A Question Of Live Music

Amidst all of the recent news about smaller budget opera and ballet organizations cutting back and cancelling operations, I decided to find out what groups in the Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison triangle are planning to do for next season. The responses were intriguing…

The regional cultural triangle of Chicago, Milwaukee, and Madison.
The regional cultural triangle of Chicago, Milwaukee, and Madison.

For ballet and opera organizations, using live musicians instead of resorting to recorded music is a significant artistic benchmark. At the same time, live musicians are a large expense and as the economy continues to make artistic planning increasingly challenging, maintaining artistic standards becomes an even more involved process. Traditionally, one of the best methods for organizations to weather tough times is to maintain the quality of artistic offerings, even if it means cutting back the number of performances; i.e. one excellent production is better than three substandard offerings.

As such, I wanted to see if any of the smaller budget opera and ballet organizations that currently use live musicians are considering reducing artistic expenditures in a way that impacts the use of live music for their productions. The organizations in this sampling include Chicago Opera Theater, Florentine Opera (Milwaukee), Madison Ballet, Madison Opera, and Milwaukee Ballet. I contacted each organization to confirm that they use live musicians for all of their 2008/09 productions and to see if they plan to continue using live musicians for their 2009/10 season. Currently, each of these organizations uses live musicians and all but one plan to continue using live musicians for all of their 2009/10 productions.

Left Percentage of organizations that use live musicians for the 2008/09 season. Right Percentage of organizations that plan on using live musicians for the 2009/10 season
Left: Percentage of organizations that use live musicians for the 2008/09 season. Right: Percentage of organizations that plan on using live musicians for the 2009/10 season.

The only group not planning to use musicians next season is the Madison Ballet. Citing the economy as the reason behind their decision, Madison Ballet Executive Director, Valerie Dixon, explained that in time, the organization hopes to reverse this decision.

“It is part of the artistic vision of this organization to use live music for our productions,” said Dixon. “This will be the first time in 25 years that we will not be using live music. As soon as we are able to reinstate that, with local community support, we will certainly be reinstating live music into our productions.”

Other organizations included additional information in their response, such as the Madison Opera where General Director Allan Naplan indicated that his organization may have to cut back on the number of string musicians they use in each section by one or two but those decisions have not been finalized.

The majority of remaining organizations indicated that although they have certainly been impacted by the waning economy in one way or another, they intend to continue using the same numbers of musicians as previous seasons while striving to remain focused on artistic quality.

“These economic times have challenged many of us in new and unexpected ways, wrote Milwaukee Ballet Executive Director Dennis Buehler, “But our focus is maintaining core artistic values of which live music plays an important role.”

Presuming that the $50 million allocated toward arts organizations in the Federal economic stimulus package remains untouched by the time President Obama signs it into law on Tuesday, 2/17/2009, these funds may provide new options for opera and ballet groups teetering on the edge of losing live music. Although the parameters and distribution timeline for stimulus funds is as of yet unknown, it would be in every organization’s best interest to begin making plans to solicit some of those funds.

In a sense, some recent challenges may become opportunities if organizations across the country like those above can successfully demonstrate why federal stimulus funds can be used to not only maintain the traditional artistic standards but also fulfill one of the plan’s objectives by providing ongoing work opportunities that may otherwise be lost. In short, stimulus funds not only create jobs but they contribute to institutional stability. Consequently, if Congress’ previous actions are any indication of future expectations for businesses receiving stimulus funds, every arts organization should immediately engage steps to design or update a detailed business plan along with instituting unparalleled institutional transparency.

Ultimately, the federal stimulus package may have more of a positive impact on the arts field than simply helping to maintain jobs. If properly implemented, it could usher in a new era of enhanced governance and business practices capable of maintaining institutional stability without sacrificing artistic potential and accomplishment.

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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2 thoughts on “A Question Of Live Music”

  1. Drew
    My concern is that they will take the $50M and blow it on Webern retrospectives and Dada revival festivals. I would hope that the NEA gives an indication that the money’s primary purpose is to support what is potentially lost because of this current crisis such as education programming, live music that was previously scheduled (as you pointed out), you know actual jobs that could be saved! If they blow it on crap then it might just be the last time they ever get this kind of infusion. They need to be able to deliver to lawmakers a report detailing how the dollars were spent and how many jobs were saved. Creating new jobs with new festivals etc.. is not an option, it would be the equivalent of GM receiving bailout money and then saying “Great, we’re going to build Theremins now!” Please let’s try and solve the problems we have, not create new ones!

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