The Flanagan Book

Ever since it was published at the end of January, 2012 I’ve been getting a handful of email messages and Facebook notes asking if I had plans to publish a review or any related posts about Robert Flanagan’s book The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras. The short answer to that is no, I don’t but there is a recently published review by Bruce Ridge that you might find interesting.

Having read Flanagan’s 2008 report, I found Ridge’s review useful if for no other reason than he makes all the connections between the 2008 report content and the 2012 book to let me know that shelling out $50 for the latter is not likely the best way to allocate my resources. Consequently, I doubt I’ll be doing that unless it becomes part of the official scope of services in my consulting work.

Ridge, North Carolina Symphony bassist and current chair of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (or ICSOM; a conference of the American Federation of Musicians), published his review in the February, 2012 edition of Senza Sordino, the official publication of ICSOM (pages eight and nine) which is available in pdf format here.

Similarly, Robert Levine drops hints at his polyphonic.org blog that he’ll be publishing a review of Flanagan’s book in the very near future and based on his teasers, it doesn’t look like he much of anything good to say.

Has anyone else out there read the book? If so, what do you think? Likewise, if you have read Ridge’s review, what are your observations and thoughts?

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 Flanagan Book

  1. I read the book not long after it was published and as far as dry academic texts go, this one was actually very readable but, eh, I’ve always been a sucker for dry academic texts. I finished it in one evening and have been re-reading and have included a number of Flanagan’s analyses in my blog though I haven’t gotten around to doing my own review of it yet. I have also read the Flanagan Report (otherwise known as “The Economic Environment of American Symphony Orchestras”) as well as well as the other 2008 piece (“Symphony Musicians and Symphony Orchestras”) that’s usually much less commented about.

    It’s hardly a work sounding the death knell for Orchestras as much as the Chicken Littles would like to think, and so I think what negative attention or backlash this book [will] get[s] and what the previous Flanagan Report did get is just fanning the flames of what would be an otherwise straightforward read on the economics of Orchestras. I didn’t have any issues with it.

    The Bruce Ridge piece was particularly unhelpful (of course I say this having actually read the whole book) and while Flanagan’s narrative and illustrative anecdotes are nothing to write home about, I’m not so sure Mr. Ridge’s narrative anecdote relating his world from an insider’s point of view as a critique of Flanagan’s prose (and ultimately analysis) doesn’t really say much.

    Sure, its not perfect but I think Flanagan at least makes more concessions regarding Orchestras not being solely performance revenue machines (one of the biggest problems with the POV of his 2008 Report) and actually is relatively agnostic (if that’s the right word) about whether the conjunction of different strategies of increasing both performance and non-performance revenue might possibly be implemented to narrow the income gap. He certainly doesn’t think following a singular strategy is useful, though he does mention quite a few case studies where organizations have actually increased revenue, either earned or donated.

    I think the section comparing European Orchestras and American Orchestras was fascinating, as he states that, on the whole, American Orchestras seem to have controlled their costs much better than their European counterparts, if only because the lack of public subsidy which might give those organizations a higher degree of complacency since they aren’t accountable in ways that American Orchestras are. He does discuss some trends that some foreign governments(such as those in the Netherlands and Australia) are doing to make their Orchestras more accountable (sometimes invoking the American models) for their widening performance income gaps.

    One interesting point I never really considered is how tax policy creates a different kind of public support for orchestras here in the States. I mean, sure, we all understand what the tax free donations mean, but do we really understand that in a sense the private donations constitute money that, if not donated, would have been taxed and spent by the government anyway? Talking about the meager government subsidies that we have in the US is complicated and an incomplete measure of public support. Given that, he highlights “[t]he fact that government policies may influence the volume of private donations” (pg. 104) and makes it difficult to compare government support by different countries.

    In the end, I think every orchestral musician should read this, if only because Flanagan brings up a host of ways to increase revenue that can be used as a retort for simply cutting costs by cutting salaries.

    Ok, I think I’ve said enough–I should go write a review of the book on my own damn blog! 🙂

  2. A little more even-handed and, IMO, a much more useful review can be found at Art Fuse and I think Sarah Lutman’s short review might also be of interest. I’ve yet to come across an economist’s review of the book but haven’t really been looking lately. And fortunately, I got the copy I’m referencing through my University’s library, so didn’t have to shell out the $50 for it. I think I’ll probably wait until Amazon lists some used copies (if that ever happens–hah!).

  3. Sorry for the delayed reply Jon but many thanks for the added insight. I can attest via my own international work that yes, comparatively Euro orchestras have less stringent cost control measures in place. In the course of doing some due diligence work, I uncovered one large budget German orchestra that lost millions of Euros due to mismanagement and suspicious payments. What was most fascinating was the lack of regularly spaced audits thorough enough to pick up on those problems before they get out of hand.

  4. No worries, Drew–this is obviously a huge and touchy subject.

    That’s really disturbing to hear about the German Orchestra, but maybe also good to hear if only so that any Chicken Littles *cough–Tony Woodcok–cough* who bemaon the US Orchestra situation realize that the European models have many problems of their own. The US model has a higher degree of accountability, and seems to be in much better financial straits than the European counterparts.

    I think the value of Flanagan’s book (over and above the value of his earlier report) is to highlight that there is no single solution. It can’t be boiled down to getting a biger audience or switching over to a more fully funded Government model as the Europeans do, or what have you.

    At the same time, Flanagan also brings up many of the individual strategies (as I’ve mentioned) that could, in concert–especially if taking local circumstances in account–mitigate many of the long term funding issues (i.e. the Baumol Effect). Some of which, like the Pricing Discrimination issue for tickets, is only now being explored by Performing Arts Organizations. I believe there was a big conference in Chicago recently which had a number of presentations by Theaters, Opera Companies and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra specifically talking about how they’ve all raised revenue with some variation of that strategy.

    I’m really just repeating myself now, but I think it could be an enormously helpful book for those looking for some solutions rather than for another reason to demonize Orchestras!

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