Universal Thinking Is So Detrimental

A recent article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review by Mark Kanny reports that the Pittsburgh Symphony president, Larry Tamburri as making the following remarks:

“A basic flaw in the economic model of American orchestras compared with most other businesses, says Tamburri, is that productivity increases in music are not possible to compensate for inflationary pressures on salaries, health care and other costs. Music is inherently labor- and time-intensive to prepare and present.

American orchestras are also financially dependent on donations from individuals, corporations and foundation, who are also affected by the same economic environment that is intensifying the stress on orchestras.”

This isn’t a “flaw” in the economic system at all.  It is, however, a great example of how this industry likes to adopt a universal view, often called “group-think”.

Although I might be more inclined to agree that an orchestra like Pittsburgh may find it harder to combat increases in the cost of producing orchestral art with increases in productivity (I’m assuming Larry’s referring to earned income here) I don’t think that’s true at all for other orchestras, especially smaller budget organizations where simply adding an extra performance (and selling the hall) will increase earned income revenue considerably.

I would like to know exactly what productivity entails, since I’ve written several articles on how technology can improve artistic and operational productivity for orchestras and put Baumol’s Curse to rest (along with the one from the Bambino).

I would also add that an increase in production will inevitably lead to great artistic achievement and therefore invigorate audiences.  All of which will lend itself toward making them more willing to open their checkbooks and support their orchestras.  Do I even need to mention how the badly needed increase of regular patrons will boost revenues from annual individual giving?

The article goes on to report Pittsburgh’s increase in subscription sales,

“While the symphony has reported modest increases in attendance, one of its most impressive recent accomplishments has been to increase subscription sales. Subscriptions provide stability for orchestras and cost less to sell than tickets sold one at a time.”

Although it’s never a bad thing to increase any ticket sales, the industry will have to realize that traditional subscriptions are an albatross around its neck.  I don’t think subscriptions should ever be eliminated but there is a desperate need to move away from the concept that single tickets are “too expensive” to sell.  Over dependence on subscription income has also led to many of the economic problems this industry is currently suffering.

Right now, the way single tickets are sold is too expensive.  But that’s not some scientific fact that can’t be changed, it’s because orchestras have always relied on subscriptions and as a result have never geared efficient marketing campaigns toward those single buyers.  The sooner orchestras address this problem head on and stop burying their heads in the sand the better.  This is a topic I’ve touched on before and plan to write more about in the future.

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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