The Orchestra Conundrum

Over the past three months I have been approached by three separate regional orchestras seeking advice on ways to deal with crippling budget deficits.

In each case, the orchestra has suffered chronic deficits that have blossomed over the past two or three years. The combination of shrinking audience and donor interest has been compounded by the poor economy.

Each of these organizations has been bailed out before, but this time many major donors are angry and refuse to give substantial amounts unless a new business model is put in place.

I know these three orchestras are the rule, not the exception. One only has to observe what has happened in San Antonio, Miami, Honolulu and Detroit (none of "my" three orchestras) to know that the orchestra world is going through a major discontinuity, at best, and an implosion, at worst.

What has led us to this point?

1. Supply of orchestral performances in most communities expanded as management and labor agreed on expanded contracts over the past 20 years.

2. But demand has fallen for many reasons: Ticket prices have become too high for many, programming has not met the interests of a new generation, arts education has been neglected for most, and new, inexpensive substitute forms of entertainment are available with the touch of a button, or mouse.

3. The high fixed costs of producing symphonic performances means that orchestras are less flexible than theater or dance ensembles. A theater company can perform smaller works when things get tough, orchestras contract for a fixed number of musicians.

4. The death of the recording industry has led to the loss of our major marketing partner. We no longer have celebrity soloists and conductors being created for us to exploit in our ticket sales and fundraising campaigns.

5. Fewer people are able to commit to subscriptions, the continuation of a 40-year trend. This means that every program has to sell itself which is expensive and which discourages adventuresome programming.

Orchestra managers are trying desperately to find ways out of this mess, but often with too little lead time. They are pressured by boards and donors to make fundamental changes to the size of their orchestras and the ambitiousness of their programming.

Musicians are understandably upset at the proposed reduction in quality, salary and job security.

Unfortunately, rather than dealing with these fundamental issues as a team, the groups have squared off. The nasty comments made by both sides makes it hard to imagine how anyone would ever want to become a volunteer, board member, donor or ticket buyer again.

Musicians must acknowledge that deficits are not sustainable; we cannot spend more than we take in. But managers and boards must acknowledge that revenue can grow over time and we must not necessarily view short-term cuts as a long-term solution.

Every orchestra must find its own equilibrium; there is no one size that will fit all. But I maintain that those symphonies that create important, exciting work -- and market it well -- will have a better chance of creating great music and education and of building a base on which rational growth can occur.

And we must work strenuously to accomplish our planning in a spirit of collaboration not contemptuousness. The fate of the orchestra world hangs in the balance.