Taking The Spin Out On Tour

In an apparent effort to gear up for their upcoming Washington D.C. conference, the American Symphony Orchestra League has been pounding the pavement and beating up the PR drums in efforts to paint a pleasant picture on the current state of the American orchestra business. Not that this sort of behavior is a bad thing for them to do, after all, they are a service organization representing orchestra managers and board members.

One of most used brushes used in the League’s kit is, unfortunately, a heavily spun statistic about the failure rate of the American orchestras over recent years.  Nearly two years ago to the day League president, Henry Fogel, was quoted in the 6/15/03 edition of the Kansas City Star in an article by Paul Horsley playing down the failure rate of American orchestras,

"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."

The updated version of that sound byte has appeared in two publications over recent weeks.  The first appeared in an article by Celia R. Baker in the Salt Lake Tribune and the other in an article by Mary Ellyn Hutton in the Cincinnati Post.

In August of last year, I posted an article which examined the 2003 quote in order to cut through the spin and present a more accurate statistic.  The original league statistic put the failure rate of American orchestra in the neighborhood of .66% when in reality it was closer to 10%.

Now, the league has revised that figure by offering the following statistic, which the Cincinnati Post article reports as,

The view that American orchestras are on the brink of a precipice is incorrect, Fogel said. "In the last five years, when the economy has been really down, we’ve had nine orchestra bankruptcies, but that’s not a lot. There are over 350 professional orchestras in America. In what other industry is the percentage better?"

The Salt Lake Tribune article reports,

Since 2001, there have been eight bankruptcies among approximately 350 professional orchestras, and five of those have rallied and are still performing, Fogel said.  "It’s not a bad track record. It’s better than the airline industry."

Since 2003, the statistic has adjusted the American orchestra failure rate from approximately 6/900 (.66%) to approximately 7/350 (2%).  They have also switched from using the NHL as a comparative model to the airline industry (or you can look at it as switching from using non management employees who, on average, earn over $250,000 per year to employees who earn a much closer wage to what orchestra musicians throughout the ICSOM and ROPA ensembles take home).

At least the spin is beginning to slow down a bit but it’s still misleading.  If you use the same criteria to define a "professional orchestra" from my posting in August, the failure rate of American orchestras has actually edged up a bit from 10% to 16%.  It’s a lot worse than that if you apply the criteria used in an article published by the U.K. based publication, The Times; it ends up around 30% (but even I would consider that statistic much too high).

There’s one more misleading point in one of the failure rate sound bytes above.  Specifically, it fails to mention the fact that the orchestras which have emerged from the ashes of bankruptcy are merely shadows of their former selves, without clear definition or long term artistic goals.

Here at Adaptistration, I’ve been keeping tabs on several of these orchestras on the "Lost But Not Forgotten" page (although the link is temporarily down while the conversion to the new blogging platform is underway; but hang tight, it will return). 

The communities which were served by the largest of those now bankrupt orchestras are still without replacements, namely Miami, Savannah, and Tulsa.  The orchestras serving Colorado Springs, San Antonio, and San Jose are struggling to get along and deserve all of the support they rightfully deserve.  Nevertheless, to simply state that diminished replacement ensembles are a good thing is premature and using the term "rallied" is subjective, at best.

Another recent article by Janelle Gelfand appearing in the Cincinnati Enquirer reports some details from one of Henry Fogel’s recent lectures.  I was glad to finally see someone from the League acknowledging the source for some of the self inflicted debilitating problems which this business is currently suffering.

Based on what was reported in the article I think the speech falls short of identifying the fundamental problems which actually plague the business, even so, it does take public notice of the gorilla in the corner. 

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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