How to miss the Titanic (part II)

[This is the second in a series of posts in which I will talk about the current, troubled, state of professional musicmaking and offer some glimpses of possible solutions for the future.]

The first time I heard the London Symphony Orchestra(LSO) in live performance was at the Brangwyn Hall Swansea in the late 1960’s when I was just a kid. It was a Schools concert and we had been bused to the city of Swansea from the depths of rural Wales.

The Orchestra was fielding its A-Team with John Georgiadis, its esteemed concertmaster, and its new Principal Conductor, the thirty-something André Previn, then the hottest musical property in the country. Previn and the LSO at that time brought new energy and youthfulness to the music world, with frequent T.V. appearances and abundant media play.
What I remember of that concert was the orchestra’s unbelievable brilliance and control. It felt like a Ferrari cruising around the corners of the Monaco Grand Prix and then accelerating with more power than you imagined possible.

Valery Gergiev

The LSO has been around a long time. Formed in 1904 as the result of a labour dispute within the Queens Hall Orchestra, it has enjoyed artistic partnerships with some of the world’s great conductors, including Hans Richter, Arthur Nikisch, Sir Edward Elgar, Charles Munch, and Claudio Abbado, as well as a long relationship with Leonard Bernstein. Today the Principal Conductor is the great Russian maestro Valery Gergiev.

I last heard the orchestra in Boston a couple of seasons ago at Symphony Hall and the playing still displayed that trademark brilliance. Things could have been different though, with the orchestra’s history abruptly truncated: the LSO was booked to travel to America for a major tour on the maiden voyage of the Titanic in 1912. Fortunately, last minute circumstances required that it rebook.

Clive Gillinson

Clive Gillinsonwas the LSO’s Managing Director for more than twenty years, before leaving to run Carnegie Hall in 2005. Under Clive’s leadership the orchestra repositioned itself, not just as a superb artistic ensemble but also as a major community and educational innovator.

His was and is a brilliant and visionary strategy.

Kathryn McDowell

His successor Kathryn McDowell  is not just living this legacy but developing it still further. The LSO has something unique to tell us about artistic excellence and re-invention, and this article will drill down into the very special operational model that it has refined.

Financial Overview
The annual budget is £16 million ($26 million) which is about the size of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s. By contrast, the so-called Big 5 American orchestras (Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Cleveland and Los Angeles) have budgets ranging from $42 million for the Cleveland Orchestra to $95 million for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

LSO at the Barbican

The LSO receives about 27% of its budget from the Government (the Arts Council and the City of London where the LSO is in-residence at the Barbican.) This level of subsidy has fallen from a high of 40% of budget – not in cash terms, but because the orchestra has been expanding and developing. The rest of the income is made up from engagement income, box office, fees for international touring, sponsorships, and support from trustees and foundations. There is a tiny endowment but it does not provide material support.

A rank and file musician could expect to earn from a range of activities (concerts, film sessions, education and community work et al,) fees amounting to about £40,000 in one year. ($64,800, or about the equivalent of a Milwaukee Symphony musician. The Big 5 all have a base rate salary  ranging from $115,000 to $136,500.) Film work is very lucrative for the players and therefore much-prized and you can hear the orchestra on soundtracks going back many years from the first Star Wars movie to the recent Harry Potter series.

Studio recording work for the big labels, once the bedrock of the orchestra, has dried up completely.  To plug that gap, the orchestra now records on its own label LSO Live, with digital downloads available through iTunes as well as Amazon and other outlets. Those recordings document the LSO’s own concerts and approximately 80 are presently available.  Every member of the Orchestra receives a royalty payment at the end of the year for his involvement but no up-front additional payment. If a recording isn’t profitable, then there are no royalties on it. The Orchestra is financially sound and without a deficit, and enjoys an 87% capacity for its subscription series at the Barbican.

How does it work?
The Orchestra is self-governing. Now, this is a fascinating model and has nothing to do with musician collectives or what would be described as pay-per-service in the U.S. It is unique to London, so let me explain. The Members of the Orchestra number 100, and they are all shareholders, but they retain a freelance, non-salaried status, being paid as independent contractors. Becoming a Member is a highly selective process and its achievement highly valued.  Members sign up for 50–88% of the available work, particularly programs with named conductors that are tied to touring. They also elect a main Board comprising seven musicians and six non-musician Directors, plus the Managing Director, which takes the strategic overview of the Company. The non-musician Directors are prominent corporate leaders. The Chair of the Board is always a musician. The musician Board members also comprise the Orchestral Committee and they have defined responsibilities that include hiring and firing musicians, and artistic planning (undertaken with the Managing Director.) The non-musician Directors are essentially charged with financial management and fundraising.
Because the 100 Members have an ownership interest in the Orchestra, they have an intense personal stake in every aspect of the work and in the health of the organization.  As a result, they can take a collegial—rather than an adversarial—approach to problem-solving, particularly in difficult times. This shared responsibility for everything to do with the Orchestra is at the heart of all planning.

Health benefits are provided through the Government’s National Health Services and through a private programme. There is no pension plan. Any surplus on the year’s operations is plowed back into the Orchestra. The musicians enjoy four weeks of unpaid vacation a year for which, in good times, they receive a bonus. This compares to 10—12 paid weeks annually for players in the American Big 5.  The LSO’s work comprises about 550 “calls” a season, with a “call” being three hours that can be devoted to rehearsals, performances, session work. The norm is for two “calls” a day and players can work on concurrent days with no limitations. This compares with an average of 300–330 annual “services” for the Big 5 , with a service defined as mostly two hours–or a contractually limited number at 2½ hours–for rehearsals and concerts. The maximum working week is 18 hours.  A “call” or a “service” are equivalents in defining a unit of work.

The type of service offered to LSO players is very varied and creative and includes rehearsals and concerts, film recording, teaching, and education and community work. The musicians give about 70 concerts at the Barbican and an additional 60–70 on tour.  Film work is in addition.

In hiring, the major criterion for recruitment is excellence of playing but the Orchestra is also looking for something more. Prospective Members are auditioned without a screen, and then put on trial!  For up to three weeks, they work with the Orchestra in a variety of settings. During this time it’s not only their playing that is assessed but also the whole package on offer. Who are they? What are they interested in? How do they fit the culture of the LSO?

Principal Conductor vs. Music Director 
The LSO has a Principal Conductor, a position very different to the Ancient Pharaoh-like powers of the Music Director position in the States. The Principal Conductor is the Orchestra’s key artistic partner and he is solely focused on his artistic projects with the ensemble. He does not plan the season or assume overall artistic oversight nor is he responsible for hiring and firing of musicians.
He is chosen and appointed by the musicians, and, considering that present and recent incumbents include Gergiev, Sir Colin Davis and Michael Tilson Thomas, this non-traditional selection method has been pretty successful.

Sir Colin Davis

Indeed, the players pride themselves on creating a potent artistic family of relationships, with Sir Colin Davis currently serving as President and conductors such as Bernard Haitink, Pierre Boulez and Sir John Eliot Gardiner linked to the orchestra in ongoing associations.

New Developments 
•    Actually the first isn’t so new but it is dynamic –The “LSO Discovery”  program was created 20 years ago and is engaging with thousands of young school children from some of the most difficult and under served areas in east and north London. There are also programs for teens, adults of all ages, and music students. In all, the Orchestra touches about 60,000 people a year.  In the schools program, musicians assist teachers and go into schools themselves as well as providing on-line support. They believe in combining people with mixed abilities so you could have the most basic instrumentalist rubbing shoulders with a conservatory student in a side-by-side with the LSO. Although involvement by the musicians is on an opt-in basis, virtually everyone takes part.

St. Lukes

•    LSO St. Luke’s  This is a beautiful Hawksmoor Church, one of six designed in London in the 18th century which was refurbished and re-opened in 2003 as the creative workshop home for the Orchestra in the community. At LSO St. Luke’s, the musicians have created activities of breathtaking excitement –The Gamelan Orchestra; the Fusion Orchestra or ages 10 through 18; the Youth Choir; an Adult Community Choir; a First Monday Club for adults with disabilities; an Eclectica series of classical/jazz/world music combos usually featuring artists from the LSO’s main season program; and a major partnership with the Aurora Orchestra founded in 2005 and dedicated to “inspiring, shocking, challenging, and astonishing.” What’s more, the Orchestra presents the LSO Chamber Music Series and, in the summer months, Inside Out, a free lunchtime outdoor series.

•    The LSO came to the conclusion that young musicians were not necessarily being prepared for a life in music in their formal Conservatory training so they came up with a stunning new programme called String Experience: Twenty players, selected through competitive audition from all of the national conservatories, actually play in subscription concerts and are mentored by orchestral musicians for a period of about three weeks, or three projects. They are paid and are considered “professional extras.” The training obviously works. The Orchestra already boasts 15 Members who are alumni of this program. Plans for the future call for expanding the programme through a new relationship with the Guildhall School of Music, one of the U.K.’s great conservatories and a co-resident with the LSO at the Barbican.  The project would consist of a two-year post-graduate course for up to twenty-five students a year.

•    For contemporary music and young composers, there is a workshop headed by composer Colin Matthews  that incubates new works for performance on subscription concerts. To date about 50 young composers have had their music showcased in concerts at the Barbican.

•    Technology is part of the LSO musicians day-to-day lives and they consider themselves to be very up-to-date. The work of “LSO Discovery” is richly documented on the Orchestra’s robust website.  Recordings, both CDs and digital downloads, are also available online. The musicians blog about their tour experiences. Visitors to the website can engage in live chat.   The Orchestra has a Facebook page and Twitter Feed.  Perhaps most dramatic of the LSO’s technological partnerships was with Google two years ago in creating the “YouTube Symphony,” which for its most recent webcast attracted an audience of 33 million.

•    Although you might associate the LSO with a broad and rich romantic sound that is undifferentiated even in the music of Mozart and Beethoven, you would be wrong. The Orchestra is, in fact, absorbing historic performance practice. Just take a look at the video featuring Principal bass Rinat Ibragimov.

So what can we learn from this Orchestral model? 
It works, and it’s exciting and contemporary.

•    The LSO is a great international orchestra playing under the finest conductors and in the most prestigious halls in the world.

•    The Orchestra has never had a strike in all its history.

•    The musicians literally take ownership of the organization, its future direction, its opportunities, and its problems. And they are devoted to its collective good.

•    The employment model is totally flexible and offers a variety of creative choices.

•    There is high productivity from the musicians.

•    Everyone understands that they serve their community in the widest sense. They buy into the idea of education.

•    The organization has diversified and reinvented itself, whether by establishing a new home at LSO St. Luke’s to producing a new record label to grasping the possibilities of internet technology.

•    The Orchestra continues to be attractive to its main subscription audience and enjoys nearly full houses.

•    The financial model is sustainable and the organization is growing.

•    The musicians are empowered and are leading the organization in partnership with their new management team and the Managing Director.

What’s more, no one is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

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12 Responses to How to miss the Titanic (part II)

  1. Paul Gambill says:

    For me, the most inspiring part of the LSO’s story is the way the members of the orchestra are passionate about creating and leading community engagement programs. If only American orchestras were able to nurture that kind of passion among their members, I suspect the state of classical music here would be very different.

  2. Bob says:

    For me, the most important part of the LSO’s comparison to US orchestras is this: 27% of the budget comes from the government. If US orchestras had that level of support, the prognosis for the industry would be much different.

  3. Guest says:

    It’s not too hard to read between the lines that this is what the author would prefer to the current US model. I would love to hear from the LSO players if they prefer making half as much as some US counterparts, working more and longer ‘calls’, having no pension, and no paid vacation. But hey, they play great! Well….that’s what good musicians do. To do so under more arduous circumstances than other musicians do speaks on behalf of their professionalism yet is hardly a green light to lower an organization’s costs through its artists and imply there are no negative ramifications to such an attempt (see Symphony, Detroit).

    As well, citing other orchestras’ budgets in this article left me as the reader with the tacit assumption that the massively larger budgets of Cleveland and Los Angeles are because of musician costs which is not necessarily the case.

    A conveniently simplified take on things here. Hopefully orchestra boards across the country will know that when (oops I mean if) they hear it, but sadly I doubt that.

  4. Jane Namenye says:

    I mentioned the London Symphony Orchestra on Twitter and was surprised to get an answer from @LondonSymphony! This personal touch has inspired me to explore what this organization has to offer.

  5. Pacer1 says:

    If you are suggesting that the workload of the LSO and other orchestras in the U.K. is a model for North America, I would refer you to the results of the Federation Internationale des Musiciens’ 1997 Survey of 56 Orchestras worldwide. This Survey, carried out by the British Performing Arts Medicine Trust, found that in the U.K. Musicians expressed concerns about poor financial rewards and the financial effect of illness. 78% had their own orchestra doctor while the world-wide average was 28%. 17% used alcohol before a performance, while the world-wide average was 6%.

    The musicians in the U.K. are famous for the heavy workloads they carry, and the high rate of injury. I think you will find that most, if not all of the members of the LSO find additional work during the “four weeks of unpaid vacation” you suggest they “enjoy”.

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  8. Harry says:

    I studied with a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra in the 70s. I remember him telling me that his colleagues in the LSO made about as much money as the Philadelphians, but worked a lot harder. I suspect if the Fabulous Philadelphians had worked as hard as the LSO, they would not be in the predicament that they are in today.

  9. Robert Levine says:

    The current base salary of the Milwaukee Symphony is $55, 185, not the $64,800 stated by Woodcock.

    The LSO has always been a poorly-paid orchestra by comparison to its peers internationally. Comparisons with US salaries are pretty meaningless, especially given that US per capita GDP is quite a bit higher than in the UK.

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  11. Very informative peak into the London orchestra scene. Would love to see more written about this subject and, in particular, the comparison to American orchestras and how they operate.

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