Aim Product Away From Face

In response to an article from 12/22/2009, a healthy comment exchange ensued about whether or not term “product” is appropriate to use in the context of describing live, performing art. I think the topic is important enough that it deserves its own article and I’m curious to know more about what readers think on this issue…

The comment exchange started off with Iron Tongue of Midnight’s Lisa Hirsch proclaiming that she becomes irritated when orchestra representatives use the phrase “passion for the product.”

Boy, I hate where the outgoing president uses the phrase “passion for the product.” “Product” – such a commodified and anonymous way to talk about an orchestra.

I think orchestras would benefit from a little socioeconomic diversity on their boards, but do you see them appointing/electing anyone who can’t donate, say, six-figure amounts when called upon to do so? who doesn’t have connections who can donate five- and six-figure amounts? I would be an interesting person to have on a BOD, but no big orchestra or opera company is going to want me on the board, given my repertory interests and lack of wealth.

Although I’m certainly guilty of that particular transgression, I couldn’t agree with Lisa more when it comes to defining artistic product in the sense that it is a commodity.

Nonetheless, Art and Avarice’s author Milena Thomas took issue with this and presented a contrary position (update, 1/6/10: more from Milena on this at her blog).

I cannot see what is inherently negative in reframing artistic output as a product – this does not devalue art.

Just as a musician practicing his scales is not necessarily making creatively-inspired music; he is no less a musician.

Art that is objectively scrutinized for quality and profitability is still art, not less than art.

Although I didn’t see anything inherently wrong with Milena’s notion of “Art that is objectively scrutinized for quality and profitability” I didn’t go so far as to arrive at her connection between that definition and the term “product.”

…yet, associating the term “product” in the same context as what Lisa describes as commoditized, i.e. without qualitative differentiation, is not something I see as interchangeable.

The key phrase here is qualitative differentiation, or something that is ostensibly the same regardless of who or where it is produced. For instance, replacing the entire musician membership of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and replacing them with the very best of recent conservatory graduates would undoubtedly improve the organization’s bottom line and they would be able to produce just as many concerts of the same repertoire as before.

If live performing art were a commodity, that business model would make sense. Fortunately, that’s not the case, so what’s at issue here is perhaps how one defines and infers the use of the term “product.” In my work, especially with boards comprised of business and community leaders that rarely possess formal artistic training, substituting the word “product” with something that lessens the likelihood of perceiving art as a commodity can make the difference between conflict and harmony (no pun intended).

Anecdotally, I know a number of musicians that harbor a considerable amount of disdain for calling what they do a “product.” At the same time, I know a similar ratio of managers and board members that refer to live concerts as “product” simply because there isn’t a readily available term to use otherwise.

What do you think about all of this? Are we getting tied up in semantics are is this an issue that deserves some uniform treatment? Do you have any good alternatives to the term “product?”

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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9 thoughts on “Aim Product Away From Face”

  1. I’m going to dive into Milena’s final remark, “Art that is objectively scrutinized for quality and profitability is still art, not less than art.”

    That’s mixing two different functions of a musical organization. The music that’s played and the performances will be scrutinized for musical/artistic quality. The economic/business side will be scrutinized for profitability.

    Of course there is some interaction between the two sides, even though artistically solid organizations go under and artistically dubious organizations (or individuals) survive in the business.

  2. You have to love social networking. After posting a synopsis of this article at my Facebook page, some folks have been posting very thoughtful responses. With their permission, I am publishing their comments here:

    Simon Stephenson: It seems to be a conflict of worldviews. In the business world, people use the term ‘product’ all the time, even for the most expensive, luxury goods, whether it be Tiffanys or a round-the-world cruise.

    But even so, “Passion for the Product” is sad business-speak that drains meaning from the very thing the expression seeks to describe.

    Benjamin Pezzillo: Entertainment is a product. Art is not.

  3. Hi Drew,

    This just sounds like part of the political game that has to be played – you have to phrase your message differently depending on the audience. If you’re talking to a Board member, civic leader, or business executive who is not as familiar with the nuances of the performing arts but wants to help, they will understand the term “product” to be a general phrase that is not necessarily tied to a commodity. On the other hand, if talking with someone who would be insulted by terms such as “product” or “industry”, you change your language.

    This is a semantics issue that seems to get blown out of proportion. Getting too focused on a debate about terminology, particularly in this economy, can too easily become rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

    BTW, it seems to me that Ms. Hirsch’s understanding of the Board’s role is skewed. While socioeconomic diversity certainly is important on the Board, their primary role is fiduciary oversight of the organization, so it’s completely natural to stock the Board with those who can make large donations or know people who can. Meanwhile, she suggests that her repertory tastes prevent her from joining a Board, and I would suggest that artistic direction is the last thing you want the Board to do. While orchestra management does rely on the Board for fiscal management, can you imagine a music director looking to the Board for advice on what pieces to play?

  4. You can just call me Lisa.

    My comments on socioeconomic diversity were bouncing off someone else’s comments in a previous posting of Drew’s. I do understand that a board’s primary role is fiduciary oversight; I might contend that the ability to read a financial statement and ask hard questions is separate from the ability to donate large amounts of money.

    I am also under the impression that what gets programmed at a large organization is the result of a complicated dance among constituencies and differs depending on whether we’re talking about an orchestra or an opera company: what the music director wants to conduct, what guest conductors are interested in, which soloists (or singers) are available when, what the general director thinks can be managed, what the board is willing to fund.

    For example, if the Board thought that Pamela Rosenberg’s programming at SFO wasn’t selling enough tickets and was putting special fundraising burdens on them, what courses of action would be open to them? Firing her? Telling her she had to change her programming? Negotiating with her?

    (For the sake of clarity here, I was a fan of Rosenberg’s programming during her tenure at SFO.)

  5. I have a serious question about this statement: «At the same time, I know a similar ratio of managers and board members that refer to live concerts as “product” simply because there isn’t a readily available term to use otherwise.»

    You say there isn’t a readily available term to use. But you’ve just used it(!): “live concerts” (or even “concerts” would do). I really don’t see why a tangible, descriptive term such as “concert” needs to be replaced by something amorphous and generic such as “product”.

    Moving on to Darren’s related comment: «If you’re talking to a Board member, civic leader, or business executive who is not as familiar with the nuances of the performing arts but wants to help, they will understand the term “product” to be a general phrase that is not necessarily tied to a commodity.»

    I disagree: I think such people are more likely to treat product and commodity as synonymous, possibly unconsciously, which makes it even more unhelpful to use “product” in the context of the arts.

    There *is*, however, value in introducing the word “product” as an explicit metaphor – e.g. explaining to a business leader that “an orchestral concert series is in some ways like a manufacturer’s product line” – but then going ahead to use “concert series” in conversations, meetings and correspondence. That becomes educational and helps the board member who doesn’t have an arts background to develop a mindset (through the language they’re using and hearing) that’s in touch with the art form.

    As you can see, I think it’s right to be concerned about semantics and the language we use. That’s partly because the English language is rich, creative and powerful and if any group should be caring about this it’s those who work in the equally rich, creative and powerful world of the arts. And it’s partly because unthinking, habitual modes of expression shape how we think. To this end, clichés and business buzzwords/weasel words are very damaging.

    • The option of substituting “concerts” or “live concerts” would work for groups that restrict concert activity to live performances but it becomes a bit more tricky if the organization also produces recordings, broadcasts, etc.

      The benefit of the term “product” is that it does a good job at encompassing artistic activity. Unfortunately, it has the potential for being misinterpreted in the sense we’re discussing here. So at best, there’s a good alternative for some groups but nothing yet for the entire field.

      As for your response to Darren’s point, based on my experience I would agree that the majority of board members are more inclined to associate “product” with commodity” than not. The only reasonable solution I’ve encountered at this point is a cycle of reaffirmation to make sure existing and incoming board members make the proper distinction.

      If anything, I would caution against making any direct or indirect comparisons to a typical manufacture’s product line in the way you describe above. That opens too many doors for anyone involved in the discussion to make associations that move toward the weasel-like commodity conundrum.

  6. First, in response to Lisa. You make a good point to clarify the term “fiduciary oversight”. Yes, in one sense it’s strictly keeping an eye on finances, but if the organization goes bankrupt, the blood is on the Board’s hands. To ensure the organization is financially secure, the Board serves in a leadership role in philanthropic giving and is the last line of defense should other revenue sources fall short. Regarding artistic decisions and the Board’s input, my own experience at large organizations (both symphony and opera) is that the Board rarely if ever gets involved; however, your knowledge of other groups may be different. I know very little about the circumstances regarding Rosenberg’s departure from SFO, other than getting a plum position as ED the Berlin Phil.

    Second, in response to Yvonne: I respectfully disagree with your thoughts on “product” and its connection with commodities. “Passion for the product” – the phrase that prompted this whole blog post – is used across industries, regardless of what’s being produced and sold. This ranges from truly fungible commodities such as pork bellies to custom-tailored suits to microchips. I propose that “product” can be loosely defined as “the result of our work and ingenuity”, a phrase that can certainly be appropriate for art.

  7. At small arts organizations, the board may be involved in discussions of artistic matters with the conductor/music director. For example, at community choruses where the organizations gives few concerts and the board is largely made up of members of the chorus.

    Pamela Rosenberg resigned, but there was so much financial waste under her that the Board of SF Opera would have been within its rights to fire her.

    “Passion for product” – I still don’t see why you wouldn’t say “we’re passionate about performing/music/our concerts/our recordings.” That’s what I want to hear from a performing arts organization.

    A & A – it would be nice to conduct this discussion in one place, though I can also see that posting-long comments aren’t ideal. I’ll put up some comments at your blog.

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