Musician’s Business Challenge—Reduced Resources

We read about orchestra financial pressures all the time. Musicians demand a decent wage and when communities and boards have difficulty supporting them, an impasse results. Of the 51 ICSOM orchestras , there are ten with minimum scales over $100,000. Not surprisingly these orchestras are in large metropolitan cities like New York, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia, and they all have 52-week seasons. As commonplace as this might seem to patrons in these cities, 52-week seasons are relatively new in the orchestra world. “It was only in the mid-1960’s, when the New York Philharmonic became the first orchestra to institute a 52-week season.”

With large sums of money infused into orchestras from private foundations such as Ford, Rockefeller, and Mellon; and from government sources like the National Endowment for the Arts, the period from the mid 1960’s through the 1980’s saw astonishing growth and support for orchestras. Even mid-size cities like Rochester, NY moved toward a 52-week season. Fueled by highly qualified music school graduates, the quality and level of orchestras in cities even smaller than Rochester was raised. Such unparalleled growth proved to be too ambitious, and ultimately unsustainable. From a peak in the mid-1980’s until today, contraction in season length, rather than expansion has been the norm for many orchestras. On a personal level, one of my good friends who had played in an orchestra for 45 years recently turned 65 and went to the Social Security office to apply for benefits. The case-worker looked over his life-long contributions and said, “You made more money in 1990 than you did this year.” Sad, but true.

William Cahn, a member of the percussion group Nexus and the former principal percussionist of the Rochester Philharmonic has expressed it well.

Actually, I was the Chair of the negotiating committee for the 4-year contract that culminated in a 52-week season in 1986/87. We all knew it was an ambitious goal, but to everyone’s credit the commitment was made anyway. 1986/87 was perhaps the peak year for the incredible post-war growth of orchestras in middle America. Since that year new forces have arisen to put enormous pressure on the resources of time and money needed to sustain such a high level of support for orchestras, especially in middle-American communities:

• a drastic reduction of classical music exposure in music education, not only for children, but especially in the education of music teachers;

• competition from other arts organizations;

• growth of the internet;

• consolidation of the music industry (SONY, PHILLIPS, etc.) in North America and their focus on mass-market music;

• death of classical music radio broadcasting in North America;

• death of the major Compact Disc distributors (Tower Records, others) in North America

As a result, even though statistics gathered by the League of American Orchestras clearly show that attendance at orchestra concerts has steadily increased since WWII (not decreased, as is so often WRONGLY reported), the problem is that costs have risen at a higher rate than attendance growth. This has placed financial pressures on middle-American orchestras that have resulted in a gradual retreat to sustainable budgets and an ever-increasing trend to “Musi-tainment” programming, in order to appeal to a larger portion of the public.

On the non-classical side of the music business, technology has changed everything. Synthesizers have found their way into practically every genre from Broadway shows to the one-man band playing tunes with play-along tracks at the local restaurant. Forward thinking musicians have recognized that synthesizers and samplers are not just a passing fancy. Take drum-set players vs. drum machines. An enterprising percussionist would realize that just because a machine can sound acoustic doesn’t mean that every person who buys one can make it sound believable. It still has to be programmed! And guess who is most familiar with what a drum set should sound like? You guessed it—percussionists. If you can’t beat ’em join ‘em.

About the author

Ramon Ricker

Leave a Reply