A Road Map For Digital Programming From Sequoia Symphony

At the end of last week, the Sequoia Symphony Orchestra (SSO) published a teaser video about their upcoming Music Uplink digital series. I managed to get a head’s up about the program when recording an upcoming Shop Talk episode with SSO music director Bruce Kiesling and Niccolo Go, Partner and Creative Director at Go Creative Group (the company that partnered with the SSO to create the series).

They described the program and while intriguing, there’s always a bit of skepticism. Having said that, the final result was genuinely impressive. One of the most refreshing aspects of the teaser is the message isn’t about the organization. It’s not a plea for help.

Instead, it focuses on relevancy using a decidedly empathetic approach that focuses on existing and new patrons, which comes across in the video’s narrative:

These are challenging times for us all and yes for our orchestra as a cultural organization, but also as a community organization. How can we continue to celebrate and to foster an appreciation for symphonic music if we can’t perform public concerts for an in-person audience, particularly now at a time when music is needed more than ever.

We struggled with that question over the last several months and it’s time for us to respond and to do so in a way that holds true to our mission. We must not lose sight of what and who we are. Our job is to celebrate great orchestral music but now we have to do that in a new way using a new medium and perhaps more than ever, our mission as a community organization is desperately needed. How can we use orchestral music to bring our community together today.

On top of all this, there’s plenty to be curious about regarding all of the artistic quality related issues of the actual digital product. Their first release is slated to drop, October 23 so you can expect we’ll circle back after that to continue the discussion.

If the series is anything like the teaser production quality, this could be the latest step in erasing the counterproductive caste system this field applies to professional orchestras based on nothing but budget size. It also introduces intriguing questions about why some groups with profoundly larger budgets are simply shuttering for an entire season while others are playing the hand their dealt.

Having said all of that, it’s hard not to notice the SSO is making this series available free of charge and to learn a little more about that decision and where the group plans to go with it, I reached out to Kiesling and the SSO’s executive director, Joshua Banda.

“When our staff met, the question we kept asking was how can we ask for support if we’re not producing concerts,” wrote Kiesling. “Looking at our bank balance, our choice was between protecting our staff salaries for 6 months or so, or do we spend what had to move forward without relying on donors and sponsors and hope it payed off once we had the drafts to show—especially because what we were describing didn’t exist. There weren’t great examples to show people and say, “it will look like this.” Once we got the rough cuts of the first day of recording, they really stepped up to the plate, ultimately funding the entire series’s cost. It all came down to the fact that we were willing to risk everything to serve the mission first and weren’t afraid of potential failure because we believed in our vision.”

Banda added some additional perspectives.

“I just think more orchestras (and organizations) should not be afraid of failure,” wrote Banda. “Fiduciary responsibility is obviously a big factor but I think too many leaders are afraid to take risks because of it. Every decision we make is mission first, financials second. I think that’s also helped immensely as it relates to board buy-in. We get them excited about the mission, share the vision and the money always follows.”

You can also mark your calendar for Dec 8, 2020, which is when the Shop Talk podcast episode with Kiesling and Go will be published. With a topic of How to Create High-Quality Video Content, you can see where all of this comes together.

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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