Everything That's Wrong With This Business (and how to fix it)

Thank goodness for the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. On 6/1/2011 Stewart’s guest was Bill Moyers and their discussion about the current failings of journalism in response to an increasingly obfuscation oriented environment might as well have been about the orchestra business. In short, Moyers doesn’t like to interview politicians because their language is designed to conceal. Hopefully, this should strike a chord with you…

Watching this interview was enormously gratifying because it expresses precisely what I’ve been noticing over the course of the past several years by way of writing this blog, but haven’t been able to summarize in such accessible terms. In short, the business had become professionalized to such a degree that it is increasingly falling victim to the dangers Moyers and Stewart examined in the world of journalism and politics. This is particularly applicable in our field during situations defined by financial pressures, intense labor unrest, and inefficient stakeholder communication.

Here’s the initial intellectual bombshell Moyers tosses out when discussing individuals in leadership positions.

“People don’t want to keep their opinions hidden but they want to keep the facts hidden.”

In the second half of the interview, Moyers and Stewart continue to dive into this topic. Two excerpts from Moyers’ observations struck me as what exists as what may arguably be one of the greatest problems in this business right now.

“Their language is designed to conceal; I like to interview people who want to reveal their thinking…they won’t put it in that fog of deception.”

“They’re not willing to engage…they are always trying to make sure you don’t understand what you say, even though they may use simple words to express it.”

This segment should hit you with an almost religious intensity. I experience precisely what Moyers defines in my own blogging with growing frequency, but these same problems persist through the larger spectrum of the field. One profound example as of late was the WQXR panel discussion about the orchestra business and I hope anyone attending the League of American Orchestras conference this week takes all of this to heart while attending any sessions, especially the hastily organized plenary session that purports to “speaking openly and frankly about our challenges.”

As an aside, I would add that the claim to speak openly and frankly about the field’s primary challenges could be interpreted as disingenuous when the League rebuffed an offer from International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) chairman and North Carolina Symphony bassist Bruce Ridge to participate in the panel at ICSOM’s expense (there will be considerably more detail on that soon so stay tuned).

But back to the point, these conversations have far more to do with what Moyers described as “narrating [an] impression of the world” as opposed to honestly revealing the thought process and the reasoning behind what some might consider dangerously counterproductive behaviors.

Everything That's Wrong With This BusinessIt’s worth noting that even though the Stewart/Moyers interview was a conversation between two individuals about a profound topic, it provides enormous benefit for everyone watching. As such, I hope Tony Woodcock will swing by to watch the above clips and see the value in my 5/12/2011 offer to conduct a live conversation that will be broadcast free to all.

In the end, the type of conversations Moyers outlines are precisely what this business is yearning for. But it’s going to go unfulfilled unless everyone inside the field demands it.

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 “Everything That's Wrong With This Business (and how to fix it)

  1. Greetings Drew. I would like to see an honest, open dialogue between the League of American Orchestras and AFM about the future of the orchestra business, but the problem is the League doesn’t seem to believe there is a future for classical music in this country. I know, this is an unsupported allegation, but you have noted the “chicken little ” brigade and their grim view of our business,and the art that we try to make. If you read the literature that the LAO produces, you see all the boilerplate about restructuring and new directions. Education has become another poplar theme in this new order. But if we abandon our core mission, which is to play great music together as an ensemble, what precisely would we have left to teach anyone?

    • Amen to what both of you said. Here in Louisville, we players have done all we can to promote real talking about making the orchestra work, but have been rebuffed every time. I am so sick of all the obfuscation with clever little buzzwords. And that “core mission” , Thomas—yes!, that’s what an orchestra is *for*!

    • I agree, I would love to hear a conversation between the LAO and the AFM. Having worked with SOS in Detroit for 6 months, talking with both Musicians and Management, I am still confused about the ‘LAO New Model’; if it in fact actually exists, and if so how it intends to save the Orchestra.

  2. The Moyers interview rings loud and clear in our industry. Obviously, the League (like many politicians and cable news outlets) still can’t handle opposing points of view, and is still far more interested in a soapbox than true dialogue.

    As an example to which you referred, the League leadership refuses to invite ICSOM to engage them in dialogue at the very same conference where they plan to honor Fred Zenone (iconic former ICSOM leader)posthumously with the League’s annual Golden Baton Award. Deeply disappointing, yet hardly surprising.

  3. About a decade ago I witnessed something at a Mellon Orchestra Forum meeting that I’m often reminded of because I see some variation of it over and over.

    I was in my first job, a ROPA orchestra, and many of the other participants represented the profession’s exemplar ensembles. During several of the meetings, many of the top managers talked about “the elephant in the room.” By which they meant deficits. They grew angrier and angrier that they weren’t being discussed. This was soon after 9/11 and finances everywhere were in question. I remember thinking that if the biggest budget orchestras want to discuss this then we all should.

    Later on a guest speaker from outside the orchestra business spoke about how “nobody owes you an orchestra.” His point was: It is up to the people in this room to solve their industry’s problems. Abruptly, a prominent manager, who had been a deficit hawk, stood up and angrily said things to the effect of “orchestras and classical music are cultural treasures.” I don’t recall verbatim, but I clearly remember that it is was as though he hadn’t been listening to the speaker. The manager went on about “society” and what it was becoming if it didn’t appreciate orchestras. In other words, completely unhelpful and irrelevant to that particular conversation.

    Often those who are most vocal about the model, deficits and sustainability are those who worry most about what will be lost if classical music ensembles change. So they propose changes that don’t effect themselves at the expense of the audience and good artistic jobs.

    Playing fewer concerts and performing marginally more accessible new or ancient music in smaller venues while wearing jeans is not a progressive strategy. They are all fine ideas but I don’t believe they are a long term or unifying design. They are more cosmetic changes that don’t address the particular issues of a full time orchestra. On the other hand, they may be tremendously effective for a chamber ensemble. But that is not where the money and interest is.

    The bloggers, academics , managers, music critics, etc who use the fashionable buzzwords would probably argue that they are making the product more accessible. But until their recommendations make room, without prejudice, for the concerts that overwhelmingly sell seats, they still sound as conservative as those that they condemn. Arguing for one type of niche product over another is a distinction without a difference if the audience is still small.

    • “Often those who are most vocal about the model, deficits and sustainability are those who worry most about what will be lost if classical music ensembles change. So they propose changes that don’t effect themselves at the expense of the audience and good artistic jobs.”

      Very well said Rob. this is indicative of what has increasingly become a willful glossing over the details stage where process becomes an afterthought as opposed to a cornerstone of theory. The real danger with this is that real change happens through the filter of bureaucracy; now,having said that I do want to be clear and point out that is exactly the way it should happen. Bureaucracy isn’t a dirty word, it just has a bad reputation since the most visible bureaucracies are the least efficient.

      Nonetheless, it is this area where the disconnect between idea and accomplishment begins. In worst case scenarios, it is where any single stakeholder can hijack even the best of ideas and run it right into the ground.

      • Agreed. A structured bureaucratic process is the only way to manage meaningful institutional reform. Large organizations simply have too many different and perfectly reasonable agendas for an idea or one person’s ideas to lead tyrannically.

        I love your phrase “the disconnect between idea and accomplishment.” Maybe expand that to “chasm.”

        There is very little concrete action by the pundits. There is a lot of writing about the inspiration that young ensembles provide. And instead of focusing on growing those groups into an alternative and reproducible model; the tactic seems to be to gut existing established institutions, de-professionalize the workforce and commandeer the artistic direction. They are targeting the very same orchestras that have been built by generations of sacrifice and investment by the people they now condemn. Needless to say they are happy to cash our checks for consulting fees. But that is our own fault.

        I believe that orchestra stakeholders should see our size and our obligations as resources rather than burdens. ICSOM orchestras are not the scalpels of classical music. To treat them as a such fundamentally misses what orchestras do well and why our audiences are larger.

        The orchestra business will not be saved by “alt” anything. In fact, I firmly believe the opposite. I know first hand how fertile a chamber music series can be for growing great artistic ideas. Those concerts have been some of my proudest moments. Subsequently, I know to not confuse a personal artistic agenda with earning a living. Which is not to say the two don’t intersect. So I sincerely wonder if these guys could focus their intellect someplace more appropriate, like helping start-up ensembles find audiences.

        • There’s a very important point you made Rob that’s worth repeating: “There is a lot of writing about the inspiration that young ensembles provide. And instead of focusing on growing those groups into an alternative and reproducible model; the tactic seems to be to gut existing established institutions, de-professionalize the workforce and commandeer the artistic direction.”

          This is precisely what is going on these days. What is really disturbing about this approach is that if an idea has sincere merit then you should be able to go out, start a new group under those parameters, experience success, and grow. The whole “arts are overbuilt” nonsense aside, there are plenty of markets available to absorb new ensembles but what I observe is it is rare to find people on the board/administration side of things who are willing to go the start-up route.

          Instead, they want to focus on befitting from an existing institution’s credibility, resources, and prestige to try these ideas. It is, to put it mildly, disingenuous. The reason why you don’t see these individuals move in the direction you mention or start up groups directly is becasue there is no money in it.

  4. Yes, the use of rhetoric today is not for the use of persuasion, but for distraction and camouflage.
    One little side-bar that i’m reminded of while reading this post. Our mission statements are usually about how we feel we must strive to make other people become one of us; our mission is ‘what we do to other people.’ If anything, i sense this odd logic is in play: our mission is to convert people to classical music lovers. If the mission is failing, it is because our converts are at fault, uneducated, etc. Maybe our mission – and the concept of needing to change other people – is what makes the field in general rather indignant to realize the problem might be us. A mission statement that reflects how we are responsible for our development, our creativity, etc. would be the first step towards getting off this agenda of needing to look outside ourselves for the problems.

    • Looking at all of this from the perspectives of mission is interesting Kim. I’ve always maintained a love-hate relationships with mission statements, I move in and out of seeing them become hyper-rigid examples for guiding strategic visioning and planning and then at times they become a convenient vehicle for codifying absurd ideas and agendas. that being said, I do think they are necessary in that they help communicate who and organization is and what they do but beyond that, they lose their usefulness.

  5. “Most of my guests are not on the show to make news. They’re there to explain the news…They’re not trying to find that edge to create that headline that will make the morning paper.”

    Nice quote from Moyer–and perfectly summarizes the difference between Foxes and Hedgehogs in political psychology. Philip Tetlock describes, in his studies, that the subjects that are most adamant (Hedgehogs) about their positions (read: opinions) tend to be the worst at prediction.

    Foxes, on the other hand, are more cautious about making claims and more likely to explore many other viewpoints and angles and do a far better job at predicting future events. It’s one of the most simple and ingenious longitudinal studies of behavior and fits in pretty well with what Moyers is saying about good reporting “going to where the news will be” rather than where the news is at (the Wayne Gretsky quote/paraphrase).

    Moyers is right on the button with Context–it really matters. I guess that’s why I’ve always been interested in the history and evolution of different “High” Art musics worldwide and from every age–what better context is there than seeing how Art music styles and ensembles have flourished and eventually failed when you’ve got the whole history of Art Music from around the world as a database!

  6. I’ll admit to not being a big Bill Moyers fan. I haven’t really followed the debate about whether or not he displays a ‘liberal bias,’ but I think the bias debate is a reasonable metaphor for how we talk about the orchestra business. This is why: Often we assume that we and our interlocutors share the same axioms – The Things We All Know Are True. We then reason from those premises and arrive at logical, well-reasoned conclusions that are in raging conflict because we don’t in fact agree on What Is Self-Evident.

    An example: For decades, we in Cleveland have heard that it’s ok to pay us less than Chicago or NY because the cost of living here is less. And that’s true – if you’re making a decision about where to work based on the lifestyle your income will provide. But musicians don’t look at it like that. We think: if you want a top quality orchestra, you need to pay what top quality orchestras pay. The negotiated salary is a proxy for the community’s commitment to orchestral music. Both views make sense from their respective starting points, but we don’t start from the same place. (And this is not the place to re-hash the arguments for against these positions – it’s just an example.)

    So our public discussions are often veiled in the way Moyers describes in order to avoid exactly this type of conflict. ICSOM in recent years has been making the point that we shouldn’t air our dirty laundry in public. Managers and the League seem to seize on every new bit of evidence that there is a ‘crisis’ and want to shout it from the hillsides – like a cry for help. Here’s the problem: the debates like the WQXR panel, the League conferences and the orchestra pundits in the blogosphere are the totality of the discussion. This is how we communicate. (“Tell Margaret I’m not speaking to her.” “Send out a press release so we can tell Henry there is a crisis in our relationship.”)

    The one major exception to the remarkably indirect communication between musicians and managers/trustees was the Mellon Orchestra Forum program. I’m glad to see Rob Simonds also remembers the facilitator telling the gathering, “Nobody owes you an orchestra.” It was a great and rare moment of private candor within the industry and across constituencies. Mellon did us a great service simply by providing a safe place for candid discussion.

    I’m not sure we need more public symposia at this point – we do need to speak frankly with each other and we need to begin by articulating and understanding each other’s axioms so we can reason together. Certainly the WQXR panel was a failure by this standard and the League’s rejection of ICSOM is yet another missed opportunity. But I think if it’s going to happen, it has to be within our own organizations and that will require a fair amount of courage and purposeful good will.

    • I wholehearted agree that communication must begin within each organization and reach a meaningful threshold before external communication reaches a point for meaningful impact. At the same time, I would associate the Mellon Forum with more of the external communication methods than not. In fact, I see a great deal of outside discussion working its way into, or even substituting, internal communication. In the past few years, it appears that the number and frequency of of positions and arguments making the rounds through cultural punditville (of which I am an admitted resident) appearing as the source for strategic planing operating procedures.

      • I have no problem with external communication working its way into and influencing internal discussions. If you are inspired by someone else’s good idea, by all means run with it. The problem is that there is too little candid internal discussion.

        • I just watched the Opening Plenary of the League conference and got some reinforcement from Deborah Borda – CEO of the LA Phil:

          Today we face a special challenge and opportunity we must pioneer more meaningful and productive ways to work with our musicians. So many of them are alienated and underneath terrified of what they see as a collapse of the world as they knew it. It might be as simply as just starting to talk with them. Which is not as simple and easy as it sounds. They fear that even the discussion of change will weaken their position, but the times are too critical to say, ‘You do your job, we’ll do ours.’

          She starts speaking about an hour into the video. This quote is from around 1:15.

          I found this session to be informative and thought-provoking starting around 0:40.00, fwiw.

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