Weathering This Storm

I’ve been in and around the orchestra business for going on two decades now. When I graduated from college with a degree in cello I thought I’d actually play in an orchestra, and at the beginning of my work life I worked for one, the American Symphony in New York City. As long ago as the 1980s, the potential plight of the future of orchestras has been studied, funded, and analyzed. And just like the predictions of a hurricane, people saw something coming from way off, but nobody knew how bad it would really turn out to be.

For decades, orchestras have weathered the challenges of a changing industry, but it’s clear that the storm has now arrived. Without my delving into any statistical analysis, but merely keeping up with recent news, there are plenty of signals indicating this hurricane has made landfall: the financial collapse of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the cancellation of the Louisville Orchestra season, and others.

The trouble is that the affected community isn’t banding together to help each other out. I’ve recently been privy to some backstage chatter about the level of distrust between musicians and management in the midst of this crisis. Musicians simply don’t believe management when management says they don’t have the money, pointing to endowments or annual reports. Management tries to explain how these buckets of money are able to be accessed or not, and so it goes.

This reminds me of an open session where I presented the financials of the American Symphony to any of our 100 musicians we engaged regularly — and only six showed up. Since there was no storm brewing, nobody was really worried about the forecast.

The issue today across the whole arts world is that management and artists are all in the same boat, being battered by the same storm, but they don’t realize it. So long as they bicker with each other, their problems aren’t being solved. Every unit of energy expended by management on fighting internally is a unit of energy not spent on figuring out a way forward.

I wish there was some trusted third party auditor (like Standard & Poors, or perhaps the National Hurricane Center) that could at least put everyone in a place where they realize the enemy isn’t each other. The enemy is the changing tides in audience behavior that require improving on tried-and-true marketing, audience development, and fundraising techniques, and more importantly shifting to new approaches. I don’t think orchestral music (or theatre or dance for that matter) is going to die, but I do think it has to morph and adapt. But the more the internal battles about maintaining the status quo rage on, the less likely that will be to happen.

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