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Keynote Address to the University of Michigan’s American Orchestra Summit II, March 22, 2012
Danger, Will Robinson! How Hyperbolic, Negative Rhetoric is Hurting America's Orchestras
Bruce Ridge, ICSOM Chairman

It is a great pleasure to be with you this afternoon at the University of Michigan. This is my first visit to Ann Arbor, and I'm finding that the many Michigan graduates in ICSOM orchestras across America were right when they told me that I would love this beautiful town and campus. I'd like to thank Mark Clague and the University of Michigan for inviting me to speak, and for giving me this opportunity to share my views on the current state of orchestras in America. Two of my closest colleagues on the ICSOM Governing Board are graduates of the school of music here at Michigan, and they encouraged me to begin my remarks by saying "Go Blue!" Of course, I'm happy to say that on their behalf, but as a Tar Heel, I hope you'll forgive me when I say that I do tend to think of a slightly different shade of blue.

The International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, or ICSOM as we are known, was founded fifty years ago this year in meetings at Roosevelt University in Chicago. This summer, representatives of the nation's top 51 orchestras, along with our many friends, will gather once again in Chicago to celebrate the great advances of symphonic music in North America over these past fifty years.

ICSOM was founded by a group of extraordinary and fearless musicians who came together in a most remarkable way, defying the threat of retribution from their managements, the threat of persecution from their union, and even the scrutiny of the federal government to make labor history. The founding musicians of ICSOM first came together in the sixties, a time of great change for all of America. Those musicians bravely won recognition from their union, and played instrumental roles in the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as elevating the profile of the symphonic musician in America. They were advocates for the future, and that advocacy is as strong today as it was at the moment of the organization's birth.

The need for ICSOM was great at the moment of its founding. Symphonic musicians, despite their artistic renown, were treated terribly…both by their managements and their union. A famous quote from around that time came from Dr. Wilfred Bain, the dean of the Indiana University School of Music, who said:

"Snaring top flight musicians is easy, because people who push brooms are treated better than symphony players."

ICSOM's publication, Senza Sordino, reported that in the 1960's:

"…most musicians in major symphony orchestras were employed little more than six months annually, at a yearly salary that was barely a living wage….Musicians had little job security and were subject to immediate and arbitrary dismissal."

It was a time where the field either had to move forward, or dissolve into irrelevancy. Through the leadership of America's musicians and with the work of ICSOM, the field did indeed move forward. Orchestral musicians were able to build a successful artistic life, with job security, with the freedom to take artistic chances, and with benefits that would allow them to care for their own children even as they dedicated their lives to advancing the education of the children of their communities, and to elevating the profiles of their cities through their diligent service.

On October 26, 1963, John F. Kennedy said:

"I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist. I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens."

Despite the great advances made, President Kennedy's aspiration for the artists of America has yet to be fulfilled. Fifty years later, musicians again find themselves at a crossroad, and the call for advocacy and activism is sounded once again.

There is a negative view of the future of the arts in America that is prevalent and persistent. This is especially true for orchestras, but the musicians of America's orchestras do not accept this view. We recognize, however, perhaps more acutely than some, that in a time where the media culture dictates that image is everything, symphony orchestras have a serious image problem. This image problem inhibits fundraising, governmental support, audience building, and the expansion of the donor base.

Also perhaps more acutely than some, the musicians of America's orchestras realize that the field is largely doing this to itself.

Other fields, with far less to offer, have mastered the art of messaging. The "truth" they sell is in their message; but even if you have an effective truth, it will not be heard unless you also have an effective message. On a national basis, our field does not have such a message.

What is the truth about the arts and music in America?

The non-profit arts and culture industry accounts for $166 billion in economic activity every year, and supplies 5.7 million jobs. In Michigan alone, the arts employ more people than the plastics industry and account for 6.5% of the economy. On a national average, every dollar that government invests in the arts returns seven dollars to the community, and locally that figure is much higher. Classical music accounts for 12% of downloads on ITunes, and in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Boston Symphony alone accounts for over $166 million in economic activity every year.

But these are not the words of advocacy that emanate from within the field. Instead, the symphonic "industry" in America generates programs that state:

"Red Alert!"

"American Orchestras: Endangered Species?"

"The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras"

When I see these quotes, I certainly don't want to donate to orchestras. I might not even want to attend. Why should people leave their homes, drive downtown, find parking, spend money on dinner out, all to hear a concert by an organization whose own managerial leadership says that fewer and fewer people are attending. In the face of these self-fulfilling prophecies, it might be true that donations and attendance are down in some places, but have we ever stopped to ask ourselves why? I suggest we haven't, and I further suggest that if organizations like the League of American Orchestras want us to start telling the quote Brutal Truth, well, then we should tell it.

I named this address Danger Will Robinson! How Hyperbolic Negative Rhetoric is Hurting America's Orchestras. I realize that the reference is dated and might be lost on some younger attendees to this summit. But a long time ago, longer ago than even I can remember, there was a television show called Lost in Space, with an alarmist robot which would flail its robot arms at the mere suspicion of danger, alerting young Master Robinson with the phrase "Danger Will Robinson!" It became a bit of a pop culture catch phrase, and I've used it here because I didn't want to be left out of the exaggerated, alarmist rhetoric.

The good news to be told about the field's negativity is that all of this destructiveness is nothing new. As mind-boggling as it seems, the field seems to have been dedicated to promoting its inevitable demise for quite some time now. Every few years a new report comes out that suggests that orchestras are not sustainable and that a new model must be discovered. It is always called something slightly different, such as "The New Paradigm" or "The New Economic Reality", or simply "The New Model" but it is always the same. I've taken to calling it "The New Apocalypticism."

We can trace this phenomenon back quite a long way.

An article from United Press International was titled 25 Orchestras Doomed to Die, and it forecast the demise of 25 symphony orchestras throughout America. It specifically set the death of the Atlanta and Houston Symphonies for the early part of the decade, while Baltimore and Dallas would survive until the middle of the decade, and Seattle might make it 8 years.

All of this is terrifying, except this article was published in 1970, and the predictions have been proven wrong for forty years.

It went on to say (remember, in 1970) that "orchestras have one alternative to going out of business." They must "reshape—either by reducing the size of orchestras from 100 to 90 musicians or by shortening seasons."

Does any of this sound familiar?

An article from June of 1969, published in Time Magazine, quoted "an expert in orchestral finances" as saying "Between 1971 and 1973, we stand a very good chance of losing at least one-third, if not half of our major symphony orchestras."

We have a document written by the president of the board of the Chicago Symphony, who said:

"The (Chicago Symphony) now must solve a problem which has arisen from economic conditions beyond its control. A deficit has been incurred, and undoubtedly there will be annual deficits for some years to come. This affects the future of the orchestra."

And he continued:

"Our problem does not differ in kind from the financial problem that faces each of the major orchestras in the United States."

This is especially alarming, isn't it?... that an orchestra as great as the Chicago Symphony could face this predicament. I would be more concerned had this not been written on April 1, 1940.

There is one great sentence in this 1940 document though. In a message that all managers should heed, especially today, the board chair states:

"We cannot reduce our expenses below our present level without seriously endangering our standard of symphony music, which would soon result in endangering our principal source of income."

The negative rhetoric about the unsustainability of orchestral music permeates the culture even more prominently today, as the internet provides unedited forums for those who profess that they are worried about an explosion, even as they spend a lot of time lighting fuses. How long are we going to listen to this pablum without calling Shenanigans?

Critics of what I am saying might suggest that I am naïve, and that I am not acknowledging that we are, in fact, living in different times. Please allow me to assuage you of that concern. We are living in different times. We cannot continue as we have been. We must change.

We must stop doing this to ourselves.

We live in a media age, at a time when the culture moves quickly. The successful businesses are the ones that can adapt to new ways of messaging, and control their image. People want to respond to positive messages. People will donate to, and invest in, organizations that inspire them, and they will not invest in organizations that question their own sustainability. The current message of our field, on a national level, simply put, is a poor fund-raising and marketing message.

Technology is a speed boat, and our field is a giant ocean liner. It takes forever to get turned around. We are behind the times in the utilization of free media, in social networking, in innovative marketing, in lobbying, and in advocacy.

I sometimes doubt that our field really understands new media. I once heard a prominent manager give an explanation of Reality TV, which he described as "meeting a demand from the public for that type of programming." But there was no demand for reality TV…it was a manufactured demand. A few executives decided that it would be great to work in television if it wasn't for all those actors and writers, and inspired by the success of Survivor, they realized that drivel could be produced for next to nothing. Upon that realization, they set upon a marketing campaign to convince the American public that this was indeed the programming they wanted. Reality TV is a marketing ploy. The broadcast industry understands how to sell rubbish, but far too often we don't understand how to sell masterpieces.

I'd like to stress that I am making these statements about our field on a national level. Locally, many of our orchestras are articulating a positive message, led by excellent managers, and they are seeing tremendous success. These successes are all the more remarkable in light of the economic downturn of 2008. The story to be told is not that orchestras are struggling, but rather that so many are doing well. The performance of most of our orchestras during this time is a testament to the viability of what we do, not evidence of the need for radical change. But, as a field, on a national level, we tend to study our failures to create so-called new models. What other business does this? Who patterns their future on their failures, while ignoring their successes?

Let's look at a few recent success stories…stories that probably won't get much attention from our national organizations:

Recent headlines have stated:

"Colorado Symphony (cue drumroll) is back in the black"
"…the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra will make its long-awaited debut March 4, marking the return of a professional orchestra to the state more than two years after the Honolulu Symphony played its final note."
"…another milestone in the Alabama Symphony's rise."
"Buffalo Philharmonic shows surplus under economic challenges"
"St. Louis Symphony ticket sales, gifts, endowment grow in 2011"
"How Classical Music Is Changing Young Lives"
"Grammy win for Nashville Symphony …signal(s) Nashville's "golden age of classical music"

I'm reminded that it was just a few short years ago that the New York Times proclaimed that "This is the Golden Age" for classical music, going on to say that "Rumors of classical music's demise haven't just been exaggerated, they've been dead wrong."

Such positive press should have been universally promoted by all aspects of the field, but instead, the Times article was met with derision by some managers, as if somehow the positive account didn't fit into their plans.

Where else can we find positive news to promote together as an industry…news that could inspire our donors and educate our supporters?

Well, the San Francisco Opera's recent production of Wagner's Ring Cycle sold at a rate of 99.9% per performance, generating over $7.2 million at the box office. The New York Philharmonic surpassed its fund raising goal by nearly half. The North Carolina Symphony met a goal for a matching grant of $8 million. The Kansas City Symphony has just opened its spectacular new concert hall which will be an iconic image for the city. The Metropolitan Opera is seen in over 1500 movie theaters in 45 countries while performing to sold-out houses. In other artistic genres, last year the Metropolitan Museum of Art saw an attendance of 5.7 million, its highest attendance in 40 years! In 2010, in the depths of the worldwide economic downturn, arts giving grew by 5.7%, reaching $13.3 billion.

Still, despite this positive news, there is no musician in America that fails to recognize the need for analysis of our field, and the need for change. All things change in time. But, how can our field fail to recognize that destructive rhetoric is the enemy of change? Musicians cannot partner with those who spread a damaging message.

There can be no authentic conversation about change in our field that excludes executive compensation and artist management fees.

Privately, almost every manager I've ever spoken with has expressed concern over the escalation of guest artist fees and the power of the artists' management agencies. But they can't say it publically, as they rely on their services. The League of American Orchestras can't bring that into their "Red Alerts" or "Brutal Truths", because they receive advertising revenue from those agencies.

It is well-known that there is tension between many musicians and the League of American Orchestras, so let's talk about it. I actually have a slightly different viewpoint. I think the field needs the League, but we also need the League to change. We need the League to use its resources in developing positive messaging. There is a seemingly instinctive negativity that comes from the League at times, and it is being noticed by some of its own members. The League relies on the collection of $1.9 million in dues money to survive, and to pay considerable salaries to its upper staff. This year, one ICSOM orchestra left the League, citing the "dispiriting" rhetoric that emanates from the League. There are other managers who have privately expressed this same thought. I feel that the League must address its image problem, for if it was to fail, imagine the negative press then. The media instinctively covers the negative story, and if the League fails it would be perceived as a death knell for all symphonic music. It wouldn't be, of course but it would be perceived that way.

I have done a lot of work for the League though, certainly as much as any other sitting ICSOM Chair. I have spoken at League conferences, served on the faculty for many training sessions, and I've met regularly with the leadership. This year, I will again attend the League conference, even though I have expressed my concern to the leadership of the League that their programming may be viewed as negative by musicians, and that the chasm may well widen.

Many wonderful people work at the League, but the League must become an organization that more effectively uses its resources for advocacy.

I recognize the difficulty inherent in that though….I really do. For example, when a board member of the League makes very public and damaging statements, particularly in a published editorial about how a specific orchestra is unsustainable, terrible harm is done to the field, to that orchestra, to that community, and to relationships throughout all areas of the industry. The leadership of the League must speak out against such destructiveness, and when they do not it weakens the organization in the eyes of musicians and managers alike.

I understand the difficulty of such decisions, and such statements. As ICSOM Chair, I once had to make a very difficult decision about a legendary figure who found himself in a situation that was not acceptable to the ICSOM Governing Board. It was heartbreaking, as this legendary person did more to elevate the lives of symphonic musicians that any other person in the past 50 years. It was a devastating personal decision for me, so powerful that it seriously damaged my health for a two year period. I understand how hard it is to make the difficult decisions, and to issue the controversial statements. But that is what leadership is all about. And if the League wants to be a leader in our field, it can no longer stand by in silence and then claim to not understand why musicians and managers alike find the organization "dispiriting."

Musicians have willingly entered the room for a partnership, only to find themselves a little singed in the process. I think the whole field had hope for the Collaborative Data Project, which brought ICSOM, ROPA and the AFM into an effort to work with the League to develop a shared data set, as it has long been recognized that the numbers collected by the field for analysis are inconsistent at best. But instead, the numbers we were studying were given to a researcher who has produced damaging documentation based on imprecise data that has been used against musicians. This type of action is not positive, and this is not collaboration.

It brings me no pleasure to issue criticism of anyone, but our field is facing challenges and we must stop doing this to ourselves. In fact, in my writings I have called on musicians to avoid casting aspersions towards the League, and I have asked the League to issue similar statements to its members about the way they regard their musicians. While I've yet to hear my public appeal matched, I remain hopeful.

Still, I would much rather talk about solutions, and I will, but we can't identify the solutions without first identifying the problems.

Right now, at this very moment, there are orchestra managements preparing their organizations for extended and unnecessary work stoppages. One in particular will be prominently in the press as early as this fall, but I don't want to name the organization as I have hope that the management will avoid this destructive path. There is still time. But resources spent in this direction are also resources that could be spent promoting their organization.

Think of the damage done to the image of orchestras in the mind of an American citizen, struggling in the recession to care for his or her family, as they read that the Philadelphia Orchestra will spend over $10 million to go through the bankruptcy process. Imagine how that money could be invested in the community. But in this field, it seems there is always money for lawyers. Further, imagine the damage when that same citizen reads that the CEO of a bankrupt orchestra has received a substantial personal salary settlement, which newspaper reports indicate includes a personal financial planner.

Another manager has challenged the jurisdiction of national media contracts, appealing their lost case numerous times and spending who knows how much in legal fees. That money could have funded multiple projects that would have elevated the organization in the mind of the local and international community. Instead, money raised from donors has gone to lawyers.

It is, in a word, outrageous.

Still, some in this room might be wondering how I can overlook the recent bankruptcies in Syracuse and Louisville. The musicians of Syracuse will accomplish what their former management could not, and I have no doubt an orchestra will re-emerge. Louisville is maybe a little different I suppose, because what has been done to the community and the musicians there is even uglier.

In Louisville, an orchestra that has commissioned 120 original compositions and performed over 400 world premieres which served to spread the music of America across the globe is currently functioning as an organization that employs no musicians. It is an orchestra built by the people, and led at its founding by a mayor who believed in the concept of Confucianism that said that a city of high culture with happy citizens will attract wealth, business and power to the city. But now, this historic orchestra looks for musicians on Craigslist and through Facebook ads.

There is not merely one reason for these bankruptcies that can be applied to the entire field. The circumstances are quite different, and in the case of Philadelphia, if you follow a bad real estate deal with an extended period of time without a music director, a CEO, or a board chair, well, can there be any surprise that your organization might get into trouble?

But the negative rhetoric leads to stories that depict a mosaic of failure straight across the heart of America, a tornado traveling I-40 or I-70.

It just isn't true.

What are the solutions? How do we change to preserve the legacy of great music? How do we continue to help educate the next generation of Americans while enhancing the business environment of our cities and elevating the spirits of audiences everywhere.

Well, first we must articulate that we do, in fact, do all of those things!

As ICSOM led at its founding, we intend to lead again into a new era of positive advocacy. To musicians everywhere, I call on you to join us in our positive message of advocacy. It is not enough to simply play your instrument. You must be among your audience, out in the lobby of your concert hall. Shake the hands of your audiences, thank your donors, and welcome them into an environment of community that surrounds every orchestra.

It surely must be clear to musicians by now that no one is going to do this for us. It has been the dedication of the musicians in Honolulu that has led to new orchestral performances in Hawaii. It is the musicians of the former Syracuse Symphony that are keeping the music and the hope alive in Central New York. This is our mission, and we must join together as never before, because something precious is at stake.

To the students of the music school who are here today, I especially ask you to join us. You are the future, and you are not going into a dying field. As you study to be accomplished instrumentalists, you must learn the message of advocacy as well. You must answer the negative messages in our newspapers about the future of orchestras with the truth of what you see. You must tell the story of how music changed your life, of how you have seen it touch other lives, and how communities are forever changed for the better by the presence of a great orchestra.

Should we fail to engage in this effort to tell the real truth, then we are allowing others to define us. It is now officially the job of musicians to introduce themselves to their communities, or they soon might find themselves demonized as the musicians in Louisville have.

I want to emphasize, though, that not everything I am saying applies to "managers" in the abstract. In a speech such as this, one that attempts to focus so diligently on a problem in a way that it has perhaps not been articulated before, it is easy to say "managers" and "musicians". I want to again say clearly that there are many excellent managers, and many of them reach out to their musicians. I am honored when they consult with me on issues that affect their orchestras, eager to share my views on how problems can be avoided, and impressed when they call to ask how to avoid something that could be perceived as negative to the public.

As ICSOM Chair, I have had a unique opportunity to visit with the orchestras of North America, from San Juan to Honolulu. In my visits I meet with the musicians, and visit them in their homes. I am backstage in the lounges, and I hear their rehearsals. I meet with board chairs, staff, and CEOs. I meet the writers who cover the orchestra in the local press. Sometimes I meet the mayors and other political leaders, and I deliver the positive message that our organizations should join together to articulate. It is a rare inside view of our orchestras, and I can see what works and what doesn't.

Places that are working, and are led by great managers, achieve visionary things. They are able to achieve those things because bridges are built between all areas of the organization. The musicians should have access to the board, and everyone should know each other. I am always dismayed when musicians tell me they don't know the staff of their own orchestra. But sometimes, this is due to walls built within the organization. A good manager will foster an environment of collaboration and friendship, and a different kind of manager will inhibit the relationship between musicians and the board.

I hear some board members tell me that they are over-extended as donors, that they cannot give more, and I don't doubt that. I also think that sometimes donors feel under-appreciated by the musicians, which is why the musicians of every orchestra need to establish a way of communicating with their boards and donors, to thank them for their support, and to build friendships.

But while donors may feel pressured in the current economy, too many of our organizations do not create an environment that would expand the donor base by presenting an inviting image to those who might want to become a part of the community that surrounds every symphony orchestra.

There is plenty of money. Despite the economic downturn, the number of millionaires in Metro Detroit, for example, actually increased last year by 4%. In the late 1970s, the wealthiest one per cent of Americans controlled about 9% of the income. Today, that same 1% controls 24% of the nation's income. While a conversation about the sustainability of such a disparity of wealth is of merit, for our field it means that as wealth is more centralized, we must have a message that inspires people to donate and participate. Sadly, we simply lack that message. We cannot expand the donor base with "red alerts" and charts based on faulty data that propose to show a lack of sustainability, as opposed to a vision that demonstrates the possibilities for our orchestras, and the possibilities for their service to reach even more lives. That is the message that will expand the donor base.

But the money is there. When musicians hear their managers tell them that there is no more money in their major metropolitan American communities, they know that their management is really saying that they just can't inspire new donors.

There was a study recently conducted in the Chicago public schools, where three pilot schools of very different socio-economic populations were immersed in an intense arts program. The standardized testing for the schools improved by 12%. No one would protest that music is good for education. Why is that message lost in negativity?

To the students here today, and to musicians everywhere, I urge you to join Americans for the Arts, and you can join their Arts Action Fund free of charge. Americans for the Arts is an advocacy group in Washington, DC that helps promote positive advocacy on Capitol Hill. When I testified before Congress in 2009 I was joined by their president, Robert Lynch. It is a great organization, and you can help simply by visiting their website.

Musicians have never made greater sacrifices in recognition of economic conditions than they have in the past few years. But too often their sacrifices have been rewarded with scorn. The negative rhetoric must end. We owe better to Beethoven and Bernstein…we owe better to everyone.

We must harvest the frustration that we all are feeling and use it as inspiration. Our spirit will not be defeated, and as artists we will not allow ourselves to fall into the general malaise that seems to be depressing the nation, replacing inspirational words with messages that project only what cannot be achieved instead of what is possible. We must be inspired by the challenge. And we must not hesitate to dream great dreams simply because they are hard to achieve.

When the United States ended the Space Shuttle program recently, I couldn't help but think back fifty years to one of the greatest American speeches ever delivered. On May 25, 1961, John F. Kennedy challenged America to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth by the end of the decade. On that day he said "While we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure on our part to make these efforts shall make us last." In that speech he said that Americans strive to achieve great things not because they are easy, but because they are hard. He told an Irish folk tale where two young boys on a journey confront a stone wall, too high to mount but too long to circumvent. Facing the prospect of a retreat that would end their adventure, one boy threw the hat of the other over the wall, leaving them no choice to but find some way to overcome this obstacle.

Kennedy spoke in a time when America dreamt of what could be achieved, what could be built, and what could be created. He spoke without any assumption that there was anything that we could not achieve for our children.

America is slowly emerging from the worst of the downturn, and our field is recovering as well. But we cannot withstand another barrage of flawed reports, or another onslaught of negative pronouncements. I ask everyone here to join with ICSOM in celebration of our 50th anniversary as we launch a new era of positive activism and dedication to changing the image of orchestras in America.

To accomplish this we must engage in positive advocacy and education of the public. A recent poll indicated that 40% of Americans believe that as much as 5% of the federal budget goes to support the arts. A shocking 7% of respondents said they thought the government spent half of its budget on arts programs. This is the misconception we deal with in a world of spin where the truth is often a victim of sound bites.

But still, despite this optimism, there are many problems facing us. We must reach out to our communities and inspire them, and no one is ever inspired by ugly language. Should the field fail to hear this call, then we will be left clutching nothing but a fistful of rain. Our colleagues look to those of us in this room for leadership...and to lead, we must offer a message of hope.

The message of hope that we can promote is that orchestras are relevant to the community. Orchestras are an investment, with both financial and educational results for the community. Every orchestra is a family, and every manager has been granted a sacred trust with the community to preserve that family.

The future of this field and the future for live performance of this incredible music is in the hands of everyone here, and in the hands of every musician everywhere. We all can make a difference, and we must know no fear.

At a time when there are many who doubt America's orchestras, we will no longer doubt ourselves. Let us leave here with a renewed spirit of activism, and let us take this message to our colleagues everywhere. This judgment we make affirmatively: if we can change the tone, then we can change the future.

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ICSOM Chairman Bruce Ridge