Representative Behavior And The Dangers Of Universalism

It’s come to my attention through several reader email messages that I have failed to point out an important point in previous articles about Blair Tindall’s new book that what she discusses regarding the free wheeling lifestyle of classical gig musicians in New York City during the 80’s is just that; the free wheel lifestyle of classical gig musicians in New York City during the 80’s.

Those depictions certainly aren’t representative of the behavior for the vast majority of orchestral musicians throughout the entire country or even the full time orchestral musicians in NYC. Blair makes this distinction herself in the book and on at least one of the live radio shows she’s been featured on to promote her book, WNYC’s Soundcheck with John Schaefer (a perennial favorite of mine).

Although most folks become titillated by headlines of sex and death (the same folks usually watch the evening news each and every day of the week) it’s important to keep a sense of perspective toward the situation.

Case in point, the recent article by Anne Midgette in the 06/26/05 edition of the New York Times. Overall, it is a well written, thoughtful article which examines some of the trends for large orchestra in major metropolitan areas across the U.S. Unfortunately, it also makes it very easy for readers to draw universal associations between what’s happening at some the largest budget orchestras in the country (Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Boston) and every other orchestra in the business as though what’s happening in those groups is what’s happening everywhere.

Granted, this is the NYT and it makes perfect sense to focus their articles on what’s happening in New York, but I wish thier editors wouldn’t approve articles which draw universal connections between what may be happening in New York and the rest of the country (at least with orchestras anyway). Everyone would be better served if they took more of a local approach or made the distinction between any connection between trends for the New York Philharmonic and say, the Nashville Symphony.

For example, the article examines classical music from a “supply and demand” viewpoint almost always an unadvisable idea in my opinion),

“All over the Western world, the alarm is sounding that classical music is in trouble. Orchestra subscription sales are dropping widely, in some cases by as much as two percentage points a year. Ensembles are not balancing their budgets. Audiences are getting older; young people are turned off by classical music.

Is it true that people don’t want classical music anymore? Or is it just a question of how to give it to them? And is it even possible – heresy of heresies – that they are being given too much of it?

By their very nature, orchestras cannot follow the laws of supply and demand. Major orchestras give their musicians contracts for 52 weeks a year, then have to figure out how to occupy them. This is one reason orchestras have summer festivals in the first place: to give the musicians something to do.”

Unfortunately, this is an over simplistic view of how the orchestral side of classical music functions. Furthermore, it completely disregards what’s happening in other orchestras which demonstrate trends which are opposite of some of those which are detailed in the article.

It also assumes the current “demand” for what a few of the big budget orchestras deliver is representative of the rest of the country. Fortunately, there are some real examples of organizations where they are more concerned with expanding the demand for classical music rather than sit back and bemoan 60% capacity rates with the scrutiny applied in the NYT article.

Here’s a series of examples using three orchestras of varying budget size:

  • In Los Angeles, the Philharmonic has expanded their number of primary venue concerts from 98 in the 2002-2003 season to 165 in the 2004-2005 season. Within that same period, they’ve experienced a 16% increase in overall ticket sales. Granted, they did move into the luxurious new Disney Hall, but keep in mind that it was built in the same neighborhood as their old venue. This fact indicates they didn’t have to go foraging for new patrons in neighboring communities, attend summer festivals, or carpetbag their way into a community where an orchestra recently collapsed just to give their musicians something to do; the audience was there all along.

  • In little old Nashville, this mid budget size orchestra has identified a much larger interest in orchestral classical music throughout their community and have responded by harnessing that interest by embarking on a capital project to build a new $120 million, dedicated music hall. In order to make the hall financially viable, they will need to expand the number of services they require from the musicians and begin to draw a much larger audience. That’s certainly different than simply spending large sums of money just to give their musicians something to do.

  • Finally, at the smaller budget Dayton Philharmonic they’ve been able to increase their number of main venue performances from 35 in the 2001-2002 season up to 44 in 2004-2005 after they moved into a new 2,155 seat concert hall for their 2002-2003 season. Their old venue seated 2,501 for classical concerts and 3200 for pops events and with a similar reduction in seating capacity to what the LA Phil experienced they have seen an increase in attendance for pops concerts from 68% to 93% capacity (exact figures for classical concerts weren’t readily available although the Dayton Philharmonic representative said they were definitely higher than four years ago).

    One positive aspect Anne’s article is that it does some real good by pointing out that in order for any orchestra to break out of a bogus “supply and demand” mindset, they will need to change how they approach marketing themselves to their respective potential audiences.

    In the end, universal statements need to be handled carefully. There are certainly times where they are appropriate, but not as often as we all probably use them.

    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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  • 5 thoughts on “Representative Behavior And The Dangers Of Universalism”

      To the Editor of The New York Times:

      Anne Midgette writes interestingly ( “Decline in Listeners Worries Orchestras” 6/25/05) of the reduction in the size of audiences for summertime (spring, fall and wintertime) symphonic concerts across not only the USA but in Europe, as well. Perhaps the most significant item of her reportage on the subject is the highlighting of an increase in attendance whenever stellar musicians are engaged to appear with the symphony orchestras at their respective festival sites. As Maxim Gershunoff and I wrote in our recently published book “It’s Not All Song and Dance,” this is not exactly “news” as celebrity has been a major draw for classical music since Paganini and Liszt were drawing in crowds during the 19th century.

      However, behind this relevant phenomenon and its impact on attendance at classical concerts, there is a lack of general knowledge about the art they are selling by the artistic administrators and marketers employed by the boards and executive directors of symphony orchestras. Heretofore, it has been my experience that classical concert marketers view the sale of any product to be based on the same overall principles. This is undeniably true, but it helps if you are entirely familiar with the benefits of a new widget versus those of the name brand widget. Of course, it is always easier to sell the name brand widget than the newer product. However, if multiple new products are not introduced into a market where the older ones either are retired or die off, than there will never be a demand for the newer product except for rarities promoted by more industrious and knowledgeable marketers. When the key figures involved in the selection and promotion of guest artists are unfamiliar with any but the “name” brands in their field of endeavor, and unwilling to expose themselves and their music directors to new names in their realm, of course they will not be able to sell their product based on anything but a high level of familiarity on the parts of audiences which, nevertheless, continue to shrink.

      Classical music marketers are hired based on an overall ability to sell rather than any specific ability to sell classical music. Only when the national media picks up on a new name, such as pianist Lang Lang, , then so do those orchestral personnel involved in selecting and selling an artist. The artistic field is now, more than ever, exceptionally well populated and extremely competitive. There is so little time for marketing departments to sell that the result is a sameness pervading the entire Western classical music scene. The “name” artists while attracting audiences are often overworked, over exposed, overpaid and over demanding in the manner of rock stars. One violinist, while commanding fees upwards of $75,000 per performance, has also been known only to agree to contractual terms in which said fiddler’s services would only be required for a period of no more than five hours including rehearsal and performance; a chartered plane to and from New York City and the home base of a symphony orchestra; and, most certainly, no post-concert appearance at any reception for the orchestra’s donors. When demands like these are eagerly met by a symphony orchestra in order to engage such an artist, it is hardly any wonder that the orchestral ensembles run up deficits. The overall cost for that artist exceeded any potential box-office receipts for that performance. Orchestras’ administrations counter nay sayers regarding this type of reckless fiduciary activity by stating that private sponsors were solicited to fulfill the demands of the artist. They fail to mention the possibility that the energy that went into such solicitation could well have been spent on more positive fund seeking to benefit the orchestra rather than the guest artist. They further fail to observe that the violinist’s performance under the stated conditions might best be described as “perfunctory,” rather than providing the exhilarated high such artists may usually provide as suggested in Ms. Midgette’s article. In my experience it can just as often be the power of media suggestion providing the exhiliration.

      The reluctance on the part of music administrators to present any but the familiar ranging from the engagement of “name” artists to the performance of “new” music has been encouraged, in part, by the American Symphony Orchestra League which while pushing “new” music has never been an advocate of emerging “new” artists. The late impresario Sol Hurok used a simple formula to introduce the artists who were new to his roster. He demanded that if an orchestra engaged a “name” artist, such as Artur Rubinstein, to attract audiences to their subscription series, then as an unwritten part of the agreement that they also engage an unknown performer. Daniel Barenboim, Itzhak Perlman, and cellists Yo Yo Ma and Jacqueline du Pre, as well as countless others of today’s celebrity artists began their careers riding on the backs of better known artists. In Hurok’s era, marketers had to familiarize themselves with the unknowns and push their local media to also become familiar. Today. the younger entertainment and arts editors staffing most newspapers now know who Dave Matthews is but won’t be familiar with Russian violinist Vadim Repin. They will be somewhat knowledgeable about the classical violinist Joshua Bell because he has played the Oscar winning background music for a popular movie. The same type of knowledge is the forte of most symphony marketing departments. They are familiar with the easily absorbed common knowledge about highly promoted classical artists but not prone to read anything but highlighted elements of the bios of “new” artists. They are otherwise often too busy to devote any time to familiarizing themselves with anything of interest about an emerging artist that hasn’t already been seen in the pages of The New York Times or Time magazine.

      A man whom I mentored when he first entered the field of arts administration now heads an arts management program at an American university. It was interesting to note that he is one individual who endeavors to see that his students have both a specific knowledge and a sense of the aesthetics of the artistry they are learning to administer. When eventually marketers and administrators initially learn more fully about the art in which they are involved, the artistic entities employing them will fare much better at the box-office. The constant plaint of artists managers for years now has been that orchestra administrations book by imitation rather than innovation.

      The hiring of truly stellar classical artists such as Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, Martha Argerich and Van Cliburn for performances with The Philadelphia Orchestra to attract audiences this summer at the Saratoga Center for the Performing Arts constitutes a quick fix/dead end street for the problem and not really any sort of permanent solution. Perhaps it would be best for all to recall that during Eugene Ormandy’s tenure with The Philadelphia Orchestra, it was not any guest artist that was promoted to audiences other than under a banner that noted it was “Your Philadelphia Orchestra.” Maybe the idea of imitation could apply here and make some history worth repetition.

      Finally, when our political bodies start to recognize the worthiness of arts in education , as recent polls already show the awareness of most Americans to be, and ethusiastically support the arts once again, then our young people will have the opportunity of being exposed to classical music and becoming happily familiar with the joys it can impart.

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