Some Thoughts On Cleveland And The Business

Since the initial details surrounding Cleveland’s settlement were made public, I’ve received several calls from print journalists and broadcast reporters looking for some feedback and I’m very pleased to see so much immediate attention surrounding all of this. At the same time, I can’t help but notice the mountain of news and opinion articles flooding the media waves that have a decidedly strong Chicken Little tone…

It seems as though everywhere you click, people claim the sky is falling.

Be forewarned: the remainder of this post is full of commentary and opinion. Granted, regular readers know that I spend more time than not lifting up the proverbial rock that is our business to shine some light on everything underneath but I’m beginning to feel that the doom and gloom “the business is no longer sustainable” mantra is beginning to get out of hand. If Cleveland is going to serve as everyone’s big budget canary in the coal mine with a chronic cough, then we would all be better served to examine their situation in context.

For example two of the most recent big budget collective bargaining agreements that wrapped up after the economic downturn are those from the San Francisco Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic. In both cases, not only did the organizations agree on terms that included compensation improvements in each year, but they were on par with percentage increases from the first half of the decade. So, here we have two orchestras, both of which operate in a state with arguably one of the worst economic climates in the country managing to give employees raises.

Is anyone mentioning this? If so, I missed it. Instead, the Cleveland situation seems to be some sort of ah-ha event that justifies alarmist sentiment. I’ve read everything from reports about deficits that aren’t attached to any contextual frame of reference and opinion pieces assuming that some communities will no longer be able to afford supporting orchestras.

Yes, the Honolulu Symphony filed for bankruptcy and there are a number of other groups that are not dealing as well with the economic downturn as others. But I feel confident saying that in most (if not all) of those cases, the trouble is a byproduct of long standing problems that were in place well before the economy soured. Moreover, I would purport that those situations have more to do with governance and administrative shortcomings than anything associated with structural faults. Therefore, if we’re going to look at the problems associated with the state of the orchestra business, that’s the first rock we should lift.

After enduring this flood of hysteria filled discussion, it was a real pleasure to come across this post by Ron Spigelman over at Sticks and Drones that went up the same day Cleveland went on strike. I’m not going to discuss anything in Spigelman’s post yet other than to say it is refreshingly free of personal agenda. You should head over and read it from top to bottom (it’s a little long, but worth every second) and all things being equal, we’ll examine some of the post’s stronger points in the near future.

What’s Good For The Goose…

I want to take a moment to mention something directed expressly toward the Cleveland Orchestra musicians. Now that you have an agreement in place and the work stoppage is over, it is time to take down the labor dispute oriented material from your website. I gave the orchestra’s administration a hard time for using the organization’s official blog to post labor dispute oriented material and the same recommendation I offered then rings true for the players; in particular, item #4: Delete platforms/accounts once the dispute is resolved.

In the musicians’ case, I would amend that a bit to say they should simply remove dispute material but keep their website in place and start using it as a positive tool to educate community members about who they are and what they do as well as encourage support for the orchestra and its mission. I have a great deal of respect for orchestra musician associations that spend their own time, energy, and resources on developing polished new media platforms that are updated regularly, contain unique content, and encourage interaction with listeners. At the same time, it comes across as terribly self serving for musician associations to dive into new media platforms during labor disputes, only to disappear once an agreement is in place. Ultimately, this behavior serves to reinforce negative stereotypes.

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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7 thoughts on “Some Thoughts On Cleveland And The Business”

    • I have seen the report and I think it is useful to keep in mind that it examines the entire arts field as a whole so making universal applications to the orchestra business is probably not justified without additional study. But what I walked away with is that it simply reinforces what most know already which is over the next 2-3 years, most groups will focus on managing debt as opposed to launching ambitious new capital projects or “next level” activities.

      No argument from me on your Federal funds going to banks while other business are left out in the cold comment. More to the point, the government should step in and require that institutions receiving Federal funds renegotiate terms with some of the orchestras (and other arts groups) that have sizable amount of immediate debt in the form of bond interest. Far too often, those orchestras can’t get the lending institutions to restructure. In particular, the Detroit Symphony would benefit a great deal from this.

      FYI, I noticed Figaro Si! wasn’t listed in Adaptistration’s blog roll and that is now rectified.

  1. First off, I totally agree that people need to move past the end of the world chorus regarding orchestras. The performing arts are extremely vibrant in this country today, and symphony orchestras are doing some really cool stuff.

    Could you explain your definition of a “structural problem” in a symphony? Regarding those symphonies that are struggling to stay afloat, you state “the trouble is a byproduct of long standing problems that were in place well before the economy soured. Moreover, I would purport that those situations have more to do with governance and administrative shortcomings than anything associated with structural faults.” To my thinking, a long standing problem with which the organization has struggled and now has become more pronounced in the bad economy sounds exactly like a structural problem. Actually, it sounds like a structural problem that was never fixed by the organization, making it also an administrative problem.

    • Darren, I think we’re equally confused as I’m not certain of the point you’re making but if this helps, I’ve written a great deal about the notion of structural deficits over the years. Here’s a link to all of the articles here at Adaptistration that include mention “structural deficit.” But in general the notion of structural deficits is more of a specific economy concept related to this business than the general sense of the term.

      • Sorry for my slow response, and sorry also for how unclear I was in my first post! To me the phrase “structural problem” refers to an organization where, if operations are running like normal, revenue does not cover expenses.

        Take Cleveland for example. Some of the debate was regarding the ability of an organization in Cleveland to compete budget- and salary-wise with similar organizations in cities like New York or Los Angeles. If for the sake of illustration you say that Cleveland can’t do that, then that would lead to a structural problem for them: trying to pay salaries that compete with NY and LA but fund operations in a weaker regional economy. Earned and contributed revenue would never be sufficient to cover expenses, and while in good years this can be hidden by heroic fundraising, raiding the endowment, refinancing debt, etc., that’s not possible when the economy hits a down cycle.

        Anyway the point I was trying to make was that, in many cases, I believe the longstanding problems that orchestras face are in fact structural problems: the revenue generated from their normal business operations do not cover expenses. That’s not pointing blame on any particular constituency, that’s simply how the numbers fall out. Not dealing with those structural problems earlier and now being in crisis mode is an administrative problem.

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