There is much written about the plight of symphony orchestras in the current economy. I too have added my perspective in an earlier article. Many commentators say that a new business model is needed in order for symphony orchestras to survive but rarely do they provide guidance, other than to criticize the disparity between the average musician's salary and the salary paid to the orchestra's chief administrator. And to say that symphonic music is an anachronism that belongs in a museum does not address the issue either. In response to the paucity of ideas about a new business model, I have developed the following suggestions to help the financial health of many orchestras:
1. The number of guest artists should be reduced while at the same time requiring that an orchestra's principal players to present at least one solo performance in a season. Maybe this won't work for all principals given the repertory, but it will work for most.
2. A Music Director should be required to conduct the vast majority of concerts. I suggest 85% being a good target. The cost of bringing in guest conductors probably does not justify itself, particularly when it likely doesn't matter to patrons.
3. The number of concerts per weekend should be reduced. Downsizing, for example, from three to two might result in a higher percentage in seats being occupied in the two remaining concerts. This is related to my discussion about musician salaries in point six below.
4. Someone wanting a program for a concert should have to pay for it. Otherwise, the name of each piece being played can be projected onto an overhead screen. One rarely gets a free program in Europe. If an orchestra wants to continue to provide a free program, then it should be a simple publication. This may result in a loss of some advertising revenue, but it's likely that advertisers will still want access to the patrons, who are usually in a higher than average income demographic.
5. Program a chamber orchestra-sized concert every month. How this will save money related to musician compensation proposal.
6. My compensation plan is rather simple. An orchestra's principal players will still be salaried, but will receive, say, a 20% pay reduction from their current pay level. For each solo or concerto performance performed, each principal would receive a 10% bonus over his/her base salary. All other musicians will be paid a base salary that will be guaranteed no matter how many concerts they perform. This base would include fringe benefits, such as health insurance and retirement. The base would be significantly less than what the players currently receive in salary. On top of this, the musicians would be paid hourly for rehearsals, performances, and travel.
7. When a concert requires a chamber-sized ensemble, those who do not perform will not be paid. Musicians would bid to perform in these concerts. Those who bid the lowest hourly rate would be invited to play. If all bids are the same, the positions would be filled in seniority order (from highest to lowest), where seniority would be determined within each section. This would put pressure on those with less seniority to underbid their more senior colleagues. If management does not receive enough bids to staff appropriately, it would assign musicians to play in seniority order (highest to lowest) at the lowest rate previously bid. This bidding system would encourage low bidding and provide an opportunity for those with lower seniority to perform with the smaller ensembles.
Income should be based upon actual rehearsal, performing, and traveling hours. This increases the risk to the musician's income, but incentivizes them to help keep costs low for the overall health of the orchestra. It also guarantees that the musician's will have highly valued fringe benefits and a guaranteed base salary.
This model is a break from tradition, but unless we find a way to address the high cost of major symphony orchestras, we may only a few survivors.
Discuss amongst yourselves.