Kaiser Role

Michael Kaiser, President of the Kennedy Center, posed an important question recently on his blog hosted by the Huffington Post: “Does the symphonic orchestra model work?” It’s an interesting and provocative line of inquiry, but it might have been more accurate for him to ask whether the symphony orchestra modelS work, seeing as he touched on at least four without identifying them explicitly: business, labour, artistic leadership (closely tied to labour), and community or social engagement.

First though, Kaiser’s title begs another question. What is the symphony orchestra model? From a  corporate perspective, the answer is actually quite easy: orchestras operate as a funded-loss.  This is exactly what it sounds like, and Kaiser references this concept at the start of his article. Direct trade activity or earned income, in this case ticket sales,  doesn’t cover expenses for most orchestras, so the deficit has to be made up through gifted income in the form of public, private and corporate donations or sponsorships. Contrary to what you might think, a funded-loss model is a perfectly legitimate way of conducting business. It’s witnessed primarily in commercial start-ups, but also in many manifestations of social entrepreneurship. In the case of start-ups, the rationale for funding the loss is the expectation that the business will ultimately becomes profitable. In the context of social enterprise, revenue is diverted from a directly profitable area of business to subsidize an activity where the returns are more social than financial, eg: David Green and Aurolab, or the Aravind Eye Hospitals.  Often the social activity and its relative worthiness are leveraged to market the more profitable aspects of the business.

There’s no expectation anymore that orchestras turn a profit on concert revenue alone, regardless of whether they’re long established or recently formed. (That they once did and now can’t is actually a function of economics, relating to productivity. If you’re interested in learning more about this, check out the articles here). This thought actually has some pretty profound implications, namely that if ticket revenue is no longer sufficient to cover expenses, even if all performances were sold out, then the operating principle for symphonies has fundamentally changed. Orchestras cannot consider themselves in the concert-giving business, but in the relationship-building business.

They are also as much social enterprises as artistic enterprises.

This acknowledgment doesn’t actually require a major shift in paradigm, just industry attitude. Orchestras only started engaging in education in the last 50-60 years when compelled to justify their continued receipt of public monies. Unsurprisingly, there was initially tremendous resistance to this from within the ensembles, namely concerns it would detract from the more artistically meaningful activities. Musicians also worried that it was too far removed from the core business of orchestras – after all, they were there to perform, not to host instrument petting zoos. Today, education concerts are a fact of life even for such storied and glorious institutions as the Berlin Philharmonic. In light of this, El Sistema or like activities suddenly seem like the most natural and sincere model of community engagement. Music education on such a scale has the potential to build the largest audiences,  to resonate with a greater proportion of the populace, and thus to cultivate the greatest number of meaningful relationships. There are manifest positive revenue implications inherent within that, to say nothing of the social, and fortunately there are at least two major orchestras with the vision to recognize that synchronicity. The Baltimore Symphony Orchkids program, initiated by Marin Alsop, is now in its second year, and the LA Philharmonic has had their YOLA initiative in conjunction with Harmony Project and EXPO Center for about the same amount of time.  I’ve had the pleasure of working with both these groups in the past few months, and I can confirm from those personal experiences how important, how transformative these initiatives have been for the children involved, even in their embryonic  program stages. It will be transformative for the parent organizations too. They will have, as Kaiser said, the “support of their communities, a large fund-raising program and, of course, exciting art.” And they will thrive.

3 thoughts on “Kaiser Role

  1. Clearly it says something about the way we raise musicians. We can not assume that a working musician can be successful by hiding out in a practice room and surfacing long enough to stuff the chairs of an orchestra. To do so is merely raising lab rats for the industrial tech world as apposed to raising young musicians who are emotionally equipped to serve their communities. We have more than enough Bill Gates like music nerds sitting behind music stands.

    On the other hand, I am not advocating show business parents who push out entertainers who are co-dependant on the attention they receive from their audiences.

    Musicians need healthy interactive relationships with all of those they serve. They need to recognize that their responsibility is not only to the composers but also to cultivate the sensibilities of the generation before them. How can they do justice for the voice of a composer if they can not empathize with the audience before them?

    We need to start this kind of mentoring early and encourage musical leadership skills such that it is understood that the job of a musician is to make music accessible to non musicians. It is the wonder-child that everything comes so easily to who needs this kind of education just as much as the kid who has to understand and practice thoroughly every note he plays. We need to raise talented people who are also accessible to their potential audiences.

    More over we can help all of them by letting our students in on the secrets of how their brains are processing what we are teaching right along with the business of skill acquisition and musical knowledge. How much easier it will be for instrumentalist and conductors to communicate when they both understand how they are processing what they are trying to accomplish.

    Surely the professionals we currently have in the field would benefit from workshops and retreats where they can receive insite about how their music is experienced from other perspectives. Perhaps they could find a role or venue in which they could experience the arts as an amateur again.

  2. I love musicians…a very talented person in music. Thanks for your great article. There is so much junk on the internet it is hard to find good quality information when you really need it. I just came across your site and have bookmarked it. Look forward to reading more in the future keep us posted.

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