I jotted this down just last week and since then, things have gotten even worse. “Board members are sick and tired of the musicians’ complaining,” said one of the board members who didn’t resign. Complaining about yet another pay cut? Musicians and Board members blame each other – how are they both blameless or partially responsible?
Hold the phone. Just five months after trumpeting its financial comeback, the Colorado Symphony appears to be on the brink of collapse. Despite ticket revenue of over $5.4 million in the 2010-11 season, the orchestra ended the year with an accumulated $1.2 million debt, despite the 12.5% pay cut the musicians endured in 2009-10 and a revamped marketing and pops lineup. If income is down but subscriptions are up (by 73% as reported in April), and despite salary cuts the band is still in the red, it suggests that donations are down. In a comment on Drew McManus’ blog post on the matter, Colorado Symphony Marketing VP Margaret A. Williams defends the health of the orchestra, but vaguely concedes that donated income fell short in FY 2011.
Might I reach the following conclusion? Multi-media concerts and Celtic Woman special events might sell seats, but don’t win donors. It seems the Colorado Symphony is doing what every other classically-grounded arts organization is doing nowadays: trying to compete with pop music and CGI movies, promising thrills to an audience used to instant gratification, while your quotidian trip to the concert hall really does require more intellectual work from the audience than a Friday night movie. (The Groupon deal that brought in 1,000 people to a “Classical Top 40” concert claimed that “Seeing live music can be a transcendent mind-body experience, akin to getting a tattoo underwater, or making out during an eclipse.”)
The strategy successfully disappoints the newcomers they are desperate to reach while alienating long-time concert-goers – that is, the ones who could write the big checks.
Maybe one day, marketers will find a way to let classical music be itself, which is what it does best. No one sells a yoga class as a thrill-a-minute entertainment; it’s a rewarding activity that takes some work to get into. Fortunately, the classical music crowd – let’s be honest – overlaps with the yoga demographic. If orchestras can tell potential audience members what they are really in for – some hard intellectual work, a risk of boredom or frustration at first, but the huge pay off of deep, meditative listening – that might be a way to cultivate listeners who are also motivated to donate.
If the Colorado Symphony subscriptions are increasing, perhaps they are getting this message across. The coming months will show just what needs to happen in the “one-year turnaround plan.”
Meanwhile, budget gaps are often alleviated with a knife to musicians’ meager salaries: Colorado Symphony players are earning about $41,000, down from $47,000 a few years ago. The real problem lies with the exorbitant fees commanded by soloists – and their managers. Yet longing for big name stars to take a pay cut is like yearning for single-payer health care.