More On The Dangers Of Universal Statements

Once again, the scourge of inapt universal statements has reared its ugly head. This instance comes from Joseph Horowitz and his appearance on the WAMU program The Kojo Nnamdi Show

This particular episode of The Kojo Nnamdi Show entitled “Classical Music in the 21st Century” (with guest host Mary Tillotson) discussed the recent appointment of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s new music director and the role of classical music in society today. Also appearing on the program was Baltimore Sun music critic Tim Smith.

Throughout the program, Mr. Horowitz makes repeated claims that there’s “a chronic problem of too much product” in the world of classical music. He goes on to say,

“Orchestras give too many concerts, there are more concerts than there are audience members interested in hearing them. I’m sure it’s true at the Baltimore Symphony, that they give more concerts than their market can bear.”

Mr. Horowitz goes on to claim (around 10:00 into the program) that this problem came to be because of,

“…money given out in the 1960’s by the Ford Foundation and was partly driven by the musicians. Musicians felt that they should earn a ‘quote’ living wage, that they should be able to support themselves exclusively by playing for orchestras. Typically had been the case that if you played in an American orchestra you had a second job or a third job to make ends meat.

So as a result of this Ford Foundation program many orchestras which had not been full time operations became full time operations but it was a [hollow] victory for the musicians. Rather they realize it or not, or rather they acknowledge it or not, it means that orchestras have to give concerts that they don’t believe in, such as pops concerts musicians don’t enjoy. They have to recycle repertoire that they are already tired of playing, and they have to bring to the hall people who are not passionately interested in hearing those programs.

So, in this stressful situation orchestras have to spend more time raising money, they have to spend more time marketing concerts, and the entire enterprise tends to fracture.”

Apparently no one bothered to tell Mr. Horowitz that the decline in interest in classical music isn’t a market driven occurrence, it’s self inflicted. According to Mr. Horowitz’s logic from this show the “market” is telling the business that it doesn’t want it’s product on a universal scale. But what Mr. Horowitz apparently doesn’t realize that it is the orchestra business that is causing the decrease in demand, in part, though ineffective marketing and decades of slowly sequestering themselves from mainstream cultural consciousness.

Therefore, his implication that orchestras need to reduce their “product” is pure nonsense. What sounds like a “reasonable” supply & demand argument has been perverted to mask the fact that the business isn’t following a trend, they are creating it.

Furthermore, I was sincerely disturbed by Mr. Horowitz’s comment that musicians are forced to give concerts they don’t believe in like pops concerts. Which musicians does he talk to which led him to this conclusion? I am a musician, am married to a full time professional violinist, have two more immediate relatives who are also professional players, and hundreds of friends throughout all levels of orchestras in the country. I don’t hear them complaining wholesale about hating the music in pops concerts and that their evil managers have to chain them to their seats in order for them to stay.

Mr. Horowitz renders the business of orchestral music and its musicians as though they are a bunch of elitist snobs – which is precisely part of the problem why the business is in a decline cycle right now. Apparently, Mr. Horowitz doesn’t seem to realize that it’s his own attitude and those within business who subscribe to it who are the problem.

Next, let’s examine Mr. Horowitz’s comment insinuating that the musicians are being unreasonable to think that they should earn a living wage at what they do, and are therefore at the root of this supposed “chronic problem of too much product”. What is unreasonable about individuals who willingly surrender hundreds of thousands of dollars in professional education, many more tens of thousands of dollars on instruments, the better part of their childhood, and the regularity of a traditional 9-5 work week should feel they deserve to at least earn more than the federal poverty threshold (not to mention enough to raise a family)?

Lastly, I have to reiterate just how much I detest universal statements like “there’s too much product” as a business wide implication. Am I to assume that all orchestras throughout the United States create too much product? Does this mean there’s just as much alleged “overproduction” in Green Bay as there is in Chicago? How about Albuquerque, Omaha, Fort Wayne, Virginia, Nashville, Dallas, Minnesota, San Francisco, and New York? Everyone produces too much product? All musicians who believe they deserve to earn a living wage performing in an orchestra are part of the problem?

Such multilateral proclamations only serve to demonstrate Mr. Horowitz’s apparent inability to understand the bigger picture. Not once, did Mr. Horowitz address the real issues within this business such as the need for more efficient marketing, patron empowerment, shared legal authority of nonprofits, increased institutional transparency, tighter executive accountability standards, increased artistic accountability, improved professional development across all organization constituencies, and augmented musician inclusion just to name a few. Each one of these issues was directly related to the issue of Baltimore’s selection of a new music director but, with the possible exception of augmented musician inclusion, they weren’t discussed.

Apparently, Mr. Horowitz would rather focus on circling the wagons and downsizing to suit the needs of his perceived core audience who are already passionately interested in what orchestras do.

Mr. Horowitz recaps his positions at the end of the show (around 49:00 into the program) saying,

“There’s simply too much product. If we want a more impassioned audience and better concerts, one of the things orchestras need to do, which is very hard, is figure out a way to give fewer concerts. And it will probably require a more enlightened attitude among on part of the musicians.”

I wonder exactly what Mr. Horowitz qualifies as an “enlightened attitude”? Moreover, based on comments from the show, Mr. Horowitz’s suggestion for better concerts is simply playing for the same core audience which already exists and forgetting about brining in any new patrons. Bravo! I can just see the corporate executive at Microsoft adopting a philosophy like that when Apple and IBM computers were king.

Fortunately, the show wasn’t an entire hour of ridiculousness. At the very end of the segment, when the guest host asked Tim Smith whether or not he agreed with Mr. Horowitz’s claim that there needs to be fewer concerts he wisely responded by saying,

“If you get the passion back, you just might keep the concerts going.”

And that’s what it’s all about. Orchestras –every constituency associated with them – have to work better at creating that passion throughout their community. That’s the answer. And everyone can help create that passion on their own terms by subscribing to the Take a Friend to the Orchestra model.

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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6 thoughts on “More On The Dangers Of Universal Statements”

  1. When I started going to symphony concerts, some 70 years ago, orchestras tended to be supported by a few wealthy patrons — think Higginson in Boston. They paid for it, they owned it, it was their domaine.

    Maybe that wasn’t good, but it was fair.

    Now the orchestra biz has grown too expert and too expensive for that sort of support. So they go out scrounging for money.

    But the orchestra boards are firmly rooted in the old way of doing things. The business people who tend to comprise them want the authority of running orchestras however they damn well please, but they don’t want the responsibility of supporting them.

    I firmly support the web meister’s contention that orchestra management has to open up, but it also has to reassess its way of doing business.

    But I have a question for Horwitz: what other jobs are available to musicians? There is no longer any radio, TV, recording, hotel-dining-room, palm court, ballroom,pavillion, . . . you name it . . . work available for classical musicians. So should they go flip hamburgers?

    The answer to that is “definitely not,” because they might find they can make more money at the fast food biz than they can playing some instrument and decide to go full time into fast food.

  2. Your comments are right on target. And another statement where Horowitz is dead wrong is about orchestras supposedly endlessly
    rehashing the same old repertoire. In fact,the repertoire is constantly changing and expanding. As well as playing standard works,orchestras today play a wide variety of new works every year,
    as well as reviving long neglected works from the past.

  3. Great post. And coincidentally, a perfect companion piece to my post over in the sequenza21 composers forum ( about Time Magazine’s coverage of the Baltimore/Alsop situation.

    Media who aren’t really qualified to cover classical music end up perpetuating damaging stereotypes, and in the case of Horowitz coming to flawed conclusions on the basis of those stereotypes. And the people who aren’t currently excited about classical music but could become so under the right conditions are relying on mainstream media for their information — when that media gets it wrong those potiential fans miss the opportunity.

  4. What a schmuck. Is this the same J Horowitz who is the executive director of the Brooklyn Orchestra? These comments are typical of a bad manager who can’t find enough work for his orchestra due to lack of vision and creative thinking. He should look for another job – something he could be passionate about…

  5. A compelling entry, and more than a little disturbing to me as a member of the media and a musician who read Horowitz’s book about American classical music and quite liked it.
    I didn’t agree with Horowitz on every point in his book, of course, but I thought it was a good overview of the history of this music in our country.
    But if he thinks orchestras are giving us too much stuff, I’m going to have to go back to the book and see how I missed seeing that attitude somewhere in his pages.
    It’s all about the music, and great music, of whatever kind, will reach people if it gets a chance to. We’re in a period now where there’s more opportunity for people to hear more classical than at any other time in history, probably, and Horowitz’s book appears to support that view, which makes these comments baffling.
    As I say, back to the book.

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