Now Is The Spring Of Our Discontent

It seems that a number of folks throughout the culture blogging community are taking issue with what could perhaps best be described as the Chicken Little Think Tank, or the group of voices within the field that seem determined to convince all of us that resistance is futile. Apparently, these efforts have pushed some over the edge of discontent to the point where they are not just resisting, but pulling some serious punches of their own…

First up is an article from 5/11/2011 by Robert Levine titled A crisis of analysis. I’m not entirely certain the term vivisect can apply to blog post but it sure seems like that’s precisely what Levine does to Tony Woodcock’s article American Orchestras: Yes, it’s a crisis in a way that can best be described as, well, Levinian. Levine drills in on more than a dozen of Woodcock’s points and although it’s a long piece, it’s worth the time investment.

Next up is a growing sect within the culture blogging community in that some reader comments can easily stand on their own merits as a dedicated blog post. Case in point, a comment from Cleveland Orchestra bassist, and NEC alumnus, Henry Peyrebrune to the same article from Tony Woodcock that Levine examined.

In full disclosure, Peyrebrune has been a guest author here from time to time, most recently in a set of articles from March, 2011. In fact, he references one of those posts in his comment. But unlike Levine’s article, he does filter out what he believes are salient points that are buried under the noise of Woodcock’s rhetoric and faulty premises. For my money, Peyrebrune is one of the most level headed people in the business and a very deep thinker.

Next up is one of my growing favorites, Proper Discord. On 5/6/2011 he takes 24/7 Wall St to task over an article they published titled The Death of Classical Music in America. But what makes Proper Discord fun in his discontent is how it is so often wrapped in dry, thin wit. In this case, he applies some liberal (digital) red pen to their article in order to illustrate what he defines as “a lot of unverified, unquestioned assertions.”

Rounded out our Spring of Discontent is Barry Johnson who published a compelling missive at arts dispatch on a variety of Chicken Little Think Tank oriented issues as they relate to the Philadelphia Orchestra bankruptcy. I have to take a step back here for a moment to point out that Johnson references my writing…a lot…and he takes a very positive outlook toward it.

For that, I am enormously humbled.

But even if you remove any reference to my writing, Johnson’s piece is every bit as compelling (another good reason why it stands on such firm footing) and offers another unique juxtaposition to standard Chicken Little Think Tank output.

So what are you still doing here? You have reading to do:

AN IMPORTANT POSTSCRIPT! I knew it would happen but thankfully, online publishing makes it easy to correct omissions and in this case, I left out a few absolutely fantastic contributions to this overview. For starters, the absolutely fantastic piece by Soho The Dog titled He went through wild ecstatics when I showed him my lymphatics that challenges Greg Sandow and Baumol’s Cost Disease. The article contains what has to be hands down one of the best ever written on the subject:

I love the cost-disease… It’s catnip for ruminators: a simple idea that gets less and less simple the more you poke at it.

Absolutely include this one in your reading list today.

Also overlooked was a great piece by Eric Edberg titled Maybe it’s a babysitting crisis, not a classical music one which also picks at some of Greg Sandow’s regular Chicken Little Think Tank talking points about audience demographics. It’s an all around thoughtful piece.

Update 5/14/2011: I’m going to get in trouble for forgetting this one but better late than never. Holly Mulcahy posted an excellent article at the beginning of May titled simply Sustainability. It’s particularly poignant in that it not only offers a contrary view to the Chicken Little Think Tank perspective but it focuses specifically on some crucial shortcoming in the world of classical music academia.

Am I missing anyone else?

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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0 thoughts on “Now Is The Spring Of Our Discontent”

  1. Thanks for posting all of these links. I like the fact that in the Eric Edberg article he gives an example of something new and creative that is being done to improve the situation and attract an audience that might otherwise not be able to come to a concert. Good for the kids good for the parents and certainly good for orchestras.

    Arguing and debating over whether and to what extent classical music is in trouble is helpful only up to a point. What I think no one can debate is that there is room for improvement for our industry. I really enjoy the items that are posted that show what is being done in this business that is helping move things forward rather than just listening to people argue in a circle and become more entrenched in their positions. It seems like a common response to what you call the “chicken little think tank” is to respond by shooting holes in the opposition’s arguments. While this may provide a certain degree of self satisfaction, the more concrete evidence that shows why the sky is NOT falling the better off this point comes across and the more opportunities there are for people to learn from real success and innovation in the industry. Kudos to Mr. Edberg for doing so!

  2. Union leadership has a standard line that goes something like: “Bad people don’t volunteer to serve on orchestra boards.” The message is that disputes are often a manifestation of inexperience rather than malice. The controversial bloggers strike me the same way.They are thoughtful and articulate, but it is often unclear if they know how orchestras function, from committee work to work rules to the diversity of music in a season.

    A common argument is: Classical music is not in trouble but orchestras are and they must change. Be that as it may, orchestras are the main distributors of this music. They serve the largest audiences and are one of the best employment options for musicians. To have a consequential voice in the narrative of classical music, bloggers and consultants must write about them. They are drawn to orchestras for the same self- evident reasons as musicians: Orchestras are where there is an audience and compensation. The “Chicken Littles” have lucratively written themselves into the orchestra crisis conversation.

    These guys have many good ideas on reform. But I believe the thrust is too focused on artistic side while the financial vision is too foggy. Our deficit is funding and not ideas. Every time players and staff meet formally or informally there’s an ocean of ideas, but one where you could drown in the narcissism. I don’t believe orchestras should be a platform for personal artistic ideology no matter who the salesman is. They should be big tent civic organizations first. And we need to cultivate more senior leadership to achieve that.

    The CL vision reforms the current model into an even more boutique ensemble. The kind that continue to reward the few both in terms of artistic and financial payback. Rather than one that serves a community by filling seats in the downtown buildings that have the word “symphony” right on them or that create good jobs for musicians and staff.

    In my experience, artistic entrepreneurship flows from stable tenured jobs. Successful niche projects are “funded” with hours of volunteer labor and very little to no compensation. As successful as those ventures can be for both the audience and the artists, don’t confuse it with a way to earn a living.

    • I think there are some really excellent points in your postt, Rob, and quite a few that I agree with. However two stand out that I would be interested to get some more of your opinions on:

      1) “A common argument is: Classical music is not in trouble but orchestras are and they must change. Be that as it may, orchestras are the main distributors of this music.”

      My question here is: who is making this argument that classical music is not in trouble yet orchestras are? As your later point states, which I happen to agree with, aren’t the two linked together inextricably?

      2) “In my experience, artistic entrepreneurship flows from stable tenured jobs”.

      I just would like some examples of why, in your experience, you think that the flourishing of “artistic entrepreneurship flows from stable, tenured jobs”

      On this point I tend to disagree, as in my experience stable, tenured jobs can create a level of playing and musicianship that may be much higher than the alternative but certainly doesn’t present the entrepreneurship that you suggest.

      • I’ll quickly sound off here on your last point Esteban with some specific examples. Here in Chicago, the Chicago Chamber Musicians ( has a membership that contains mostly current, former, or retired Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians. Similarly, the Rembrandt Chamber Players ( is proportionately comprised of tenured musicians from the Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra. The point here is that the ability to pursue additional artistic activity that groups like this provide is undeniably supported by the fact that the majority of members are tenured musicians elsewhere (whether it be with another ensemble or a university position).

      • Esteban, let me try and clarify your first question. I’ve read a few times in various popular blogs that classical music is healthy. The evidence put forth is that there are more recordings than ever, more performances, more performers, more composers, more students etc. And if an orchestra has financial woes, it is are a referendum on the institution (or institutional model) and not the relevance of the music itself.

        Drew’s examples are exactly what I was referring to in the second question. To tie it back to the first point. Most people in classical music who are serious about a career and more specifically a career with longevity attach themselves to a large institution. That goes for orchestra musicians, chamber ensembles, teachers/ professors, new music ensembles, conductors, music critics, academics and the list goes on.

        Across the spectrum of work that is done in this business, an institution of some kind is offering stable and professionalized work. Those institutions are the backbone of the classical music economy. Artistic entrepreneurship often grows directly from that soil or the cultural landscape that the institution has helped to sculpt in its city.

        If one is passionate about more adventurous work, then one should care about institutions. And if one cares about live classical music, then one should care about orchestras.

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