Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Philadelphia Orchestra and the changing financial model for symphonies

By Barry Johnson

As I browsed the half-dozen or so classical music sites I frequent, I half-way expected to find lots of blog posts about the Philadelphia Orchestra bankruptcy situation. I didn't. Maybe it's too early. Maybe the bloggers think it's a "local" problem.  And the issues involved are complicated -- most of us glaze over at phrases such as "pension fund obligations" -- and the data is scarce, as we pointed out yesterday.

Classical music provocateur Greg Sandow didn't do an extensive analysis of the Philadelphia crisis on his blog, but he did place it in a larger context, the one he's been describing for the past few years. Sandow believes in the Le Poisson Rouge approach to preserving classical music, meaning that musicians and the institutions they play for need to figure out ways to enter the worlds of the people they aren't reaching now.

Le Poisson Rouge is a New York City club that mixes modern classical music, jazz, indie rock, performance art and almost anything else as long as it has an avant edge. It has proven to be very popular and helped to develop a new generation of art music composers (think Nico Muhly, Missy Mazzoli, David Lang). Sandow thinks the future of classical music is in the hands of clubs of this sort, because how else will we breach the wall between Gen Y and classical music?

But Sandow acknowledges that this will be hard on the current financial model, however broken it is.  If an institution organizes itself to reach out to younger audiences, it will have to cut its ticket prices. And even if it attracts them, those younger audience members probably won't donate to the organization at anything like the same rate of older audience members. And musicians hoping to go the entrepreneurial route will find that clubs don't pay a lot, certainly nothing like they might get from a symphony.

Most important, to reach kids these days, Sandow thinks the programming is going to have to change -- away from the past and toward the present. He calls this alt-classical, a squishy word for music that integrates contemporary pop vocabulary, among others, into something people call "art music" for want of a better term -- yes, the music of Muhly, Mazzoli, Lang and their sort. Of course, if the symphony changes its programming, it risks losing the audience that supports it now.  This entire line of argument is fraught with Catch 22s, isn't it?

Sandow indicates that the Philadelphia problem is symptomatic of these larger shifts and trends, and the right course of action is not clear.  I have two thoughts:

1) Classical music will continue to move further and further away from the center of the culture if that culture is driven only by the marketplace. In our hyper-capitalist condition, it just isn't easy to commodify; the billions spent in directing audiences in more profitable ways will drive us toward ever emptier spectacles, not classical music. If we want it, ultimately, we can't depend on the market to give it to us. I think maybe Sandow is thinking of classical music in marketplace terms only -- he isn't calling for a greater government investment, for example.

2) Classical music composers have always absorbed other kinds of music, so I embrace alt-classical/contemporary classical permutations. But still I believe in the power of Mozart to have his way with an audience of younger listeners, especially if they are comfortable and it's part of their social world. That's the idea behind Classical Revolution PDX, and I think it's right.

Has the economics of the financial model of symphonies (and other "classical" arts) deteriorated to such an extent that the model must change? That's what we're testing now. One of the ways we test is to try various experiments to reach various audiences (and the young aren't the only demographic group underrepresented at classical concerts). Another way is to make the case for the music -- to the public, to schools, to legislators -- in hopes of building a consensus that it's worth preserving (and extending), no matter what the market suggests. And these, of course, are linked.

Unlike medical experiments, there's no "cure" to be discovered in these experiments -- just a series of encounters, between musician and new audiences. But what more could we ask for?


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