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Book review: “The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras: Artistic Triumphs and Economic Challenges” by Robert J. Flanagan (Yale University Press, 2012)

1 Bruce Ridge
feature_orchestra Editor's Abstract

Bruce Ridge, Chair of ICSOM (International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians), first published this book review on Orchestra-L, a list serve for members of ICSOM orchestras.

Ann Drinan

No one is going to read this book.

Well, perhaps I exaggerate. A handful of people will read this book, and maybe a few will actually make it all the way to the end. Such brave souls will earn my admiration, because reading this book is like shaving with a cheese grater.

Many people, though, will claim to have read it. It will sit on prominent display in the offices of executive directors, and they will reach for it whenever they need to point to a chart or graph, probably out of context, to support some negative claim about the future of classical music in America. Some will even engage in some “marginalia,” but others, I suppose, will follow the lead of The Great Gatsby, a character who at least knew enough not to cut the pages in the unread books that merely decorated the library in his East Egg Mansion.

My initial instinct was to ignore the book, but I decided that I had to write a review. Since virtually no one will actually make it to the end (or beyond the first five pages, really), reviews will become what the book is about, and there will most certainly be reviews written.

While there is no doubt that there is some truth in this volume (which, by the way, costs $50 for 186 pages, not counting the appendices and such), this book seems to be written by someone who simply doesn’t understand his subject. It analyzes the state of symphony orchestras in America, but the tale is told in the unauthoritative voice of someone who sounds like he might never have been backstage at a symphonic rehearsal.

I was reading it backstage at one of my orchestra’s concerts, and when I went onstage to perform with my colleagues, I felt disoriented. Nothing I had been reading in this book seemed to have any relationship to the music I was playing–nor to the nearly sold-out audience of young and old music lovers listening to the innovative program we were presenting.

This book evolves from the controversial 2008 paper “The Economic Environment of American Symphony Orchestras,” commissioned by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Much has been written about that report, and musicians are likely most familiar with it from seeing it waved at them across the bargaining table.

One of the most controversial aspects of the report was the data that it used. It was supplied by the League of American Orchestras, and consisted of data that was widely acknowledged as inconsistent at best. In fact, the League joined with ICSOM, ROPA, and the AFM in the Collaborative Data Project (CDP) to see if sense could be made by having a shared data set. But instead of achieving success in gathering accurate industry-wide information, the CDP process was injured when the data we were examining was given to Professor Flanagan, with virtually no restrictions aside from the direction that specific orchestras could not be identified through the data.

The time frame for any such study is crucial, of course, and the appendix to Chapter One of the professor’s book identifies the dates of analyzed data as between 1987-88 and 2005-6. This means, of course, that many of the book’s conclusions are unaffected by the large salary concessions given by musicians as they recognized the economic crisis that began with the great recession of 2008.

Cover of Robert Flanagan’s book Cover of Robert Flanagan’s Book, Yale Press (Click to enlarge.)

But first, let’s just start with the cover. It is a musical staff, but instead of notes, the staff has dollar and euro signs. I think one can immediately conclude that this won’t be a book that recognizes the highest aspiration to beauty that artists seek to achieve. But to be fair, it isn’t supposed to be.

The numbers are numbers, and I won’t attempt to compete with a Stanford economist in analyzing the numbers he was given. But his peripheral analysis of the field is simply fraught with oversimplifications. On page one he writes about a specific orchestra’s difficulties, saying: “The Musicians’ union subsequently rejected that proposal, citing the impact on the income of the symphony’s musicians.”

Well, no, not exactly. In my travels to meet with this orchestra, as well as the board chair and CEO, I never ran into the professor. Those actually on the ground in this dispute know that the argument was not as much about salaries as it was the musicians’ view that management’s path would permanently harm the artistic quality of the orchestra, which in turn would diminish the organization’s ability to survive the economic downturn. The musicians had readily agreed to large concessions on numerous occasions.

It is this shortsighted, half-informed analysis that disturbs me so greatly. Especially since people who will never read past page one will think they know what is in the book and won’t have an opportunity to question the environment in which the analysis was completed.

I have to share my favorite passage in the book. Professor Flanagan writes: “If the trend continues, the percentage of regular season seats sold will decline by about four percentage points (for example, from 70 percent to 66 percent).”

I appreciate the illustrative example, and I think I know what he is trying to say. But while I may not be a Stanford economist, I do know how to subtract four from virtually any number. (Did I mention that I had to pay $50 for this thing?)

The book focuses on the “cost disease” and “structural deficits” and how musicians’ salaries outpace an organization’s ability to balance its budget. But in a field where guest artists command huge fees negotiated by powerful and apparently untouchable artist management agencies, this book spends barely three paragraphs on those exorbitant fees. And, at a time when musicians are seeing CEO salaries reach stunning rates, of that there is virtually no analysis. I’m not picking on CEOs – really I’m not. I am delighted that the good ones are well-paid. Some of the highest paid are doing amazing things, and that is great. I’m a capitalist (for the most part!) and I think everyone should make more money. But in a field that is supposedly nearly at death’s door from the cost disease, the burgeoning salaries of CEOs aren’t worthy of analysis, while the analysis of the field focuses on musicians’ salaries and how they are unsustainable.

Further, Flanagan writes: “Pay change shows little sensitivity on average to the financial balance of orchestras.”

I think that the countless musicians who have agreed to major concessions in recognition of the financial balances of their organizations since the onset of the recession would dispute that, but since the study stops in 2006, there is no room for inclusion of that fact.

As has always been our contention, there are orchestras that are simply better managed than others. Well-managed organizations are accomplishing great things, which is even more remarkable given the world-wide economic downturn.

Even Professor Flanagan lets this obvious fact slip in two places. Perhaps the most important sentences of the book could easily go unnoticed, buried as they are in charts and graphs.

He writes: “If they [orchestras] were in more direct competition with each other, one might expect superior practices to be widely emulated, generating more similar revenue and expense structures.”

He then goes further, almost acknowledging what we have long said about the need to study places that are succeeding instead of a conglomeration of data from places that have failed: “While this is not an industry in which competitive forces may provoke an aggressive search by individual orchestras for better practices, the variance in actual practice at least raises the question of how much symphony orchestras learn from each other’s policies and experiences.”

There are so many other points to make, but writing about this book is as fatiguing as reading it. The book misrepresents the AFM-EPF as just a union fund, without acknowledging that it is, in fact, a joint management-labor Taft-Hartley fund. I’m sure the professor knows that, and it is probably an error of editing. There is a misspelling, too, which doesn’t mean anything to me except that probably the editors had a hard time reading his turgid prose as well.

But still, I wish the professor well. While I believe his work has done harm to a field I love, I’m certain he doesn’t understand why I feel that way. I suspect that I am one of the people he dismisses as “optimists” and “those who wish to maintain the status quo.” Maybe someday he’ll allow me to take him to visit the incredible musicians who spend their lives in selfless dedication as they seek to preserve the greatest music ever written as well as the organizations that serve the public by elevating the human spirit, enhancing the business community and educating the next generation of Americans

Actually, I think people should read this book — but nobody will. Still, be prepared to see it sitting on the table at bargaining sessions. You might want to check to see if the book’s spine shows any signs of wear.

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  1. Comment by Amy Adams
    May 26, 2013 at 1:04 AM

    Bruce, you’ll be gratified to know that Sarah Lutman, CEO of the SPCO for several years right up to the Year of the Twin Cities Orchestral Lockouts, has written an article recently, quoting “an exhaustive study by Stanford economist Robert J. Flanagan” and indicating that she read at least parts of it.
    I am so glad to have access not only to her analysis, but yours as well, particularly in the context of the lockouts at SPCO and the ongoing one at theMinnesota Orchestra.