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My kingdom for a decent news article

0 Robert Levine

ICSOM Chair Bruce Ridge has joined the ranks of those writing about the underlying causes of the current situation in our industry, although of course he is hardly new to the party, having written extensively about the problems in the orchestra business for Senza Sordino over the years. It’s an interesting piece in many respects; in particular, he does a good job discussing the history of apocalyptic reporting on orchestras (the latest iteration of which he calls “the New Apocalypticism”). He also correctly ties in some of the new tone, and use of previously unthinkable tactics such as lockouts, to changes in the secular American labor economy.

But, to my way of thinking at least, he makes a similar mistake to the one my friend and colleague Charles Noble made last week, which is to see something radically new in what’s happening in our field:

…In fact, arts giving is recovering from the depths of the recession at twice the rate of other charitable giving, and according to Giving USA, arts giving in America increased last year by 4.1%, to a total of $13.12 billion. The presence of orchestras in our communities is financially beneficial. A recent report demonstrated that the Buffalo Philharmonic has an economic impact of $25 million annually in the city of Buffalo, while a 2008 study showed that the Boston Symphony alone has an impact of $166 million in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

But these are not the facts being told in the press, where the media seeks to portray a handful of orchestra bankruptcies as evidence of spreading failure for the art form. It just isn’t true. Many of the challenges to the progress made by America’s orchestral musicians are born of ideology and not economy.

The fact is that there is no crisis in classical music…the crisis is in arts management.

Non-profit symphony orchestras are governed by boards, most of whom are wonderful people who truly love music, their orchestras, and their communities. But, most of them now come from the for-profit world, and they hire “industry professionals” to manage their non-profit organizations. The board members tend to take their education for running a non-profit from the “industry professionals.”

If that industry professional can present evidence that orchestras everywhere are failing, then they can increase their salary simply by somehow managing to keep the doors open, which usually means reducing the cost of the work force and eliminating concerts, which in turn reduces revenue generating opportunities.

Working backwards, I think it’s incorrect - or, at the very least, not demonstrated by any data - that staffs and orchestra CEOs are motivated by the kind of “more for me and less for you” thinking that Bruce describes. I’ve long suspected that the actual dynamic is the opposite; orchestra managers (or at least the ones in big orchestras) are helped in their own salary negotiations with their boards by having highly-paid musicians. And there is a prestige factor as well; orchestra CEOs compete with each other for bragging rights, and one of the things they brag about, if only implicitly, is how big their budget is and how well-paid their musicians are, even if they simultaneously complain about how hard it is to fund that big budget and high salaries.

Obviously CEOs of orchestras in financial difficulty find it easier to solve their short-term problems by looking to musicians for salary concessions than by finding lots of new and increased donations or buy selling out concerts. But the dynamic is not that of profitable enterprises seeking even more profit for the managers and owners by squeezing labor, as Bruce suggests.

Bruce also implies that the nature of orchestral boards, and their relationship with senior staff, has changed recently. My experience, as I’ve stated previously, is that very little about the backgrounds of boards, or of who they hire to actually manage the orchestra, has changed in the past few decades. The real difference over the past four years has been the impact of a financial crisis both unprecedented in the modern orchestra’s history and how perfectly that crisis attacked the financial foundations of our institutions. In short, if there is a “crisis in arts management,” it’s hardly a new phenomenon. The weakness of governance and the scarcity of top-notch executive talent has simply been revealed more starkly than ever before by external events.

I also think that Bruce overstates what he calls “The tendency of orchestra managers to present a negative view of the future”. There is no question that managers, and board, of orchestras in trouble quickly fall into relating their problems to a bleak view of the entire industry’s present and future performance. The reason is obvious; saying that the problems are strictly local to their orchestra is equivalent to saying that they’re at fault.

But I don’t see this negativity from those successfully negotiating the current turbulence, and for just the reasons Bruce cites - it’s a lousy way to convince people to donate. Donors of any capability don’t want to subsidize failures, so smart board and managers don’t make that part of their pitch. In short, the “new apocalypticism” is really just the same old set of excuses made by those who haven’t managed to successfully guide their orchestras through times that everyone admits have been challenging.

Lastly, I don’t think Bruce goes to the real reasons for the bad press our business has gotten recently. There are, in my view, only two causes for it. The first is that there really has been some bad news in our field. The second is that the reporting is done by a news media that more and more fixates on bad news in general, and conflict in particular,  in order to patch up its own increasingly battered bottom line. “If it bleeds, it leads” is more and more how media approach every issue. I have no doubt that most of the industry professionals - on both sides of the table - who the media talk to endeavor to give an honest and nuanced picture of the current situation. But the media has its own agenda, and that agenda is not our well-being.

Overall, though, Bruce has made a valuable contribution to the current discussion of root causes, and you should go read the whole thing.

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