Here We Go Again…

[Note: I began writing this post a couple weeks ago, so some of this information may be a bit out of date.  I encourage you to follow the ATL Symphony Musicians on Facebook to keep up with the latest news.]

Just as the tumult at the Met draws to a close, new drama unfolds, this time in the South.  The Atlanta Symphony, having reached the end of the fragile contract agreement forged back during its 2012 labor dispute, again faces a bitter musician lockout.  You can read a summary of the situation, as well as statements from both sides, here.  I also want to share a few articles from really valuable perspectives:

Banner from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's website, as of Oct. 5, 2014
Banner from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s website, as of Oct. 5, 2014

Things seem pretty hopeless, with management staunch in its refusal to negotiate with the musicians’ best interests in mind.  But then, things seemed pretty hopeless with the Met, yet in the end, compromise proved possible.  Despite having to layoff twenty-two non-union workers, the Met emerged from the whole debacle with a vow to “bring about a new era of artistic vitality and fiscal responsibility.”  And how about the Spokane Symphony?  In 2012, the Spokane musicians’ strike ended with their accepting 11% in pay cuts; now, they’ve just announced a 7.5% raise in musicians’ salary.  We’ve seen it again and again — in Minnesota, in San Francisco, in Chicago, in Detroit — compromise (often at significant expense, financial and otherwise, to the musicians) and, eventually, recovery.

Despite the promise of recovery, this torrent of financial woes for American symphony orchestras over the past couple years really begs the question — why?  What’s the cause of money troubles so deep that an orchestra’s management deems it necessary to lock out the orchestra’s world-class musicians?

As several of the above links point out, many of the troubled orchestras faced irresponsible spending, overpaid management, and declining ticket sales resulting in a reliance on endowments.  But these aren’t the sources of the problem, merely symptoms.

I was struck by a comment my friend made recently about the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  Los Angeles — more specifically, Hollywood — needed a professional orchestra to fulfill the musical demands of the film industry.  The result?  The LA Phil is one of the most successful and fiscally stable orchestras in America today.  Orchestras succeed in places where the community needs them, my friend explained: you can’t just foist a symphony upon a community and expect the community to support it.

adella-prentiss-hughes
Adella Prentiss Hughes, center, at the 1929 groundbreaking ceremony for the Cleveland Orchestra’s home turf, Severance Hall. Also pictured are donor John L. Severance (second from right) and Nikolai Sokoloff (far left), the orchestra’s first conductor. (source)

Suspecting a pattern, I took a look at some of America’s other thriving symphonies.  The Cleveland Orchestra, for instance, reported a 62% rise in ticket sales back in January 2013, and celebrated the success of their initiatives to attract college students into their audience.  A quick glance at the Cleveland Orchestra’s history reveals a story similar to that of the LA Phil, and a possible hint to the source of its success.  The Cleveland Orchestra was founded in 1918 by a musician named Adella Prentiss Hughes.  Hughes was born in Cleveland — already, at the orchestra’s very foundation, the Cleveland community is practically built into its genome — and the orchestra came about in an era when Cleveland was at the heart of the Progressive movement, a time of philanthropy and education and socioeconomic equalization.  Industrialization meant a booming middle class, which meant the arts were no longer exclusively for the elite — and the city of Cleveland was central to this societal transition.  The Cleveland Orchestra, then, filled a void in a community where economic growth had catalyzed increased artistic demand.  Cleveland, like Los Angeles, needed its orchestra — and to this day, the orchestra and community remain inextricably intertwined, as evidenced by the orchestra’s financial success.

The thing is, though, if we compare the Cleveland Orchestra to the Atlanta Symphony, we don’t see such different stories.  The Cleveland Orchestra was founded as a reflection of its contemporary, Progressive society; the Atlanta Symphony, founded in 1945, rode a similar wave of societal values, in the wake of massive government-funded social change (public housing, health care facilities, and education reform) due to the city of Atlanta’s crucial role in wartime industry.  Like Cleveland, Atlanta needed an orchestra, and it got one — so why is the Atlanta community now seeming to reject its long-established musical heritage?

I don’t mean to say that the people of Atlanta are in any way rooting against the victims of this lockout — the people of Atlanta are, in fact, victims of the lockout themselves, with the orchestra’s 2014-15 season postponed and its music unlikely to grace Atlanta audiences anytime soon.  Social media reveals enormous community support for the ASO’s musicians, from right at home in Atlanta and even from international reaches of the classical music world.  When I say that the Atlanta community is rejecting its orchestra, I mean this in a purely mathematical sense: regardless of all the idiotic spending that took place among ASO management, if you zoom out and look purely at revenue — that is, ticket sales — you’re looking at a painfully low number.  Where Cleveland and many other groups have seen this number go up, Atlanta and the Met and other orchestras have seen this number drop.  Why?

Why aren’t people attending orchestra concerts?

It’s a complicated question, with about a million different facets.  For instance, maybe the cost of tickets excludes people from attending — but in order for ticket cost to go down, more people need to buy tickets, and in order for more people to buy tickets, ticket cost needs to go down… There are far too many pieces to this puzzle, and we don’t even have the little picture on the puzzle box to use for reference.  But I truly believe that, at the core of this dilemma, lies the issue of community.  The problem isn’t that communities don’t care about their symphonies; it’s that their symphonies are putting forth only minimal effort to remain necessary to their host communities.  Looking at marketing tactics, outreach, programming, ticket prices… How can we use these tools to make our art seem relevant to all members of a given community?  How can we engage the community in what we do, to keep our art not only interesting and relevant and appealing, but also needed?

I’ve been AWOL from this blog for a while, but over the next several weeks I’ll be exploring these questions and profiling individuals and groups who are making a difference in the way classical music interacts with community and audience.  Know any groups I should feature?  Have any thoughts on this topic to share?  Let me know in the comments!

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