Back To The Future In Atlanta

Many thanks to a regular Adaptistration reader (you know who you are) for sending along a link to an article from 2/21/2012 at EarRelevant, a blog by Lux Nova Press music publisher that contains a lengthy interview with Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) President, Stanley E. Romanstein. Titled In Times of Transition: A Conversation with Stanley Romanstein, it is particularly interesting when viewed through perspective of the current labor dispute.

dodgeMoreover, and assuming the dispute continues to degrade, Romanstein’s responses provide some tips to the much larger icebergs of disgruntlement that are likely populating the bargaining waters. Following are some excerpts from the interview so you can begin charting those waters, but I strongly encourage everyone to read the transcript.

The ASO is too focused on the orchestra musicians and not enough on the audience.

One of the things that we talked about as a staff this year was that if you look at the typical American orchestra, the orchestra itself sits right in the center and around it you have the staff, and you have the board, and you have the audience, and the community. I said, “What if we change the paradigm, and we took the orchestra and put it here, and took the audience and put it center?”

We really don’t exist for the care, feeding and happiness of the orchestra – or of Robert [Spano], whom I just adore – but we really exist for the consumer, for the audience, for people who are passionate about music and who are going to come down here on a Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday for that live music performance. What if all our decisions were really oriented around what they need and what they want as opposed to what we want out of them? And it was one of those, “Oh but we do that.’ ‘No you don’t. You want to think you do, but you don’t.”

Musician Intransigency.

The idea that we only do concerts Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8 p.m. in Symphony Hall is not going to sustain you very far into the future. What the players have said was, “What you’re asking of us is a lot greater flexibility in when we rehearse, when we perform, where we rehearse, and where we perform.” And I said, “Yeah, because that 11 o’clock concert might not be here, it might not be the best place for it. It might be another place for it.”

There Will Be Change. End Of Message.

First, I have this real interest in societal transitions from one time to another, and how organizations, institutions and societies accommodate those pivotal points of progression. And you know what’s going on in our industry right now. We are at a critical inflexion point for what’s happening to orchestras. I think that there will be a major shift that takes place over the next eighteen months or so.

Somebody asked me as I was beginning my second year, “Are you glad you did this?” and I said, “This is a wonderful time to be in this business if you’re interested in being an agent of change. If you’re interested in promoting the status quo, this is a lousy time to be in this industry because the status quo isn’t.

I was talking with one of our players who referenced “the industry standard” about contracts, and I said, “It’s very difficult to benchmark against something that is complete transition. It’s a moving target. Where are you going to aim if you’re trying to hit the moving target?” Trying to talk about the industry standard as far as contracts, compensation, etc., is a really difficult thing.

Lack Of Diversity.

I talked with some of my friends from the National Black Arts Festival about this very issue. All of them said, “It’s not the repertoire, it’s not that we don’t like Beethoven, it’s not that we don’t like Brahms. It’s not that we can’t come to Midtown. It’s not the price, it’s not that we need free tickets. It’s that when we look at the program book, the programs, the audience and the artists on stage, we don’t see people who look like us. So it makes us think we’re not really the people they have in mind.”

New Musician Job Descriptions And Modifying The Audition Process.

[Let’s say that] we’re looking for a new player, a new violinist or whatever. In the old days you simply looked for who could play the best, the fastest, the best tone, the best phrasing and so forth. Now what we are beginning to think is “What is this person’s views on an orchestra member’s role in education? How does this person view their connection to the community?”

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.

Related Posts

0 thoughts on “Back To The Future In Atlanta”

  1. As a professional musician, I find it really hard not to read between the lines of Dr. Romanstein’s comments and come to the conclusion that in spite of his lofty goals of expanding the audience and making the art more accessible, he’s basically trying to make the musicians do more for less money. In far too many cases, the “paradigm shift” amounts to executives making hefty six-figure salaries while asking musicians to increase their workload and quit complaining about their 5-figure salaries. Notice he didn’t include himself in the “we don’t exist for the care and feeding of …” statement.

  2. The pay of orchestra chief executives is so often brought up in these discussions. This is valid, but not in comparison to the base scale of a tutti player with no seniority. Compare the chief executive’s salary to that of the Concertmaster or Music Director, and then it’s suddenly not so astonishing. It will generally be lower than the latter, and sometimes lower than both.

    If there is really concern about administrator pay versus artist pay, then compare the compensation (and benefits) for the whole orchestra against the whole admin staff. We administrators aren’t in it for the money. If we were, we’d be doing something else. We’re in it because we love the music.

    • You can say all of that again; the only bit I might offer up some clarity on is I can count on one hand the number of concertmasters who earn more than the CEO or executive director. Music directors, certainly; concertmasters, not really.

      And although it’s no secret that CEO pay has been increasing at much higher rates than those of base musicians I suspect the earning gap (in ICSOM orchestras) between CEOs and staffers is much larger. Unfortunately, there’s no reliable way to analyze these trends as compared to musician compensation which is (mostly) public information but my own experience directly working with groups and the mountain of anecdotal information I’ve come across points to an alarming income gap.

      This is one of the reasons I try to point out these discrepancies in posts as often as it is relevant and I’m always glad to see readers bring it up in comments.

      But more to the point of what I think your comment is touching on, it isn’t as much the direct comparison so much as the rate of change over a prescribed number of years that serves more purpose in labor disputes. Of course, that also leads into larger (and thornier) issues of accountability etc.

    • I certainly didn’t intend to imply that administrators were doing this for the money; show me a person in this profession who’s in it for the money, and I’ll show you someone in the wrong profession! In discussions like this, it’s easy for respondents to get entrenched in their own perspectives and state their arguments without pausing to consider other viewpoints.

      As a front-line musician, we sometimes forget that there’s nothing personal involved in the business decisions that are carefully and sometimes painfully deliberated upon by administrators and boards. An organization with a agonizingly finite supply of resources can easily find itself in financial ruin, and the board and administrators often give themselves ulcers trying to avoid a total collapse. At the same time, the endeavor to come up with innovative, new, and exciting ways to deliver the product can cause an even greater amount of stress and uncertainty. Musicians certainly tend to be less aware of the business concerns.

      Ironically, administrators also seem to forget that there’s nothing personal involved in the business decisions that affect the livelihoods and well-being of the musicians and staff. Certainly a reduction in expenses looks like a positive, fruitful step on the way to fiscal security, but to that tutti player with no seniority or the staffer making just over minimum wage (each of whom is also doing this for the love of music), it looks like having to move into a cheaper house, cut back on basic expenses like utilities and transportation, or even face the possibility of unemployment. From a musician’s perspective, it seems that administrators don’t always acknowledge this point, nor do they often appear appear willing to offer comparable sacrifices for the love of music. When tensions between musicians and administrators increase, there’s a tendency for the musicians to reach the conclusion, whether accurately or not, that the CEO is trying take money from the players in order to maintain their current salary.

      I think it’s important to remember, and this seems like a rather obvious point, that we’re all on the same side, we all want orchestras to succeed, and we all want to be able to share in that success. However, I think it’s equally important that the sacrifices and hardships be shared by everyone involved.

      • No, it isn’t. Per Adaptistration’s comment policy, I verify the identity of all readers who wish to use a moniker or an anonymous name. For those who agree to those terms and also refrain from using the anonymity to post content that violates the blog’s terms of use, they are welcome to post their own views as they see fit.

        I would also like to remind all readers that calling someone a coward without evidence to the contrary per the comment policy terms, would normally constitute a violation of the policy with regard to uncivil behavior and you would receive a note from me pointing out the violation and an invitation to resubmit an edited version that conforms to the policy.

        However, in this instance I decided to publish the previous comment not as something reflective of the author but to use as an example in reminding everyone that anonymous and moniker attributed comments are not posted here without good cause and due diligence.

        Labor disputes generate deep emotions for stakeholders and I strongly urge everyone to think before you type and never post in anger.

        For convenience, here is a copy of Adaptistration’s comment policy:

        Comments are welcome and moderated by the respective article’s author. Commentary, opinions, and reactions to all comment posts are welcome. The authors, as well as the blogmaster, reserve the right to delete comments to their respective articles deemed uncivil, off-topic, spam, or inappropriate advertisements and/or promotion.

        Anonymous comments are allowed; however, any comments submitted without a working email address to verify legitimacy will likely be deleted without warning or subsequent notice. In order to submit a comment that protects your identity, please use a moniker for the “name” field but leave an email address where you can be reached so as to verify the legitimacy of your comment. Please note that if you use a service such as gravatar that assigns an avatar based on a specific email address and you use that address when submitting your comment, it will still display your avatar even though you use a moniker for your name.

      • I’m sorry for the tone of my original post. It’s an emotional time down here and I am just as human as the next person. I do, however, feel that the strength of one’s arguments is lessened when shielded by the anonymity of the internet. I will be happy to engage in a further discussion, but I would really prefer to know who it is that I am talking to. So, mea culpa, but I will still stand by the substance of my original post, just not the tenor of it. I will collect my thoughts about this and post them later.

      • Thank you for the followup comment and although I agree that knowing who it is your are conversing with is best, there are times when anonymity is best. It comes into play when an individual may otherwise be subject to unjustified retribution in the workplace and in extreme cases, protection for whistle-blowers.

        Over the years, I’ve allowed musician, manager, and just about every other stakeholder imaginable to post anonymously for good cause and when they abide by the terms of use and comment policy. So if there’s ever any frustration over an anonymous post, feel free to direct any ire toward me.

  3. Does such a chart showing rate of change exist? Such a chart would show, say, executive director, music director, and base orchestra player salaries in each ICSOM orchestra over the past 20 years, to get a visual picture of income versus inflation in all three groups. (I have just logged on for the first time in a few years, so perhaps it’s somewhere in this website and I haven’t seen it yet; if so, my apologies!)
    Chris Woehr
    St. Louis Symphony ICSOM Delegate

  4. “We really don’t exist for the care, feeding and happiness of the orchestra … but we really exist for the consumer… What if all our decisions were really oriented around what they need and what they want as opposed to what we want out of them? And it was one of those, “Oh but we do that.’ ‘No you don’t. You want to think you do, but you don’t.”

    Can you please explain to me what this even means? Is this typical manager-speak or a particularly lame attempt at being innovative? Of course the audience is always at the front of what we do. Does ignoring or depleting the quality of your orchestra make a better experience for the consumer?

    • I’m glad someone mentioned this as it caught my eye more than the others. On one hand, it does come across as empty jargon or even pandering but on the other hand, what if it is entirely sincere? If so, the phrasing alone risks alienating musicians for making it seem as though they are childish and self centered, it risks demoralizing managers and staffers because it makes them look clueless and incompetent, and it risks making the executive come across as dispassionate and arrogant in that he doesn’t have to be concerned with any of those risks.

      It reminds me of a speech given by a Group 1 CEO about orchestras and mission that contained the phrase “if the audience wants mashed potatoes, then give them mashed potatoes.” That CEO is no longer in the business and I recall the closed door fervor it caused in that it staked a claim in the ground that artistic quality institutional cohesiveness are, at best, secondary concerns in building a successful performing arts organization.

      The speech, in particular the mashed potatoes line, became source material for a good bit of parody and inside jokes.

  5. I’d argue it’s not even the audience that should be at the center of whatever diagram you’re drawing, but classical music, or orchestral art music if you want to keep “classical” out of it. This thousand year-old art form is really what ought to motivate musicians and staff, and it’s what the audience is paying to hear. Finding ways to advance the cause of *that* and increase access to *that* with their unique personality (-ies) is what institutions are supposed to be doing in their communities, and worldwide through whatever media activity they have.

    Of course, there’s no God of Classical Music to be accountable to, but if conductors and instrumentalists continue to intend to realize the thoughts of a composer and not merely presenting their practice-room feats of strength, the ultimate goal of what everybody’s doing needs to be part of the conversation.

    • Excellent points all around Marc and referencing it as a diagram got me thinking that the notion of using a distribution or comparison style chart with a center is not the best way to perceive things. Instead, opting for a relationship oriented chart (I’m thinking bubble diagrams in particular) that fluctuate to incorporate the sorts of variables you’ve defined and chart them over a period of time is better suited to producing the desired outcome.

  6. Hi Drew,

    I read the interview and was pretty impressed. Yes there is some hyperbole and unsubstantiated claims, but Romanstein has some good points and very thoughtful observations about the orchestra field. Plus, it sounds like he’s made his views clear, both in interviews like this and past conversations with musicians, to help avoid surprises at the bargaining table. I imagine much of the negotiations has been about work rules and not just salary/benefits.


      • Well just a couple examples are his comparisons with past instances of orchestra structures changing. (I’m assuming of course that Dr. Romanstein’s historical analysis is correct.) His academic background could help the ASO avoid some mistakes from centuries past as well as navigate the shifting landscape more effectively. Also, his observations about different performance times and venues, while not ground-breaking, resonate with me. I’m surprised the ASO doesn’t already offer morning concerts for older patrons, but perhaps what was required there was someone new to suggest the idea.

      • I’m glad you mentioned the starting time item. On one hand, it would be fascinating to know if this point came up as a work rule change in the negotiations and on the other, I am always puzzled by how often something based on a notion or observational analysis becomes integrated into something as strategical influential as negotiations.

        One of the reasons it would be fascinating to study is to discover if the ASO took Romanstein’s notion and conducted some market research to determine demand along with the potential for building interest and making that a bargaining leverage point.

        Assuming there was some solid data that pointed to high demand that wouldn’t cannibalize attendance at remaining event times and/or incur a negative return in value vis-a-vis marketing performance, it would be interesting to see how this was used and exactly what sort of positions were presented (exploratory, full blow shift to a new subscription, etc.).

  7. The ASO used to present morning concerts but stopped because the management didn’t think the audience was large enough. I doubt any of the musicians are arguing against something like concert times or venues. Every classical musician I know is eager to perform in as many different places and times as they can to reach their audience. Again, this is obvious to me: connecting with the “consumer” is already at the front of everyone’s intentions. If you’re just going to cavalierly say, though, that what the “consumer” wants is the more important than anything else, why not go to work producing “Real Housewives of Atlanta” or “Jersey Shore”. At the end of the day, this is an orchestra. To just brush the “care, feeding and happiness” of the orchestra off as some sort of trivial matter or of secondary importance seems wholly misguided to me. Romanstein cites the LA Phil as a benchmark for all orchestras. I would argue that they’re as successful as they are at connecting with their “consumers” because they tend to the “care, feeding and happiness” of their orchestra more than anyone else in the country. They are able to do this because they have a CEO like Deborah Borda who knows how to successfully do things like raise money, grow endowments, get a new hall built, attract the best talent, etc… – in other words, how to run a great orchestra.

  8. Most everything Romanstein said probably deserves thorough dissection. He’s clearly a thoughtful guy and there’s some value in his portfolio of ideas. Taken one at a time they are easily digestible. But in the aggregate, his ideas are often contradictory and some probably aren’t the arena of a large symphony orchestra.

    SR’s asking if we are “appreciated by a broader community” or how we can be as essential as the Yankees feels less ambitious when it clashes with his vision of orchestras simply playing fewer concerts for smaller audiences.

    The Yankees/NYC example is ridiculous . It is ridiculous to compare the Yankees to other pro sports, never mind orchestras. The Yankees, Red Sox and maybe 1/2 dozen other teams are fundamental parts of civic identity. To remark that the Thrashers or the Pacers, Royals, Stars, Pirates, etc are not the Red Sox or Yankees is lazy to the point of being meaningless.

    The will to exist plays as much a role as the demand for existence. Is there really a demand for a 162 game MLB regular season nationwide? Yet the gates open, tickets are sold, beer and hotdogs are consumed and the game is played.

    The recent NBA strike was an example that no entertainment institution, despite popularity or hype, is truly essential a city’s life. Life and business go on without skipping a beat. We can lament that XYZ Symphony would be soon forgotten if it folded. But that is true for virtually everyone in every field. To suggest otherwise is hubris and not better business.

    There are different species of orchestras and each has purpose. Some get together in the summer for a few concerts on a lake or in the mountains and play for themselves and their hosts. Others grind out long seasons for thousands of people in big cities. We should all sincerely ask ourselves which type we work for, Dr. Romanstein included.

  9. Morning concerts would exist to attract elderly audiences who cannot drive at night. Abstractly, that would make sense, but, one would have to experience helping the elderly get out of the house in the morning. It’s not easy being elderly. Waking up bristling with energy ready to jump in the car just isn’t so simple. Late night audiences would be sparse, too. Different audience, different venue, then comes the next day! Different problem.

    In reply to Anonymous: LA has Gustavo Dudamel…..perhaps more important than D. Borda.

Leave a Comment