Jesse Rosen  

Orchestras at a Crossroads

Jesse Rosen
June 25, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

Remarks by Jesse Rosen, President and CEO, League of American Orchestras, at the "Red Alert" plenary session at the 66th National Conference, Minneapolis, June 8, 2019.

- Ann Drinan

History was made this past March 20th, in an event that signals profound change - positive change - for our industry and the entire music world. That is when the 101 musicians of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, representing 33 countries, played to a combined global online audience of more than 33 million people - nearly 3 million on their mobile phones. The concert shattered the previous record of 11 million set by a U2 concert. Such an astonishing success clearly shows that when it comes to orchestras, the so-called digital divide CAN be bridged.

But, as we all know, that great event alone is not sufficient to erase the sobering realities in our field today. We all love to celebrate our triumphs, but as we gather here in the Twin Cities, it is important that we also focus frankly on the state of music in America, on our industry, and how it can not only succeed, but also thrive.

The well-publicized reality is that there are increases in deficits, bankruptcies, and closings. I do not relish repeating, but it is important that we all recognize the harsh facts that include:

  • The average orchestra deficit in 2005 was $193,000. Just four years later, in 2009, it had skyrocketed to $697,000.
  • In 2008, 50% of orchestras reported deficits; the very next year, 2009, that number had increased to 70%.

Yes, I am the first to acknowledge that this general downward spiral has been in the midst of the second worst economic collapse in modern world history. But many signs suggest that for orchestras, this crisis simply accelerated existing, long-term negative trends.

Detroit, Philadelphia, Syracuse, Honolulu, New Mexico, and Louisville are all examples of organizations with a past history of fragility dating well before the great recession of 2008. Waiting in the wings are more potentially critical situations that have not yet erupted, but could at any time.

The current problems are not cyclical problems. The recession has merely brought home and exacerbated the long-term structural problems that many orchestras have been facing for some time.

The data clearly show that over the last 25 years, while orchestras were adding concerts and increasing costs, per concert attendance and sales revenue were declining every year.

While it is not comforting, orchestras are not alone in feeling the pain. We are a microcosm of what is happening all over the world. Tremendous global upheavals are leaving virtually every sector challenged to change - to adapt in order to keep up and stay ahead of the curve. And like with airlines, and with newspapers and health care, moving forward for us does not include the option of going back.

I also note that not all orchestras are hurting. Our smaller budget orchestras tend to be more nimble, a few very large orchestras are weathering the near term challenges, and our youth orchestras, though not immune, operate on an entirely different business model.

But the rest - I am talking here about some in Group 1 extending well into Group 4 - are in various stages of challenge and crisis. And on so many levels their situation affects all of us.

It is clear to me - and I think to most of you - that our current situation calls for urgent action, for robust innovation and meaningful change. The first step on that path is to look candidly at our real circumstances, or as management guru Jim Collins would say, confront our brutal truths. We must start by confronting five key facts:


Classical music participation has declined 29% over the past 20 years, and the arts share of all charitable giving has continued downward, now reaching its lowest level since 1998. Corporate donors in particular have been deserting the arts sector at a dramatic rate. During the same 20-year period, corporate philanthropy declined by 50%!

Meanwhile, orchestra costs have continued to rise faster than revenue. Audiences are moving away from subscriptions, buying at the last minute, and making fewer purchases per household. Our various attempts at greater community engagement have thus far only increased our costs, not our earned revenues.

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