League Conference: June 6 Musicians’ Session

Posted on June 14, 2019 at 10:00 am by Ann Drinan
in General

Comments from the Wednesday Afternoon Musicians Session at the League of American Orchestras’ Conference, June 6, 2019

  • The Dallas hall (Myerson Symphony Center) was built in 1989 - “all the money Ross Perot didn’t spend on his presidential campaign was spent on the hall.”
  • Most people in the session were symphonic musicians; one composer said she came to Conference because she was interested in learning the musicians’ perspective about orchestras.
  • The League Conference has had a Musicians’ constituency track for 7 years, since the Washington conference. [Ed. Note: I’m told it started the year before.] Some of the most interesting sessions in the Musicians’ track have been Peter Pastreich’s presentations about the basics of orchestra management. (Click here to read Peter’s comments.) Henry Fogel held similar sessions. (Click here to read Henry’s comments.)

Robert Flanagan’s book, The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras

  • The Flanagan book is pivotal to our future. The  changing uses of people’s leisure time and dollars, and all the other opportunities out there, are changing people’s tastes for classical music.  Read page 55 – the rest is a footnote to that.
  • Robert Flanagan is Professor Emeritus of Economics at Stanford Graduate School of Business. He’s a labor economist. Typically they don’t analyze industries – they analyze labor. His result is that labor is the problem. The Mellon Foundation’s “Elephant Task Force” wanted to bring someone in to look at the data they’d collected. The report he prepared then was semi-disowned by Mellon and he went on to make a book out of his findings.
  • The Mellon group posed the question as to whether orchestral deficits are cyclical or structural. Someone in the Mellon group had taken Economics courses at Stamford – her professor didn’t have time and suggested she ask Bob Flanagan. (Ron Bauers was asked first but he was not perceived to be from outside by management.) So Mellon picked Flanagan to analyze their data.
  • Flanagan said it’s both cyclical and structural: cyclical when the economy is bad but also structural because ticket sales cover less and less of expenses.
  • The NEA has indicated that the percentage and actual numbers of audience members for classical music are decreasing, but this is also true for museums, ballets, operas, etc. It’s not just about orchestras.
  • The danger of this book is his statements that ticket sales don’t cover the cost of concerts, and musician salaries are the biggest part of the budget. Greg Sandow has already drawn those conclusions from it. (Click here to read Greg’s blog post.) The problem is more global than the cost structures of orchestras. The simplistic solution to draw from the book is that the answer is to slash musicians’ salaries. The book has the potential to show up at the negotiating table.
  • Ben Zander quote:  “Everyone loves classical music – they just don’t know it yet.” A band director in Texas described a student rushing into her room with a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth – he was so excited because he’d never heard it before. We need new ways to bring people into the world of classical music.
  • Flanagan’s book is the first serious academic study of the economics of orchestras in a very long time. But Flanagan misses or glances past the real questions and issues in favor of the ones he has data for.
  • There’s a fundamental bias about our industry, that ticket sales should cover the cost of concerts. People would never say this about other non-profits. Can you raise the funds internally to pay for your services? He doesn’t get that we’re a non-profit.
  • Many people have forgotten our core mission and look only at balancing the budget and selling tickets – they miss the musical part.
  • 40 some years ago, the Chicago Symphony did a study and found that the average orchestra audience member is 55. They did it again decades later and found the same thing.
  • But that isn’t true anymore – the baby boomers aren’t showing up in the concert hall. There are so many more entertainment options: HD at the movie theaters, Netflix, orchestra’s streaming online, etc. We’re drowning in the arts right now.
  • It’s important to make connections. Louisiana is selling more tickets since the hurricane because they have been playing in the community.
  • It’s a shame the Flanagan book is divisive in the ways people are referring to it or quoting it. Few people will actually read it. The people who already believe that the solution is to reduce labor costs will use the book to support their argument, but the book really doesn’t say that. Greg [Sandow] says, “Do all new music in bars and coffee houses.” I think the book misses the point.

About the Ford Motor Company discussion later that afternoon:

  • It’s a way of doing business together that they feel is more productive than what they were doing in the past. But it’s an easier problem – everyone knew that Ford had to make a better car, cheaper.
  • No one in our business wants to change that much. We didn’t sign up to do community engagement, and it’s a nightmare for staff.
  • Another major issue is whether orchestras will lose their non-profit status. But a lot of this discussion is election positioning – lots will change after the election. But it might be a train that’s very hard to stop once it gets started.

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