The great orchestra debate
I, and evidently many other people, have been enjoying following the discussion about orchestras that developed in the wake of this post about Michael Kaiser. Since the post is about to scroll off the main page, I thought I’d summarize a few of the main points that emerged: call it a Cliff's Notes version for the casual reader.
(read more after the jump)
The original question was about new models for orchestras (and newspapers), but the discussion, as I read it, came to center primarily on musicians’ salaries. Are musicians paid too much, or too little? Do orchestras exist mainly to make great art, or mainly to provide a decent living for highly-trained and deserving artists? Are the unions blocking change through their demands? Will every community be able to maintain a full-time orchestra? Are regional orchestras exploiting musicians by paying such low wages*[see note below]? Isn’t it really administrators, rather than musicians, who earn the ridiculously high salaries? Isn’t the problem really the current economic model that places such a demand on ever-cheaper labor costs, with lamentable results in many fields, including classical music?
I phrase these as questions, because they are all food for productive debate, and because a new model will have to come up with answers to a lot of them in order to work.
But there were not many concrete suggestions in response to the very first comment, asking for actual examples of a viable alternate model.
Some of the concrete ideas that commenters did offer:
- Orchestras may need to get smaller.
- Cut staffing, and streamline administration.
- Perhaps musicians can form self-governing ensembles, though this may be more difficult than they think.
- Nobody ever comes up with actual suggestions for new models.
- The current model of full-time musicians in full-time jobs is of relatively recent vintage.
- When ticket prices are lower, more people come to concerts. This supports the idea that more subsidies actually increase the audiences for orchestras, and therefore the health of the field.
- We would all love government funding for the arts, but this will never happen. Well, actually, it might. No, it won’t. Yes, it will.
- Running orchestras like a business is a mistake, because they aren’t businesses.
[My own two cents: this is a good point; but I’d add that there’s a lot of flab and mismanagement in many not-for-profit organizations. Michael Kaiser has gotten striking results by going in to arts organizations and creating a better business model -- while, as he so pithily stresses, keeping the organization’s main focus on exciting artistic projects. The term “business” may be loaded because of its connotations of economic profit; is the term “administration” more acceptable? The point is some of these organizations could be run better.]
-Taking a more commercial approach may not be as bad as people think.
My own suggestions of places to look for elements of a new model were met with strong resistance. My idea was not, as some people took it, that professional orchestras should run out and model themselves to the letter on the New World Symphony nor, when I asked whether orchestras could redefine themselves as educational institutions, was that a sign that I was unaware of orchestras’ extensive activities in that direction. Rather, I was curious about whether these could be incorporated even more actively into orchestras’ functions: could they become a source of revenue, for instance?
(As for the Orchestra of St. Luke’s; I’ve already had my say in an earlier article.)
In the spirit of citizen journalism, and since there are obviously such strong feelings on this topic, I am considering taking some of the issues and questions raised by commenters to some orchestra administrators (those, at least, who haven’t already weighed in) and asking for their points of view. What would be the question along these lines that you’d most like to see answered by the field’s top brass?
[*Note: In the regional orchestra debate, I’d raise the sports parallel one commenter invoked: the salary inequity between baseball’s major and minor leagues is perhaps comparable to that between, say, the New York Philharmonic and the South Dakota Symphony. Not that I’m defending it.
I’d also back up the observation made on an offshoot of this discussion that some top-tier European orchestras pay less than some top-tier American ones. I believe -- without, I confess, having done chapter-and-verse research into the matter -- that this is particularly true of English orchestras, which is one reason the players tend to be younger on average than those in some other countries.]
Posted by: sdeec | November 18, 2009 1:02 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: gmusicchic | November 19, 2009 9:22 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: gmusicchic | November 19, 2009 10:07 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: cicciofrancolando | November 19, 2009 10:50 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: newcriticalcritic | November 20, 2009 11:59 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: gauthier310 | November 20, 2009 2:13 PM | Report abuse
The comments to this entry are closed.