Is “The Model” Dead?

Recently it has felt like there are plenty of people out there suggesting that “the model” for how orchestras operate should be taken off life support and declared dead. This is followed by a call for orchestras to reinvent themselves as radically different (and often radically smaller) organizations. I don’t know that that this is a new phenomenon (remember “The orchestra is dead, long live the community of musicians”?).

I have no doubt that in this time of economic challenge and rapid change many of us are indeed questioning whether the ways we have done things in the past are going to be sufficient to get the job done in the future. I suggested to Drew that it might be worth taking a few days of his blog time to raise some issues around this topic, and he bit. So here we are.

Today’s topic…So what the heck is “the model” in the first place?

Orchestras come in so many sizes, shapes, flavors and colors, that on some level it seems silly to suggest that there could be a single “model” that works for any substantial subset of them. Quite obviously, how a huge budget orchestra works is different from how a medium-sized budget orchestra works, which is in turn different from how a tiny budget orchestra works. Add to this the fact that in a very real sense all orchestras are local, and you might wonder why we ever thought that “what works in Kalamazoo” might work in our community, too.

Nonetheless, it has been true for decades that orchestras have measured themselves against each other (thanks in part to the League of American Orchestra’s long track record of collecting and disseminating Orchestra Statistical Reports) and that collective wisdom has defined a model of how the wisely constituted orchestra works.

Here are some of the key attributes of the model:

1. In the model, what does the audience look like?

  • Tickets are almost entirely sold on subscriptions.
  • There is a large classical subscription base that, barring any misguided efforts by the Music Director to cram too much challenging repertoire down their throats, renews in large numbers.
  • Typically, there is also a large pops subscription base that renews at only slightly lower rates. Pops is seen as an effective entry point from which audience members graduate to appreciating classical programming.
  • The subscription series audience is old, and people worry that it needs an infusion of younger members.
  • What few subscribers are lost each season can be replenished by converting a reasonable percentage of single ticket buyers. Our assumption is that people on the margin will act like people on average (i.e., new subscribers will generally start to behave like the loyal base, if we can get them to renew at least once).
  • From concert to concert attendance size is predictable and not terribly variable. The vast majority of people who attend concerts make the decision to purchase tickets long before the concert.
  • Most people in the audience are at least somewhat knowledgeable about the art form and the artists. Most of them played instruments as a child.
  • Student audiences are served through Young People’s Concerts, which look like shorter versions of classical subscription series concerts.
  • It is easy to identify and reach your audience. Every single one of them reads the daily newspaper and listens to your community’s classical music radio station.

When all that is running right, ticket revenues cover something like one third of what it costs to run the orchestra (or perhaps even as much as half). For many orchestras non-ticket earned income is also a substantial source of revenues…runouts, performing for ballet and or opera companies, etc. And for some big orchestras recordings are an additional source of revenues.

2. In the model, how does the orchestra raise money?

For most orchestras, the single largest source of funds is an Annual Fund drive

  • Board members give leadership gifts and actively solicit their peers in the community to make other leadership gifts.
  • The leaders of the community (whether elected officials, corporations, individuals, or foundations) see significant value of having a successful orchestra in their community and support the orchestra at a meaningful level. The State government often provides significant additional funding; in a few cases the State is by far the single largest source of funding for the orchestra.
  • The majority of donors come out of the audience, with 30 to 50% of subscribing households making an annual fund donation.
  • At the end of each year, board members are expected to kick in whatever the annual operating deficit may have turned out to be.

In some communities the orchestra’s annual fund has been subsumed into a united arts fund. The general wisdom about united arts funds is that they are good for the smallest participants, but bad for the biggest participants, and the orchestra is typically one of the biggest participants.

Orchestras aspire to have endowments which are some multiple of the annual budget (standards have changed dramatically since I first heard them talked about 20 years ago). The endowment is a source of reliable income not subject to the vagaries of the economic cycle (don’t laugh too hard).

3. In the model, what does the orchestra organization look like?

Believe it or not, it wasn’t that long ago that our metaphor for the management structure for the model orchestra was a “three legged stool,” with the legs being the board president, the manager, and the music director. As long as these three individuals did their jobs and worked together reasonably well, it was assumed that the orchestra would run smoothly. It was assumed that all three of these individuals would likely be in their respective positions for lengthy terms. Orchestras were generally top down organizations. Musicians had little voice in organizational decisions.

The board’s role and level of engagement is likely tied to the size and age of the orchestra. For smaller and/or newer orchestras, the board is likely actively engaged in the day-to-day operations of the organization. For larger and/or mature orchestras the board likely limits itself to three roles

  • Set policy and strategic goals
  • Hire and fire the Manager and Conductor
  • Raise money

In the beginning, budgets were modest and orchestras (even really big ones) had small administrative staffs.

At the time it went without saying that there would be an active Women’s Association which raises money and awareness and might even sell lots of subscriptions. It wasn’t that long ago that we were all patting ourselves on the back for being progressive enough to change the names of these groups to Volunteer Associations.

I am sure that this brief overview omits important attributes – please feel free to add to this list or challenge it where you think I’ve mischaracterized it. Tomorrow I will share some thoughts about the many areas in which the model described above no longer seems adequate.

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2 thoughts on “Is “The Model” Dead?”

  1. I was interested in your depiction of an orchestra organization model and how it changes with size and time. One source of problems with one orchestra I know of was the difficulty of the board moving from no longer needing to be involved in day-to-day decisions to just making policy and raising funds. Their unexpected forays into the realms of the music director, the musicians, and the management was disastrous.

    • Thanks for your comment, John, I agree that it can be a big challenge for board members, even those who have been very constructive previously, to move into new ways of participating if the board’s role evolves in new ways.

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