Technology Wrap Up: Resistance Is Futile

Is technology really a worthwhile investment for an orchestra?  Even with the potential savings in reduced operating costs and creating more efficient rehearsals, you still have to lay out some initial cash to realize that potential.  And if you talk to many orchestra managers these days, they probably aren’t excited about the idea of spending their ever-shrinking operating revenue on “new” ideas that will turn the way they work upside down. They’ll say we should wait for a more appropriate time and see how things develop first.

But there has never been a better time to take advantage of these recent technological advancements.  Orchestras are much like the giant sloth of the cultural world: they’re big, slow, have compromised eyesight, and are armed with powerful digging claws (which come in handy when you need to dig a hole to bury your head in).  Orchestras do a number of bizarre things simply because it’s “always been done that way” and no one wants to be in the generation that has to learn both the old and new ways.

And look at what I’m really proposing here, I’m not saying we need orchestras to invent technology, just use it.  We’re all used to reading in recent headlines about how musicians are fighting technology.  We hear about operas using a digital orchestra to accompany singers (so why then didn’t they also use digital singers?), the RIAA is fighting digitally distributed music, and music publishers are fighting music OCR software development. 

And it’s not just today; the music industry has fought technology since the turn of the last century.  First, the radio put live musicians out of work, so the musician’s union fought it.  Then phonograph players put another dent into live music entertainment, and then home tape cassette technology sent the established recording industry into a tizzy that they’re still in.  Every time this industry seems to arrive at a “settlement” with technology, someone goes off and develops a new advancement that puts musicians right back into “fighting” mode.

It’s high time that the orchestra industry learned a lesson from the past 100 years and started to embrace technology instead of resisting it.  By learning how to make themselves an integral part of technological advancements as opposed to burying their collective heads in the sand, they’ll discover that they will become a part of the future as technology develops.  They’ll be considered in the research and development stages of new technologies instead of learning how to apply something after the fact.

Personally, I’m sick and tired of reading about a technological advancement and the first thing that comes to mind isn’t “wow, that’s really cool, I wonder how orchestras will take advantage of it”, but instead I think “well too bad the industry will start fighting it”.   In the end, all that happens is that in the eyes of the younger generations, the orchestra appears as an old, decrepit form of cultural enrichment and entertainment that only appeals to their grandparents.

I cringe at the idea that the situation for the industry may very well have to get worse before it begins to get better.  But one positive aspect of this continued resistance is that it creates a fertile field for reform and innovation.  Prepare to be assimilated, resistance is futile – whether you like it or not. 

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.