Adaptistration’s One Year Anniversary

It has been a full year since the inaugural article at Adaptistration was published.  When Adaptistration began I assumed that the only people interested in issues related to orchestra management would be orchestra managers and perhaps some musicians.  Since then, I’ve been very pleased to learn that at least half of Adaptistration’s readers belong to either group.

Feeling Included

I believe the above fact goes a long way toward illustrating just how interested patrons and “outsiders” really are with this business.  It also shows that the industry needs to become much more transparent, especially when it comes to their finances and internal operations, as well as provide much greater public access.

Declining audience attendance isn’t due to marketing issues only, but are also greatly influenced by how involved patrons are allowed to feel.  I use the word “allowed” because that best describes the process of inclusion.

Orchestras consciously make decisions regarding a level of involvement they provide to patrons.  Most orchestras have organized volunteer groups but that level of involvement is typically fundraising in nature and most patrons don’t have much interest in simply being used as a walking, talking checkbook.

Along those same lines, orchestra musicians need to have more opportunities to interact with patrons and help transfer their love and excitement about music and this business directly to the patrons.

State Of The Industry We’re Still In A Crisis

How much has the business changed in the past year?  That’s a question I’ve asked to just about everyone I’ve talked to in the past month.  The answer I keep arriving at is: “not much for the better”.

Fortunately, the industry has only witnessed one ensemble go out of business (although one is still one too many), the Chamber Orchestra of Albuquerque.  Some of the groups that were dark a year ago are now playing again such as San Antonio and San Jose (now officially designated as Symphony Silicon Valley) although both groups are back with significantly reduced pay and concert seasons.

Another disturbing trend is the push by many orchestra managers and board executives to reduce the size and scope of their operations.  As I write this, three of the “Big 5” orchestras (Philadelphia, Chicago, and Cleveland) are in extended play & talk sessions as well as Minnesota and National.  You can also add to that the host of smaller budget orchestras in the same situation.

Everything I’ve read about or heard from inside sources say the focus of the talks are not just on direct issues of compensation and benefits but more toward whether or not their respective communities are even capable of supporting an orchestra at even a reduced budget size.

There’s also been an upsurge in requests to reopen contracts in mid term.  Columbus (OH) Symphony board members have been wrangling with musicians to reopen their contract because the board wants to institute wage and benefit concessions.  Colorado reopened their contract too, but after two years of wage freezes they did come out with an increase in their salary and their season was extended by one week.

But there’s been some good news with contracts too.  The Dallas Symphony completed contract negotiations which included regular wage increases and expanded contract language related to benefits (more on that in an upcoming article).  Alabama removed their hiring freeze and implemented regular increases in pay over the next three years.

In the upcoming season, several orchestras are looking into the barrel of potentially contentious contract negotiations, which will undoubtedly be influenced by what’s currently happening.  Oregon and Milwaukee are worth paying close attention to over the next year.

Then consider the host of orchestras which have accepted large concessions over recent years.  Honolulu, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and St. Louis are buying time by the musicians subsidizing attempts to put their organization financially back on track.  But those concessions are meant to be temporary and if their managers and board members aren’t able to make good on promises to put back regular wages and benefits then things will undoubtedly become very ugly.

A number of orchestras are still surviving by financial “plate spinning”; drawing heavily against increased lines of credit and increased endowment draws. But those are only temporary solutions which are not capable of sustaining their respective organizations once their current contracts expire; and once that comes about look for those plates to come crashing down.

This brings us back to where we started; the debate over the fundamental capacity over the size and scope of orchestra organizations.  One of the results from this debate has been a decidedly lower level of morale among orchestra musicians. This fact alone can have a resoundingly negative impact on the quality of artistic output and if that happens, it will be even more difficult to attract and retain badly needed patrons.

Is The Industry Evolving?

Although the amount of change industry wide can still be measured in fractions, there have been a few isolated cases of substantial change.  At the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, they’ve begun to implement a very different system of governance which increases the amount of direct musician control.  In Nashville, they’ve developed a financial plan which has resulted in securing a tremendous amount of operating capital in order to build a new concert hall and create a long term endowment capable of sustaining artistic operations for generations to come.

By and large, however, the industry is still very much the same beast it was last year.  Financial models are quite similar, even though many orchestras have implemented large cuts in operational and artistic expenditures.  Some solutions to cash flow and financial problems have appeared in unexpected philanthropic giving and large individual gifts.

Although these incomes are certainly appreciated, they still don’t solve the fundamental cash flow problems responsible for putting most orchestras in the trouble they’re in.

Managers are still shuffled around between orchestras, and not always with enough regard for their past performance.  Much of this can be attributed to the control asserted over board members by the American Symphony Orchestra League.  As a result, some managers talk about making sweeping changes in the way they approach this business but right now the only sweeping changes have been along the lines of massive budget cuts.

This makes it next to impossible to implement any substantial positive change.  Even philanthropic giving is basically the same, with the notable exception that several groups are instituting stringent balanced budget requirements in order to qualify for and retain sizeable grants.  The solution some managers have found to keeping their budgets balanced is to use the potential grant as leverage to force musicians into accepting concessions; in a sense they’re attempting to control all the options while simultaneously taking credit for projected economic success (I’m looking at you Philadelphia).

What’s Next?

As stated in the Adaptistration manifesto, the environment of orchestra management has changed, and it continues to change quickly. So far, most orchestra managers haven’t adapted much to those changes besides identifying reasons “beyond their control” for why their organizations are in such a mess.

By comparison, musicians have changed more noticeably.  Many orchestra musicians have accepted drastic wage and work condition concessions in addition to participating in exploring new forms of governance in order to directly participate in sharing the course their respective organizations will follow.

Whether or not any of those changes will have positive results is yet to be seen.  But one thing is for certain, many musicians are rapidly approaching the end of their tolerance as they wait for their managers and board members to figure a way out of current financial troubles.

The industry is standing at one of its defining moments in time.  Many orchestras across the spectrum are going to end up doing one of two options:

  1. They will permanently and significantly reduce their size of their operating budgets and scope of operations in the belief that their respective communities are neither capable nor willing to support larger endeavors.
  2. They will quickly adapt to the challenge of creating a large influx of new dedicated ticket buyers, patrons, and donors; proving that classical music is still a relevant form of art worthy of larger operating budgets, greater attention, and expanded artistic achievement.

Regardless of which option orchestras choose to follow one thing is certain; the current cash flow and economic models utilized for decades needs to be phased out with all deliberate speed.  Living hand to mouth and following archaic financial models will only continue the same level of anxiety the industry has become all too comfortable living with.

I look forward to another year of examining this wonderful industry and advocating the need for positive change.

One of the features which make Adaptistration the best forum available for open, honest, and accessible examination of industry issues is participation.  I look forward to receiving the continuous stream of messages from everyone with an interest in this business.

Now It’s Your Turn to Evaluate Adaptistration

  1. How well does Adaptistration present and examine orchestra industry issues?
  2. Has Adaptistration had an impact on the industry and is it more positive or negative?
  3. Have you as a reader become more or less interested in the internal operations of your local orchestra?
  4. Are issues covered thoroughly and fairly at Adaptistration?
  5. Do you feel that you know more about the orchestra industry after reading Adaptistration?
  6. Is there anything missing at Adaptistration you would like to see?
  7. Which articles have you found most interesting, educational, or enlightening?
  8. How would you rate Adaptistration’s coverage of the orchestra industry using an academic scale of A, B, C, D, or F?
  9. Do you feel that you would know as much about the orchestra industry if Adaptistration wasn’t available?
  10. Are there any technical features missing from Adaptistration?

Send in an email with your responses.

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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