul Boulian, who facilitated those discussions, Bruce Coppock, CEO of the SPCO, Larry Tamburri, CEO of the Pittsburgh Symphony, Jon Limbacher, SPCO VP for Development, and Douglas Kinzey, who’s the head of marketing for Pittsburgh.

The basic concept was expressed in the second line of the title: “Goodbye Earned and Contributed Income; Hello Lifelong Interactive Revenue Relationship with Patron Households.” In a sense, it’s a variant of the concept of Customer Relationship Management, which is popular with businesses like banks that can maintain several different kinds of business relationships with their customers simultaneously.

But it’s deeper than that. The core argument is that the most stable sources of income, and potentially the cheapest to earn, are subscription sales and individual donations. The key insight is that these two income streams often come from the same individuals. An orchestra that’s really good at recognizing that and managing those relationships well with customized service is likely to do better over time, and have more stable revenue streams, than one that thinks of its job as simply selling lots of tickets and raising lots of money from fungible ticket buyers and donors.

There was lots of discussion, some dissent, and several very thought-provoking examples of what it looks like in practice. The concept has the potential to fundamentally change the way the industry looks at its business model. My colleague Ann Drinan will be reporting more extensively on the session in the near future; check it out.

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