A Bible For The Symphony Business?

According to an article by Burl Burlingame in the 9/4/2009 edition of the Honolulu Star Bulletin, the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra (HSO) has received a $2.131 million influx of cash from the Honolulu Symphony Foundation with the caveat that the HSO “[appoints] a new executive director and development of a comprehensive balanced budget and a detailed business action plan.”

learn moreThe article continues by reporting that orchestras only cover 30 percent of their income from ticket sales and the remaining necessary revenue is developed from contributed sources. Anyone remotely involved in the field already knows this is Orchestra Business 101 info but it’s important to note that the article tends to suggest that the orchestra’s new business plan is going to move away from that model.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the article is littered with buzzwords that circle back to very old discussions. You’ll find a host of oldies-but-goodies such as “balanced budget,” “flexible,” “largest expense was musician pay,” “increase public confidence,” and more. Although the HSO’s board chair, Peter Shaindlin, projects an image of invention and innovation, the organization may encounter a few surprises along the way.

“This new financial plan was created in incredible detail, to prove to donors we care about every aspect of the business and will carry through,” said Shaindlin. “We’ve written a bible for the symphony business.”

On one hand, it is heartening to see the HSO motivated to meet upcoming challenges. On the flip side, based on the information in the article, it seems as though what the HSO perceives as new isn’t entirely accurate. Regardless, any organization claiming to have authored a “bible” for the business should catch your attention. It will be fascinating to learn more details once the organization (hopefully) releases a copy of its new plan.

There is no mention about whether or not the organization intends to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with the musicians but given the balanced budget provision and apparent realization that the “largest expense was musician pay” along with the need for a flexible expense structure that changes from concert to concert, it seems hard to imagine that negotiations wouldn’t be required.

If the HSO is planning on implementing a per-service structure that relies predominantly on ticket sales as the primary revenue source, it will be interesting to see how that process unfolds.

On the positive side, the article does mention that the influx of revenue allows the HSO to catch up on musician back pay. Disappointingly, there’s no mention as to whether staffers were provided with back pay although it would be surprising to learn that they weren’t. Nonetheless, every one of the HSO’s stakeholders will have to decide where their personal level of confidence rests in the new business plan.

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 “A Bible For The Symphony Business?

  1. “Musician salaries are the largest single expense”??? DUH !!!! It’s an orchestra!!!!
    It produces concerts/music. That requires musicians. I doubt may subscriptions would be sold if they had tickets to watch board meetings or listen to administrators type and answer phones.

    I’m sure Kellogg’s would theoretically have higher profit margins if they didn’t have to buy and process all that grain. The question is, how long before the customers catch on and realize they’re paying for an empty box?

  2. No argument here on the duh factor but I’m also willing to extend a liberal degree of benefit of the the doubt with the assumption that these points were included for those outside the business. I would also like to believe that the HSO board members realize this as well and have constructed their new business plan accordingly.

  3. “Musician salaries are the largest single expense”??? DUH !!!! It’s an orchestra!!!!

    I would like to believe that all boards are aware of the reason behind the budget percentages but given the tone of many negotiations these days I begin to doubt this. Look at Grand Rapids, MI and New Mexico for instance.

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