On New Year’s morning, I rolled over as my clock radio turned on to NPR’s Morning Edition, as it does every morning far earlier than I ever expect. This day I was surprised to hear my own voice during a feature on the state of orchestras in America from a phone interview I had done some weeks earlier. The reporter introduced me as a bassist “with the South Carolina Symphony,” a fact I found even more surprising than hearing my own voice. I felt fairly certain, even in my relative slumber, that I had never been a member of the South Carolina Symphony.
But when it comes to covering orchestral music in America, what’s a fact among reporters? While this error was relatively mild in the grand scheme of things, there is so much unfair and unbalanced reporting going on that one wonders if reporters are simply copying each other’s articles without even applying the integrity of a Google search to their fact-checking.
A recent article in USA Today had the Web headline: “Performing arts face strikes, layoffs, bankruptcy;” and the print edition subheadline read: “Strikes, money woes leave symphonies, operas out of tune.” To my knowledge, there was not an orchestra anywhere in the world on strike the day that article was published, but people in hotel lobbies and airport bathrooms (or wherever it is that people read USA Today) had any negative perception of symphonic music reinforced by a misleading headline. I guarantee that most people saw only the headline and didn’t bother to read the article. I doubt I would have read it if I hadn’t been quoted.
Mark Twain said, “There are laws to protect the freedom of the press’s speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press.”
It isn’t fair of me to blame the press entirely, though. There is no doubt that such inaccurate, negative reporting undermines the success of our organizations, and strengthens the resolve of managements and boards that seek to diminish the presence of our orchestras in their communities. But some of this artless reporting is a result of the industry’s self-inflicted wounds. Still, reporters and editors should be more responsible with fact-checking and in offering their readers a less prejudiced, more balanced perspective.
On February 4, Mother Jones published perhaps the worse article I’ve seen. The writer was encouraged by other interviewees to reach out to ICSOM, but she did not. If she had, we might have spared her the indignity of publishing an article so fraught with factual errors that it is certain to be a stain on her journalistic career.
The subheadline of the Mother Jones article read: “With lockouts, deficits, and dwindling audiences, classical ensembles fight for survival.” Let’s do a little bit of fact-checking on that headline by looking at “dwindling audiences” in 2012, the year that NPR questioned if American orchestras had “hit the wall”:
- Utah Symphony: 23% rise in ticket sales
- The Cleveland Orchestra: on track to set season ticket sales records
- Cincinnati Symphony: two years of increased attendance
- St. Louis Symphony: highest ticket sales for December in a decade
- Buffalo Philharmonic: highest number of subscriptions in its history
- Oregon Symphony: increase in ticket sales of 19%
- San Diego Symphony: ticket sales reach an all-time high
- Kansas City Symphony: ticket sales revenue increased 46.8%
So, why isn’t the press writing about the resurgence of attendance for orchestras? (Could it be because the League of American Orchestras is telling newspapers, “There’s no question the audience for orchestras has gone down”?)
What frustrates me so profoundly is that even when I give reporters positive information, complete with links to support my assertions, most still don’t print these facts. So ingrained is the negative outlook, so often from within the field itself, that reporters can only continue to print the same old negative clichés. If the facts don’t support the clichés, the facts are discarded.
When I speak about the positive statistics for orchestras, some bloggers and commentators mischaracterize my words by claiming that I am saying that everything is fine and that there is no need to examine the future. Of course, that is not what I am saying at all. I am an advocate for change, though at times it feels like no one is listening. We must reach out to new audiences and new donors. We must learn from the industries that have mastered marketing in the digital age, and we must develop better platforms for social media. Part of the recent success in Cleveland has come from reaching out to new audiences through social media, and as a result of a concerted effort, they have increased their Facebook followers by 16,000 in just 9 months, accompanied by a surge in student attendees at Severance Hall.
A Pew Charitable Trusts survey recently reported that “[t]he internet [sic] and social media are integral to the arts in America,” and the Americans for the Arts ARTSblog concluded that “the new and innovative solutions social media offers to the arts is unparalleled.”
Our field must change. We must develop new marketing strategies, and we must stop recklessly causing self-inflicted wounds that undermine all we should seek to achieve. Remember that most negative commentators are selling a product, and the product is usually themselves. Not all, but many of them are self-promoters—selling courses, books, or consultancies. The negativity they articulate leaks into the press, where uninformed reporters simply take what they are given, and often they just report the loudest voices. But this negativity is cultivating panic, and when those who promote panic are also profiting from it, their message is usually false.
This leads us to the myth of the graying audience—perhaps the single most repeated and unchallenged tenant of the doctrine of failure that undermines success for orchestras. Those who promote this idea look back to audience studies from 1940 that demonstrated the median age of audiences for orchestras was around thirty at that time. They cite statistics from Baumol through recent NEA studies that show, due to aging audiences, we are surely doomed.
But I maintain that if the graying audience is a fact at all, it is being misinterpreted.
In 1940, the average life expectancy in America was 62 years. In 2013, it is 79 years. Never in history has a civilization seen such a rapid increase in life expectancy as in the past century. As a result, the audience for absolutely everything is aging. If you allow me to ignore the increase in life expectancy the way proponents of the myth of the graying audience do, I could make an argument that the audience for Dora the Explorer is aging.
Even as the management of the Atlanta Symphony prepared to lock out its musicians, it stated that “[t]here is a myth that our audience is old and dwindling.” By their own estimation, attendance in Atlanta has been growing at 3% per year, and the average age has dropped from 57 to 52.
While I am constantly encouraged by the many young attendees I see in concert halls across America, I also accept that people tend to turn towards attending orchestral concerts as they age, having achieved a measure of success in life that allows them more freedom and leisure time. If that is the case, the fact that we have an opportunity to reach out to that segment of our audiences for an additional 15 years of life expectancy is not a problem—it is an opportunity.
We all must change. We must abandon the new model of failed rhetoric, pathetic media relationships, Boulwaristic lockouts, ineffective marketing, negative pronouncements from self-serving commentators, and the promulgation of the myth of the graying audience.
Observers of recent events can reasonably conclude that the field’s manner of training and hiring managers is inherently flawed. That is the new model we must find. How do we train and encourage visionary and charismatic managers, and how do we find them outside of traditional industry searches that have clearly grown ineffective?
It is true that orchestral music has faced a crisis, just as nearly every field has in the economic downturn. But the story to be told is how resilient orchestras have proven to be. The story that reporters should be writing is not that some orchestras have suffered, but rather that so many are reaching new heights. Sometimes, I marvel that any orchestra has remained in business, withstanding the crisis that exists in arts management. Ultimately, as I play for thousands of school children each season, or feel the reaction of an audience to Sibelius or Beethoven, or see the outpouring of love for the locked-out musicians in the Twin Cities, I know orchestras survive because of an increasing relevancy to a society that seeks meaning and comfort in a world that too often slumps under the weight of its burdens.