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Does the Symphonic Orchestra Model Work?

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One of the Fellows participating in the Kennedy Center Arts Management Institute raised a serious question with me: can the traditional model of a symphony orchestra work in the United States? He observed that salaries are very high for musicians, conductors and guest artists, and ticket demand is not strong enough to cover most of these costs. High ticket prices are stifling that demand and contributions will continue to have to grow very rapidly to cover inflation.

I cannot argue with this analysis. Somehow the cost structure for American orchestras has risen to the point that every orchestra is likely to struggle to make ends meet.

I do believe that a group of elite orchestras will survive, and even thrive. These orchestras will have the support of their communities, a large thriving fund-raising program and, of course, exciting art.

But the number of orchestras that will be able to achieve this status will be limited. Already we see a series of regional symphonies closing, shortening their seasons or radically restructuring their contracts with musicians. Unfortunately, this is an ugly process that all too often is pursued with a sledgehammer.

Frustrated board members and administrative staff often approach restructuring with a feeling of vengeance: the musicians are getting what they deserve. They are all overpaid anyway argue the leaders of the restructuring.

While supply and demand must be used to evaluate salaries, the salaries for orchestral musicians are virtually always less than the salaries of the stagehands who set up their music stands and chairs! The challenge is that there are so many of them. A major symphony has over 100 musicians; their salaries represent a large and fixed cost.

So boards and administrators who are trying to make ends meet, and do not have the wherewithal to build earned and contributed income, look to reduce this high fixed cost. Musicians, unfortunately, are easy targets, for they have far fewer employment opportunities than the administrators who employ them; when a situation gets ugly the administrator can leave for greener, or friendlier pastures, the musicians are left to deal with reduced weeks of work and lower salaries.

In many cases, radical restructuring can be avoided if musicians and administrators embark on a reasonable, long-term planning process that addresses marketing strategies, fundraising approaches, and artistic initiatives. In other words, plans for activities that build revenue. But this rarely happens. In fact, the time administrators and musicians communicate most is during union negotiations, when only the cost side of the equation is under consideration.

Without a more enlightened discussion, orchestras are going to continue to fail or to reduce their levels of art and education. I am afraid my Arts Management Institute Fellow may be proven right after all.