Motown Blues

The situation of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra becomes more perilous every day.  The Orchestra’s bankers are now calling in major loans and management may well cancel the remainder of the season this week  if a settlement hasn’t been reached. All this, added to the DSO’s other problems, could lead to a very desperate outcome.  Reading the various press commentary, the blogs, the responses to the blogs, the recriminations between the warring factions, I see Detroit as a 10 on the Richter scale of crises.  Quite simply, without major systemic change, the orchestra will go out of business.
Resolving such a crisis at a performing arts organization is next to impossible.  The environment becomes so toxic, the accusations so personal, the vituperation so malignant. A friend of mine, who chaired an arts organization during such a time, swore that he would never have anything to do with the arts again because, as he put it, “the arts have the ability and desire to eat their own.”

Detroit Symphony Orchestra musicians

How this crisis will unfold and what its eventual outcome might be is of concern to everyone in the field, and we can only sympathize with all the parties involved.  The musicians’ position is very understandable.  The players comprise a fine orchestra.  They recognize the financial problems of both the organization and the community as a whole and have made major salary concessions.  The proposed wider definition of working practices, particularly as it relates to community engagements, is outside their experience, an unknown landscape at once threatening and alienating.  Management, on the other hand, is endeavoring to be creative in problem solving and in outlining a new role for the orchestra—a role that more successfully meets the changing needs and demands of the community.  The Board and the entire volunteer network must feel caught in a terrible crossfire, not unlike journalists in today’s troubled Egypt. And the City of Detroit and the community…they must be exhausted by the tumultuous debate and eager for some type of resolution.

Detroit Symphony Strike

Unfortunately, all of this was probably predictable.  The patient—that is, the symphony orchestra in general—has been doing badly financially, its cultural relevance diminishing by the year. So the prognosis was never a happy one.  Now, whatever the conclusion for the DSO, whatever the compromises negotiated, the future is going to be grim.  Such internecine warfare does not go away.  It remains to poison the well of organizational change for years to come.  There is a case study waiting to be produced here which may be of assistance to the field as a whole because the DSO and all its problems will not be the last crisis we see over the next couple of years.
I have been talking recently with some major donors and leaders prominent in the orchestral world not just about Detroit but the field as a whole.  I have learnt a great deal from these discussions.  Donors are feeling fatigued by orchestras– the constant demands, the needs, the on-going and unresolved problems.  They are questioning the role of “orchestra monoliths” whose consumption of a community’s  philanthropic wealth is disproportionate to the value they produce.  They are questioning musicians’ passivity within the symphonic organization and the community when, in fact, it is musician leadership and initiative that will be needed to make real change happen.  They are asking these questions with a degree of serious concern that should make everyone think creatively about relationships, structure, and community for the future. Why? Because these are the investors rethinking their priorities.
Maybe we can look at the Detroit model differently and find another way to confront the problems that are facing the DSO and everyone in the performing world.  So to begin with, let’s state the obvious: society has changed.  I realize this is a glib statement and something of a cliché but it is a truth worth reiterating and re-examining.  Societal changes present huge challenges to our conservatively held views of what constitutes an orchestra.  We can blame society and national leaders and the media but that’s not going to get us very far.  We are where we are and everything is moving forward with or without us.  The relationship between a performing arts organization and its community needs to reflect these changes.  People are now leading different lives, their homes have more technology than the Starship Enterprise, and they can enjoy a wealth of entertainment options unthinkable 25 years ago.  The solution for the problems of performing arts organizations is not more ingenious marketing. Something far more fundamental and important is required.

Detroit Symphony musicians

We are forever talking about the issue of relevance.  Clearly, the performing arts’ relevance has declined as measured by the sheer drop in attendance figures as well as the arts’ ever more superficial penetration in the community.  But I want to change the term from relevance to legitimacy which presents a much bigger issue. I use “legitimacy” here almost in the political sense of an organization deriving the moral right to exist from the approbation of the people.  So when we consider “legitimacy for the performing arts,” we must ask ourselves the question: Is playing excellently enough?  For too long, we have believed the maxim: “Play well… they will come.”  Doesn’t happen–anymore.  I have been to so many great concerts performed to empty halls.  Legitimacy must be authentic.  It is bestowed, not taken.  It must be re-examined every single year and not taken for granted.  It must address key issues such as why do the majority of people feel increasingly excluded from the arts, and also why do the arts matter?  A great tradition, longevity, great performances do not confer legitimacy.  For that, we must look past “core audiences”, traditional subscription series, Music Directors and their “visions”, orthodox education work.  We need to reexamine our core behaviors, beliefs, and activities to identify those that no longer serve us.  We need to consider the world of re-invention and what this might mean.  We need as a guiding principle to give musicians ownership over the great and potent possibilities that are obscured by union negotiations and ossified agreements.

DSO horn players

We need to reassert the power of music and the power of musicians to be extraordinary in their music making and in their ability to re-invent themselves for all our futures.
So I’ll end with a story.  Somewhere in the West a test pilot takes a cargo plane up for some routine testing.  He has to fly around for hours and hours with his co-pilot and crew and he gets very very bored.  (I should mention that the relationship between the pilot and co-pilot is not exactly warm and cordial.) Anyway the pilot starts to fool around…doing acrobatic turns…other funny stuff…and then he starts turning the engines off and on.  Off and on.  But then they don’t come on again and the plane starts to plunge in a fatal descent.  The pilot is suddenly terrified.  The co-pilot leans over and laughs in his face, “Hah, now you’re in trouble.”
Postscript:
This is purportedly a true story and it did end happily.  The engine came back to life.  I have heard nothing more about the co-pilot.

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26 Responses to Motown Blues

  1. Don Bourne says:

    I’ve just read the Tony Woodcock blog and hope for a good connection there.

    What I’ve just read was a worry about the Detroit Symphony’s future, worrisome to be sure.

    What I don’t read is what we elsewhere should be doing about it in Mr. Woodcock’s view, when as he well knows NEC is at the same tugging at our financial skirts.

    I give within my means to NEC, not nearly enough for a plaque in the hall, but enough for some nice invitations now and then

  2. Win Swarr says:

    I completely agree. A very nice description of the problem which certainly demonstrates the relavance of efforts to push NEC in a new direction.

  3. usmusicscholar says:

    That donors might rebalance their social investment portfolios away from the “orchestra monoliths” is a chilling possibility. Also, I wanted to recommend the proceedings from a conference on the future of the American Orchestra in Ann Arbor. See http://sitemaker.umich.edu/orchestrasummit. Discussions for a second summit in March 2012 are underway and ideas are welcome. Contact orchestrasummit@umich.edu.

  4. Lindsay says:

    Orchestras are more relevant than ever-look at Venezuela! Musical talent is truly democratic. The degree of specialization and cooperation required to play in a symphony orchestra is huge-and great ability speaks for itself. Where else in the world is hiring done by democratic consensus (fair auditions behind a screen, which do still exist in some orchestras)? Young conductors of talent are springing up all over the world, and can study in North and South America, Europe, or the Orient, and still make themselves perfectly understood to orchestras and audiences the world over. The recording industry has failed to adapt, true, but now we have an opportunity to imitate pop musicians and sell our dvds/cd’s at live performances, if our union ever permits it. Movie scores are full of public domain classical music nowadays. It has become a lingua-franca for advertizing high-end merchandise. Just as pro sports teams have not been ruined by television, orchestras will survive the HD simulcast and televised weekly concerts. Concert halls need to become better, (acoustics, heating, seating, refreshments, lighting, sightlines, accessibility, price) to compete with the couch. Concert scheduling needs to become less dependent upon newspapers for publicity. Orchestras need subsidized seating for supporters whose economic means hasn’t kept up into retirement (lifetime memberships?) or who can’t bring the kids because of the expense. Young persons can see via media how high the bar is for performers nowadays, and they are rising to the occasion. Bravo, Youtube! Youth orchestras need to rehearse after school, when sports practices happen. Instrument lending needs to happen not only in the highest price ranges, but for student instruments; think of it as a crime deterrent, cities! Summer chamber music busking in the streets should be universal! Conducting, solo instrumental, ensemble, and composition competitions should happen every summer, in every city! This crisis has presented a great opportunity for evolution, if we accept the challenge.

    • Ian Stewart says:

      “Orchestras need subsidized seating for supporters whose economic means hasn’t kept up into retirement”

      We have heavily subsidised – and even free – concerts in England and classical music is still not popular. It seems to me it is not money, it is the esoteric attitude of the classical music world.
      I read an interview with an English composer today who said he would not be “popularist” or “pander to the audience”. That is his choice, the same as it is the audience’s choice to go somewhere else! Go to a rock, folk, country, MOR concert, or go to see a DJ and they really want you to enjoy it. Classical music is only music, it is not meant to be a chore or duty.

    • Kate says:

      You have clearly given some creative thought to your suggestions. I would remind you, however, that every seat in an orchestra hall is subsidized. For the vast majority of orchestras — even the most financially healthy ones you can point to — ticket sales cover less than half of the operating costs required to pay the musicians, maintain the building, staff the box office, etc. Without generous contributions from donors and corporate sponsors, ticket prices would be even higher for everyone.

  5. Carol McKeen says:

    I really enjoyed this article, especially coming on the heels of Tony’s prior blog on the creative approach being taken by the Memphis Symphony players. It is a difficult one to read, but important we face these truths. With all cultural organizations, as in any organization, cooperation and respect are key. Management, players, Boards and audience must all have an equal seat at the table AND agree on the venues/techniques they will use to communicate, assess, create and build together. More than ever, our world is in need of the outlet for creative expression that music – all kinds of music – brings. Music is one of the few “universals”; virtually no human being does not respond. I am proud to be aligned with NEC under Tony’s leadership at this time. Creating musicians who are not only highly skilled at their craft but also skilled at connecting to the broader community and defining and demonstrating relevance is absolutely critical to our musical future.

  6. Ian Stewart says:

    An excellent, if depressing, article.
    Fortunately there is a warning showing what happens when the arts loose their relevance, by looking at the state of contemporary dance in England. The dance administrators, funding bodies, dancers and choreographers were antagonistic to the audience. All dance was socialist, and if someone mentioned they were not, they were looked upon as strange. Most prominent performances had a great deal of nudity, some featured explicit simulated (and sometimes it is said, unsimulated) sex, and often violence – one young girl detached a retina during one such performance. Whether those in the arts agree with this or not, the audience certainly did not, the nadir being when a female dancer sat in a cage smoking under strobe lighting for 24 hours, trying to induce an epileptic seizure.
    Classical music has not plumbed the same depths of antagonism, but it is not selling out to consider the audience. There is I believe, plenty of music that a symphony orchestra could play: film scores, computer game scores, symphonic work by the experience rock and new age musicians. Such concerts could be a high standard yet popular. However ignore the audience and the audience will take their patronage elsewhere, probably rock, MOR, country or, as said in this article, their home entertainment systems.

  7. Doug says:

    What a strange, meandering article- send it back for a re-write.

  8. Aaron Genest says:

    Excellent commentary on an all-to-common situation. Although the problem varies a great deal from orchestra to orchestra, the comment about passivity in musicians is particularly striking. When I attended Berklee College of Music in the 1990’s, there was a huge emphasis on the “business of music” for the predominantly jazz and rock musicians attending. The message was clear: If you don’t go out, innovate, grab the fans, make it a business… you will fail. Somewhere along the line, many classical musicians in orchestras have begun to see their positions as sinecures. The logical extension of that belief is that the staff and board of the orchestra are responsible for making sure that the bums are in the seats.

    When I sat on the board of directors at the Saskatoon Symphony in Saskatchewan, Canada, our attempts to engage the players in novel methods of attracting new audiences were met with a lukewarm response at best. There was a core of active, engaged members, but the vast majority of musicians were either unable to invest the time and effort (perhaps because they were too busy making ends meet with teaching and day-jobs) or unwilling (perhaps because of previous experiences in the orchestra). Regardless of root causes, it became clear that expecting innovation and enthusiasm to extend beyond contractual requirements was unrealistic.

    The end lesson is two-fold: (1) The poisonous atmosphere that has developed in most orchestral organizations over the last 50 years is a huge impediment to moving forward and (2) nothing will change until all parties recognize that innovation, enthusiasm, and personal responsibility are what is needed to advance.

    The above posters have suggested some great ideas, but without buy-in from management, board, and musicians, nothing will happen.

    (Just as an aside, I am aware of other orchestral organizations in North America where the impediment to innovation is at the board level… or the management level (with the tacit agreement of the board). No matter where it is, it’s a problem.)

  9. Icarus says:

    Here’s a briefer, and more accurate, description of “the situation” than the one you gave at the end:

    It’s not my problem; the hole is at the other end of the ship.

    As the ship goes down, here’s a joke to cheer you up. I have musician friends in Netherlands and UK. They tell me there are still people over there who advise solving their problems by emulating the “American model.”

  10. The article is a sad expression of the repressed thoughts we all have had for some time, I think. I understand, Aaron, about “the business of music”, and it’s something that can be said about many professions, including psychology, the field I’ve worked in all my life. After long years of costly, sacrificial study to become a high-functioning professional, the tendency is to feel that the job is done and the rewards should come. As a parent of two musicians (you being one of them) I would am sympathetic to such thoughts. I’ve heard many a classical musician complain it wasn’t his or her job to put the bums in the seat, but to perform once they are there, and I’ve considered it a reasonable complaint though, nonetheless, useless.

    Clinical Psychologists, too, have a long, demanding road to becoming professionals, and when we try to induce new associates who join us to go out and make themselves known, i.e., to bring in business, they are not especially receptive and generally have no idea what to do. It doesn’t take long in private practice, however, for them to realize that you don’t simply hang up a shingle and wait for clients to beat a path to the door.

    Personally, I’d prefer it if the musicians could just perform but has it ever been thus? Think of Mozart and his family, perpetually on the move to drum up up business. Perhaps orchestral musicians need to think business model not only as a group but also to see themselves individually as business people, each responsible for creating a livelihood the way that associates in our psychological practice quickly learn to do. If Mozart had to do it….

  11. Larry Fried says:

    Isn’t part of the Detroit “problem” that the musicians want to keep things basically functioning the same, that is playing “x” number of classical subscription concerts for “x” number of weeks per year, in their large concert hall. As I read the newspaper accounts, the management wants to use some services for community activities, teaching, outreach, etc. — the kinds of things Tony Woodcock is proposing — but for the most part the musicians have rejected this. At least they want it to be optional, not mandatory. I don’t believe there is a city anywhere in America anymore that can support a 52 week orchestra, playing 2 or 3 (or more) weekly subscription concerts in a 2,500+ seat concert hall. Those days are over.

  12. johnofoz says:

    There is a strange implication in some of this discussion that structures are, or should be, immutable. This should never be the case. Music performance is a business and has to adapt to changes in the artistic market place and the economy at large. When a business model starts to fail there are two options: go out of business or change the business model. (The option of “propping up” is, I imagine, not one that many people might embrace, post GFC.)

    So, some orchestras must go to the wall. It will be painful, particularly for the workforces involved. But something new will emerge in place of the old, with a new business model that has a chance of success in the new environment. Some musicians will be invigorated by new challenges, and some will retire or seek other and different pastures. This is how renewal works. You have cities that have emerged victorious and thriving from the rust belts of industries which would not, or could not, adapt. It can happen in the music industry too. To use an Australian (and Californian) analogy: The Eucalypt needs destructive fire to propagate. Let the fire run. It brings renewal.
    JohnofOz

  13. Paul Gambill says:

    It’s encouraging to read these thoughts from someone in your position, Tony. I’m especially encouraged by your comment that “the solution for the problems of performing arts organizations is not more ingenious marketing.”

    For too long orchestras have felt that innovative marketing projects could save them from slipping out of favor. Now, after years of creative marketing efforts that dealt with trying to repackage the traditional classical/pops programming that orchestra insist on sticking to, we know a different kind of innovation is needed to secure a thriving future for our orchestras.

    Clayton Christensen’s book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, deals with the distinction between “sustaining technologies” (innovation that improves the performance of established products) and “disruptive technologies” (innovations that fundamentally change the way customers engage with a product or service). New marketing of their traditional (old) product may serve an orchestra’s sustaining customers and a few newbies, but it’s clearly not enough to keep up with seismic societal shifts of recent years that Tony mentions.

    Orchestras need more disruptive innovation as it applies to programming so they can refresh the who, when and how of audience engagement, and in turn begin reinventing their relevance to contemporary society. I’m interested in hearing about ideas and examples of orchestras that are making that leap.

  14. Just come to San Francisco and see what the Symphony is doing here. Lots of exciting new things to stay relevant to the community.

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  16. Paul says:

    thank you arnold schoenberg et. al.

  17. D. S. O'Sullivan says:

    I love how people here and elsewhere (Greg Sandow’s blog) want to blame Arnold Schoenberg et. al., for the declining interest in classical music when the truth is that if Detroit’s orchestra and every other one offered only a Monteverdi-to-Mahler (with no musicians born after, except perhaps Stravinsky now and then) playlist, the crowds would keep thinning, the halls keep emptying, the heads of those in attendance still graying or disappearing, as it were. Wake up, people! Arnold Schoenberg isn’t the problem, no matter how much you want to lay the blame at his feet.

    Over the last 20 years I have worked with hundreds of young people, and many don’t even know what classical music is! Many cannot name more than a single classical musician (beyond perhaps Mozart and Beethoven), and even when they do know this music and have been introduced to it in their (middle, upper-middle-class and wealthy) families, they think of it as something so distant from their lives that it is nothing more than one experience among many, nothing to treasure or treat with reverence as even their parents, who were more interested in the popular music of their time, might have done out of tradition and a differing sense of and appreciation for the arts.

    When I ask many of these students if they’ve attended a classical music concert without their parents or listen to classical music at all, most look at me like I’m insane. Many have attended musical performances of many other kinds, be it hip hop, ambient music, folk or some version of it, punk rock, and so forth. Interestingly enough, it’s usually the musicians among these students, the ones into rock & roll, or jazz, the ones who know how to read and play music, who are somewhat familiar with classical music and have noted that they do sometimes listen to it (the names of Debussy, Stravinsky, Mahler, and Berg have all come up). But as I see it, many classical institutions don’t even try to reach these students; they scoff at them, at any connection to the music of today. Yet you have the people still going on about Schoenberg; but most rock musicians have long made their peace and even incorporated elements of atonal and 12-tone composition, and aren’t stuck in a pre-1910 frame of mind. Anyone who has listened to Radiohead, David Bowie, Sonic Youth, Wall of Voodoo, Aphex Twins, etc., or, as Alex Ross playfully showed, the Webernian background music on the “Andy Griffith Show” (of all programs!), is well aware of this. Perhaps acknowledging that the rest of the musical world has gone forward (think of the popularity of Philip Glass among non-classical musicians, or the interest in John Adams’s Nixon in China) would offer some clues about how classical music might proceed, even just in terms of reaching those not already its adherents.

    All the “ingenious marketing,” as Mr. Woodcock notes, is not going to draw people who feel no connection whatsoever to this music, no matter how beautiful it was. And the majority of Americans in 2011 feel little to no connection to this music, except in very small ways (some church-related classical music, The Three Tenors, etc.). Orchestras’ attendance figures, classical music CD and mp3 sales, and classical music stations’ listener audits all bear this out. But if people do think that the way to go is to batten down the hatches and just keep up as things are, playing common practice era music (“thank you arnold schoenberg et. al.” and recited ad nauseam the long-dead battles of musical academe of a half-century ago), treating the surrounding communities (all of them, which in Detroit would include not just the inner city but the surrounding suburbs, some of them quite wealthy) as if they should and will just appear and accept things as they are, then they are going to be playing, if at all, amidst cobwebs and echoes, loud ones, of the kind that signify nearly empty space. Perhaps the walls truly will have ears, and perhaps they’ll be kind.

  18. FCM says:

    Little mention of educational institutions in this essay. I posit that the orchestra is the symptom, not the root of the problem:

    Think of how research universities drive innovation in the sciences. Could ever such a thing happen in the realm of music? It’s a laughable thought – conservatories and music schools driving innovation, in their current state.

    But they are the most damning example. Orchestras have an excuse that they are subject to the whims of the market and the masses. But schools are *supposed* to be places that foster innovation.

    Instead, they are part of the ponzi scheme, educating a surplus population to do two things: play recitals and take auditions. Yes, they have their excuse too, that the industry demands a certain type of musician. And it *did* for many decades. But that is not an excuse for failing to look forward.

    Is it really any wonder why “those” musicians generally take no initiative?

    Knight or Mellon or Ford could do the whole world a huge service by doing an exhaustive tracking of alumni from major music academies: how their education prepared them for their work, what the ROI was on their tuition, and (gulp) whether they work in the arts at all.

    It might be ugly to peel the veneer back from this festering wound, but some hard statistics would be a good place to start.

  19. Volunteer says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I support and volunteer with a classical music ensemble and am worn out – the need for money is constant, the audience is gray haired (but for the smallest handful), management and the board are fighting change (1) if we play well, they will come/if we teach one master class, all the parents will come and 2) we’ve always done it this way (the solemn, churchlike quality of “serious” concerts)), and I cannot for the life of me figure out how to get anyone under 50 interested. Hell, I am just barely under 50 and while I cherish some of my classical and art song recordings, sitting through the live concerts (with the octogenerians, hearing the “classics” in reverent silence) is making me question the whole thing too.

    I think that relevance and legitimacy are critical issues here. Society HAS changed. Ask the booksellers, poets, small literary presses, small literary magazines, dancers, many theatre actors – they know too. What DO we do?

  20. Ian Stewart says:

    What you do Volunteer is programme music that the audience would be interested in hearing. Music that is rhythmic, melodic, accessible.
    Maybe commission some composers to do versions of good rock songs.
    Get a composer to write a classical work for electric guitar with distortion.
    Do orchestral arrangements of good ambient or New Age music, or a Pete Seeger suite on folksongs he wrote, or made famous.
    Get a classical singer to do classical versions of recent melodic pop songs – a young girl classical singer in England has just recorded a beautiful version of a Take That song, sung in Italian. (When you do this make the music classical, not bad jazz.)

    And when you market your concerts tell a story about the music. Don’t take too much space listing the numerous achievements and awards the composers/musicians have achieved; don’t talk about cutting edge, provocative music. Let the potential audience know it is good music, well played and you really want the audience to enjoy it. Get the important information over in the first two lines.

    And finally let the audience know you think they are intelligent, urbane people. Not a bunch of philistines who want tunes, when it is atonal algorithms that are good for them! Enjoying a concert is a good thing, and if the sophisticated intellectuals stay away who cares. At least the interval conversations will be more pleasant!

  21. Volunteer says:

    Ian – I agree with your points, though they’ve been difficult to make when ensemble management and the majority of the board (65/70 and older) fight many of them so hard. No change in venue or presentation, no new music (horrors!!!) – if it was good enough 30 years ago it’s good enough now. Argh… And we’re still fighting the battle of getting the attention of anyone under 50 at all – in the evenings they are at “fun” entertainment or a bar, and on beautiful sunny weekend afternoons they are outside (where I’d rather be too). Yet, onward.

  22. ray says:

    I don’t think orchestras playing symphonic arrangements of pop songs are a “solution” – that’s just a pops concert! Why should people go to music school and spend hours developing their craft just to play something an amateur high school orchestra could easily do? Phillip glass, john adams, michael torke, et al don’t represent any kind of “solution” either – when you’ve heard the first few minutes of a phillip glass composition you’ve heard the whole thing, since all it does is endlessly repeat. Same with adams and torke – compared with REAL classical music, theirs is stale, bland and dull. Movie music? That’s just background material – compare the soundtrack of lord of the rings with wagner – the movie soundtrack isn’t nearly as interesting, as it shouldn’t be since the visual element is meant to dominate. Most movie music doesn’t amount to much when the movie isn’t there. Maybe the real reason live concert attendance has fallen off is because classical music is widely available on recordings as well as classical radio stations – and with recordings you can a much wider variety of music than what an orchestra offers (period instrument performances for example). And of course detroit is facing a whole host of economic problems (large parts of the city have been depopulated) so its no surprise the orchestra would have problems too.

  23. joe says:

    The problems are not where you see them, Tony. NEC, for example, had a perfect opportunity to do the kind of creative thinking and outreach that you say orchestras should do — and you cut El Sistema USA loose. Shame. It’s not the musicians that are ruining orchestras today — it’s the incredible arrogance of management that looks upon music not as an art, but as a commodity. Musicians like the Venezuelan kids work miracles that corporate naysayers will never understand. It’s about art and life.

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