What's wrong with the Symphony Orchestra Model we have today?

Numerous orchestras in the US are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Why?

There are a plethora of theories as to why orchestras are going bankrupt:
    Classical Music is dying
    CEO's and VP's are paid too much
    Musicians are paid too much
    Ticket Prices are too high
    People aren't giving as much as they used to
    The Economy

I would like to tackle each of these theories with an eye towards solving the problem.

Classical Music is dying
If you look at the big names in the music download industry, Sony and Universal, they both show huge profits in classical music downloads. A large portion of their bottom line is made up of people paying for and downloading classical music. If classical music was actually dying, we wouldn't see a growth in classical music downloads.

CEO's and VP's are paid too much
While I'm all for more balanced wages across the board, the typical CEO for a major orchestra is making 10% of their counterparts in other industries. To even compete for qualified candidates orchestra are having to provide something to attract a person with the skill-set to do the job. You could argue that ALL CEO's are paid too much, but in comparison, you can't say failing orchestras are due to a problem that doesn't seem to exist in other industries.

Musicians are paid too much
The typical orchestra musicians works not only as a symphony musician, but probably also teaches at a local college or university. They have private students and many have other music gigs just to make ends meet. A World Class classical musician will typically be paid 20-50% of what a World Class pop artist is paid to appear with an orchestra --same gig, but substantially less money. Add to this an orchestra typically has 75-100 musicians on stage, where as a pop artist may only have four or five.

Ticket Prices are too high
You can get a ticket to see your local professional orchestra for often as little as $10. Try getting tickets to see a major pop artist for that price. Even good seats for a classical concert are significantly less than what you'll pay for a pop artist. Orchestras often sell tickets to their shows with pop artists for more than they can charge for those with just classical music on the program. So, ticket pricing isn't the problem.

People aren't giving as much as they used to
This is only partially true. Some orchestras have seen an increase in their annual donations. The problem is, this increase hasn't kept up with inflation and the costs for maintaining an orchestra. Maybe there is a need to get more donations into the coffers of orchestras, but relying on this to solve the problem seems fool-hearty to me.

The Economy
Yes, the economy has hurt the orchestra. Donations aren't keeping up, ticket sales are slumping and costs continue to rise. Certainly some of the problems orchestras are facing is due to the economy. But the news of orchestras suffering economically seems a bit more than just what can be attributed to the economy.

As these theoretical reasons for the decline in support for live symphonic performance can all be shown as incomplete or flawed reasoning it seems only logical that we should be looking at broader systemic reasons for failure. Why is Classical Music still popular while classical performance is not?

I believe the fandoms of the rock and pop world have much to teach us. Fans of popular music feel a direct kinship with the performers. Artists make a special effort to talk directly to fans. There is a paradigm of direct contact between the music makers and the listeners that enriches the relationship and makes going to concerts a true communal event. Contrast this with the average symphony where even the names of most players are obscured or at best printed in a tiny font at the back of the program. Without the jumbotron support common at pop concerts, only those closest to the stage actually see the effort, joy and emotional impact of the music on the musicians as they play. The audience is at a remove, and for a modern audience - if you are unable to make a personal connection, then why bother with a live concert. A recording will deliver the music in the same impersonal way for a great deal less money and bother.

What can Orchestras do to change the trend?
The current model for the symphony orchestra in the US is one of contracted musicians. Musicians are contracted to either perform a series of concerts, or paid per concert, with the end result creating an entity entitled "Some Symphony Orchestra" but the musicians are not really part of that entity. We've created a business model for our orchestras in order to effectively manage them. What we've lost is the personal connection the musicians feel toward the ensemble. This results in what the Louisville Orchestra went through, when it became an us against them in terms of contract negotiations. Tough contact negotiations and bankruptcy are only a few of the problems that result from this division of labor. Although Louisville Orchestra did eventually reach an agreement, the barrier between the administrative office and the musicians is not unique in Louisville.

Detroit Symphony just held a concert with Kid Rock that raised $1m for the symphony. In an area of the US suffering some of the worst economically, this fund raiser proves there is still interest in having a symphony orchestra, even in hard times. Part of the fund raising was due to a popular artist, but part of it was also due to musicians getting out there and showing their passion. If you've not seen the photos from this concert, or watched the DSO Live performances available on the internet, you're missing a revitalized orchestra. Detroit Symphony musicians are re-inventing themselves, jumping into the fray, shouting from the roof tops. They are involved.

I recently posted an article about TwtrSymphony and the attention we're getting. The musicians are involved in the success of the organization. There is no division between the administration and the musicians in terms of 'ownership' of the orchestra. Yes, there are different jobs. TwtrSymphony has a few people who are doing administrative tasks. When it comes to getting the word out, the musicians are just as enthusiastic (if not more so) than anyone.

Orchestras need to find a way to bring the musicians back. The orchestra needs to be the musicians; the musicians need to feel as though they are the orchestra. Orchestras also need to find ways to engage directly with their audience and personalize the experience of the concert hall. When this happens, the passion of both the musicians and audience will translate across social media channels. I believe you'll find fuller concert halls and balanced budgets as a result.


Birdhouse Music said…
This made me think about what I like about being at pop concerts - being up close to someone you admire (the artist), the atmosphere of being with other fans, and being able to let your hair down and sing along to the songs you know well and discovering new songs. It's a buzz of excitement, you look forward to it for sometimes months in advance.
Can that be applied to classical concerts?
Good publicity is essential - not just of the concert itself but also of the artists - a world class orchestra/conductor/soloist/composer etc is nothing if no-one's heard of them. So many untalented acts have a huge following because of clever PR, surely the talented people deserve it.
Something the crowds can relate to - a well-known piece (maybe from film or tv) in a programme of lesser-known music, or a new piece by a local composer, or a local soloist etc.
Free concerts in public places will get people's attention and draw in new audiences, such as the London Symphony Orchestra did in Trafalgar Square on 12th May, attracting 10,000 people!
There are a number of other ideas around to keep classical music relevant, such as performing in more informal venues like bars etc. Lots of people care about it and want it to continue.
Paul Polivnick said…
Great observations and and recommendations! I agree completely except for only one point. Even if one sits in the back rows of a concert hall and can't quite connect to the individuals on stage due to distance, there remains one aspect of that experience that cannnot be duplicated at home listening to a CD or watching a video: the shared AUDIENCE experience, the special feeling one gets when sharing something artistic and exciting with a whole bunch of other people. That is also, interestingly what makes the symphony orchestra the special entity it is--the sharing of a powerful musical experience with many other musicians, 70 or a 100 musicians all creating together! The biggest "band" ever!

Paul Polivnick, Conductor Laureate
New Hampshire Music FestivalRh
Chip Michael said…

I couldn't agree more, which is why I want to see concert halls filled with people sharing that experience. Most people don't realize the power or an orchestral performance as they've never been to one. IF, we as performers, can engage with them over social media and get them convinced to come to the hall - I think we'll win fans for life.

We have to get them there first!

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