Why Orchestras Plan So Far In Advance

During my unexpected week off, Joshua Kosman published an article at datebook.sfchronicle.com that cast an eye toward the way orchestras approach programming at the onset of the last century. In a nutshell, seasons weren’t planned years in advance and programming choices happened within the current season.

Kosman suggested this is exactly the approach organizations should adopt in a post-COVID environment. He included support for the idea from none other than San Francisco Symphony Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen.

“What has always bothered me about the rigid long-term planning of symphony orchestras,” he told me, “is that if I heard something exciting — a new young conductor or singer, or a fantastic new piece — I would have to wait for two seasons to plug that into my orchestra. And then the newsworthiness is gone. It might still be an important artistic event, but we completely lost the ability to react on the spot.”

I agree, orchestras should approach programming with considerably more flexibility than they do. I’ve been saying that in various forms for nearly two decades.

Having said that, there are very real reasons why changing direction isn’t as simple as making a choice. In order for that to happen, here are some of the key elements that have to change.

Orchestras Would Need To Completely Change Their Annual Cash Flow

For more than half a century, orchestras have cultivated the subscription revenue model. It delivers a large ratio of ticket revenue over a short period of time and traditionally costs less to cultivate and maintain ticket buyers.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in order to sell a subscription, you need to tell patrons what they’re buying. Maximizing this revenue stream means getting the highest amount of money out of a ticket buyer in a single transaction and that means moving them toward buying tickets for concerts that span the entire season. Even with the advent of shorter length packages, an orchestra still needs to have the season planned a year in advance.

Flexible programming means higher marketing costs because you’re not only relying on single ticket primary buyers, but you also have to train them to trust the organization’s artistic decision making for short notice programming decisions.

  • Good News: All of this is entirely doable and requires a financial strategy to distribute ticket revenue more evenly throughout the season.
  • Bad News: Unless there’s buy-in from board members and large donors to help fund the cash flow transition and added up-front marketing expenses, an organization will have to drain endowments or run sizeable debt to cover those costs.

Music Publishers Would Need To Relax Restrictions

This is one of those fun facts most patrons aren’t aware of, but music publishers have several measures that restrict how often some works can be performed. I’m going to oversimplify things a bit here because these rabbit holes run deep, but publishers place constraints on rental frequency or sometimes only maintain a few printed copies.

When you add the time orchestra librarians need to receive and prep parts, you can see how having three copies of one work that’s only available as a rental increases the need for orchestras to plan further in advance. Conscious decisions that generate artificial rarity also helps drive up rental prices and since publishers have a monopoly on the product, it’s a no-brainer why this can come about.

  • Good News: This is a problem waiting for a solution and all it takes to discover are discussions where all parties remain fixed on a mutually beneficial collective goal.
  • Bad News: Unlike the internal politics that surrounds board and donor cultivation, publishers are commercial enterprises. If they like their profit margins right where they are, the best laid plans for potential growth can fall on deaf ears. If you can’t secure change with a carrot, all that leaves is the stick. Good luck with that.

Guest Artists Need To Make A Living

Even big-name guest artists need to plan for their future and in the volatile world where you’re only as good as your last performance and/or gala result, prospects, and therefore income, can dry up in short order. Guest artists go out of their way to schedule engagements as far in advance as possible because it provides a modicum of stability.

As their popularity grows, guest artists leverage that into more engagements that reach further into the future. Given that guest artists are a large component of artistic planning, you can see how this only encourages orchestras to plan years in advance.

  • Good News: <crickets>
  • Bad News: This is one of the more challenging nuts to crack. It’s difficult to deny guest artists the right to earn a living but this question also forces the field to re-examine the value guest artists have on revenue. I’m confident solutions exist but they are going to require looking at the landscape from very different perspectives.

Show Me The Money: Artist Managers

Closely related to the guest artist question is the role artist managers play in securing long term work. Like publishers, artist managers are a commercial enterprise that operates inside a mostly nonprofit sector. They don’t have an obligation to fulfil missions, they only need to turn a profit.

For example, one element that drives multi-year advance planning is the leverage artist managers assert using something like geolocation restrictions. For example, if Famous Soloist A performs in Chicago one evening, there are likely restrictions in place that prevent that artist from playing the same work (or any work) in markets without a certain radius. This means an orchestra like Milwaukee gets left out in the cold because Chicago doesn’t want to lose any potential revenue juice from Milwaukee ticket buyers willing to drive down for that soloist.

This also creates a viscous game of music chairs (ha!) where orchestras that reserve time as far in the future as possible, reduce their risk of getting left without a chair due to those sorts of restrictions. Sure, rising tides raise all boats but playing f**k you ball is a lot easier.

  • Good News: <more crickets>
  • Bad News: You must convince some of the shrewdest set of commercial operators in this field to give up power and control. Much like the music publisher conundrum, this one may take a combination of tactics that include sweeteners and a 2×4. If anyone can come up with a win-win that doesn’t require either, congratulations, you get to be CEO in any orchestra you want.

Union Considerations

Not unlike the guest artist considerations, musicians’ unions do wield a bit of influence in artistic planning by way of requiring orchestras to provide minimum lead times for artistic planning. By and large, musicians fight for this degree of influence to protect members from injury due to programming that stresses physical requirements beyond safe thresholds.

While advance time to learn new music isn’t really the issue here, musicians are more concerned with have one or two new works that may require maximum endurance to perform when introduced alongside other works that already tap those limits. Giving 110% only works for inspirational posters; in real life, it ends in tears with torn rotator cuffs, repetitive stress damage, and all sorts of other nasty workplace injuries <cough>lawsuits</cough>.

  • Good News: This absolutely has a win-win solution in that it requires constant communication and involving musician stakeholders in the artistic planning process. The more points of contact you have, they better.
  • Bad News: Downsides are comparatively mild and revolve mostly around people. Musicians have to step up and be responsive when engaged in the planning process and artistic decision makers need to realize these issues aren’t a fight over control, they are about maintaining a positive and healthy work environment.

The Way Forward

Most of the above items may come across as “No, Because…” problems but in the end, the best solutions will require stakeholders to adopt a “Yes, And…” perspective.

It isn’t difficult to see how so many of these issues conspire to form a web of reliance that only makes finding solutions less straightforward. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

In many ways, finding solutions to these problems is at the very foundation of solutions that will help the field become more relevant and more resilient. If that’s not a worthwhile goal, then I don’t know what is.

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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