Wednesday, May 18, 2011

April is the Cruelest Month

The Wall Street Journal recently featured an eye-opening article by Terry Teachout entitled April is the Cruelest Month for Purveyors of High Culture.  Mr. Teachout lists various April 2011 examples of nationwide performing arts fiscal crises, including the shutdown of the Syracuse Symphony,  the New York City Opera's decision to suspend plans to announce its 2011-12 season pending the outcome of a serious review of its finances, and most shocking of all: the Philadelphia Orchestra's bankruptcy filing. 

"If the Philadelphia Orchestra can get into a hole so deep that bankruptcy is the only option, then no orchestra is safe."

Uh-oh.  What exactly does this mean, especially to those of us who have committed our lives to being orchestral musicians?

Sam Goldwyn: "If nobody wants to see your picture, there's nothing you can do to stop them." 

Goldwyn's famous quip isn't funny anymore.  As Teachout points out, if people can't afford to buy tickets to your performances, there's nothing you can do to make them buy a ticket.  The old business model for symphony orchestras which relied heavily upon advance subscription sales to sustain the orchestra is not working anymore.  Our present-day society tends to buy concert tickets at the last minute, refusing to commit in advance to attending future performances.

Mr. Teachout speculates that unions are part of the problem, as they insist on attempting to protect the musicians from having to pay for the mistakes of poor management.  As I said myself in a  past post, it is infinitely more beneficial for unions to act in a cooperative rather than a combative manner with management. 

The level of public interest in what we're selling (live symphonic music) has diminished, whether we like it or not, and change is necessary.  Those changes may include a new business model, reduced season length and reduced salaries. (All three changes have been made by my employer, the Columbus Symphony.)  The very challenging goal which current orchestra managements face is to succeed in slashing costs without also slashing artistic quality.   The orchestras which succeed at that will be the ones left standing ten years from now.

What can the individual musicians do?  Some musicians I know have chosen to get out of the field altogether after realizing how impossibly difficult it has become to earn a steady and reliable income.  Many others have taken on more private students or college teaching jobs to supplement their orchestral income.  Double reed players often sell their handmade reeds.  Some musicians become extremely devoted to chamber music (and those musicians quickly learn how difficult it is to market and sell your product!).

Those of us who choose to remain committed to our jobs playing in orchestras are better off if we find a way to accept the changes affecting the performing arts (which are occurring whether we "approve" or not!) and flex accordingly.  If an opportunity arises in which we might be able to help our orchestra in some way, whether it be in the form of some sort of outreach or fundraising event, or exploring new ways to connect with our audiences, or simply saying yes to a management request, go for it!



violinista said...

Great thoughts! And I do agree--to avoid the same demise as Philadelphia or Syracuse (among others), orchestras do need to look into some kind of change. I was worried about Columbus a few years ago, but it looks like you guys are on your way to being a secure ensemble with these changes. I hope it continues this way!

B.S. said...

Thank you, Violinista. I, too, was worried about Columbus. Now, after making serious changes, things are looking better than ever.