Reader Response: Unnecessary Financial Restriction

One of Adaptistration’s European readers sent in an email in response to the Removing Unnecessary Financial Restrictions article from September 1st.  I always enjoy receiving notes from fellow musicians and orchestra managers from across the Atlantic and this was no exception.

The reader pointed out something I didn’t realize happens in Europe all that much; there are for-profit (by our definition) chamber ensembles striking a claim in a world that’s fueled by massive government sponsorship of the arts.

I was struck by how this reader had the same “chicken or egg” problem that start up groups find over here and their resourcefulness at finding solutions to the problem.  They said,

“I’ve come to the management bit slightly differently in that since leaving the [conservatory] about 17 years ago I’ve always been a player. Recently, several other players and myself formed our own orchestra which has a variety of commitments from orchestra concert work to opera and choral society concerts.

We apply for grants and sponsorship but as we are not registered as a charity that excludes many of the trusts that we can apply to. As an organization we exist almost entirely on what we make on our fees and apart from a very small percentage (equivalent to one players fee) all this goes to the musicians.

My experience is that usually when you apply to bodies like the Arts Council one never has the correct criteria to meet their requirements. Money seems not to be available for the ‘product’ but only to the measurement benefits. This is changing I think. We recently did get a grant from them but before they could offer real funding we had to have an organization development review – hence the original grant.

This means they give us money to then pass on to one of their recognized consultants – we don’t really see a penny although it did manage to sit in our bank account for a few months. Following the production of our business plan they have now agreed to support ‘artistic funding applications’. Any extra income we need is done through sponsorship – mainly in kind for things we need, or for specific purposes as you indicate in your article.

Some one donated money to buy lighting equipment for when we’re not in a recognized type venue, others buy items of music, etc. Sponsorship included things like a local builder supplying a van and a strong man to lump our gear around (We got a special award form Business and the Arts for fixing that one up). Another includes a local violin dealer doing all our players instrument maintenance and supplying strings free. (I suppose this is the only money that comes with ‘strings’ attached – sorry terrible joke!).

If the money can’t go to the players or advance the chance of money for the players we won’t touch it. Ultimately we want the players to have control of the product artistically and managerially and therefore to be paid a decent salary in recognition of their skills.”

Given the current downward spiral that large orchestra associations seem to be following, I think the American classical music scene is going to begin to see a new ground swell of chamber groups striking out on their own.

There are simply too many students graduating from conservatories with too few jobs available for them.  And there’s barely any room left in collegiate academia (which consequently produces more musicians!) to absorb them so this will be one of the only options left available to them (besides selling real estate or working at “The Gap” I suppose).

They won’t seek union representation nor will they retain “professional” arts managers. Instead, they’ll learn how to manage themselves artistically and financially.  And they’ll find ways to tap into the corporate and philanthropic money that’s out there (and it is out there).

It makes me think of my favorite Mark twain quote: “All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.”

Thanks to the reader for taking the time to write in and share thier insight with all of us.

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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