Monday, 15 April 2013

Guest post: "Orchestras in trouble: a think-piece", by Simon Fairclough (UK)

It´s a great pleasure to hear Simon Fairclough talking passionately both about classical music and his job. Simon is an intelligent and committed young professional who wants to make sure that more and more people are able to discover and enjoy the pleasures of classical music. In this post, his analyses the troubles orchestras all over the world are facing nowadays and points out causes and possible ways forward. Among them, the need to find new ways to engage with audiences. mv

Bach´s St. Matthew Passion re-imagined for younger audiences with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and  a virtual choir. (Photo: Vocal Futures)

News from the USA has been particularly bleak.  Lockouts and strikes have hit orchestras from sea to shining sea, and in 2009 the average American symphonys deficit was $697,000.  When the mighty Philadelphia Orchestra filed for bankruptcy, it became clear that no orchestra was too big or excellent to fail.

But this is by no means a purely American problem.  The Spanish Radio Television Symphony recently unveiled plans to reduce its musicians contracts by a third.  In South Africa, the Johannesburg Philharmonic closed down in November, silenced by its debts.  In the UK, the Guildford Philharmonic gave its farewell concert last month after seven decades on stage.  Even in Germany, that most generous state patron of the arts, two radio symphony orchestras are to merge to save money.  

It would be tempting to assume that orchestral music is a dying art-form.  But for every tale of crisis theres another which reminds us of its broad and continuing appeal.  In 2011 the YouTube Symphony Orchestra performed for 33 million people online one of Googles biggest-ever live streaming events.  Venezuelas El Sistema has built up a cult following worldwide.  For two months every summer crowds pack Londons Royal Albert Hall to hear orchestras performing at the Proms: 300,000 people attended last year.  My own orchestra, the Academy of Ancient Music, thrilled millions when it performed music by Handel at Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee celebrations last summer.

Why, then, are so many orchestras in crisis?  Four key factors are at play:

1. The financial crisis
The financial crisis has had a particular impact on orchestras owing to their reliance on contributed income.  Earned revenue from ticket sales is not sufficient to cover most orchestras costs, and the gap which results in many cases 50% or more of total turnover needs to be bridged with a combination of state subsidy, endowment drawdowns and donations from private individuals, companies and foundations.  At this time of economic hardship, it is harder to secure such funding.

2. The cost curse
It would be wrong however to assume that orchestras financial difficulties are purely cyclical.  Over the long term, the gap between earned income and expenditure is growing. The principal reason for this is an economic phenomenon known as the cost curse.  While in most industries productivity rises over time, a performance of Beethovens Eroica takes exactly the same number of orchestral musicians the same amount of time today as it did two centuries ago. Because the wages of orchestral workers, whose productivity has not increased, have risen over time in line with those of other workers, the relative cost of a performance is far greater today than it was then.  There are only two ways to confront the cost curse: cut expenditure year after year or increase income. The favoured approach has traditionally been to attract higher levels of contributed income, but for some time orchestras have been struggling to do so: even in 2005, before the financial crisis, the average American orchestra had an annual deficit of $193,000.

The Academy of Ancient Music was cheered by millions at Queen Elizabeth II´s diamond jubilee pageant. (Photo: Hilary Everett)
3. The challenge of relevance
One reason why this is the case and perhaps the most intractable reason why so many orchestras are in crisis is that they have sustained a long-term of loss of relevance to the contemporary world.  The success of El Sistema and the YouTube Symphony demonstrate that the music itself has universal appeal, but traditional concerts present it in arcane, nineteenth-century packaging.  The audience sits in a darkened hush.  Musicians wear white tie and tails’ — an antique dress code dispensed with even by Britains royal family almost a century ago. Photography is frequently banned; unfriendly notices instruct audience members not to cough; and unwritten rules exist about when to clap.  The experience seems esoteric and off-putting to many. As audiences have shrunk and aged it has become more difficult to sell tickets, but also to persuade new generations of philanthropists and public sector decision-makers that orchestras remain worthy of the significant subsidy they require.

4. Changing media consumption patterns
A fourth challenge has recently emerged: the demise of the traditional record industry (historically a primary marketing partner for many orchestras), and the associated rise of internet technology.  Classical album sales fell 20.5% between 2011 and 2012.  Recordings, which traditionally generated money as well as fame for orchestras, now require heavy subsidy.  Many fewer are being made. Underlying demand for recorded orchestral content has not however waned (as we have seen, 33 million people logged on to hear the YouTube Symphony in concert).  People simply expect to consume it in new ways.   Most orchestras are still in the early stages of understanding these profound shifts in media consumption patterns and they are still further from finding ways to monetise new distribution channels.  But if they are to keep their content available in the twenty-first century, they must emulate innovations in the broader entertainment industry.

Looking ahead
Those who worry for the future of orchestral music can take some comfort from the fact that their concerns are not new.  As far back as 1903 the New York Times reported that The orchestral season has been financially a bad one all over the country there is always a deficit, which public-spirited guarantors are called upon to pay.  From that day to this, orchestras have innovated to survive, and many are continuing to do so today.  

For three months this summer, the Academy of Ancient Music will take up residence at London’s National Gallery.  Our performances on the hour, every hour will bring paintings in the Vermeer and Music exhibition to life for tens of thousands of visitors.  We’re also experimenting online: over 1.5 million people streamed tracks through our AAMplayer last year.  Our colleagues at the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment recently worked with Vocal Futures on a stunning, multi-media re-imagining of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, aiming to attract younger audiences.  The River Oaks Chamber Orchestra promises a multi-sensory experience: musicians mingle informally with audience members; a childcare programme runs alongside its 5pm family concerts; and regular music tastings enable audience members to enjoy music while tasting wine.  The Philharmonia Orchestras re-rite project  enables members of the public to conduct, play and step inside the orchestra through sophisticated audio and video projections, and the orchestra recently launched an innovative iPad app.  

The Philharmonia Orchestra´s new iPad app. (Photo: TouchPress)

Nobody has yet found all the answers.  But these and other innovators are making four important realisations:

· Artistic excellence remains a pre-requisite, but it is not enough;

· By distancing the music from its nineteenth-century packaging, orchestras can tap into the broader public interest which inspired 33 million to log on for the YouTube Symphony performance;

· Orchestras which innovate with new media stand the best chance of reaching a mass market and generating profile for themselves and their artists in the post-record industry world;

· The right combination of artistic excellence, contemporary relevance and profile can help orchestras address their financial challenges by driving higher ticket income and inspiring greater levels of support from public and private funders alike.

Simon Fairclough is Head of Fundraising at the Academy of Ancient Music. He has achieved a five-fold increase in the orchestra’s fundraised income in five years, and has secured regular Arts Council support for the first time in its history.  Since 2005 he has also been chairman of the extra-curricular music programme at Cambridge University, where he has doubled the number of ensembles supported, appointed Sir Roger Norrington as Principal Guest Conductor, and transformed the artistic programme through collaborations with the likes of Sir Richard Armstrong, Sir Colin Davis, Sir Mark Elder, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Libor Pesek and Bryn Terfel.  He is an International Fellow at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

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