When the Music Stops

A lot of our symphony orchestras are in trouble, and the changing nature of cities is part of the problem. But Buck Owens may have some lessons for Beethoven.
by | September 27, 2012 AT 11:00 AM

I grew up listening to radio station WWVA, broadcasting at 50,000 watts out of Wheeling, W.Va., so my musical tastes run more to Buck Owens than Beethoven. But for those who are passionate about classical music, there's a crisis going on. There are 17 full-time orchestras in America, and at least a third of them are in pretty serious trouble.

Just last Saturday, musicians of the Chicago Symphony went on strike less than two hours before the start of a scheduled concert with world-renowned conductor Riccardo Muti. By late Monday, management and labor had apparently struck a deal resolving the Chicago dispute, but elsewhere big conflicts remained unresolved. The musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra have been locked out since mid-August over a contract dispute. The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra has canceled performances three weeks in a row as a result of a continuing labor impasse. In a recent blog post, Norman Lebrecht, an author and frequent commenter on arts and culture, listed several orchestras in trouble and wrote that "I cannot remember a time when so many U.S. orchestras were simultaneously in such difficulty." The impact on local economies of these conflicts may be hard to measure, but it is there, not to mention the impact on civic pride.

Much of the discussion about the problems facing symphony orchestras has focused on the various specific disputes between labor and management. But Aaron Renn, author of the city-focused daily blog The Urbanophile and himself a fan of classical music, offers a deeper analysis of the crisis affecting many of these orchestras. He outlines three issues, two of which have to do with the nature of symphonies and one that has to with the changing nature of cities.

First, there is the issue of productivity. In most industries, productivity gains associated with investments in technology moderate or wipe out the impact of cost increases. Not so for symphony orchestras: Labor costs cannot be reduced by cutting the size of the workforce, and production cannot be increased. Second is the fact that symphony music is strictly an aural experience. Opera, for example, is doing better in some places because it is a visual as well as aural medium. Anyone can buy a CD and listen to the greatest symphony music by the greatest performers, but to really enjoy an opera, you pretty much have to see as well as hear the performance. The Metropolitan Opera of New York City has found new audiences and new revenues by doing high-definition simulcasts at movie theaters.

As for cities, the hard times faced by so many orchestras reflect not only today's economic realities but also a changing of the guard among the elites that traditionally supported the local arts. In some of the rising economic stars like Nashville, the symphony is doing well because the city itself is becoming wealthier. And where once every city had its own bank, utility and department store, with local business leaders providing support for the local cultural scene, those industries have become consolidated on a national scale and their local executives are in essence merely branch managers. For these folks, government-subsidized real-estate development is the economic development method of choice, and their success is not tied to the success of the community. As Renn wrote in a recent post, "It used to be--and I'm talking as recently as the early 1990s here, not ancient history--that the local business and community elite could be counted on, when it mattered, to put money into their cities. Today, they are much more likely to be taking it out.

Those who are devoted to symphony orchestras can hope to be lucky, as classical-music lovers in Cincinnati were a few years ago when philanthropist Louise Nippert gave the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra $85 million. Or they can develop a strategy for preserving and strengthening their orchestras through the kind of hard thinking and clear-eyed analysis of economic realities that Aaron Renn suggests. Government handouts are unlikely because many city governments are in deep financial trouble and because entertainment simply is not the purpose of government. While it is true that many billions of tax dollars are spent on sports--itself a bad public policy--the political reality is that there are millions more football fans than there are fans of classical music.

Those who want to preserve their symphonies, if only as a symbol of civic vitality, might look back a few decades for some ideas. In the 1930s, radio was a powerful new medium--the Internet of its age-that was changing the world. In the midst of the Great Depression, the Grand Ole Opry used radio and powerful stations like WWVA, which could heard in most of the eastern United States, to reach beyond the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and thrive. Somewhere in the story of the Opry and that of the Metropolitan Opera today might be the seeds of a strategy to save symphony orchestras.