The Ridge Address: A Warning-Response Opportunity

Although I plan to post my observations about the entire 2012 American Orchestra Summit later this week, I wanted to focus on what was perhaps the most engaging component of the entire event: a keynote address from International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) chair Bruce Ridge and the subsequent rebuttal session with League of American Orchestras president Jesse Rosen.

Ridge’s address was titled “Danger, Will Robinson!”: How Hyperbolic Negative Rhetoric is Hurting America’s Orchestras and it lived up to its tantalizing name; in particular, Ridge spent part of the time taking issue with a number of the League’s current practices. Although many of Ridge’s references would need guidance for casual field observers, there were a number of items he identified in no uncertain terms such as his displeasure over allowing Robert Flanagan access to data vis-a-vis the League database project, which was a joint project between the League and the AFM (and its respective player conferences).

Although it was very direct, Ridge’s address was a far cry from being nothing more than an hour long rant or some sort of ideological attack; instead, it might be better described as a well organized effort to speak from the heart.

For example, criticisms shared time with acknowledgements such as espousing the need for musicians to become more involved with orchestral advocacy efforts and challenging negativity toward the field as a whole. He also highlighted what he considered the good work being done at Americans for the Arts, a National organization that supports the arts and culture through private and public resource development, and encouraged everyone listening to become a member.

Throughout Ridge’s address, I was tweeting as many bits as possible so instead of attempting to capture all of his points in summary format, here is a list of all the respective live tweets in Storify format.

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Likewise, here’s a lengthy excerpt from the section in Ridge’s address which focuses on the negativity from the League and resulting conflict.

Read the excerpt.

It is well-known that there is tension between many musicians and the League of American Orchestras, so let’s talk about it. I actually have a slightly different viewpoint. I think the field needs the League, but we also need the League to change. We need the League to use its resources in developing positive messaging. There is a seemingly instinctive negativity that comes from the League at times, and it is being noticed by some of its own members. The League relies on the collection of $1.9 million in dues money to survive, and to pay considerable salaries to its upper staff. This year, one ICSOM orchestra left the League, citing the “dispiriting” rhetoric that emanates from the League. There are other managers who have privately expressed this same thought. I feel that the League must address its image problem, for if it was to fail, imagine the negative press then. The media instinctively covers the negative story, and if the League fails it would be perceived as a death knell for all symphonic music. It wouldn’t be, of course but it would be perceived that way.

I have done a lot of work for the League though, certainly as much as any other sitting ICSOM Chair. I have spoken at League conferences, served on the faculty for many training sessions, and I’ve met regularly with the leadership. This year, I will again attend the League conference, even though I have expressed my concern to the leadership of the League that their programming may be viewed as negative by musicians, and that the chasm may well widen.

Many wonderful people work at the League, but the League must become an organization that more effectively uses its resources for advocacy.

I recognize the difficulty inherent in that though….I really do. For example, when a board member of the League makes very public and damaging statements, particularly in a published editorial about how a specific orchestra is unsustainable, terrible harm is done to the field, to that orchestra, to that community, and to relationships throughout all areas of the industry. The leadership of the League must speak out against such destructiveness, and when they do not it weakens the organization in the eyes of musicians and managers alike.

I understand the difficulty of such decisions, and such statements. As ICSOM Chair, I once had to make a very difficult decision about a legendary figure who found himself in a situation that was not acceptable to the ICSOM Governing Board. It was heartbreaking, as this legendary person did more to elevate the lives of symphonic musicians that any other person in the past 50 years. It was a devastating personal decision for me, so powerful that it seriously damaged my health for a two year period. I understand how hard it is to make the difficult decisions, and to issue the controversial statements. But that is what leadership is all about. And if the League wants to be a leader in our field, it can no longer stand by in silence and then claim to not understand why musicians and managers alike find the organization “dispiriting.”

Musicians have willingly entered the room for a partnership, only to find themselves a little singed in the process. I think the whole field had hope for the Collaborative Data Project, which brought ICSOM, ROPA and the AFM into an effort to work with the League to develop a shared data set, as it has long been recognized that the numbers collected by the field for analysis are inconsistent at best. But instead, the numbers we were studying were given to a researcher who has produced damaging documentation based on imprecise data that has been used against musicians. This type of action is not positive, and this is not collaboration.

It brings me no pleasure to issue criticism of anyone, but our field is facing challenges and we must stop doing this to ourselves. In fact, in my writings I have called on musicians to avoid casting aspersions towards the League, and I have asked the League to issue similar statements to its members about the way they regard their musicians. While I’ve yet to hear my public appeal matched, I remain hopeful.

Still, I would much rather talk about solutions, and I will, but we can’t identify the solutions without first identifying the problems.

Right now, at this very moment, there are orchestra managements preparing their organizations for extended and unnecessary work stoppages. One in particular will be prominently in the press as early as this fall, but I don’t want to name the organization as I have hope that the management will avoid this destructive path. There is still time. But resources spent in this direction are also resources that could be spent promoting their organization.

Think of the damage done to the image of orchestras in the mind of an American citizen, struggling in the recession to care for his or her family, as they read that the Philadelphia Orchestra will spend over $10 million to go through the bankruptcy process. Imagine how that money could be invested in the community. But in this field, it seems there is always money for lawyers. Further, imagine the damage when that same citizen reads that the CEO of a bankrupt orchestra has received a substantial personal salary settlement, which newspaper reports indicate includes a personal financial planner.

Another manager has challenged the jurisdiction of national media contracts, appealing their lost case numerous times and spending who knows how much in legal fees. That money could have funded multiple projects that would have elevated the organization in the mind of the local and international community. Instead, money raised from donors has gone to lawyers.

It is, in a word, outrageous.

Still, some in this room might be wondering how I can overlook the recent bankruptcies in Syracuse and Louisville. The musicians of Syracuse will accomplish what their former management could not, and I have no doubt an orchestra will re-emerge. Louisville is maybe a little different I suppose, because what has been done to the community and the musicians there is even uglier.

In Louisville, an orchestra that has commissioned 120 original compositions and performed over 400 world premieres which served to spread the music of America across the globe is currently functioning as an organization that employs no musicians. It is an orchestra built by the people, and led at its founding by a mayor who believed in the concept of Confucianism that said that a city of high culture with happy citizens will attract wealth, business and power to the city. But now, this historic orchestra looks for musicians on Craigslist and through Facebook ads.

There is not merely one reason for these bankruptcies that can be applied to the entire field. The circumstances are quite different, and in the case of Philadelphia, if you follow a bad real estate deal with an extended period of time without a music director, a CEO, or a board chair, well, can there be any surprise that your organization might get into trouble?

But the negative rhetoric leads to stories that depict a mosaic of failure straight across the heart of America, a tornado traveling I-40 or I-70.

It just isn’t true.

What are the solutions? How do we change to preserve the legacy of great music? How do we continue to help educate the next generation of Americans while enhancing the business environment of our cities and elevating the spirits of audiences everywhere.

Well, first we must articulate that we do, in fact, do all of those things!

As ICSOM led at its founding, we intend to lead again into a new era of positive advocacy. To musicians everywhere, I call on you to join us in our positive message of advocacy. It is not enough to simply play your instrument. You must be among your audience, out in the lobby of your concert hall. Shake the hands of your audiences, thank your donors, and welcome them into an environment of community that surrounds every orchestra.

It surely must be clear to musicians by now that no one is going to do this for us. It has been the dedication of the musicians in Honolulu that has led to new orchestral performances in Hawaii. It is the musicians of the former Syracuse Symphony that are keeping the music and the hope alive in Central New York. This is our mission, and we must join together as never before, because something precious is at stake.

To the students of the music school who are here today, I especially ask you to join us. You are the future, and you are not going into a dying field. As you study to be accomplished instrumentalists, you must learn the message of advocacy as well. You must answer the negative messages in our newspapers about the future of orchestras with the truth of what you see. You must tell the story of how music changed your life, of how you have seen it touch other lives, and how communities are forever changed for the better by the presence of a great orchestra.

Should we fail to engage in this effort to tell the real truth, then we are allowing others to define us. It is now officially the job of musicians to introduce themselves to their communities, or they soon might find themselves demonized as the musicians in Louisville have.


What’s important to keep in mind is one of the attendees listing to Ridge’s address was League president Jesse Rosen. Consequently, the final session for that day was a rebuttal session which was originally designed to feature Ridge and Rosen engaging one another on points of interest but ended up with Rosen presenting a solo response for most of the session. Ridge joined the stage with 12 minutes left in the session and he and Rosen never engaged one another directly; instead, the remaining time was moderated by conference organizer, Professor Mark Clague.

Overall, the rebuttal was a bit of a letdown in that the potential for some meaningful tête-à-tête in a neutral forum between Ridge and Rosen was replaced by a cloistered and turn based point-counterpoint setting. Nonetheless, you can get a sense of that session via the following Storified live tweets.

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When you get past the surface level titillation, Ridge’s address and the subsequent rebuttal session could have produced one of the most profound exchanges in recent history. Both Ridge and Rosen are men of enough character that they would have been able to get past initial anger quickly enough and step out from behind entrenched PR bunkers to begin addressing real concerns.

Since the economic downturn, it has been clear to a number of field insiders that the rhetoric between the League and the AFM has grown past traditional cold war era saber rattling into a series of very real, very damaging brush wars. Left unchecked, these conflicts have the potential to spark a broad based ideological war capable of producing damage that will take decades to repair.

Ultimately, it would be depressing to think that this encounter may have been the last, best opportunity to recognize a warning-response event and take appropriate action. If nothing else, time will tell.

You can download a copy of Ridge’s entire speech below and although his address and the subsequent rebuttal session were recorded by the Summit, it is unknown at this time if they will be published along with videos from the Summit’s other sessions. If they are, you can expect them to be available sometime in April and we’ll be sure to post a link when they are.

[ilink url=”” style=”download”]Download a copy of Ridge’s address in .doc format[/ilink]

[ilink url=”” style=”download”]Download a copy of Ridge’s address in .pdf format[/ilink]

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 Ridge Address: A Warning-Response Opportunity”

  1. Three comments:

    1) the data Flanagan was given access to was not the result of a joint project between the League and the AFM, but rather the League’s orchestra statistical reports. There was an attempt to jointly organize a replacement for the OSRs which became known as the Collaborative Data Project, but at least to date it has not become operational.

    2) As I understand it, ICSOM’s objections were more to Flanagan being given the data without restrictions on how it could be used than to Flanagan being given the data at all. One could make a respectable case for doing it either way. I’ve always been curious why the the League has been a target of so much criticism re Flanagan when it was Mellon who hired him and who requested the League data.

    3) It is true that there has been a good deal of public criticism of the League by ICSOM. It is not true, as Drew implies, that the criticism has gone both ways.

    • Per your first two points Robert, cut-outs and other intermediaries notwithstanding, Ridge’s address and the subsequent rebuttal session made it painfully clear to me what he was getting at. But I’m a bit confused by your final point; granted, I know your position on the Bruce Clinton/League connection and ultimately, semantics such as that only stymie opportunities for meaningful exchanges and the potential for building sincere trust.

  2. “Per your first two points Robert, cut-outs and other intermediaries notwithstanding, Ridge’s address and the subsequent rebuttal session made it painfully clear to me what he was getting at”

    Me too. But the details matter in judging the extent to which his unhappiness with the League is justified. I’m not sure what you mean by “cut-outs”; if you mean that Mellon was acting at the League’s behest in engaging Flanagan, there’s nothing to support that.

    What I was trying to get with my last point is that, while ICSOM has been very critical of the League in its newsletter and in speeches by its chairman, there has been no analogous activity by the League. Even the Clinton comments (which certainly Clinton never claimed represented League positions) were about the musicians in his own (former) orchestra. Admittedly the League’s range of activities makes it more of a target of criticism than does ICSOM’s; they are very different organizations. But the fact remains that the “rhetoric between the League and the AFM” is actually rhetoric directed against the League by the AFM, ICSOM, and ROPA. There is no rhetoric flowing in the other direction.

    • The relationship between the AFM/player conferences and the League is far from healthy and attempting to define the interaction by limiting examination to public statement analysis is akin to diagnosing cancer with magnifying glass. Watching the unfiltered interaction between Ridge and Rosen during the Summit session was an excellent representative example of the unfiltered environment needed to begin the rebuilding process; this is what I was getting at with the reference to stepping out from behind the protection of entrenched PR bunkers.

      In the end, there is much work to be done and just as much trust to be reestablished; the first step toward building a new productive, positive, and healthy relationship is dropping pretense.

  3. I was out of town while you were blogging and tweeting about this, Drew–but really wanted to respond to the blogs. But regarding a couple of your tweets:

    #orchsummit2012 Rosen: the League supports that managers and musicians share cuts equally. He then said managers have taken 3% cut in recent years but musicians have taken 2% cut. Was this a light jab at Ridge’s assertion of eggregious CEO compensation?


    #orchsummit2012 Clague asserts that most average orchestra staffers earn “slave wages” so why the focus on CEO salary?

    Interestingly, Flanagan talks about the differential between management/staff salaries in the U.S. versus foreign orchestras–the differential is much larger abroad.

    As Flanagan also discusses diminishing returns on marketing and how that ties to the justification for that budget as well as that staff’s salary, maybe Rosen and Clague are overstating their case a bit?

    I still think it’s interesting how one-sided usage of Flanagan’s work is–the demonization/rejection of, especially, his book leads to a paucity of ammunition that could be used by the musician side.

    • I thought both of those particular points were odd moments in the session. Rosen’s point doesn’t seem to be much more than an attempt to make it seem as though musicians have higher wage increases than managers but there’s no reference as to the sampling parameters etc. I had to hold back from tweeting that from 2000/01-2008-09 the average CEO/Executive Director compensation increase among all ICSOM symphonic orchestras and more than half of the ROPA symphonic orchestras increased by 7.32 percent. and those figures are based on IRS 990 reports.

      Per Clague’s point, I was bothered by that as it seems he was restricting the sample of professional orchestra musicians to only the top 20 percent or so of ICSOM groups since the vast majority of ROPA musicians earn far less than even entry level staffers.

  4. “The relationship between the AFM/player conferences and the League is far from healthy and attempting to define the interaction by limiting examination to public statement analysis is akin to diagnosing cancer with magnifying glass.”

    Due to the intersection of past and present governance responsibilities, I am keenly aware of the state of the relationship between the League and the AFM/ICSOM/ROPA. And I agree it is not in good shape at the moment, although I can can remember times when it was worse (I remember a reference in the October 1993 issue of Senza to the “ASOL Death Star”: you might find it interesting to read who wrote it).

    But that doesn’t mean it isn’t important to get the details right. There’s no way to build a better relationship (which does indeed require “dropping pretense”) on a foundation of anything other than truth. I think that misperceptions of past events (such as, for example, the League’s decision to give Flanagan the OSR data) continue to harm the relationship; it would be better if more misperceptions were not created.

  5. It looks like that relationship is so bad that if there isn’t even a regular line of communication to discuss what one side considers right or wrong; which is a much larger problem than subjective perception. Ultimately, the issue if far less black and white and filtering out the vast swaths of gray only make matters worse.

  6. I’m aware of the good works the League has done, and credit should be given where it is due. I’m also aware of the fact that the League fellowship program has turned out some people who have wrecked considerable havoc on our industry. My core concern is the fear I have that The current leadership of the League doesn’t truly believe “traditional long-form presentation”I.e. full length orchestral concerts has a future in America. I think that basic salesmanship requires a belief in the product you’re trying to sell, whether it’s insurance or subscriptions to our concerts. So the new model the League is sharing across their membership reflects their attitude towards what used to be our core mission.

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