ICSOM chair Bruce Ridge on Flanagan Report

The chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians is Bruce Ridge. He’s been a tireless representative of the vast majority of professional orchestra musicians in the US, and his analysis is thoughtful and worth considering. I present it here for your consideration.

In recent days, there has been a great deal of discussion regarding the release of a report by economist Robert J. Flanagan, commissioned by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, titled “The Economic Environment of American Symphony Orchestras.” On behalf of the ICSOM Governing Board. I thought I would share some brief observations about the report and the work of Mellon as well as the oft-referred to “Elephant Task Force.”

It seems that every few years or so a new report is commissioned and released about the Symphony Orchestra industry in America that suggests that orchestras are not sustainable, and they generally place the blame, at least partly if not occasionally entirely, on musician salaries. It is difficult to determine just when the industry became so committed to proving to its public that failure is inevitable, but the self-destructive pattern of behavior has been around for decades. A United Press International article from 1970 famously depicts the findings of the death sentence report of that era, titled “25 Symphonies Doomed to Die.”

But still, no matter how deeply our industry is committed to publicizing its impending death, orchestras somehow manage to survive. In fact, in many places, they are thriving. This is due to the leadership of creative managers and active boards who are able to effectively demonstrate the relevance of the arts in their communities. It is a relatively simple formula: people will invest in things that serve the citizenry, and they won’t invest in things that they are repeatedly told are unsustainable.

Three officers of ICSOM attended one meeting to discuss the Flanagan report, in July of 2007. At that meeting, we vociferously expressed our concerns with what we saw as faulty conclusions based on faulty data. But even more than the findings of the report, we were concerned that the release of the report would lead to yet another onslaught of press that would trumpet the end of the orchestra in America similar to what followed the publication of the 1990’s version of this phenomenon, The Wolf Report.

All of these doomsday reports are filled with USA Today-like charts and graphs that serve to support the assertions of the text. However, the text is generally written in such a way that only the most ardent masochist would actually be able to plod through it all. The graphs, with their plummeting lines of revenues paired with their rising lines of musicians salaries, are welcome release from the numbing prose. I suspect that for many readers, their eyes are drawn to the illustrations as they beg for mercy.

Since the release of this report, some of our fears have been realized: There certainly has been a lot of coverage, both online and in some print media. But, to our relief, the report has been, frankly, ridiculed more often than not. Perhaps the most telling review came from Mr. Andrew Druckenbrod of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who wrote “Duh!”

Inherent in Mr. Druckenbrod’s “Duh!” is the fact there is some truth in Professor Flanagan’s report. Mr. Druckenbrod goes on to say “Other conclusions are so obvious they are laughable.”

We don’t dispute that there is a need to analyze our field, but we believe that we are researching the wrong things. The “Elephant Task Force” acquired that sobriquet because it determined that there was a proverbial elephant in the room no one is discussing, that pachyderm being the economic situation of the symphony orchestra in America. We would suggest that the real elephant is still being ignored, even as it wrestles with the 800-pound gorilla and crushes the coffee table.

We must learn to effectively market our orchestras, promoting them as vital, and branding them as indispensable. In a world where other businesses that offer far less to the common good have mastered the art of promotion and the utilization of free media, orchestras remain, by and large, dramatically behind the times.

Where is the report that analyzes the great success stories? Why are we not studying the places where creative managers and musicians have led their orchestras to new heights of community service and artistic excellence? What other business uses the stories of its failures to build a model for the future?

We have seen it all before. We are seeing it again now.

Bankruptcy used as a fund raising tool. Ridiculous.

An orchestra with half the musicians will be the panacea for a lack of endowment. Absurd.

Put that on a glossy brochure: The Columbus Symphony: To Cure You We Must Kill You.

A fair criticism of what I have written here would be that I have not disputed the Flanagan report point by point. Frankly, I just don’t have the time. There are musicians working to support their families that need our assistance, and there are underserved communities that need our ideas. I am very grateful to those who have taken on the task of pointing out specific concerns with the Professor’s findings, and those observations are easily found online. In this brief essay, I have merely attempted to muse on the phenomenon of our industry’s penchant for reports that promote such negative aspects of the field.

We have no doubt that the Mellon Foundation cares deeply about the preservation of our great art form, and about the community service we provide. We know that all involved are fine human beings, all trying to do what they think is right. But, we encourage them to reevaluate the process they are undertaking. Musicians are frequently invited into the room for these discussions, and those gestures are certainly appreciated. But every time we enter, we emerge with the knowledge that we have participated in a process that leads, seemingly inevitably, to a public reporting that we feel harms the field, or in other circumstances labels the salaries through which we feed our children “A Road Map to Extinction”.

The Mellon Foundation, the Elephant Task Force, and the Flanagan Report all call for change in our industry. We agree. We must change. We must stop doing this to ourselves.

Bruce Ridge, chair

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