Archive for May, 2008

The answer to the problems of the orchestra industry

May 18, 2008

Warren Hyer, Executive Director of the Central Ohio Symphony, has apparently discovered the secret of success for America’s professional orchestras:

The Columbus Symphony Orchestra is struggling with contracts between management and musicians. Hyer said the problem is that those musicians are playing with the symphony as a career.

“Nobody’s here to make a living. They’re here for fun,” Hyer said. “The pay is more a matter of pride.”

The members of the Central Ohio Symphony are committed to making great music and making the symphony a success, but they accept only a nominal fee, Hyer said.

Hyer said his musicians typically have degrees and are employed in other fields.

The Central Ohio Symphony is composed of a core of 45 to 50 performers, each making an average of $1,200 to $1,500 a year through the symphony.

So, the secret for success is this business is – don’t hire professionals. Not only will paying them throw an intolerable burden on the orchestra’s finances, but they won’t have fun either.

For the record, Mr. Hyer is paid to run the Central Ohio Symphony, although his salary ($22,000) is admittedly on the low side for having made such a breakthrough discovery in non-profit economics. But, on the plus side, he’s making more than twice his music director, and around 15 times more than his average musician.

Oh, and they sell lots of tickets, too:

Community support is growing with a record of almost 600 season subscriptions sold for the symphony’s 29th season, Hyer said.

Which, to his credit, is about 600 more than the management of the Columbus Symphony has managed to sell for next season. But then, of course, the Columbus Symphony management is in the extinction business:

[Columbus Symphony] Orchestra Executive Director Tony Beadle …injected realism into the situation.

Symphony expenses amount to $700,000 to $1 million a month, he said, and when the orchestra shuts down June 1, it will be $300,000 in debt to the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts for past use of the Ohio Theatre and other venues.

“At the end of the day, people have to understand that we’ve got a huge dinosaur here that has to be fed 500 bales of hay a day.”

A huge fucking dinosaur? What the hell is someone doing in this business who believes that orchestras are dinosaurs? Flanagan, maybe (although he never said so, or even implied such a thought). But someone whose job it is to raise money and sell tickets for an orchestra?

I think we need a Hall of Shame. I’ve got a really good candidate for the first nominee.


It’s working!

May 16, 2008

Public funding for the Columbus Symphony is being diverted to other organizations in response to the Board’s plan to lock out the orchestra and shut down operations:

A key source of public funding is drying up for the Columbus Symphony because of the likelihood that there’ll be no 2008-09 season.

Earlier this week, the grants committee of the Greater Columbus Arts Council recommended no longer giving money to the symphony, which last year received $261,417.

“We shouldn’t be giving operational support to an organization that’s not going to be here after June 1,” said council President Bryan W. Knicely.

Nothing fails like failure, does it? Especially when it seems that’s the goal. Contrast this with Honolulu, where a first-time donor came through with a major gift in order to keep the orchestra going.

But, of course, in Honolulu the board wants to keep the orchestra going. What does the Board want in Columbus? To impose their will on the enemy – or to have an orchestra in the foreseeable future?

Some good news for Honolulu

May 16, 2008

The Honolulu Symphony just got some really good news:

The Honolulu Symphony’s dire financial picture cleared considerably with a $1.175 million donation in the past week from one generous fan.

With the gift, the symphony was able to make up most of the pay musicians and staffers had forgone in recent months as the orchestra struggled with higher expenses and lower ticket sales.

The symphony paid the equivalent of seven weeks of back wages on Friday, said Kristin Jackson, a spokeswoman with the symphony.

Jackson would not identify the donor but said the individual has never given to the symphony before. The symphony likely will announce the donor’s identity today, Jackson said.

The Honolulu Symphony has never been one of the country’s more financially stable orchestras, but this year has been particularly bad, according to the Honolulu Advertiser:

The symphony had a rough year financially in part because of being displaced from the Blaisdell Concert Hall, its regular venue, by “The Lion King” tour, which ran from September to December.

The move to smaller — often more expensive venues — simultaneously cost the orchestra more money while ticket revenues decreased by at least $500,000. The regular operating budget of $6 million or $7 million rose to about $8 million.

Being displaced by traveling Broadway shows has become something of a theme of orchestras in trouble. It’s happened in St. Paul, it’s happened here, and according to friends in Columbus, it’s a factor in their situation as well (apparently the stagehands have been less than helpful there in large part because having a shorter orchestra season would allow more Broadway show weeks, which would provide more employment for stagehands).

I wonder if one of the common factors separating the orchestras that the Flanagan report identified as usually having surpluses from the rest was control over their primary venue. The causality may run the other way, of course – well-run orchestras are more likely to have found the funding to build a hall. But I doubt one could find any orchestra management who controlled their venue who would be willing to give that up, regardless of the headaches of running a venue. Not getting thrown out of one’s main venue for months on end at the whim of the city, or county, or some other entity that doesn’t give a damn about orchestras is, as the ads say, priceless.


May 15, 2008

A commenter on the previous post asked an obvious question which I hadn’t thought of trying to answer:

Why do you suppose the board of the CSO would want to do this? It’s not really plausible that they just don’t want an orchestra, is it?

The question of why the other side in a negotiation is acting the way they are is a very dangerous one, because getting the answer wrong can easily put your side in a worse position than not speculating (and acting on that speculation) in the first place. But “why” is the most human question of all, so we can’t not ask it.

There are actually two “whys” to ask in this case. The first is: why did the board let the orchestra get to this point at all? Why did they not hire a music director or an executive director for three years? The second is: why are they now acting in a way that’s virtually guaranteed to lead to the death of the Columbus Symphony, or at the very least a multi-year coma?

The great English historian A. J. P. Taylor once wrote that ““human blunders usually do more to shape history than human wickedness.” I suspect that’s true about how the CSO got to where they are. But there also appeared to be a lot of bad feeling over the departure of Music Director Alessandro Siciliani, whom the board decided in May 2001 would not be renewed. A local critic, Barbara Zuck of the Columbus Dispatch, blamed that directly on the musicians, saying in a November 2002 article that “the symphony is being driven too much by the musicians” and “the inmates are running the asylum.” It is unlikely that she was speaking only for herself. It sounds to me as if there was a dissident faction on the board that supported Siciliani and was furious with the musicians when he was forced out (by the board). That kind of fury could well manifest itself in destructive behavior, including a dilatory approach to hiring a replacement (“they didn’t like the god-like creature we provided them? We’ll see how much they like not having a music director at all, the #$*! SOBs”).

It takes strong leadership to bring together a board riven by a dispute as emotional as Siciliani’s departure became and get them moving in a positive direction. It sounds like that board didn’t have such leadership.

But that doesn’t explain the kind of take-no-prisoners posture of the current board in the current situation. It may be that, regardless of what the board leadership’s original goals were when this negotiation began, their current goal is simply to get their own way. That’s what often happens to so-called “war aims.” There is still an active dispute amongst historians over what were the aims of the war that Germany launched in 1914. But, once it got going, the real war aim of all the combatants was simply to win – in the phrase of the time, “to impose their will upon the enemy.” A difficult labor negotiation can easily degenerate to the same point, which of course makes any compromise solution very difficult to reach.

But, looking back on the sequence of events since January, if the board leadership’s plan was to kill the current orchestra and get at least some in the community to blame it on the musicians, the actions of the board to date have been a near-perfect execution of that plan. Putting out a “strategic plan” that looked plausible but was impossible to execute, putting a proposal on the table that the musicians could never accept and describing it as essentially non-negotiable, refusing to sell tickets until the musicians accepted it, refusing any competent third-party mediation that might actually find a solution short of death, and working hard to get the local paper to blame it all on the musicians and “the union” – it all appears to have worked very well.

The principle of Occam’s Razor would lead one to believe that it very well might have been the board’s intention to kill the orchestra. My only reason for skepticism is that such skillful execution of a plan would be as hard as actually running the orchestra – which apparently the board couldn’t do.

But the answer to the question “It’s not really plausible that they just don’t want an orchestra, is it?” may simply be that they don’t want the orchestra they have now, and recognized correctly that the only way to get from that orchestra to the one they do want was to murder the one they have.


May 14, 2008

I’ve been reluctant to write about Columbus, in part because others are doing good work on what’s happening there and in part because it reminds me so much of what happened in Milwaukee in 1993-94, except that Columbus is that story on steroids.

Since I came into the business in 1974 I’ve seen a number of orchestras go dark (including two that I had played in, the Oklahoma City Symphony and the San Jose Symphony, although not while I was there). Most of those situations involved board ineptitude, and some involved bad (in the sense of immoral or unethical) actions on the part of the board or board leadership. But I can’t recall a clearer case of an orchestral board simply murdering an orchestra as is happening in Columbus.

No one would pretend that the Columbus Symphony is in good financial condition at the moment. The musicians, and the music director, blame this on the board’s inability to raise enough money. The board disputes this, of course, and Henry Fogel, president of the League of American Orchestras, was quoted in an article in the Columbus Dispatch on April 9, 2008 agreeing with the board:

The $25,000 goal is a respectable one for a symphony of Columbus’ size…Fogel also commended the symphony for receiving donations from all trustees last season and coming close again so far this season.

“To me, those are impressive numbers about a board’s participation,” he said. “No board can do better than 100 percent. Many don’t reach it.”

Although hardest to quantify, community advocacy can be the most important long-range job of a symphony board, Fogel said.

I tend to agree with Fogel on the issue of the board’s fundraising. I wrote back in January that:

The most useful single index of internal financial balance I’ve found is the relationship between contributed income (whether current contributions or in the form on interest on past contributions – ie, endowment income) and musicians’ compensation. It’s informative about a fundamental question: is the community willing to pay the cost of having an orchestra? I’ve long believed that the total costs of orchestras ought to be divided into the costs of having an orchestra and the costs of using that orchestra to provide services to the community. The latter should be paid for from earned revenue.

The community does pretty well by this metric. In 2005-06, the total contributed income (including investment income) was $5,975,000, while orchestra compensation and benefits came to $4,980,000. Clearly the community is willing to donate sufficient money to pay the musicians what they’re making now.

But the management and staff aren’t doing a very good job of controlling the costs of actually using the orchestra. If the musicians had worked for free, the institution would still have needed to raise $1,281,000 in order to break even.

That’s worth reiterating. If the Columbus Symphony were an amateur orchestra, with all the musicians donating their services, it would still need to raise over $1 million in order to be “sustainable.” How can the problem be that the musicians are making too much money? Isn’t it way more likely that the management and board are doing very badly in making operational costs match revenue from operations?

So why is the CSO struggling? Here’s both cause and illustration of root cause in a nutshell, courtesy of the Board’s own “plan,” the so-called Path to Financial Stability and Future Growth:

…the CSO found itself embroiled in controversy over the departure of it’s (sic) long-time Music Director, a development that divided many of its supporters and generated significant negative publicity, further stressing the CSO’s ability to raise contributed revenue and attract concertgoers. Ultimately this led to the departure of the CSO’s Executive Director. From 2003 to June 2006, the CSO operated without either a full-time Executive Director or Music Director.

That’s worth repeating. The Columbus Symphony functioned without either a full-time CEO or Music Director for three years. And whose fault was that?

What the Columbus Symphony faces (and has for a while) is not a financial crisis; it’s a governance crisis. The Columbus Symphony has a board that did not perform the first and foremost responsibility of any non-profit board, which is to hire competent help. And they didn’t do it the easy and conventional way, which was to hire an inadequate CEO or Music Director. They decided to be original and leave the positions unfilled.

For three years.

But, contrary to conventional wisdom, the Columbus Symphony survived even that. So further steps were necessary, and were taken early this year, according to Drew McManus:

The executive board’s decision to forego subscription renewals in February, 2008 and new subscriptions shortly thereafter was made as early as January, 2008 even though the organization’s executive director described the plan as “injurious” to the 2008/09 season. This single decision delivered two critical blasts into their current financial strategy, one by way of earned income and the other by way of negotiations…

According to the CSO’s proposed financial plan, the organization will need to implement a $9.5 million budget beginning in the 2008/09 season. The executive board arrived at that number after concluding that was the revenue figure the organization could sustain without the participating in the sort of emergency fundraising activity practiced in recent years. However, according to their proposed financial plan, the CSO generated $3.040 million in concert and performance revenue, including subscription sales (renewals and new sales, pg. 25). If the executive board implements the proposed financial plan via a new collective bargaining agreement they expect to generate $3.154 million in concert and performance revenue for the 2008/09 season, an $114,000 increase from the 2005/06 season (pg 27).

This might sound reasonable until you consider that the executive board’s decision to forego 2008/09 subscription sales makes their planned concert and performance revenue goals entirely unrealistic. Even if subscription sales commenced as early as July, the added costs associated with last minute marketing and additional advertisement buys would likely dwarf any eleventh-hour sales. The most likely result is that the CSO would experience a considerable financial shortfall from expected earned income revenue thereby requiring the board to engage in emergency fundraising activity in order to support their $9.5 million budget: precisely the sort of activity they claim is no longer sustainable…

Given the fact that the executive board made the decision to suspend subscription sales no less than two months before negotiations commenced, it is clear they had no intention of bargaining in good faith once bargaining sessions commenced on March 18, 2008. Even if the musicians accepted the CSO’s initial offer of a $3 million budget reduction after the first bargaining session, economic forces were in motion for a full six weeks ensuring that the executive board would have to engage in more emergency fundraising. In short, the board’s public position is nothing more than a fatal string of internal contradictions.

But there’s more! A city and county fund drive, which would have produced $1.15 million, could have gone a long way to fix the short-term problems:

The possibility that the symphony could soon die has prompted campaign organizers to redouble their efforts to match the combined $1.3 million recently approved for the first year of the drive by the city and Franklin County. Organizers have set April 1 as their informal deadline to secure matching money from private donors…The symphony would receive the most: $1.15 million, enough to keep the organization afloat and eliminate most of the $1.4 million deficit projected for 2007-08…

If at least some private pledges are confirmed by April 1, he said, some of the public matching funds could be freed up for immediate distribution…The symphony, Southworth added, is first in line.

But of course there was a Catch:

Even if the campaign succeeds, however, symphony managers will have to work for the money. “There’s a real fear among many corporations of putting money into the symphony again without seeing progress on the restructuring plan,” Southworth said. “Our biggest issue right now is the potential restrictions on certain gifts.”

I wonder how many of those private donors were “encouraged” to put restrictions on their gifts that amounted to mandates that the board’s downsizing plan be adopted.

But the musicians still didn’t fold. So on to Plan C:

According to a Columbus Symphony Orchestra (CSO) press statement dated 5/8/08, the board of directors has cancelled both of the organization’s summer concert series, which have been a part of Columbus summers for more than 25 years. Furthermore, the statement asserts that “due to uncertainties surrounding the 2008-2009 season” the organization is deliberately not selling subscription or single tickets until after they reach an agreement with musicians on a new collective bargaining agreement.

The cancellation of the summer season amounts to a lock-out, which is very likely in violation of whatever no-strike no-lockout clause they have in their CBA. But the failure to sell tickets until the musicians surrender will likely be the fatal wound, as the musicians show no sign of agreeing to work for less than a living wage or to lay off many of their colleagues.

Fortunately the local rag (unlike “the union”) is completely under control:

The union disingenuously accuses the board of being derelict in its duty to seek out more donations, but the board is realistic in its estimates of what the symphony can expect from its benefactors. If anything, the refusal of musicians to recognize financial reality discourages donations because it undermines the confidence of current and prospective donors that the symphony is a sound investment.

The musicians should stop focusing on blame and start dealing with the facts. Business as it has been conducted in the past no longer is an option.

Though many lovers of symphonic music see cultural doom if the symphony folds, the loss would not necessarily mean the end of orchestral music in Columbus.

There is a passionate local audience for the art form, and the symphony board and civic leaders will look for other ways to satisfy the demand. The music need not die.

Whether this becomes necessary is up to the musicians. If they continue to dig in their heels, they will have no one but themselves to blame when the symphony is no more.

“No one but themselves to blame?” It wasn’t the musicians who left the two key leadership positions unfilled for three years. It’s not the musicians who can’t manage to sell more than 1,861 tickets to see Yo-Yo Ma (in a hall that seats close to 2,800; by comparison, our benefit with Yo-Yo was sold out within days of its announcement last year, and our hall seats 2,300). It wasn’t the musicians who put together a strategic plan that any observer of our industry with more than a rutabaga for brains would have predicted with 100% certainty would fail.

It’s not the kind of murder for which anyone will be indicted. But murder it is. Shame on the board, and shame on the Columbus Dispatch.

United we crumble

May 11, 2008

I’ve been meaning to write about some important stuff, such as the
catastrophe enveloping the Columbus Symphony and Greg Sandow’s
comparison of orchestras and museums. But first I’m going to vent about
an airline.

I was supposed to go to Rochester tonight for a meeting with the
Polyphonic staff tomorrow. Now, on paper, it’s not hard to get from
Milwaukee to Rochester. One hops on a plane, flies to a hub somewhere,
hops on another plane, and lands in Rochester about 4 hours or so after
one started. The actual door-to-door time more like 8 hours, of course.
But it’s still faster than driving.


Sancho speaks!

May 8, 2008

Last night (May 7) we did Don Quixote with Yo-Yo Ma. Any performance of
Don Quixote is a Big Event in the life of a lead viola operator; doing
one with Yo-Yo as The Don ups the ante some.

I’ve done it twice before; once with then-principal cellist Ron Shawger
in 1989 and once with Lynn Harrell in 1997. So I knew the piece and had
some ideas about what to do with the viola part. But stuff like that
doesn’t get easier as one gets older.


How much does it cost to operate a Rembrandt?

May 7, 2008

Greg Sandow is guilty, once again, of forcing me to think. His latest post is a comparison of sorts between orchestras and museums. It’s too late and I have too much to do tomorrow to give it the complete response it deserves. But I did want to point out one issue about which Greg is wrong (and I know I’ll have to concede that he’s right about several others when I get into more detail.)

Orchestras are like museums. They display the art of the past. Or as one of these people got in my face (delightfully) and demanded to know, "What’s the difference between Brahms and Rembrandt?"

Finally, Rembrandt just hangs in the museum, costing nothing (except the museum’s general expenses), demanding nothing, requiring nothing. Brahms has to be enacted over and over again at great expense by large numbers of musicians, who work together, drawing on their years of training and experience to act out Brahms’s music.


Revisiting Vaughan Williams

May 4, 2008

Norman Lebrecht takes a short holiday from being acerbic to write a
warm remembrance of Ralph Vaughan Williams on the occasion of a BBC4
broadcast of a film about the composer on May 23rd:

Ralph Vaughan Williams feels to me almost like family. I grew up in the 1950s with his music on the radio and the tales of my older sisters, who were evacuated during the War to sleepy Dorking where he lived in a house at the edge of the town. Beatrice got taken with her class to sing for him at The White Gates on his 70th birthday, in October 1942. ‘Very shabbily dressed,’ she recalls, ‘his socks didn’t match’.


Why the performance income gap doesn’t matter

May 3, 2008

I had done all the blogging I thought I was going to do about the
Flanagan report (start here and work backwards). But then a friend
pointed me to a long post that Greg Sandow did in mid-April defending
Flanagan’s report against many of the attacks that had been made. Greg
is always worth reading: I find I learn as much from him when I
disagree with what he writes (which is often) as when he tells me
something I didn’t know. This was one of the "disagree" kind.