There's Buy-In and Then There's Buy-In

I had a fascinating conversation with a colleague several weeks ago that focused on the current trend for orchestras in dire financial straits to adopt artistic activities that rely heavily on expanding into new territories. Typical jargon for this sort of behavior is “getting out of the concert hall” or “getting into the community.”

The idea is that you stop presenting so many concerts in your 2000+ seat primary venue and start spreading around the artistic wealth so to speak via a variety of new ensemble configurations so as to reach new audiences in new venues, etc. etc. etc.

These are fine ideas but what seems to get glossed over in most discussions is timing; even the best of ideas will fail a miserable death if implemented at the wrong time.

By and large, the best time to explore this sort of fighting a war on two fronts style of business activity is when an organization is at its strongest: a full staff complement, happy work environment, and cash reserves to cover the inevitable high cost structure of breaking into new markets with new activity. Remember, the Met launched their HD simulcasts in 2006, at the height of the artificial cheap money housing bubble.

Consequently, it’s puzzling to see groups with decimated staffs that are both overworked and demoralized expect that those same administrators are going to be able to keep the current plates spinning while adding several dozen more.

Even more puzzling are groups that expect stakeholders to rally around the new plan with unilateral buy-in.

As luck would have it, not long after my conversation mentioned at the onset of this post, Scott Adams published a Dilbert comic that sums this entire discussion up in three elegant panels. And since licensing the actual comic strip far exceeds this blog’s budget, here’s a homemade knock-off reenactment (but thankfully, you can read the name-brand version here: http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/2012-02-08):

So the next time you hear talk in your organization about these sorts of new business activities hot on the heels of yet another round of budget cuts and musician negotiations on the horizon, take a moment to send around an inter office email with a link to the Dilbert cartoon. You may just save the entire organization!

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 “There's Buy-In and Then There's Buy-In

  1. To compete in the arts world orchestras must reach beyond the core audience. Often that means leaving the hall and trying to prove to the entire community why they matter most. I’ve also seen this demand being put on arts organizations by donors and foundations specifically. They’re in love with “collaborations” and “community engagement.” Also because it serves their goals. I see how everybody is stretched but just catering to the core is not sustainable.

    • I think you’ve touched on the real conundrum that arts groups face in this situation and the bear trap to avoid here, from a board member’s perspective, is to let panic guide the decision making process. Do arts groups need to expand out from core audiences? Certainly, and they’ve done that in varying ways over the last several decades; the only real difference in the most recent history is the degradation of traditional core subscribers.

      You’ve also pointed out another apt point vis-a-vis Foundation and donor pressure. Granted, motivation and specific forms of influence are a worthwhile subject for an entire series of articles but suffice to say, all of these pressures applied simultaneously alongside an economic downturn makes it increasingly difficult for boards to make reasonable governance decisions.

  2. The Dilbert comic is hilarious, but I agree with Sonja. Just catering to the core is not sustainable, if the core is truly shrinking like everybody seems to think.

    A major difference between our business and whatever Dilbert’s business may be is that we can often get contributed support for our experimental efforts. 🙂 And a lot of our fixed costs are for orchestra activities that are truly productive, rehearsals and performances, that can be reallocated (though not without working with the orchestra). If we have too many seats in the hall in a single season, we might be able to find better uses for some of those rehearsals and performances without sacrificing much in the way of ticket sales.

    • I suppose I’m taking a broader view vis-a-vis the Dilbert comic in the sense of seeing some orchestras embrace and even initiate extreme institutional distress in order to implement these sorts of strategies as opposed to adopting an approach that fosters sincere buy-in. It’s the sort of self congratulatory myopic driven mentality lampooned in the Dilbert strip that appears to be more real than farce in some groups.

      • It’s also a negotiations strategy. As I very recently heard it put, “when playing chicken, make sure the other guy sees you throw your steering wheel out the window.” And I don’t just mean negotiation with musicians. This might be a tactic for negotiating with Boards and donors, too.

        • Bingo. Although it’s a very, very old school approach, it’s become popular once again (ironic in the days of new model thinking, eh?). It’s quite dangerous because in the groups I’m thinking of here, it’s being adopted primarily by employers whereas it was traditionally used by labor.

          There are very different sets of long term outcomes when this approach is applied as a primary strategy from employers but it should come as no surprise to anyone that the economic downturn makes the all or nothing game less palpable for employees and if the round of uber-labor conflicts are any measurement, it looks like employers have been winning the game far more often than employees.

          Of course, no one really “wins” anything in those situations.

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