The League: Then And Now

I had the opportunity to watch the opening segment of the League’s Red Alert! plenary session which consisted of a speech from League CEO Jesse Rosen. He read a list of current orchestra bankruptcies (Philadelphia, Syracuse, Honolulu, New Mexico, & Louisville) and defined them as “critical situations” that have “erupted” since 2008. He said they are not the result of cyclical economic cycles but are structural in nature, but that’s not what the League was saying several years ago…

In response to the series of bankruptcies following the 9/11 recession, this is how then League CEO, Henry Fogel, framed the situation to the Kansas City Star in an article from 6/15/03.

“The downward trend, Fogel pointed out, is happening in other sectors of the economy. Hockey, for example, is in far worse shape, he said. The three out of 30 teams that have filed for bankruptcy represent 10 percent of [the NHL]: In contrast, only six ensembles out of the 900 ASOL-member orchestras have declared bankruptcy.”

Two year later in 2005, Fogel revised the details a bit but delivered the same basic message to the Cincinnati Post (republished resource).

The view that American orchestras are on the brink of a precipice is incorrect, Fogel said. “In the last five years, when the economy has been really down, we’ve had nine orchestra bankruptcies, but that’s not a lot. There are over 350 professional orchestras in America. In what other industry is the percentage better?”

In the same month, Fogel had a similar point of view for the Salt Lake Tribune (source).

Since 2001, there have been eight bankruptcies among approximately 350 professional orchestras, and five of those have rallied and are still performing, Fogel said. “It’s not a bad track record. It’s better than the airline industry.”

In 2006, we examined those perspectives in an article that took Fogel to task over failing to “[identify] the fundamental problems which actually plague the business [even though] it does take public notice of the gorilla in the corner.”

However, the gorilla referenced in 2006 had everything to do with organizations that have suffered under a string of ineffective leaders, lack of accountability, and poor business decisions, not unlike what Michael Kasier recently defined in his Huffington Post article from 6/6/2011. Yet in Rosen’s speech, he cites that the current round of problems is structural in nature and is the result of outside forces.

The League: Then And NowSo when did the shift in League thinking take place and how did it develop?

How did it go from talking about nine bankruptcies over four years as groups who have “rallied and are still performing” to mentioning five bankruptcies over three years without even hinting that two had zero or minimal interruptions to their performance schedules (Philadelphia and Louisville), one has already been replaced by a 501c(3) orchestra (Honolulu), and the remaining two are already within the “rallying” process of musicians, local supporters, and former board members forming replacement ensembles (New Mexico and Syracuse)?

I wish I had answers to those questions but based on the content of Rosen’s speech as compared to Fogel’s numerous comments from 2005, there seems to have been a fundamental shift in the way the League views its role. Moreover, Rosen’s speech projects an image that the League is breaking industry taboos by talking about some very real downward trends; but in reality, Rosen isn’t taking the time to examine or discuss why or how the League came to those conclusions.

As such, Rosen’s remarks might fall under what Bill Moyers was telling Jon Stewart on 6/1/2011 when he said (paraphrased) that institutional leaders have increasingly embraced language designed to conceal as opposed to revealing their thinking. They aren’t willing to engage and instead, they focus more on trying to make sure you don’t understand exactly what they are trying to say even though they may use simple words to express it.

For a plenary session that hyped up the notion of speaking openly and frankly about today’s challenges, Rosen’s portion felt far more like what Moyers described when he said (exact quote) “People don’t want to keep their opinions hidden but they want to keep the facts hidden.”

Admitting that revenue and audiences are declining is not a grand gesture of transparency when you fail to address issues of accountability and explore why those trends have occurred. This is precisely what Kaiser was getting at when he wrote the following.

But the key issue is: why has revenue fallen so far for so many arts organizations?… It is impossible to blame unions for the lack of revenue for arts organizations when so many are doing such a poor job of managing themselves.

Are there plenty of issues musicians need to come to terms with regarding institutional stability and managing debt? Of course. But if this business hopes to pull itself out of the current economic downturn sooner rather than later, it’s going to have to look in the mirror as much as it looks across the table when it comes to speaking openly and frankly about today’s challenges.

Postscript: Beyond Rosen’s portion of the Red Alert! session, I have watched most of Steve Wolff’s component and none of Susan Nelson’s. Based on how often Wolff mentioned that institutions and their leaders need to adapt and change, I almost thought that the tag line for the session was “Adaptistration” and that due to a bureaucratic SNAFU, they failed to notify me. If nothing else, it’s nice to see the rest of the business get on the road we’ve been on since 2003. If they can manage to stay on that path and not corrupt a good premise with old agendas, then they might end up someplace better than where they began.


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 “The League: Then And Now”

  1. Douglas Dempster, about a decade ago, often responded in a similar way as Fogel to the accusations pointing to a declining classical music about a decade ago. See, for example, his response to the Wolf Report (2002) and Thomas Wolf’s call for a “paradigm” shift in how orchestras should be run after he predicted, within Baumol’s economic theory, a decline back in 1992.

    In his piece, “Whither the Orchestra For Classical Music” (2000) he looks at the existing data in different ways. He notes that while the market share in classical recordings had declined slightly (3.6 to 3.3 percent of total market share from 1989-1998) the market itself had grown nearly 100 percent in those years which translates into a $237 million market in ’89 to a $453 million market in ’98.

    He says about that:

    “Having only 3.3 percent of the U.S. recording market, one might argue, is nothing to brag about. Even if there had been no decline in market share, some would see a crisis in the mere fact that classical music holds such a small share of the musical interest of Americans. But this has to be put in context. If market share is any measure of cultural health, the real crisis in American musical culture is in rock-and-roll, which sank from a 41.7 percent share of the market in 1989 to 25.7 percent in 1998. That’s what I call a sustained and precipitous decline. Jazz has lost half its market share, sinking in 10 years from 4.9 percent of the market to a tiny 1.9 percent. Pop and “new age” have lost one-third to one-half of their market shares over this period. Country music has approximately doubled in its share of the music marketplace, but still controls only 14 percent of the market. If there is any very clear trend in the sale of recordings in the U.S., it is a trend toward musical tastes becoming more fragmented and more eclectic. The marketplace for music recordings is now less dominated by any one musical style.

    In a cultural marketplace of this kind, the remarkable fact is that the audience for classical music has grown along with the general growth of the recording industry.”

    Near the end of the piece he warns about looking at the data in ways to chart simplistic rising/falling trends:

    I haven’t offered anything approximating an exhaustive survey of the known data on the classical music audience. But the studies reviewed here make it perfectly clear that critics have, perhaps in a spate of millennial fever, greatly exaggerated the demise of classical music at the end of the 20th century. Even worse, however, they have witnessed very complex trends in the culture of classical music and reduced them to the morally simplistic calculus of “rise” and “decline.” Musical and cultural critics misinterpret economic, demographic, and technological changes affecting the world of classical music as signaling some spiritual decay in the culture of classical music itself. The audience for classical music is not withering, but technological, sociological, and economic forces are reshaping that audience in important ways.

    It’s too bad the current League’s view has regressed back to the morally simplistic calculus of “rise” vs. “decline” that Dempster spent so much time debunking.

  2. Rosenspeak seems to be all about projecting accountability anywhere BUT the League & its members. It adds up to rather sapless leadership, but one CAN see how it would endear him to all but the most successful CEOs. It reminds me of the annoying kid down the street who constantly decries, “It’s not MY fault. It’s not MY fault.”

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