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Fort Worth Symphony May Be The New Normal For Orchestras Today

by Jerome Weeks 16 Nov 2016 9:50 AM

New report finds orchestras more dependent on a few wealthy patrons and less on ticket sales. That re-shapes the entire organization.


‘The New York Times’ reports that the League of American Orchestras has released an eight-year study that finds — the good news — classical orchestras’ contributed income, which had dropped during the Great Recession, is now above even pre-recession levels. Fewer orchestras are running deficits these days.

The bad news is that it’s extremely likely a city’s symphony orchestra is now, more or less, a charity. It doesn’t earn the majority of its revenue from subscriptions or ticket sales anymore. Meaning, it has less of an ordinary ‘you buy a ticket, we give you music’ relationship with its audience and is much more dependent on a small number of wealthy patrons.

Many people may feel, isn’t this always been the way orchestras have been run? Not really. Despite the image of classical music as solely a pursuit of the wealthy, a rule of thumb for non-profit music organizations has long been that a healthy organization took in the majority of its revenue directly from concertgoers’ purchasing seats, usually around 60 percent.

But the year 2013, it seems, was a tipping point: “For the first time, ensembles no longer earned a majority of their ticket revenue from the subscription packages they have depended on for decades.” What’s more, attendance dropped by 10.5 percent between 2010 and 2014.

This means not simply that orchestras must now compete for wealthy donors more than ever. It means that this pursuit shapes the entire organization, its marketing, its organizational structure, its pricing, even its mission. Not surprisingly, the ‘Times’ reports:

… the period since the recession has been unusually tumultuous. Since 2010, labor battles have led to at least 14 work stoppages at orchestras — half because of strikes, and half because of lockouts — according to the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, a players’ conference of the musicians’ union, the American Federation of Musicians. A handful of orchestras — in Louisville, Ky.; Honolulu; and Philadelphia — have filed for bankruptcy.

And marquee orchestras have not been immune to serious pressures: The New York Philharmonic has run deficits every season since 2001-2, orchestra officials said…

Before the 1960s, it was rare for orchestras to offer year-round employment to musicians. Then, in 1966, the Ford Foundation began an $80 million program to encourage longer seasons, higher pay and an improved artistic product. By most accounts, the program succeeded — but when the money ran out, some orchestras found it difficult to maintain their better-paid ensembles.

At the same time, the unions representing musicians have grown stronger. The recent downturn exacerbated labor relations at many orchestras — so much so that the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service has had to develop classical music industry expertise, and labor battles have become a subplot on the Amazon series “Mozart in the Jungle.”

There are bright spots: Those orchestras that own their multi-purpose venue (not the case in either Dallas or Fort Worth) have a good money earner on their hands, renting it out to other attractions, while several near-death ensembles have bounced back.

  • Conflicta Vinterest

    So…how can the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra get anywhere in terms of fundraising…with a completely marginalized, unhappy staff? CEO Amy Adkins has burned through five VPs of Development since she took the helm in 2011.
    And as long as she’s in charge…the orchestra’s prospects continue to be slim.

  • akadams

    One wonders why the FWSO must have such a burdensome arrangement with Bass Hall, which charges the orchestra heavily to rent its space, even though they are a resident company.

    One also wonders why the board chair, Mercedes Bass, finds it easy to give millions away to other arts organizations at the same time that the FWSO is facing a deficit. (of how much it’s hard to say – press over the last year has presented a variable number, and CEO Adkins tends to “round up” when it suits the interview.)

    One wonders further why the FWSO website (when it was working) showed financial reports only up through 2012-13. It’s like a door has been slammed shut on transparency.

    For an illuminating glimpse into what it’s like to work at the FWSO, have a look at the reviews on Glassdoor. (Do take note of one very interesting (if transparent) review, with typos/misspellings, which declares “MANAGEMENT IS FAIR”…)

  • Sarah Chandler

    Clearly, in order to compete for donors, the FWSO needs a great fundraising department. Why is it that top arts consultant Michael Kaiser recommended 5 fundraising staff and FWSO has never upped it to that? (Currently it has 3 people.) Also, how can an orchestra run well with a revolving door of staff, and an dysfunctional environment? See: