Super Sam Vs. The Prophets Of Doom!

On 8/9/2010, Minnesota Orchestra violist and blogger Sam Bergman posed the following question: “For exactly how many decades do we plan to allow the prophets of doom [which links to Greg Sandow’s blog] to continually shout from the mountaintop that orchestras are withering on the vine before pointing out that their dire predictions have been consistently, unceasingly, 100% wrong?”…

Although Bergman isn’t the first person to point out that American orchestras seem strangely resistant to the prophets of doom’s self fulfilling death knell forecasts, he does identify some recent examples of reason and reflection.

“This isn’t to say we shouldn’t talk about the problems we have as an industry, or what changes could be made to our overall business model to make us less vulnerable. There are some quite reasonable things being written these days by orchestra managers, veteran union types, and others on the subject. I just think that we’d do well to take a step back whenever the drumbeat of bad news approaches soul-crushing levels, and remember just how many times this has all happened before.”

(As an aside, it’s enormously pleasing to see that both of Bergman’s examples were from Adaptistration’s guest author posts in July.) Also import to note is Bergman points out that although the economic downturn is shutting the doors at some ensembles, the reasons may have far more to do with mismanagement that existed when times were better.

Interestingly enough, there was a comment from Paul Helfrich, Dayton Philharmonic executive director, here at Adaptistration on 8/10/2010 that expressed a similar observation along the lines that structural problems have likely been in place far in advance of the downturn.

“…I happen to believe that it was the preceding years of a good economy (especially a strong stock market and accompanying high returns on investment portfolios) that was the shield and mask for underlying problems in many orchestras. When the economy headed south, many orchestras found themselves “unmasked” and facing a double-whammy –financial issues that had been building for years, combined with the worst possible environment for trying to address those issues.” (full comment)

(As another aside, kudos to Paul for regularly having the courage to post comments using his real name. Sincere participation such as this demonstrate the inherent value of open and respectful online discussion.) Although there would likely be no shortage of spirited debate as to why some organizations are collapsing (mismanagement, inflexible contracts, etc.) it seems increasingly clear that they are an exception and not the rule.

Bergman wraps up his piece by asserting that the business would be better suited to learn from its history and spend less time listening to what he calls the “chattering classes” (love that phrase!).

“What I’m saying is that the chattering classes are just monumentally, staggeringly bad at accurately assessing how a localized crisis applies (or doesn’t) to the wider industry. (Also, most of them never seem to learn anything much from crisis periods of the past.)”

The only thing I’d add to that is that the business should be wary of the “never let a good crisis go to waste” mentality that more often than not is interested in using crisis as a vehicle to advance a personal and/or untested agendas rather than fostering truly inspired innovation. Ultimately, Bergman’s point that the prophets of doom and their conventional wisdom seems to be more of the former and less of the latter is one we could all take to heart.

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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1 thought on “Super Sam Vs. The Prophets Of Doom!”

  1. Thanks for this Drew. We should all be a little skeptical of the ivory towers, Chicken Littles and Bubble Boys in the world. After attending the recent ROPA conference I came to pretty much the same conclusions.

    I enjoyed reading the TIME article from 1969. One big difference now though is that we have new media (!) to quickly counteract the negativity and spread the word.

    The idea that we need to question ourselves every now and then is understood. But there is no need to toss the baby out with the bathwater as some might profess.

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