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Fort Worth Symphony May Be The New Normal For Orchestras Today

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‘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.