09/20/2012 01:35 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Orchestras for Sale to the Highest Bidder

With all due respect to the conventional wisdom about how America's orchestras have gotten into their present fix, in order to move forward it may be necessary to do more than just twist the kaleidoscope.

I wrote the following in Gramophone in 2003, when the fear that classical music was dead was in full hue and cry:

It's pretty much a given that, sometime soon, the 30 or so top orchestras in the U.S. will form themselves into cooperative leagues under the aegis of a national marketing and governing organization, much like the professional sports teams already do.

In a big, media-oriented country like the U.S., regional and local marketing is of increasingly limited effectiveness not to mention that, in the competitive music industry, classical music needs all the help it can get. Right now, of course, all you hear is complaints about aging audiences, dead-white-men repertoire, high prices and elitist management. Enjoy the complaints while you can.

Now that the classical music industry is once more on the rise, the solution to the orchestras problems may be to convert orchestras into businesses.


Deborah Borda, photo by Matthew Imaging

If the orchestras were to set up competitive leagues organized under a national marketing umbrella and hire a czar, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's CEO Deborah Borda would be ideal for the job. She positioned the Philharmonic to take advantage of its unique position at the center of the classical music industry -- and she could do it with America's orchestras by making LA Phil's success the lynchpin of a nationwide initiative.

It would not be the first time Los Angeles gave birth to a powerhouse executive who grew a sector of the entertainment industry. In 1960, Pete Rozelle moved from running the professional football Rams, the sport's most exciting team, to creating a modern league-based entity that has shaped history. Just like classical music.

Like Rozelle, with Gustavo and Los Angeles classical music's most exciting team, Borda is also at the right time and place to assemble a critical mass of orchestras for fun and profit.

Similarly to HMOs, converting an orchestra into a business is simple and legal:

  • Find a buyer
  • Set a price
  • Get the government’s approval
  • Put the money into a trust fund for new orchestral ventures  

Of course, symphonies may not seem like good investments. But then, neither did pro football teams 45 years ago. Buffalo’s football franchise, for example, sold for only $25,000 in 1965. Today, it’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars. 

When converting orchestras into businesses becomes standard practice, musically-inclined portfolios will be all the rage. You can get in at the ground floor if you invest now, while major American orchestras can be had for a song. Detroit and Philadelphia may no longer be on the market, but Atlanta, the Twin Cities and Indianapolis might be willing to talk.

Even in Los Angeles, the purchase and proper funding of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra could pose problems to the LA Philharmonic, perhaps by using guerrilla tactics and demanding playing time in Disney Hall.

Sort of like the problems Blake Griffin poses to Kobe Bryant.