There Has Never Been A Better Time For The Business

Over the past several years there’s been no shortage of newspaper articles and online discussions about the problems in classical music.  One of the more recent entries was from blogger, Greg Sandow.

In the article he talks about 15 separate he points to as basis for a crisis in classical music and out of those, it was the last few points which caught my attention and made me think.  For example, Greg writes about:

Declining Interest
“Some orchestra people I’ve talked to, marketing directors included, simply say that fewer people want to go to classical concerts. Once again, we’re talking about a change in the cultural weather.”
Structural Deficits
“I’ve heard rumblings about a very troubling trend — a 20-year pattern of orchestras’ expenses rising faster than their income. I don’t know how well documented this is, but I certainly know sober people in the orchestra world who think it’s a fact. Along with this goes talk of “structural deficits” — a long-term trend for orchestras to spend more than they take in (or could possibly take in).”
Skyrocketing Artistic Costs
“Privately, though, you’ll hear people in the business saying that orchestras can’t afford those settlements [related to increasing musician compensation]. And a long-term struggle seems to be taking shape, in which orchestra boards and managements are starting to insist that they simply can’t pay what musicians have made in the past — pay levels that musicians have understandably come to expect.”
Managers Really Believe There’s A Crisis
“Speaking in private, orchestra managers strike me as more pessimistic than they let themselves be in public. In fact, throughout the classical music there’s a sense of crisis”

I would tend to agree with some of what Greg observes (with the exception that I’m one of the people who doesn’t  buy into the structural deficit and artistic pay arguments), but these are precisely the same reasons why there’s never been a better time for Classical Music.

Yes, over the decades managers and orchestra musicians alike have become stale with adjusting to their patron’s desires.  Yes, less people are actively participating in classical music events than they used to.  Yes, a good number of people responsible for marketing and fundraising for orchestras are anxious because they simply don’t know what to do about all of this.

Nevertheless, all of these “negatives” are exactly what this business needs to spark a fundamental change in the way it functions.

The Good News
The one crucial element missing from the way classical music views itself and how it functions in the larger sense of culture and entertainment is a sense of entrepreneurialism. For decades, the classical music business has relied on a sense of entitlement instead of this entrepreneurial approach.

Unfortunately, even things that are good for us aren’t entitled to have us pay attention to them (how many more studies do we need to tell us about the positive benefits of studying and listening to classical music?).

All of these problems are exasperated the fact that many people seem to be looking for a magic bullet solution.  They seem to be looking for a marketing method which will turn around ticket and subscription sales or a new way to get increased donations out of people who already give.

What the business needs is a grassroots effort to rebuild each individual orchestra from scratch (an idea which has been examined here time and time again).

Does that mean orchestras will need to look and feel different than they do today?  Will the fundamental listening experience change?  Probably not, but even in areas where significant change is warranted, it won’t be off-putting to patrons and supporters in such a way that would kill the patient to cure the disease..

We’re already seeing some examples of how this is working.  Yesterday, The Partial Observer published an interview I did with tuba soloist Patrick Sheridan.  Think about that last bit a moment; a he’s a full time tuba soloist (and he does well I would say better than most piano soloists).

He doesn’t have a full time academic or small ensemble gig to sustain his solo activities.  Patrick took it upon himself to create a template for artistic and economic success in an area where nothing like it had ever existed.

He’s fought against stereotypes (in and outside the business) to become successful.  So how did he do it?  In lieu of reading the interview yourself, I’ll provide a synopsis.

How To Get It Done
“How many people out there want to hear a tuba soloist?”  Seems like a simple, straightforward question and orchestras take a similar approach to their marketing efforts.

Even though Patrick is an extraordinary musical talent (just think of him like Yo-Yo Ma, but playing a tuba instead of a cello) he didn’t begin to build his “product” by asking that question, instead, he decided to examine how he could sell himself and the overall experience to potential consumers.

If you look at what Patrick programs for his appearances with an orchestra, you’ll see that the selection are not very different than the standard fare you hear from just about any other soloist on any other instrument; it ranges from traditional war horse selections through pops.  So how did he find a way to sell that product using such an unusual medium of a tuba?

Patrick took the time to examine the experience he provided, not just from the artistic listening viewpoint but from an entertainment and interactive perspective.  He discovered that his own personality is what contributes to a successful formula.

The unique component in this is that there isn’t an either/or aspect to this solution.  Artistic impact isn’t reduced simply because an entertaining element centered around comedy is introduced (think Victor Borge).  In my conversation with Patrick he mentioned that one of the most enjoyable parts of performing is “disarming” the listeners with his personality (he really is that funny) and then introduce more of the artistic component.

This particular solution is obviously distinct to Patrick; it relies on a number of variables such as his inherent ability to be entertaining.  However, he maintains flexibility and viability by constantly examining his repertoire and how he programs each of his performances.

What’s important to identify here is the process Patrick used to find his solutions for success.  It’s this method which orchestras could employ on a number of different levels; from day to day operations right up through artistic and administrative long term planning.

When it comes to orchestral programming I doubt those responsible will develop the needed flexibility en masse as well as an individual soloist does.  However, the actual orchestra managers already have the inherent abilities they need to adapt to the rapidly changing “cultural environment”.

Conclusions
Within this business, it’s the managers who are more apt to change their operating methods and absorb new ways of thinking; it’s their natural position to be proactive and at the forefront of change.  That ability has been dulled over the recent past but without managers taking the lead in the here and now, the rest of those in the business will simply follow them right into the ground.

So if the industry really is in a state of crisis, why is now such a good time for classical music?  Because the industry is beginning to realize that it’s not really an industry at all, it’s just a bunch of similar individual business ventures which need to constantly examine why and how they need to go about doing what it is they want to accomplish.

Sitting around trying to pound the same square peg into a hole that’s obviously evolved into a round hole won’t go very far.  Doing more of the same thing in terms of programming, marketing, and fundraising will only result in synthetic results at best while simultaneously draining resources away from what the product is; making music and entertaining people.

In the end, all of this senseless talk about the crisis in classical music is a result of crossing over some sort of “limit” to classical music is a red herring; it’s just a bunch of noise being generated to mask the real problems.

Hearing that some managers are pessimistic and unsure about how to make things better isn’t unsettling in the least.  Most of the positive fundamental changes in the orchestra business have resulted from such periods of mass unrest.

What is unsettling is that some managers appear to be faulting other sources as the cause for all of their anxiety, such as a general decline in cultural activities; which holds about as much credit as the great “economic malaise” of the late 70’s.  they need to remember that they are adaptable and are capable of regaining lost ground.

The only real concern is that some organizations are going to begin making the necessary changes too late and, as a result, a number of orchestras are going to shut down or take significant steps backward.

If people aren’t getting the job done, that just tells you they are the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong approach (or any combination of those).  That’s not some sort of administrative mortal sin, it’s just business.

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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