Getting back to our roots

When did our orchestras stop acting like a grass roots organization? Nearly all American orchestras originated from nothing more than a desire among community members to create a performing arts ensemble. American orchestras are not the result of aristocratic privilege and wealth from 200 years ago like their European cousins. Even the mighty New York Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony started life as small humble ensembles, having to be content with playing “grown up” in the shadow of Vienna and Berlin. Yet in merely 100 years the orchestra landscape across America became filled with dozens of world class orchestras and music conservatories that are arguably the envy of the world.

How did all of this transpire? In the very American way of building an audience person by person and achieving artistic greatness one concert at a time. So what’s happened, why are the concert halls half empty and why are seasoned cultural institutions failing by the dozen? Because we’ve forgotten how to build. The orchestra industry has been so pleased with its success and has enjoyed good times for so long that its executive leadership has forgotten what made them an “institution” in the first place. They’ve forgotten that at its heart, an orchestra is still a grass roots organization.

An orchestra executive once charged me with being unfit to participate in the established orchestra administration business. “You won’t fit in here,” he said. “you’re really just a builder”. But that’s the problem with our orchestras, they’ve become so established they don’t even see that it still takes grass roots efforts to maintain their ensembles.

I once heard an orchestra marketing director giving an account of why there was only a 50% turnout at their orchestra’s recent pops concert. “Well our budget for that month was already used up so there was nothing we could do.” This marketing director makes over $75,000 a year and has a staff of four full time employees, but he simply gives up at trying to fill the hall because their marketing department had an overrun on that month’s budget. Why can’t they drum up support for ticket sales by contacting local public and private music teachers? Or how about coordinating with a symphony volunteer and use the knowledge of their neighborhood to help canvas churches, youth groups, social groups, or even political associations (the number of young democrats and young republicans are growing don’t ya know)? Band and orchestra parents associations, PTA’s, book clubs, and health care establishments, the outlets for free advertising go on and on. All it takes is previous preparation, man-hours, and the know-how to get people motivated and excited about your orchestra.

Here’s where the orchestra world can learn something from politics. Regardless how many millions of dollars a political party can raise, they still focus on getting people involved at the grass roots level. Political parties are smart enough to realize that simply because they are popular in a region now, they may not be later. So it’s essential for them to maintain and effective grass roots structure to fall back on in hard times and augment their status in the good times.

Slick marketing campaigns are great and should be a part of every orchestra’s marketing efforts, but they are no substitute for the down-and-dirty grunt work of cultivating grass roots support. Granted it means that you expend more effort per ticket sale but it doesn’t mean you have to spend more money. Orchestra administrations need to stop acting so much like privileged institutions and return to their roots so they can start building again.


So what do you think?

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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