What’s Old Is New Again

The latest issue of Senza Sordino, the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) newsletter, included an article from ICSOM chair, Bruce Ridge that I found intriguing. Ridge’s article, The New Apocalypticism, examines the impact of the economic downturn and how the orchestra business has responded. Written from his perspective as an orchestra musician and governance activist, Ridge refutes the notion (and subsequent buzz words) that we’re in a “new economy” and uses detailed historical perspective to support his position…

In particular, I thought his comparisons between the 1958 economic downturn and the current economy intriguing.

In 1958 the United States found itself mired in a deep recession. Sales of automobiles that year fell 31%, and unemployment in Detroit stood at 20% (a comparable figure to 2009). There was a debate within the Eisenhower administration about the budget, with the President insisting on a balanced budget from the Congress, and with Vice President Nixon concerned that such a balanced budget could deepen the recession, leading to mid-term election losses and undermining his own campaign for the presidency in 1960. Eisenhower won out, the recession deepened, and Nixon lost the 1960 election, due in part to the economy (and also several thousand votes harvested from cemeteries on the outskirts of Chicago). I’ve always thought the lesson of this was that, in a recession, you don’t balance your budget, but you manage your debt.

The comparison between 1958 Detroit and Detroit of today does a good job at helping stakeholders not entrenched in the gritty details of this business to see a bigger picture.

Is there such a thing as a "new economy?"
Is there such a thing as a "new economy?"

Overall, Ridge advocates cooperation coupled with preparation for recovery and concludes his piece with the phrase “Our orchestras must be prepared to participate in the impending recovery.” This point struck me as especially important given the sentiment that came from some managers and board members at the League’s June conference. Regular readers likely remember the article from 6/22/2009 that examines the general sense of frustration throughout the business and how it contributes to a growing sense of resentment to the idea that restoration has to be a part of contemporary budget-minded strategic thinking.

Almost imperceptibly, managers and board members seem to be dividing themselves up into two camps: those who feel current cuts need to become the new standard and those looking to manage current debt with an eye to recovery (dare I say parity). Nonetheless, the notion that current cuts and solid recovery plans are mutually exclusive is, at best, a dangerous concept yet a growing number of orchestras seem to be proposing and/or adopting sizeable budget cuts unaccompanied by firm measures for recovery.

Nonetheless, I’m curious to know what you think. Here are some questions buzzing around in my head:

  • Are budget cuts and recovery plans mutually exclusive?
  • Should any proposed budget cuts be accompanied by a detailed recovery plan?
  • Should recovery plans only be considered after cuts are adopted?
  • Should recovery plans not be considered until after an organization is ready, regardless of how long that takes.
  • Should budget cuts requiring musician concessions supplant any existing collective bargaining agreement terms.
  • Should budget cuts requiring musician concessions be temporary (with a defined end point) and then be supplanted by existing collective bargaining agreement terms?

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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