Andrew Adler Couldn’t Be More Right

The 6/27/2010 edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal published a commentary piece by music critic Andrew Adler where the author shares a frank response to the sort of discussions that have been permeating the business. In particular, the recent keynote topics at the latest League conference in Atlanta. It’s (unfortunately) becoming increasingly rare to see candor like Adler’s in traditional media, but the upside is this piece serves as a clear reality check in an otherwise unchecked process…

For example, Adler cuts right to the chase by skewering the Relevancy topic.

Some people argue that too many orchestras, particularly those in small and mid-market cities, are content to lean on hackneyed tradition.

There is less agreement about what alternatives these orchestras should pursue. We love to invoke “21st-century relevancy” without having the slightest notion of what “relevancy” truly means. Is it to entertain? To educate?

Prior to that, Adler challenged the universal tone of these discussions, indicating this may not be the healthiest approach.

At [the League’s] 2010 National Conference in Atlanta, delegates were asked to rank their desire for change on a scale of 1 to 5. Overwhelmingly, they selected “4” – just short of the most-radical recommendation available.

Forgive me for not shouting whoop-dee-do. I don’t expect much to emerge from this.

The problem, in 1992, 2010 and all the years in between, is that symphony orchestras don’t constitute a monolithic industry. They span a formidable gamut of experience, with annual operating budgets from under $100,000 to more than $50 million. Diversity is intrinsic.

"Forgive me for not shouting whoop-dee-do. I don't expect much to emerge from this." - Andrew Adler

The 500-pound gorilla smiling politely in the corner on all of this is the reality that it would cost a great deal of time and treasure to even initiate the sorts of changes related to the Purpose, Change, Structure, and Relevance debate. And although there are a firm percentage of groups in the field that are doing just fine, most don’t have the resources to embark on these journeys. It’s tantamount to one of the major auto makers retooling an entire factory to build a car designed without input from market research, adhering to government regulations, or even building concept prototypes.

For most orchestras, the only available resources capable of funding major institutional changes related to Purpose, Change, Structure, and Relevance are to reallocate revenue directed toward artistic expenses. That’s consultant-speak for paying musicians, conductors, and guest artists a lot less than they’re currently paid and gutting collective bargaining agreements. Anyone want to guess how well that will go over?

It should be noted that there’s an unusually large amount of push-back to the latest round of Purpose, Change, Structure, and Relevance oriented discussions, or what Adler defines as grandiose talk. In yesterday’s post, we took a look at one of Marc van Bree’s recent articles which questioned whether all of this talk is really just putting the cart before the horse and now Adler’s commentary piece pops up in the Courier-Journal.

But when it comes down to it, there’s a very simple solution to determining whether or not the Purpose, Change, Structure, and Relevance direction is the way to go: start an orchestra from scratch with a mission founded in Purpose, Change, Structure, and Relevance thinking and see how well it does. If these ideas truly have merit, the group will flourish, grow, and compare favorably (if not surpass) traditional peers.

Speaking of traditional peers, everyone I’ve noticed writing or talking about all of this keeps avoiding the 500-pound Gorilla’s 800-pound cousin. By that I mean the musicians’ unions and collective bargaining agreements. They’re eluded to but rarely mentioned, as though they were on the FCC’s infamous seven dirty words list. Nonetheless, when any of these ideas make it past the initial stage and into the back office, this is where the curtain falls.

No problem. This also has a very easy solution; if you can’t go through a wall, then go around it. If you start an orchestra from scratch, as mentioned above, do so using non-unionized musicians. Offer them an environment of compensation, benefits, and working conditions necessary to support the programs associated with Purpose, Change, Structure, and Relevance and see what happens.

The good news here is a group like this could be established just about anywhere. Miami still needs a resident professional orchestra but why not go head to head with an existing group in anyone of the cities currently supporting a professional orchestra? In fact, I couldn’t think of a better way to empirically demonstrate the value of Purpose, Change, Structure, and Relevance guided business models.

So as Adler points out: enough talk already, do something.

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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3 thoughts on “Andrew Adler Couldn’t Be More Right”

  1. Speaking of elephants and gorillas about which no one wants to talk:

    What are these big structural changes that people want to suggest but don’t dare to suggest because they fear the “nay-saying” musicians’ union?

    If one doesn’t bring them up because one assumes they’ll be shot down, one deprives all parties of the opportunity to work on the issues.

    If the ideas are good for the business and fair to the workers, it seems likely they will be implemented. If they’re good for the business but not fair for the workers, perhaps the parties can come up with new versions that address the problems. The worst that can happen is that the idea doesn’t get implemented. But that’s also what happens if it’s not suggested.

    The LAO recently published a paper on innovative orchestras. All five are orchestras with AFM collective bargaining agreements.

    • I’ve observed that groups which fear to bring ideas to their players through established channels in the CBA tend to be more concerned about the merits of the idea than anything else. Likewise, I have yet to encounter an orchestra committee that simply refuses to listen to an idea; at worst it might not get much discussion and at best it will be seen through to fruition – just as you pointed out.

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