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Ben Rosen

Ben Rosen

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Classical Music Economics: Is There a Solution?

Posted: 02/22/11 01:53 PM ET

American Orchestras: The Sound of Trouble

The Detroit Symphony, which has just emerged from a 34-day musician's strike, is in such economic straits that it may have to disband. --Time Magazine, June 13, 1969

Detroit Symphony Cancels Season as Musicians Strike

The management of the debt-burdened Detroit Symphony Orchestra canceled the rest of its season on Saturday, after executives and the players failed to resolve a strike that has lasted four and a half months.
-- The New York Times, Feb. 19, 2011

Time magazine's piece over forty years ago described the entire classical music industry as being in mortal peril, and not just in Detroit. Indeed, the death of classical music is a perennial topic, yet somehow orchestras have persevered. Should we be any more worried today than we were in 1969?

Is the Detroit Symphony's dire situation a one-off phenomenon, or is it part of a larger problem affecting classical music organizations throughout the United States? Clearly, there are extenuating circumstances in Detroit. This once-proud centerpiece for American manufacturing has been in a four-decade economic tailspin. One measure of the decline: its population has fallen from 1.5 million in 1960 (No. 5 in the U.S.) to 900,000 now (No. 11).

Unfortunately, Detroit is not alone as far as its orchestra's turmoil is concerned. There are myriad other indications that classical music is in deep trouble financially. Recent press articles have cited financial issues with a host of other orchestras. Most American orchestras are operating at a deficit -- and that's after philanthropic contributions. Indeed, income earned from ticket sales usually accounts for less than half the operating budget of a musical performing arts organization. Even selling out the house doesn't solve the problem. Those orchestras lucky enough to have endowments have been eating into them to meet operating expenses. And, unlike European arts organizations, which are heavily subsidized, American groups get essentially zero financial support from federal or local governments.

There are at least two exceptions to this bleak outlook. The Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony have the luxury of owning cash cows that enhance the orchestras' financial situations. In L.A., it's the very profitable Hollywood Bowl, and in Boston it's the highly successful Tanglewood Summer Festival. But outside of those two orchestras, it's difficult financial sledding for the other majors, and worse for the smaller organizations.

So how will all this play out?

Well, there is one scenario that could be a harbinger. It's not a pretty scenario, but it's one that has allowed a once-proud but financially strapped orchestra to survive.

In the early 1990s, after six decades of performing, the New Orleans Symphony ran out of money, donors and time. It went bankrupt. In its ashes, the Symphony's musicians got together and created the Louisiana Philharmonic, the nation's first musician-owned and -operated orchestra. The musicians run the organization, control the board, hire and fire, raise money, and pay themselves. And therein lies the rub. In order to survive as an orchestra, they pay themselves astonishingly little - an average of $23,000 per year. A little over $10 per hour. Pretty frightening, no?

By contrast, the Detroit Symphony members earned a minimum of $104,000 last year. (That's a number somewhat below the salaries earned by members of the other major orchestras.) They rejected an offer in the low $80,000s. Here's the issue management faced, as reported by the Detroit Free Press this weekend: "The DSO has lost $19 million since 2008, remains in default on the terms of its $54 million in real-estate debt and is rapidly depleting its endowment to cover the red ink."

There's no easy answer. The musicians want not just a living wage, but one also reflecting their talent, years of training, and status as being among the elite musicians in the country. Management wants a solution that reflects the exigencies of a virtually bankrupt organization. As the Detroit meltdown illustrates, there's a wide gulf that separates the two positions.

Now I believe that talented classical musicians are absolutely deserving of earning far more than most of them are getting around the country, but they've run into an economic model that just isn't able to properly compensate them anymore. And it's not getting any better. Youth isn't exactly flocking to classical music as tastes are dumbing down. Schools aren't helping by cutting arts budgets. Philanthropy is the only solution, and there are signs it's stretched pretty far. New young philanthropists have to be developed to replace the aging ones, but it's not clear that classical music is attracting new wealth. It's not a pretty picture.

By the way, we attended a concert Saturday night in New Orleans of the Louisiana Philharmonic, and it was terrific. The orchestra sounded wonderful, conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto was electric, and the house was packed. There were encores, standing ovations, and even an audience member who mamboed spontaneously (this is New Orleans, after all) as the orchestra played a selection of Leonard Bernstein's dances. There was a world premiere of Terence Blanchard's "Concerto for Roger Dickerson." And a spectacular performance of Philip Glass's "Violin Concerto No. 2" played by Robert McDuffie, for whom Glass wrote the piece.

The LPO model is one solution. They produce a fine product, one that an audience appreciates and relates to. But it's a draconian solution that requires that the musicians provide the subsidy. Somehow, that doesn't seem fair.

Solving the economic problem of classical music is not easy. If it were, someone would have figured it out already. Perhaps fresh thinking is required.

Any thoughts?