No, this isn’t just another doom and gloom "the sky is falling" article, sorry to sucker you in with the headline.  Instead, I want to take some time to look at the term "crisis" and create some perspective.

"Crisis" is word that’s being thrown around right now in this industry. As a result, there’s a great deal of debate regarding what exactly constitutes as a crisis.  Personally, I think the real crisis isn’t defined by simply the numbers of orchestras that have failed over recent years.

Instead, the crisis is found in two separate places: perceived problems and loss of potential.

Looking at the "crisis" in raw numbers

I don’t like comparing apples to oranges, but sometimes I do.  But would you take me seriously if I compared the failure rate among a major sports league that pays its athletes an average salary in the $750,000 dollar range to orchestras that pay their musicians an average salary in the $40,000 range?

I wouldn’t, but it’s a comparison the leadership at the American Symphony Orchestra likes to make.  And they spin the numbers so much that they don’t even accurately represent the point they’re trying to make.  So if you’re going to compare apples to oranges, then at least represent each fruit correctly and don’t call the orange a watermelon.

For example, here’s a quote you’ll find in various forms throughout the U.S. press from ASOL President, Henry Fogel (this one is from the 6/15/03 edition of the KC Star):

"The downward trend, Fogel pointed out, is happening in other sectors of the economy. Hockey, for example, is in far worse shape, he said. The three out of 30 teams that have filed for bankruptcy represent 10 percent of [the NHL]: In contrast, only six ensembles out of the 900 ASOL-member orchestras have declared bankruptcy."

"Chart A" offers you a graphic representation of that statement and on the surface it seems like the American Orchestra industry are in much better shape than the NHL.


But of the 900 ASOL-member orchestras Henry’s referring to, only 55 (or 6%) pay over $20,000 per year, where the staring salary for a player in the NHL is well over $250,000.

After making the proper adjustments based on those qualifications (i.e. only consider orchestras that pay their players at least $20,000 year), "Chart B" presents a more accurate graphic representation between the failure rates of NHL teams as compared to American orchestras.


Now we can see that the failure rate is almost dead even between the two, both industries suffered a 10% failure rate during the 2002-2003 season.  It doesn’t look so good now does it?

When talking about the "crisis", I usually point out the sheer number of orchestras that have filled for bankruptcy over recent years.  "Chart C" illustrates the orchestra failure rate over the past 17 years.


Notice the direction of the red trendline; it doesn’t take much to realize that the past two seasons have greatly altered the failure rate.

In response to these numbers the American Symphony Orchestra League regularly points out that in some of the communities that have recently lost orchestras, they are finding new groups emerging.

And yes, I agree that is a good thing.  This support behind reestablishing an orchestra demonstrates how important communities find classical music is to their lives.  But here’s a problem with that picture that many people don’t talk about: unrealized potential.

The "potential" crisis

Even though most communities do reestablish a new orchestra when one fails, the rising trend in financial instability among orchestras contributes toward the increase in unrealized potential.  And all of this is eating away at the industry from the inside out.

It usually takes decades for an orchestra to return to where it was after filing for bankruptcy. 

Add to that the alarming number of middle league orchestras who are currently implementing enormous cuts in their artistic budgets, and you start to get an industry wide momentum behind the acceptance of artistic inertia.

Historically, artistic accomplishment has never been better in the industry.  There are more players that play better than ever before.  Orchestra managers should be doing anything and everything to deliver this product to their respective communities.

And it’s here where you can see the real "crisis" in the industry: the failure to capitalize on turning the greatest amount of capacity into the greatest amount of success. 

And the failure to acknowledge these problems which are staring us right in the face will only guarantee that when the next crisis event comes around, we’ll all be just as unprepared.

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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