Henry Ford once famously said that it was a good thing he didn’t survey his customers before he invented the automobile. “If I had asked people what they wanted,” he said, “they would have said faster horses.”
Something similar could be said of American symphony orchestras. Creating a sustainable business model for some of the nation’s most cherished cultural institutions will be no easy undertaking.
But it’s also not impossible. All it takes is a little vision. On some future day, the solution for what now seems like an insurmountable problem might in hindsight seem as obvious as mounting a motor on four wheels seems in 2019.
Below are half a dozen takeaways from experts interviewed about the problems besetting American orchestras and what can be done to fix them:
1) Symphonies will always cost more than they earn
U.S. symphonies are hampered by a structural flaw. Even the most frugal and well-managed classical ensembles will continue to spend more money than they generate. Symphonies suffer from the so-called “cost disease” in which their greatest expense — salaries — tends to rise to keep pace with the cost of living, but can’t be offset by technological advances that increase worker productivity. It is impossible, for instance, to perform Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 with fewer musicians than were required when the piece was composed around 1808.
As a result, symphonies’ standard business model (up to 100 salaried musicians perform the classical music repertoire inside an acoustically pristine hall for a wealthy and well-educated audience) — is incomplete and must evolve.
A critical first step in making symphonies profitable is establishing a positive working relationship between musicians and management by (for example) including them more in decision-making, according to the leaders of the Phoenix, Detroit and Minnesota orchestras. Uniting the organizations, they say, sets the stage for future success.
“Not everyone is always going to like everything we do,” said Erik Ronmark, vice president and general manager of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. “But at least they’ll understand why we are making the decisions we are.”
3) Make responding to problems in the community a priority
The Phoenix Symphony Orchestra performs in homeless shelters and conducts research into the effect of music on the stress levels of patients with Alzehimer’s disease.
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The Detroit Symphony, determined to become “the most accessible symphony on the planet,” is the only major orchestra in the U.S. to live-stream every classical concert for free. The DSO also conducts performances in seven neighborhoods in which its audiences lives.
The Minnesota Orchestra because the first U.S. symphony to tour Cuba after hostilities between the two nations began to thaw, with the goal of using music to bridge the cultural divide.
These programs generated enormous goodwill for the organizations and aided their bottom lines by opening up previously unavailable sources of revenue.
4) Accompany wage cuts with a vision for the future
As onerous as pay cuts are, they can’t always be avoided. The rebirths of all three orchestras required financial sacrifices by the musicians. But the reductions became palatable by being coupled with a clearly communicated vision for the future that the players could embrace. Instead of being asked to permanently reduce their expectations, the performers were encouraged to expand them. Previously feuding factions within the organization pulled together once they had a common goal and a reason to hope.
5) Labor strife is not inevitable
In all three cases, the salary reductions rebounded to their pre-crisis levels within a few years. Since then, the pay for musicians at all three organizations has increased — in some cases slowly, but always steadily. Now, contracts with the unionized workers at all three organizations frequently are reached months before existing collective bargaining agreements expire. None of the three has experienced renewed labor strife.