Why No Symphony Orchestras Make Money

An interesting article from April 4 on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) web site by Alex McClintock recently caught my attention.

McClintock cites Robert Flanagan, a professor of Economics at Stanford University from his in-depth analyses of the economics of symphony orchestras entitled, ‘The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras’.  The book has been in print for several years.

The problem, although admittedly oblique, is that the author’s assertion that “….no symphony orchestra in the world would be financially viable on its own” is deduced primarily from business models that have been the mainstay of Orchestra administrative and governance policies for over a century – and largely focussed on U.S. orchestras to boot.

That is not to say that Flanagan’s book does not do a serviceable job at distilling many of the primary problems facing orchestras around the world as not-for-profit entities. It does it, in fact, very well.

My suspicion is that the conclusions drawn, not only by Flanagan but by many other commentators interested in this field, are all a little too neat and cosy; too tidy in reducing the reasons for the financial peril facing many of orchestra ensembles around the world.

The unpalatable fact is that many of these organizations have been so badly governed for so many years that the horse has not just proverbially bolted, but has aged and died of natural causes long after the gate was left unbolted.

McClintock’s article sensibly moves to the Australian orchestral context in quick succession.  He cites the well-known statistic that by 2010 only 13.6% of Australians “…attended a classical music concert, compared to just 6.1% of those aged 25 to 34” neatly segueing into a quote from Mary Vallentine, a former managing director of the Sydney Symphony remarking, “There is still a core audience, but if you go into the halls of any of the symphony orchestras you’ll probably see quite a bit of silvering of hair…I think the challenge, then, is to consider programming and make it really exciting for young audiences to come.”

Well blow me down and tickle me with a feather.

When, ever, in Australia; other than from the specialist orchestral ensembles or, the rare and knowledgable Festival Director (viz. Leo Schofield) have any of the State-based orchestras ever applied a dictum as prescribed by Ms. Vallentine to create programming that makes it “…really exciting for young audiences to come”?

Leaving aside the misunderstood reality that irrespective of how exciting the programming is by any of the large orchestras (should they ever conceive of such an idea) young audiences will still NOT come, we have reached the point in Australia where current artistic leadership of the State-based orchestra system is now so moribund, the only rational explanation left is that the people with responsibilities for artistic oversight and programming have precious little credibility for enacting change or, worse, creating a dialogue for change.

From any perspective that conclusion is damning.

McClintock’s article neatly sidesteps into the phenomenon of orchestras playing karaoke to Hollywood blockbuster films – the Harry Potter franchise being the case in point.

This current malaise may be expeditious in financial terms to the ailing coffers of orchestra finances, but it does absolutely nothing to mitigate the downward trend in audience uptake for appreciating and developing a life-long love for Classical Music.

But surely, with younger audiences coming through the door (with assorted wands and paraphernalia) the problem is solved, is it not?

Clearly, the longer-term outcome from this asinine reliance on film-music karaoke sessions is simply the further (and ever smaller) fragmentation of audiences for orchestra music. It is yet another example of the rise of ever more persuasive marketing mantras which associate numbers of people through the Concert Hall door to a form of rationalized artistic vision within the orchestra organization. The only problem with this delusional approach to curatorship of orchestras being that it relies on product that exists solely to return a profit to rights-holders and not the development of a musical imagination or creative listening curiosity in audiences attending.

When for the love of Mike (whoever Mike is?) will our orchestras actually tackle the issue of developing strategies to incubate audiences into the vast tapestry and riches of Classical Music – with its myriad of associations to the human spirit and achievements across all areas of humankind over centuries?

Young people are starved for direction.  They DON’T HATE (or even marginally dislike) Classical Music.  They just don’t have someone to show them the way any longer.  And they want you to play music by local composers – lots of it – something in the range of 17 – 23% of your total output!  Can you imagine it?

So if you’re in the orchestra business – guess what – it is YOUR responsibility.

Travelling home shortly,


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