Franchise Orchestras

Here’s a crazy idea, why not apply the for-profit business practice of franchises to orchestras? Specifically, I’m thinking about a chamber orchestra that has the flexibility to perform chamber music as well as ballet and opera productions that offer a high quality artistic product for a lower than normal user fee (ticket price). You could either build on a successful established program or start a program that can be easily reproduced. From a bottom line standpoint, you can save a considerable amount of money on expenditures that relate to education, outreach, marketing, artistic operations, insurance, and accounting costs. Additionally, you can lower expenses by contracting guest artists, composers, and conductors for multiple dates and locations at one time.

The trick is designing a flexible approach to managing an organization without arriving at an ensemble that comes across like some kind of “McOrchestra”. What you want is an ensemble that is as comfortable playing in smaller venues such as museums, churches, and synagogues as it is with playing in 2000 seat concert halls. This type of organization is also attractive to soloists that want to hire an ensemble with irrefutable artistic credentials for recordings but can’t afford a big, conventional symphony orchestra.It’s certainly a funky idea, but one I’ve put quite a bit of thought into for some time now. I imagine an orchestra with much greater musician authority and an administrative structure that operates on no more than 15% of the total operating budget.

Just think, you could have an Academy of St. Martin’s in the Field in Boston, Detroit, and San Francisco. Or how about an Orchestra of St. Luke’s in Washington D.C., Denver, and St. Louis. It would be a good way for many of the recently failed orchestra’s to get back up and running again, not to mention finding a place for the hundred’s of high quality players graduating from conservatories each year. These talented musicians need to go somewhere but right now there isn’t room for everybody in the pool.

One thing is certain however; this idea certainly wouldn’t work following the standard operating procedures followed by the majority of American orchestras. It would definitely require a new approach.

So what do you think, a harebrained idea or something worth discussing?

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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