Establishing economic stability and community relevance have proven to be constant challenges for American orchestras, and of course, musicians have paid the highest price throughout this battle for survival. Cuts in weeks and wages have become the traditional response to orchestras’ economic troubles but have never succeeded as a legitimate bridge to a long-term fix. So it’s not all that surprising these days to find orchestras stagnating on the brink of financial insolvency, as musicians bargain themselves further into managerial and governance roles to join the pursuit of the elusive permanent solution. Our growing involvement in institutional decision making reflects not only how musicians have come to react to the economic malaise that has haunted American orchestras, but demonstrates how we are now complicating this problem.
In years past, if our managements were unable to keep things afloat, we accused them of inadequacy. Now that many of us have become part of our organizations’ problem-solving machinery and have proven ourselves equally incapable of offering up long-term solutions, we have begun to parrot some of the age-old excuses we used to dismiss. That saying—not being able to see the forest for the trees—provides a fitting analogy.
Musicians are so close to the problem that, like our managements, we tend to see only the micro reasons that contribute to our institutions’ failures and respond with micro solutions. Community outreach programs and musician involvement in fundraising and public relations are among a whole host of micro solutions which have not gotten the traction they need to be effective largely because the symphonic industry as a whole has never collectively addressed the macro problem. The macro problem begins with the way the industry has historically done business and the fact that orchestras are more comfortable with tradition than they are fond of change. Nothing bears this out more than an article from the 1930s and a study from the 1970s.
“Symphony Finance” was a lengthy exposé published in Fortune Magazine in 1937, which delved into the New York Philharmonic Symphony Society’s financial difficulties in particular and those of other orchestras in general. In 1970, the Midwest Research Institute of Kansas City issued its comprehensive report, 25 Symphonies Doomed to Die, which concluded that a combination of bad business practices in American orchestras and over-extended local philanthropies presented the greatest peril to the symphonic industry. What made these two studies particularly interesting was the degree to which they documented the mistakes made and the solutions sought by orchestras during two very different periods in American music. Remarkably, from 1898 to this day, the reasons orchestras have gotten themselves into trouble, and the ways they have attempted to get out of it are all but identical. In spite of that, American orchestras have never responded collectively to their redundant, individual financial calamities by making a wholesale adjustment in the way the entire industry does business.
Fortune Magazine launched its investigation in 1937 because orchestras were perpetually in debt and always close to being shut down by their boards. Unfortunately, what the magazine found back then—and continues to be the case today—was that not even a sudden infusion of large sums of money spelled permanent relief for an orchestra’s financial woes.
Typically, when orchestras have had money, they expand their seasons, increase their touring and media, and generally inflate expenditures until the ledger bleeds red. The ensuing structural improvements and financial economies usually survive long enough until there is enough money in the bank to start the cycle all over again. This has happened with such regularity, it has fostered a rather naïve belief in the industry that fundraising shortfalls and structural deficits are economy-driven, industry-wide phenomena that affect every orchestra the same that we just have to live with. And live with it we have.
Our pursuit of the same, tired solutions hasn’t exactly paid dividends either. A prime example is media. In spite of the multitude of recordings in the public domain and poor sales to boot, orchestras have always viewed technology and electronic media as the Holy Grail of bottom-line relief. Well, not exactly. As Fortune Magazine presciently observed back in 1937, “…science had twice been seen coming to the financial rescue of orchestras—once with phonographs and again with radio broadcasts—and twice she has produced flops.” To this day, while orchestras rush to turn their archival recordings into CD box sets and find sponsors to underwrite their radio broadcasts, few have given a thought to the fact that not many Americans are actually listening to their broadcasts or buying their recordings. Therein lies the core of the macro problem.
Why do orchestras crave to produce recordings, do radio broadcasts and international touring, expand community outreach and educational programs, and try to turn their musicians into marketers? Simply put, these are all forms of promotion. We are still trying to find ways of selling ourselves, increasing our value, and expanding our local, national, and international audiences. The problem is, the aggregate impact of all of these micro strategies is short lived. Nevertheless, they have become central components of every orchestra’s marketing arsenal.
In a nutshell, the macro problem boils down to the fact that classical music is not a vital part of the national entertainment industry or even on the radar of the majority of entertainment consumers. It’s not difficult to see why. Our institutional business practices have historically been designed around basic survival at the local level and have not been innovative or collectively effective in selling symphonic music nationally to a society that loves music. Our industry has never explored the kinds of evolving national strategies necessary to generate and maintain public interest in what we have to offer. As a result, classical music has been relegated to the fringes of society’s rich entertainment menu. One would think that solving this problem would dictate involving the most progressive and creative marketing and public relations experts. Instead, many orchestras are courting a group of amateur advisors—their musicians.
Aside from the legal questions raised by musicians serving on symphony boards and playing at managerial activities, if orchestras legitimately want to find solutions to their longstanding economic and administrative problems, what value is there in turning to employees with no business training or expertise? The current trend to make management and labor more compatible may have added a layer of wishful thinking, but it has obfuscated the forest and prevented us from recognizing the underlying macro cause of our current industry-wide dilemma.
To most consumers, the words symphony orchestra, opera, and ballet evoke images of high-brow, boring, passé entertainment for the rich. If so many people have the wrong image of our product, how can we ever expect them to patronize us? The lack of consumer interest in classic music is the primary reason American orchestras have had to devote such large portions of their annual budgets in constant fundraising and promotional campaigns.
You’re probably thinking: If we haven’t been able to correct this problem in over a hundred years, how can we do it now? Perhaps we need something along the lines of a corporate identity for classical music.
Corporate identity is an image-building technique for which for-profit and nonprofit corporations spend large sums of money to have created. This involved process develops an identity brand that makes a company or a charity unique and distinguishable, gives it instant recognition, and expands its ability to appeal easily to a target audience or customer base, as well as giving the public a greater sense of ownership in that company. Consider a few corporate identities: The Muppets, Harley-Davidson, McDonalds, Ronald McDonald House, The Red Cross. Each of these evokes a specific reaction in consumers that is the product of a well-developed branding strategy.
Obviously, orchestras cannot become one national brand because they are local entities. On the other hand, classical music is our common product; however, as long as that product is undervalued and under consumed by Americans, most orchestras will never be able to attract the top level of corporate and philanthropic gifts.
Big or small, corporations tend to use philanthropy more as an extension of their advertising and promotional campaigns than a support for worthy causes. It’s therefore not surprising that companies reserve their largest gifts for organizations with national reputations that produce the most positive reaction in the public. Clearly, the lack of a broader public appetite for classical music undercuts every orchestra’s fundraising capabilities, even in the oldest and best-known American orchestras.
Unfortunately, maintaining audience interest and subscriber levels has become increasingly more difficult. Community outreach, youth concerts, media, tours, and pops concerts have not enticed new subscribers in large numbers. After more than one hundred years of failing to identify strategies that keep them financially solvent and publicly inviting, one would think American orchestras would see the need for a new approach. Even so, orchestras do not like to stray far from the tradition of their familiar business practices. Instead of bringing outside innovation to the industry, American orchestras have consistently looked inward to themselves, apparently not noticing that innovation from within is hard to come by. They have been recycling old ideas—old solutions—and calling them new.
The macro predicament facing the symphonic industry will not be solved by local musician/management collaborations but by a broad, joint effort undertaken by the union, orchestras, and the major societal proponents of classical music. It is time for us to investigate the benefits of a long-term, national marketing campaign. While our cloistered view of institutional marketing may not allow us to envision what form such a strategy might take, there is a large marketing industry out there which knows how to pique interest and sell anything to the public, although it will not come cheap.
Admittedly, organizing industry-wide discussions around this idea may prove to be somewhat like herding cats, but musicians can provide the first level of leadership by instigating the dialogue within the player conferences and the union and eventually with other organizational and philanthropic supporters of classical music.
It goes without saying; musicians are big stakeholders in all of this. Our wage givebacks have not underwritten change, but subsidized years of the same failed policies and practices that have kept orchestras stuck in a perpetual state of economic uncertainty. The proliferation of feel-good management/labor collaborations at the local level may produce a few new micro strategies, but we don’t need more micro strategies. We need a new national paradigm.
In the words of the great artist Marcel Duchamp, “If there is no solution, there can be no problem.” The time to act is long overdue. American orchestras will never change course unless their musicians put boot to butt. No one else is stepping forward to help us. The health and survival of classical music in the United States rests squarely upon our shoulders. The next step is ours to take.
Lucinda Lewis has been New Jersey Symphony’s principal horn since 1977. She is the author of Broken Embouchures and Embouchure Rehabilitation, which deal with embouchure overuse and performance-related injuries of brass players. She was the secretary of ICSOM from 1990–2002.