Thursday, January 3, 2013

My big idea.

I do a lot of talking on here about creating your own opportunities and today I'm going to throw my big idea out in to the world.  I'm hoping to get some feedback on this, so please feel free to message me, FB, Twitter, or whatever with your thoughts or opinions on this!

In the past few years, the orchestral world has been rocked time and time again by bankruptcies, salary cuts, and closings.  Until recently, I was totally ignorant to how these organizations were run and why they couldn't seem to get their shit together.  So I started reading books, blogs, and anywhere else I could start getting some information.  Once I did, it became clear to me (I like to think) why there are so many issues in these organizations.  The basic models of orchestras, to me, is fundamentally flawed and no longer works in this day and age.

To avoid this post being a mile long, I'll jump right into brief rundown of my idea.

What if orchestras and other performing groups were run completely by musicians?

The current system has it set up where there are basically three different branches to most orchestras:  musicians, administration, and the board/leadership.  Ideally this should work if everyone is doing their job well and the focus is on delivering the mission and vision of the organization.  But unfortunately (as we've seen time and time again with contract negotiations), there somehow seems to be a tremendous disconnect between these branches.

So my idea is that since these orchestras are all about music, the musicians should play a much larger role in the leadership and direction of the organization.  What if musicians were directly involved in the fundraising efforts, the marketing, community engagement, finances, and everything else?  This will immediately bring up protest from a lot of people, but that's OK.  If you've got a job and you're totally satisfied with just playing your part, then that's awesome.  But I think many orchestral musicians these days aren't exactly thrilled with the state of the business and also don't feel that their input is valued.

If every musician was making positive contributions and bring their other skills to the table, their work could help steer institution along.  Think about how much money organizations spend on having full-time administrative staff, in addition to a full roster of musicians.  If every musician was contributing more than just artistically they could be compensated for their performing and other contributions as well.  Obviously this could never be implemented into an existing organization, but moving forward this could make these organizations much more sustainable.

There are a bunch of groups out there that are already implementing this kind of idea in to the structure of the group so I'm really interested to see how those ensembles progress moving forward.  I still have a lot of things to sort out about this idea, but I really think it could work if every musician came to the table with the expectation of playing a bigger role than just a performer.  This would require a minimal staff to coordinate the administrative duties, but I really believe that the performers could almost entirely sustain every aspect of the organization with cooperation and teamwork.  It works for chamber groups, why not orchestras?

I know this is totally a radical shift in thinking from what many musicians know and maybe it wouldn't work.  But I think just about any reasonable idea is worth discussing as a possibility for change.  I think anyone will agree that there are some glaring faults in the current system and that something has to change.

What do you think?


  1. I totally agree. I feel the same way about DCI and how the organization was never meant to be sustainable. The administration aspect of the organization gets paid far too much and has too much control, while if musicians put more administrative skills into the organization it would become sustainable. Then the musicians will appreciate and become more emotionally indebted to the organization as a whole, making it more enjoyable.

    1. I don't want to come across as claiming that people in admin are paid too much. That's not at all the case. I'm simply arguing that the administrative overhead can be minimized if the performers take on some of those responsibilities, thus reducing the cost of taking care of the administrative tasks. Musicians should be compensated fairly for their artistic contributions but they'd have more opportunities to take part in the direction of the organization if they were more involved with things like development or marketing. Also, if there were ever any contract negotiations threatening the musicians livelihoods, they would have much more leverage because every member would be indispensable to the organization.

      Also, I realize I didn't specify why this is more sustainable. Organizations invest a lot of resources in to the leadership and programming. I think the compensation should be based off of how much you contribute to the organization. Take a look at these compensation reports and decided if those in charge:

      Do the people making the big bucks doing enough good to justify their compensation? In some cases, absolutely, but others I'd argue otherwise.

      Examples: If the President sucks and doesn't do their job well, they shouldn't be making huge sums of money while the musicians suffer the consequences of their poor leadership.

      Same goes for conductors. If they're only conducting half of the season, they shouldn't be making five times what a musician that plays every concert and contributes in other ways to the organization.

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  3. Sounds a bit idealistic. Most orchestral musicians have no idea how to raise money well or run an organization. They are neither fund raisers nor administrators. If you try to thrust these responsibilities upon them, you're likely to see the organization as a whole suffer, not to mention their musicianship.

    1. It is absolutely idealistic. Maybe everyone doesn't come in with a background in fundraising, marketing, account, education, but I know for a fact that everyone can contribute in some way. Everyone can learn. And I don't see why musicianship would be affected at all.

      How many orchestral musicians have such a busy performing schedule that they couldn't spend a few hours a week making contributions to their organization? People are busy, I get that. But if they're already that busy, then they probably wouldn't need to be apart of such an organization that asked for them to contribute more.

    2. You're right. Everyone can learn. But the skills necessary to keep an orchestra alive cannot be learned overnight. Running an orchestra is neither an amateur nor a novice affair. The skills are a combination of superior business instincts and years of experience, neither of which are common among orchestra members. At best, your model "run completely by musicians" would probably leave musicians tending to everyday nuts-and-bolts tasks that can be learned quickly, like administrative assistant duties. They might even help with grass-roots marketing that relies heavily on social media. That might alleviate the need for a few employees, but it doesn't fulfill the responsibilities of the "administration, and the board/leadership" positions you addressed. The bottom line is there's no way you're going to get a bunch of musicians to run a thriving professional orchestra better than the people already steering the ship. They simply lack the qualifications and experience. You confirmed that your proposition is idealistic, and you confessed that until recently you were "totally ignorant to how these organizations were run". I wager you've not formulated a grand solution to fix these problems after a week of reflection. Sorry.

      Also, how many musicians actually want to do what you've proposed? A lot of musicians I know play professionally because their calling excludes duties akin to that of a board member or or administrative director. You may want it. But do they?

    3. It was very brief, but I did mention that each department would require an experienced administrator to delegate tasks and this team would help provide a cohesive direction for the organization. This proposed model is definitely more suitable for smaller organizations and thus the work would be much more manageable for a group of musicians dedicated to the cause.

      I think you're bottom line is a bit of a generalization. It's unfair to make judgments on what others are capable of achieving. Other organizations run similar models to what I'm proposing, so I know that "a bunch of musicians" can accomplish a lot!

      In this proposed model, musicians would come prepared to contribute so there would be no work imposed on them as you previously suggested. The "audition process" would be unique in the sense that artistic merit wouldn't be the only thing taken in to consideration.

      Based on your remarks, it seems obvious to me that you would have no interest in participating in such an ensemble and that is totally fine. As I mentioned, I suspect a lot people feel the same way. But I do know there are many musicians that are open to trying something new and are not afraid to take on the challenge. This is just an idea I've had for awhile (more than week) and is by no means perfect, so you're totally right that I don't have all the answers.

      I posted this for the world to see hoping for some feedback. Just out of curiosity, do have any thoughts on potential solutions to the issues our orchestras currently face? You seem to have something totally different in mind and I'd love to hear your perspective!

    4. The Minnesota Orchestra was locked out earlier this season and the musicians put on their own concert - booking the hall, raising funds, selling tickets, and finding a conductor. It wasn't easy, but they pulled it off and had a sold out crowd. This is a fairly large orchestra with many concerts in its season, yet they were able to pull off the task of performing without an administration:

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  5. There are some good ideas in here, but I think there are some other issues to take into consideration.

    I think the assertion you make about the orchestra model being "fundamentally flawed" is inaccurate. I think if it was fundamentally flawed, every single orchestra would be having big problems, not just a handful (it is a big handful, but still not the majority).

    Rather than fundamentally flawed, I would say that the current structure of orchestras is very fragile. Using this model, it is imperative that everybody is making positive contributions in the same direction. Also, in addition to positive contributions, everybody needs to stay engaged and protect their power (a balance of power, not unlike the framework of the US Constitution). When one group gives up power to another too easily or without reason, it allows the newly empowered group to take the organization in a different direction without consensus, which causes problems. Finally, it helps when external circumstances, like economic conditions, are stable. Like everything in life, it takes both skill and luck to successfully run an orchestra.

    Yes, I agree with the basic sentiment of your post - everybody in the organization needs to be making positive contributions.
    But to say that the model is "fundamentally flawed" is an overgeneralization. The only commonality I see between the orchestras that are having problems is that one or more of the stakeholder groups within the orchestra decided to follow a different Why. Exacerbating that problem, the "controlling" stakeholder group has gained power from the others and has decided to use that extra power to muscle the group in a direction that the less powerful group(s) may not want to go.

    Now I'm not so sure about having musicians take over roles of the administration. The original structure of most orchestras was very much like you envision the future orchestra. But there is a reason large administrations evolved to where they are today. The more concerts you want the group to play, the larger the audience you want to reach, the more you need an administration.

    Diverting musicians' time and energy away from practicing, rehearsing, teaching, and thinking about music/art, limits their capacity to be a musician, thereby limiting their potential to play their best as often and for as many people as elite professional musicians currently do.

    Even really successful chamber groups have booking agents, publicists, accountants, business managers, etc.

    When you're a bootstrapping, small, young organization this works fine, but eventually if you want to get bigger, you need the extra people so you can free up your time and energy needed to do so.

    But, if you really just want musicians to be more active, assert their power, and work more closely as a group with the administration, that's fine. I totally agree. I think one of the biggest issues in many of these cases is that the musicians have disengaged and given up too much power to the administration and the board. Too many musicians have forgotten that when you are a member of a big organization, there is politics and if you want your job to remain the way you like it, you better stay engaged and make sure that nobody takes your power from you without your permission (and even then, it better be for a really good reason).

    Does this address the financial side of things? Yes and no. If the organization is healthy and working well, then the financial stuff probably won't become an issue (quite a few groups made it through the past recession in OK shape). Does it address the ridiculously high fees/salaries of soloists, conductors, and executive managers? No, but I think that's a whole other blog post.

    1. Thanks for such a thoughtful reply.

      First off, you're absolutely right that my use of "fundamentally flawed" is a generalization. I should have used better wording to describe my thoughts on our current system.

      I agree with everything you said, but I do want to make a quick clarification that I failed to mention in the actual post...

      This idea is MUCH more suited to a smaller chamber orchestra kind of ensemble. This would never work for a Philadelphia Orchestra or Chicago Symphony. As I very briefly mentioned, each department would need to be headed up by an experienced administrator that could aid in delegating tasks to the others. This would ensure a more cohesive direction and effectiveness for each chunk of the organization.

      And yes, the whole point of this idea is to find a way for musicians/artists to be actively involved in their respective organizations. This idea is an attempt at giving everyone in the organization a way for their voice to not only be heard, but mean something.