Art vs. Business

Volume 112, No. 9September, 2012

Tom Olcott

Critics like to write about “what’s wrong with classical music.” Maybe the problem isn’t the music – maybe the problem is what happens when an orchestra is treated like a factory

Over the past 150 years, many commentators have declared the “end of classical music,” classical music’s “deplorable state,” or classical music’s “declining relevancy.” Recent critics have called for a loosened-up dress code for orchestras, a “more relevant audience experience,” and a “less stultified atmosphere” for concert-goers. One critic has stated that the atmosphere at a classical concert should be more like a sporting event, and another has stated that “the current business model is not viable.”

All of us – musicians, union reps and management alike – read these headlines with interest and sometimes alarm. However, I believe that many critics have it wrong and are missing the bigger picture. To put it bluntly, if there is something “wrong” with classical music, it’s neither the music nor the musicians.

Let’s start with some history.

In the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, those families who could afford a radio sat together transfixed by the new magic, where they could hear the ballgame or the news or slapstick comedy, or the NBC Symphony, the Symphony of the Air, or the Metropolitan Opera. The radio brought the wonderful live experience to the home listener in real time, and an entertainment consumer didn’t have to pay the price of admission to the actual event.

The record player served the same purpose. One could be entertained without the cost of travel or admission. Classical music was a prime destination for these listeners of yesteryear, and the children of those listeners were left with a lifetime of exposure and a lasting interest in the art form.

Perhaps the last really compelling presentation from that generation was Leonard Bernstein’s televised children’s concerts with the New York Philharmonic in the 1950s. I saw them, and I’ll bet many of you did. I was hooked.

But in 2012, a consumer’s entertainment alternatives have grown by many orders of magnitude. Want to see old performances? Go to YouTube. Want to hear the most obscure new band? No problem. Don’t like music but want to play games? Plenty of ways to do that. Want to gossip? Facebook, anyone? Want music for free, where the performers get just about nothing? No problem. Movies and TV shows are available that way too.

O.K. – those are the new ground rules. Now let’s talk about how classical music is organized as a business.

In the past, boards of directors of classical orchestras and ensembles were music lovers and devotees. These directors had large address books of wealthy friends and patrons who might assist in bankrolling a striving orchestra or ballet company. They participated in fundraising for the love of the art form and because they recognized the overall cultural need for those artistic institutions, whether established or striving, to continue for the benefit of society.

More and more patrons and arts lovers were brought onto these boards. They contributed their own money and were successful at cajoling their friends and colleagues into supporting these enterprises. Few of them thought that they would be held to “for-profit” standards, which might have entailed capital retention, growth and responsibilities to shareholders.

The game has changed. New board members for many nonprofits don’t commit themselves for the love of music. Instead, they are interested in the business model. The standards are not the same.

The world where a corporate financial person saves the company 0.25 percent and thereby becomes the company’s hero is not the nonprofit world, where preservation of a valuable cultural or charitable entity trumps profitability.

This bottom-line thinking has brought us the world where symphony orchestra boards declare a specious sort of bankruptcy (see the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Louisville Orchestra) in order to shave off pensions, lower salaries, and reduce staff by undermining long-established union contracts. All of this tragedy and ruin happens in the name of the business model and not in the name of art.

All of these can be seen at the surface. But let’s dig a little deeper.

First, there is the economic notion known as the “cost disease,” first enunciated by University of Pennsylvania economist William Baumol in the mid-1950s. His notion, when you think about it, is pretty straightforward.

He thought that over time, an economic entity – whether a business or government – will gain efficiency through technological improvements. The cost to society of such endeavors will decrease over time even if individual payments and overall compensation rises. Differences are made up by the efficiencies of production.

He then noted, however, that classical cultural endeavors of the performing arts – orchestras, drama, opera, and ballet – cannot, by their very definition, create comparable efficiencies.

Want to make a Brahms Quintet more efficient? Use four musicians? “Merchant of Venice” with a cast of two? You get the idea.

But the new symphony board members described above still seek salvation through a business model which disregards those artistically inappropriate efficiencies.

They are artistically ignorant, and yet also attempt to apply for-profit models in an environment where their legal mandate is to do otherwise. The economic theory points the other way.

Also, there is the world recession, which has been oppressing us all since 2009 if not earlier. Regardless of blame-gaming or more substantive analysis, there are some items to observe regarding a musician’s work.

Overall, the declining economy has led to a decline in philanthropic giving to the arts. That decline has left many arts organizations in a worsening position, as charitable funds are directed toward more fundamental needs – health care, education, etc

State allocations for arts education have been the first casualty of governmental austerity, regardless of the ultimate decay of culture and education that such a cut represents.

As state governments suffer from reduced tax bases and extraordinary other costs, payments to state arts councils have declined radically. Regrettably, most politicians do not see that these cuts further undermine an already fragile society and its underlying culture.

So, how do all of these factors impact the Local 802 community?

Our members have made indisputable contributions, not only in terms of the thousands of hours each has made to their own personal expertise, but, even more importantly, how those skills have contributed to artistic and community service.

Can one adequately count children’s concerts, hours teaching, or the miles driven in the desire to express and spread a fundamental art?

Does any audience member actually appreciate and perceive the long hours that each musician has spent individually in order to make a performance special?

Making those equations work in this economic environment is a difficult task indeed.

In considering recent Local 802 contract settlements by established concert and ballet organizations, I must say that the above considerations were considered and debated as settlements were reached.

Thankfully, most Local 802 employers have, in fact, considered all of the above factors. The Brooklyn Philharmonic in particular has made a strong attempt to see our industry in a new light. In our most recently settled contracts, both the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra, venerable and highly esteemed orchestras, reached short-term agreements that took all of the above factors into consideration.

We sought, as always, fair pay for expertise and time spent. But we also took into account the overall economy. And at the same time, we also sought preservation of these enormously valuable cultural entities.

Each of these contracts expires in the short term – September 2013 – and each bargaining unit settled, however reluctantly, at rates that only maintained the status quo for the short term.

For now, that may be the necessary exchange for the preservation of the art that drives our lives, and which may also help our cultural survival.