Members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra remain locked out in a labor dispute, unable to reach an agreement with management for the second time in two years. Both sides have now agreed to talk through a federal mediator.
But what’s happening isn’t unique to Atlanta. Orchestras in Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Louisville and Nashville have also faced contract and budget issues.
So why does this keep happening?
Tom Smith, an economist at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, says to think of an orchestra player like a professional athlete.
“You have these uniquely talented people, and they deserve more money,” he says.
Smith says just like sports teams, orchestras depend in part on ticket sales to pay their players. But whereas pro sports teams usually have packed stadiums, orchestras are struggling because of aging audiences and lagging box office sales.
So that’s the problem, right?
Well, sure, says Smith, but it’s more complicated than that.
“A team like the Chicago Bulls or the Atlanta Hawks or whomever else—maybe 35 percent of their revenue comes from ticket sales,” he says. “So just filling the seats doesn’t help the Hawks pay for their salaries on their players.”
Smith says orchestras suffer from something called “cost disease.”
Think of a string quartet: To be a quartet, there always need to be four players, and it takes them the same amount of time to play a piece today as it did 100 years ago.
But the costs associated with that performance—paying the players, renting a venue, promotion—increase over time.
That’s cost disease: Expenses go up, but they’re not offset by more accuracy or efficiency.
“Most people who work in the performing arts expect their pay to increase roughly at the same rate as pay in the rest of the economy,” says Robert Flanagan, a professor at Stanford University and author of “The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras: Artistic Triumphs and Economic Challenges.”
“But unlike the rest of the economy,” he says, “the labor requirements for putting on a performance don’t change.”
To a lesser extent, sports teams suffer from the same economic affliction. It still takes 10 people to play a basketball game that’s four quarters long. But sports teams have billion-dollar broadcasting deals, stadium naming rights and merchandise sales to round out their budgets. Orchestras don’t have that luxury, so they have to rely on corporate donations, large individual gifts and endowments.
Flanagan says this is where declining demand comes into play: fewer large donors.
“Most of that declining demand is also people who had previously contributed to the support of orchestras,” he says.
But Emory’s Tom Smith says even when big donations do come in, they often come with a catch.
“People aren’t usually going to just give you money and say, ‘Oh, here’s a million dollars and go ahead, use it to pay the salary of your violin players,'” he says. “They’re going to say, ‘I want a building, and I want a building with my name on it.'”
And that has led to the downsizing of orchestras, including Atlanta’s.
Two years ago, the players agreed to salary cuts and the elimination of seven positions.
But cuts come with their own consequences, as the best musicians will leave for spots at bigger orchestras that haven’t had to make the same cuts. So what’s a struggling orchestra to do?
Symphony consultant Darrell Edwards says today’s orchestras may need to diversify their music, opting for more of a mix of popular music and symphony classics.
“The orchestras that are doing well are doing both,” he says. “And it’s not to take away from the importance of orchestras playing the master works, because that’s how they really grow artistically. You’re not going to get better as an orchestra playing pops concerts.”
Which leaves orchestra directors in a tricky spot. Do they play the score from “Star Wars” for the umpteenth time to bring in people, or play something new that might not appeal to a wide audience?
Edwards says it’s a decision many directors may be reluctant to make.