America’s Orchestras: The Latest Crisis

No doubt that Philip Kennicott’s recent New Republic article, “America’s Orchestras are in Crisis,” will generate a storm of agonized comment.  And it’s somewhat difficult to take seriously yet another “crisis” among the perpetual crises that plague America’s orchestras.  But it seems to me that Kennicott, arts critic for The Washington Post, has put his finger on something real.

The article takes what many would call an elitist point of view, arguing that orchestras dilute their core programs and ignore their core customers by attempting to redefine themselves more as community service than as musical organizations.  Kennicott traces this trajectory from the early 1990’s, with the League of American Orchestra’s emphasis on cultural diversity, to the present day declaration by Jesse Rosen, the League’s president, “Maybe the concert is not what it’s ultimately about.”

But is it really elitist to point out that this approach has failed?   Citing a 2011 speech by Rosen, Kennicott notes that classical music participation has decreased by 29% over the past 20 years and donors are increasingly reluctant to invest in orchestras.  And I would add, orchestra audiences look pretty much the same as they did in 1993.

Any business that dilutes its core products, steps beyond its core competencies and ignores core customer values is bound for trouble.  This speaks to the concept of business as a value delivery system.  But value delivery only works if you understand who your customers are (including donors) and what benefits they preceive from the marketing exchange you offer.

Take as an example a regional orchestra’s customer research.  We addressed several questions.   What was the crossover between classical and Pops customers?  What were the differences between those who attended only one or the other?  Was there a significant crossover among customers to other arts organizations? And what differentiated those who did or did not attend orchestral concerts?

Not surprisingly, there was little crossover between classical and Pops customers, with the exception of a small group of long-time subscribers.  And even less among other arts attenders.

The differences were not about price, quality or accessibility.  It was the love of orchestral music.  Over 60% of classical customers had some hands-on musical training (I’ve seen even higher percentages in other research).  Pops audiences rated much lower on training, but cited early attendance at popular music (non-rock) concerts.  Other arts attenders lacked these kinds of music experiences.  I often think of this survey as “It’s the Music, Stupid!”

The problem is that many of America’s orchestras assume that all programs will bring a degree of value to all sets of customers.  And, therefore, increase cultural and audience diversity.

But classical music audiences want to hear the classical repertoire.  Pops audiences want a different music experience.  While other types of audiences may attend one-off events, such as outdoor concerts, “Twitter” concerts and the like, they rarely attend an orchestra’s core programs.  And serious community engagement efforts, such as education and healthcare programs, require a deep commitment if they are to have any significant impact.

So choices must be made.  What is market demand in each of these areas? What are the orchestra’s real capacities?  What are the costs of delivery and how can we fund them?  And which areas truly strengthen mission?

In making these choices, Kennicott argues that America’s orchestras should not sacrifice core programs and core customers.  I agree, although I am much more supportive of community engagement programs, if an orchestra can deliver them with excellence at a cost it can afford.

See whether you agree or disagree at


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