Are we finally going to get serious about the crisis facing America’s orchestras?

Written by Jeffrey Nytch,
Director of The Entrepreneurship Center for Music, Univ of CO- Boulder

We keep hearing reports of struggling orchestras (and opera companies): Syracuse shut down, Charleston on life support, any number of others in the “smaller, regional orchestra” class trying to figure out how to stay afloat. (For a further run-down, check out this article: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/familiar-story.html.) We blame the economy, or markets too small to support a full-time professional orchestra, or dwindling corporate and government support. We tell ourselves that the problem consists of the particulars of a given group or blame ineffective “marketing” (as if more advertising or visibility alone will make people change their mind about wanting a product). But looking at those explanations simply allows the orchestral establishment to avoid looking at the larger systemic issues. But now one of the Big Ones is in big trouble: the much venerated Philadelphia Orchestra. We don’t yet know the details, but it’s easy enough to predict what they are: high structural debt, shrinking institutional support, high fixed costs and, more likely than not, loss of audience.

The question is, will this wake us up? Commentators and advocates have been trying to raise awareness about these bigger problems for the last decade, but their work has largely been consigned to the periphery. I wonder, with the Philly being the first orchestra of this size and fame to sink under the crippling constraints of its own outmoded approach to both their business and the art it supports, if now the mainstream orchestral community will begin to ask itself if the 19th-century business & art model that has been the basis for classical orchestras for over a century might be due for some changes. Thus far, the more forward-thinking orchestras have still only managed tweaks to the old models; perhaps now more leaders in the field will see the need for a major overhaul.

And what of the entrepreneurial perspective in all this? Well, one of the cardinal rules of entrepreneurship is that markets that are in extreme turmoil are markets ripe with opportunity – for those who are able to see the problems from a different perspective, that is. So how would an entrepreneurial approach change the way we go about solving the current orchestral crisis? If you were to re-invent the orchestra from scratch, based on the principles of entrepreneurship, what would you come up with?

That doesn’t have to be a rhetorical question: the next generation of musicians – today’s students and emerging professionals – can take on this very challenge. What I fear will happen with Philly is that it will simply be viewed as the Citigroup of orchestras – too big to fail – and so some angel will simply swoop in, throw a big wad of money at the problem, and the orchestra will return to business-as-usual, struggling along but at least still performing. If that happens a precious, and potentially revolutionizing, opportunity will have been lost.

About Jeffrey Nytch
Jeffrey Nytch comes to the Entrepreneurship Center for Music having built a diverse career as a composer, teacher, performer, and arts administrator. For 15 years he has continually created fresh ways to support and nurture that career, whether it be through developing commissioning opportunities, establishing residencies with community organizations, or building relationships with patrons. He has also run a small business, helped found a non-profit service organization in Houston, performed a wide range of repertoire as a vocalist, and served five years as Managing Director of The Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble (“PNME”), one of the nation’s premiere new music ensembles.



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