All tuned up, with no place to go
As reported by British classical journalist Norman Lebrecht, five important American orchestras will not start their 2012-13 on concert seasons on schedule due to labor strife: Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Indianapolis Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, San Antonio Symphony. The stories vary, as will no doubt the outcomes — for now. But each case speaks the same basic narrative: A once-successful orchestra finds that its long-time model has become unsustainable. Costs are rising, earned (i.e., ticket) income as a percentage of the whole budget is declining, fundraising is stagnant, the audience is aging and, in many cases, declining. The musicians, understandably, don't want to give up what they've got. Management, understandably, is forced to take drastic action. The classicalsphere is abuzz with indignation, and since it is largely populated by musicians and classical media folks, the position it takes is overwhelmingly pro-musician and anti-management, not that there isn't plenty of blame to pass around. Much orotund oratory is orated about the years of rigorous and expensive training required to become a musician (true) and of the crucial role culture plays in the community (perhaps true, but very hard to quantify).
And in just about every case, the main underlying issues will be ducked. That many of these orchestras, along with much the rest of the American classical scene (and frankly along with many of their home cities), are coasting on past glory. That public demand for what these orchestras currently offer isn't great enough to keep them going without huge gifts from a dying cohort of patrons. That unlike their peers elsewhere in the entertainment business, orchestral players' pay is not connected to the amount of revenue they produce (not saying that's wrong, but it's hard to pay for). That the orchestra and its players may kiss and make up this time, but they'll likely be back at odds again at the end of their new contract. And that one of these years, in many cases, the orchestras will cease to exist, except perhaps in greatly reduced form.
What can be done to turn this around? Really, I have no idea. And I'm scared, for myself, and for the music I love. But I think I know this: That if orchestra management and players are happy with the path they're on, they should keep doing what they're doing. As Lebrecht's report makes distressingly clear, it's working.
P.S. An excellent reply to Lebrecht's report:
I don’t mean to offend anyone, but many musicians flatter themselves that they could run the orchestra better than the administrators because they “love” the music more, as though this will increase ticket sales and fundraising and lower production costs. A lot of full-time musicians I know are oblivious to the hard realities of the business they work in, and moreover, they are openly disdainful toward the very idea of “management” (and especially fundraising)...
I don’t want to cultivate an us-vs-them attitude and I’m sorry if this sounds like “management blaming the musicians” (because remember, I am a working musician too). That is something we in this industry inflict on ourselves because in-fighting is easier than confronting existential problems.