No Pathos For Summer Festivals

Although daily traffic was on par for the blog average, the reader poll from Wednesday, 6/25/08 garnered the lowest number of participants of any poll in Adaptistration’s history. At the time this article was written, the Music Festival Convention poll only managed to generate 10 percent of average poll response. I admit that the low voter turnout on this topic was disappointing and I hope it isn’t an indication that the stovepiping between segments in this business is on the rise. On the bright side, a clear majority of those who did respond felt that summer music festival managers and board members should have their own mini-conference since they don’t usually have the time to attend the regularly scheduled annual conferences…

Regardless, I remember thinking about how some of the National
Performing Arts Convention’s predominant discussion topics might impact
music festivals; in particular, the issue of rising gas prices. By
their nature, most summer music festivals stand to bear the brunt of
negative consequences resulting from rising gas prices. For example,
many summer music festivals are situated in locations away from
metropolitan areas and compete with each other to attract the best
possible musicians from across the country.

Unlike regular season positions, music festivals have an added
bonus by offering their exclusive location as an added incentive to
performance and travel pay. Add to that varying levels of
accommodations (from "you’re on your own" to gratis top-of-the-line
private housing), travel pay, and proximity to major airports and you
have all the elements for the basic formula many musicians consider
when looking for summer work. Consequently, festivals located in
idyllic locations typically have some leeway over those needing to
leverage monetary compensation and travel pay to a larger degree.

Unfortunately, the sharp increase in gas prices has thrown
that delicate balance out of whack. Not only is it far more expensive
for musicians (not to mention seasonal staffers and patrons) to drive
to music festivals but musicians are having a much more difficult time
flying with instruments due to increased airline fees. As an example,
if a Chicago based musician wanted to play in the Colorado Music
Festival the estimated fuel cost is nearly $400, a 47% increase
compared to last summer.

After the summer season is over, it would be interesting to
survey festivals to see if they had any musicians that cancelled did so
due to the increase in gas prices. Likewise, it would be interesting to
see what ratio of those musicians favored music festivals with any
combination of the following factors:

  • Located at least 1,000 miles from a major metropolitan area.
  • Located at least 150 miles from an international airport.
  • Offer each musician no more than $300 in travel pay.
  • Provide little or no housing subsidy.
  • Pay musicians no more than $400 per week.

Presently, there are more than a few summer music
festivals that have many (or all) of those qualities but since a number
of them are located in some of the most pleasant locations in the
country, they have always managed to attract high quality musicians.
Nevertheless, it would be enormously useful to see if the increase in
gas prices is pushing any of those musicians over a breaking point
where a beautiful setting no longer compensates for deficiencies
outlined in the above points

If nothing else, a mini-convention focusing on summer music
related festivals could go a long way toward gathering this information
and serving as a starting point for meaningful discussion.

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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