Rise Of The Planet Of The Managers

I’m flattered to be asked by Drew to be a guest contributor. I still recall my first acquaintance with Adaptistration, about seven years ago when I was with the West Virginia Symphony – and I’m probably not the only manager who had this experience.   CONDUCTOR: “Our website was just panned by Adaptistration.” ME: “What’s Adaptistration?”  CONDUCTOR: “It’s a blog; I think it’s mostly for musicians.” ME: “As if we don’t have enough problems, now we have to worry about getting panned by bloggers!”

However, once I looked into it, I found that Drew’s thoughts on websites, and orchestras, were actually pretty good.  So the next time the Adaptistration annual website review came up, we at the WVSO were much better prepared.  Some of those general principles – function over form, user-friendly over fancy bells and whistles – help define the way I look at orchestra websites to this day.  (If I can’t see right away when the next concert is taking place, it’s not a good site.)

So I have to thank Drew for that.  And I have become a regular reader.  Reading Adaptistration is part of my daily routine, providing a thought-provoking way to start each day.  Lest I seem like a complete suck-up, let me also say that about 50% of the time, I don’t agree with it, and it leaves me somewhat peeved.  But I don’t mind having my attitudes and beliefs challenged, and challenge always stimulates good thinking.

Two weighty issues

I’m going to jump right in and offer my thoughts on two weighty issues.  First, let me say how tired I am of reading articles about the orchestra business that suggest, in various ways, that “classical music is dying.”  That is, of course, ridiculous.  Classical music itself is doing just fine, available to more people in more formats than at any other time in history.  The quality of live performances continues to rise, and if conservatory enrollment and participation in youth orchestras are any indication, there is plenty of interest from young people.

Classical music is not dying.  The orchestra business, on the other hand, definitely has issues.  Those issues relate to our delivery systems – selling subscription packages far in advance for concerts on fixed dates in a downtown concert hall and employing large number of musicians to perform those concerts.  And yes, our audiences, in general, are declining.  Some orchestras are adapting to those challenges better than others.  But let’s talk about the issues for what they are – issues specific to our industry – and stop all this nonsense about classical music being “dead.”

Second, the orchestra business model is also not dead.  We simply have to understand it for what it is – a subsidy-based model.  I always remember that for every dollar I spend on behalf of my orchestra, 60 cents was contributed by someone.  With some orchestras, the ratio of contributed to earned income is as high as 70/30, and even with the big orchestras that own their own halls and operate ancillary businesses, it’s no better than 50/50.  We all depend on the willingness of our communities to contribute in order to make our orchestras possible.

Managing in tough times

Without question, the past few years have put a considerable strain on contributed income.  Many of us have seen steep declines in funding from foundation, corporate, and governmental sources.  To some extent, we’ve been able to compensate with greater giving from individuals, both in terms of size of gift, and by expanding the number of givers.  But almost all of us have had to make adjustments – painful adjustments – on the expense side of the ledger as well.  In a wisely-run orchestra, all parts of the organization, including staff, musicians, and board, have been part of this and have had to share some of the pain.

Some have said that you can make necessary cuts without touching programming and marketing.  I don’t buy it.  In my orchestra, programming and marketing together comprise 86% of the budget.  There’s only so much I can do with the remaining 14%.  Quite frankly, during the 08-09 season, the first year of the economic downturn, I could have cut that remaining 14% entirely and still had a deficit.  Sometimes, we do have to pull back in ways that touch the artistic side – and the marketing side – of our business.  There’s no way around it.

Those types of changes are no fun for anyone.  For many of us, it’s been a tough couple of years, and we’ve had difficult decisions to make, at board meetings and at the bargaining table.  With all that said, I don’t think the business model is “broken.”  It’s a subsidy-based model, and when the amount of subsidy available declines, we all have to be willing to adjust, and to have reasonable, civil discussions about how to do that.   But the model still works.

A few modest observations

Let me conclude by offering a few modest observations about orchestra management; a few things I’ve learned in my 18 years as an orchestra CEO.  First, one goes into the orchestra business because of a love of music, and music is our reason for being as orchestra organizations.  But on a day-to-day basis, orchestra management is first about people, second about money, and only third about music.  You must be able to work effectively with people and money, as well as music, in order to be a successful orchestra executive.

Second, I’ve learned that money follows success, and success follows quality.  It always pays to invest in quality performances.  But remember that money follows quality.  It does not equal quality.  A more expensive performance is not automatically a better performance.

Third, in order to work well with musicians, you have to treat them well.  They will respond to the tone you set in your dealings with them.  If you treat them like the serious professionals they are, then that’s how they’ll behave.  But the converse is also true; if you treat them like children, then that’s how they’ll behave.  If you treat them as if they cannot be trusted, then they will not trust you.

Given the sheer volume of issues that confront an orchestra executive on a day-to-day basis, it is easy to do your job in a strictly reactive manner and be very busy.  Some of that’s necessary, for sure.  But it is what you do in a pro-active manner that will ultimately make the most difference, both for you and for your organization.  Have an agenda.  Follow it.  Get something done that needs to get done, not just something somebody asked you to do.

Finally, in making choices and decisions, get the facts, understand the implications, and get on with it.  Avoid “decision-a-phobia.”  It is often simply not possible to please everyone, or to make a decision with 100% desirable outcomes.  But making decisions is what leaders do.  If you’re not willing to make decisions, you’re not fit to lead.   One of the great historic figures here in Dayton was John Patterson, the founder of National Cash Register.  He once said (and pardon his sexist language – it’s from an earlier time): “An executive is a man who decides; sometimes he decides right, but always he decides.”   

Again, my thanks to Drew for inviting me to contribute.  I wish everyone in this business well – and hang in there!

About Paul Helfrich

Paul Helfrich is President of the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance.  He received his Bachelor of Music degree (with distinction) from Indiana University – Bloomington in 1984, and a Master's degree in Arts Administration, also from Indiana University, in 1986. Mr. Helfrich came to Dayton to serve as President of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra in October 2008.  In less than four years, he has overseen the launch of two new series including the highly successful Rockin’ Orchestra series, the completion of a $1.5 million special fundraising campaign called Protect & Secure, and played a key role in the merger of the Dayton Philharmonic with the Dayton Ballet and Dayton Opera to create the new Dayton Performing Arts Alliance.   Prior to his arrival in Dayton, he served 12 years as Executive Director of the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra in Charleston, West Virginia.  His time there saw a great expansion of the orchestra’s concert, touring, and education programs. Mr. Helfrich has also served as Executive Director of the Erie Philharmonic and Director of Marketing for the Kalamazoo Symphony.

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0 thoughts on “Rise Of The Planet Of The Managers”

  1. Bravo, Paul. You said things many of us have been thinking, and you said it most eloquently. I hope to see more of your articles here in the future — particularly when Drew is off frolicking in the Tetons.

    george brown
    Utah Symphony

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