Cracking the Orchestra Nut: Challenges and Models for the Future

Anyone who follows the ebbs and flows of the performing arts knows that many organizations have struggled to survive, let alone thrive, given the current economic environment.  The challenges facing symphony orchestras are particularly acute, due to the significant costs associated with a large resident ensemble of skilled musicians and the staff needed to fund, produce, and present concerts.  Nearly all of the major music critics and bloggers (here, here, here, and here) have opined whether the current state of affairs constitutes a crisis, and if so, what possible alternatives might exist. Is inadequate funding and limited public support to blame, or corporate greed and mismanagement?  Has the conservative and intransigent stance of musicians landed orchestras in hot water, or are these institutions “built to fail,” encumbered by an organizational structure that begs for drastic alterations?  The breadth of these questions reflects the field’s divergent perspectives, but they don’t offer an explicit solution to the core challenges facing orchestras today. Instead, we must identify the routines and assumptions motivating these challenges, and heed some notable success stories that question the status quo.

A String of Bankruptcies and Fallouts

Is Philadelphia in Hot Water?

One of the most visible developments indicating “crisis” is the recent string of bankruptcies and musician strikes. Since 2009, no fewer than six orchestras have filed for bankruptcy, and several others have experienced lengthy labor disputes or work stoppages. To summarize: the Honolulu Symphony filed for bankruptcy in 2009, forcing the organization to liquidate all of its assets due to mounting debts and limited local support.  The orchestras of New Mexico and Syracuse followed suit in 2011, while the Detroit Symphony Orchestra survived a 26-week strike that concluded with a more than 30% pay cut for musicians and potentially irreparable damage done to musician-management relations.The Louisville Orchestra filed for bankruptcy in December 2010, and recently issued an open call for auditionsafter failing to come to an agreement with its regular union musicians. In Philadelphia, the orchestra is in the midst of using bankruptcy to erase structural debt and renegotiate disadvantageous contracts with various vendors and partners, including Peter Nero’s Philly Pops and the musicians’ pension fund.  And, earlier this fall, two-thirds of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra’s board resigned following stalled negotiations with musicians, leading to a series of finger-pointing articles that captured the attention—and the ire—of musicians and patrons while foreshadowing talk of a “new business model.”

And in Coloradio, Out With the Old and In with the New

I have argued elsewhere that bankruptcy might be interpreted as a form of “innovation through annihilation,” but the quick succession of these events suggests a boiling point has been reached, exacting concern from even the most seasoned orchestra executives. Despite the tremendous artistic achievements attained by today’s orchestras, little doubt remains that they are in the throes of a longstanding organizational crisis that demands adaptive solutions.

New Opportunities

Yet while orchestras face significant barriers to change, a growing list of ensembles are leveraging the tumultuous environment to experiment and innovate around a new set of opportunities. The strain brought on by the recent financial crisis and an ever-diversified entertainment market has spurred some organizations to recognize that they have little to lose and everything to gain from dramatically redefining what it means to be an orchestra today. Many of the resulting innovations—including the application of 1) new structures, 2) more well-defined relationships with their communities, and 3) new technologies that enhance how orchestras create and distribute content and interact with their audiences—represent a stark departure from accepted practice, while others have historical antecedents that have been ignored or forgotten.  Each of these areas signifies unique but interrelated opportunities for innovative change. Below, I outline just a few of the exciting success stories that merit further examination.

Rethinking Governance

Most nonprofit organizations consider their governance structures (and the implicit hierarchies within them) an unalterable “given,” but several orchestras are beginning to rethink these conventions. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) explicitly encourages musicians to contribute administratively and openly question management practices. The orchestra regularly holds meetings in what is affectionately called the “war room,” bringing together staff and ensemble members to participate in the strategy and decision making process. Leveraging musician insight to tackle broader organizational challenges harkens back to a cooperative operating model that was pervasive in the nineteenth century and continues to be widely employed throughout Europe. Cooperative management structures have traditionally been less prevalent among American orchestras, but exemplars exist in St. Paul, Boston, New York, and New Orleans. The organizational flexibility and artistic freedom associated with cooperatives comes at a price, however. The community and financial resources necessary to support most professional orchestras require intensive fundraising efforts. Without a full-time development staff and well-connected board members, six-figure salaries among the country’s largest orchestras would become a thing of the past. To meet fundraising expectations, orchestras in Columbus, Ohio (Columbus Symphony) and Washington, D.C. (National Symphony) have partnered with local arts centers to share resources and personnel, diffusing the administrative burden while becoming more efficient and embedded in their artistic communities.

Engaging Communities

Cooperation Yields Higher Performance

A second area of innovation within the orchestra field addresses how ensembles engage with—and meet the expectations of—their communities. Some critics have argued that orchestras and the classical concert experience clashes with prevailing cultural norms, but some organizations are tackling this divergence head on. In Memphis, the orchestra has responded to a despondent audience base by articulating a new mission of public citizenship, “building artistically engaging community partnerships that use musicians’ artistic talents and leadership to serve community needs.”[1] With buy-in from all stakeholders, the organization’s leadership is attempting to redefine the role of the orchestral musician by providing compensation for activities outside of the concert hall (e.g. teaching, mentoring, or producing a local radio show). This model of service exchange can help orchestras balance their budgets and build a broader base of community support. It also addresses an oversupply of traditional concerts, foreshadowing a shift in the way orchestras identify themselves—from purveyors of elite art to public educational institutions. Indeed, orchestras around the country are beginning to take classical music “from the stage to the streets,” meeting audiences half way to engage them on their home turf. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has teamed up with superstar cellist Yo Yo Ma to orchestrate a “citizen musician movement” in the city’s most underserved neighborhoods, while conductor Marin Alsop has devised and implemented  a “Rusty Musicians” program that invites amateur instrumentalists to sit and play with members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Although orchestras have traditionally viewed audiences as passive consumers, these and other programs suggest a shift toward a more participatory framework, in which community members interact with both the musicians and the music itself.

Leveraging Technology

One of the most obvious tools to facilitate this kind of interaction is technology.  Yet, until recently, orchestras have ignored many of the technological advancements attained during the digital age, fearing their potentially disruptive effects. As an institution that privileges the live concert experience, how can orchestras build meaningful relationships with a global audience, or reach a generation of young people who depend on virtual modes of entertainment and communication?  With digital replication and distribution, the beauty and uniqueness of the live acoustic concert is diluted or, worse yet, lost altogether. And, with an overabundance of artistic content freely available on the web, few organizations have discovered how to effectively monetize the virtual experience.

Leveraging Technology to Develop Audiences

Nevertheless, some orchestras are beginning to incorporate technology into their day-to-day operations, most often through the live video broadcasting of concert events online or at alternative venues. This new method of digital distribution has been explored by the Met, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Berlin Philharmonic, whose impressive Digital Concert Hall offers concert subscriptions to fans from around the world. The project is handsomely funded by Deutsche Bank, which provides R&D support so that the orchestra can develop the DCH into a self-sustaining and revenue-generating audience development tool. The verdict is still out, however, on how these advancements will effect smaller arts organizations that operate within a regional market.

The implications of these and other innovations are contested by stakeholders across the orchestra field, calling into question the social value of certain forms of musical expression. Nevertheless, these insights hold great promise as orchestras navigate today’s artistic marketplace. Contention and negotiation are inherent to organizations, but the petty name calling and finger pointing within orchestral institutions must stop. Orchestras must rediscover their greatest asset—ensemble, and the convivial spirit that flows from it—if they wish to make a compelling case for broader community relevance support.

These innovations and the historical challenges they attend to are addressed more fully in my dissertation, “Enduring Crisis, Ensuring Survival: Artistry, Economics, and the American Symphony Orchestra”

[1] Tepavac, Fearless Journeys: Innovation in Five American Orchestras, 9.

Michael Mauskapf is currently pursuing PhD's in Management and Organizations (Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University) and Musicology (University of Michigan), where his dissertation explores the intersections between organizational structure and artistic practice in the symphony orchestra. He is also co-founder and managing partner of Symphony Bros., LLC, a research and arts consultancy firm. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2007, and considers himself a passionate, if under-practiced, orchestral trumpeter.