Thursday, October 3, 2013

Fixing Symphony Orchestras

A friend was recently bemoaning the problems with his community's symphony orchestra. It got me thinking about approaching this problem strategically. I quickly put together my thoughts (see below). I think this is a good example of how to:

     1) Structure A Problem
     2) Establish Key Assumptions
     3) Develop Hypotheses
     4) Look for Analogies and Context
     5) Use Storytelling

After all, if you do not structure the analysis properly, you may not get the right answer for the right problem.

Core Assumptions
First, let’s start with a couple of core assumptions:

Core Assumption #1: Performance Art is Not Dead
There are lots of performers out there making tons of money, like the Dave Matthews Band and Circ de Soleil. Brittany Spears just sold out an extended engagement in Las Vegas.  So the problem is not being in the performance industry. Many have found a way to mine it for large profit.

Core Assumption #2: This is Not Just a Problem for a Single Orchestra
Location-based symphony orchestras all over the US are in trouble. The problem is not just what’s happening in in your community. The entire location-based symphony orchestra model (as currently operated) is broken.

So the problem to be solved is this: How do you change the symphony business model so that it can be more like that of successful performance artists?

Key Hypotheses for Orchestras
Now, let’s look at some key hypotheses about the problems with the Symphony business model:

Hypothesis about Performance Symphonies #1: The Target Audience is Small
Symphonic music has a fairly narrow appeal. There’s a reason why most classical music radio stations are heavily subsidized (including tax dollars). There’s not enough demand. “Pops” orchestras who perform with guest artists (outside of classical music) with a wider draw exist because the purer symphonic appeal isn’t large enough. It’s difficult to make a lot of money off your target market if the market is too small.

Hypothesis about Performance Symphonies #2: The Current Performance Approach is Not Very Compelling
The current typical symphony approach only offers the customer two things: music and snob appeal bragging rights (I was there with the elite crowd). The problem with the music is this:
  1. As mentioned earlier, this form of music has a narrow appeal.
  2. Most of the music is old stuff, performed hundreds of times by hundreds of others. There is no compelling reason to be at this particular performance of that music at this particular time.
  3. You can get superior recordings of the same work by better performers to listen to in the comfort of your home for less money. So if you only want to hear the music, you have better alternatives.
  4. Sometimes more obscure works are added to the mix, but usually there is a reason why those works are obscure—they aren’t as good. 
The problem with the snob appeal is that there are superior ways to achieve that snob appeal:
  1. You can go to the traveling Circ de Soleil or Broadway Shows when they come to your town (which have similar bragging rights while offering what many consider a more compelling performance); or
  2. You can travel to the meccas of performance art (Broadway, Carnegie Hall, Las Vegas, etc.) and get double bragging rights for the performance and the trip.
  3.  In today’s social environment (particularly with younger generations) the status bragging rights are moving from consuming high culture to improving social conditions. They get more status capital out of going to Africa to build a school than in being seen plopped in a chair at a symphony (better stories to brag about and seen as less selfish). Getting involved in social causes is taking the place of high performance art as the place to put your efforts to improve your status.

Key Hypotheses for Performance Successes
Now for some hypotheses on why other performance models seem to be working:

Hypothesis About Success Models #1: They provide a reason to be right here, right now.
Some of the most successful touring performing groups that have endured for decades include The Dave Matthews Band, Phish, Ozric Tentacles and The Grateful Dead. They all have one thing in common—they are jam bands. They have a high degree of improvisation in their music. Each performance is unique and different. You never know in advance exactly what you’ll get (even the performers don’t know). This provides a sense of excitement. You never know if this particular performance is going to become the “classic” version of the song that gets talked about for generations.  People follow these bands from location to location for the excitement of hearing the different versions. They need to appear often to make sure they catch the special moments. Each performance has a special reason to be there.

It’s like sports (which is more popular than symphonies). One of the appeals of sports is that each game is different, and you do not know the outcome in advance. Contrast this with symphonies where they practice in order to eliminate the variability and surprise. It becomes a sterile, polished performance which is highly predictable. There is no special reason to be there to witness the surprise, because there isn’t going to be one.

Hypothesis About Success Models #2: They Create Winners and Losers.
Sports would be a lot less popular if they stopped keeping score and did not declare winners. Watching the struggle to win is exciting. Look at TV. The typical variety show format for performing is essentially dead. It has been replaced by contests like American Idol, The Voice and Dancing With the Stars. Performing plus winning is more exciting than just performing. How often do you see a Symphonic Battle of the Bands?

Hypothesis About Success Models #3: They Involve Audience Input.
In today’s social media world, consumers expect to be a part of the process. They want a greater say in what they consume. Successful performers are getting more savvy about this. But even if we strip out all of the technological hoo-ha like twitter, there is the basic idea of taking requests. How many symphonies take requests at a performance? And what would a symphony do if everyone in the audience started singing along with the performers (which is common for other music performances)? Symphonic performances are one of the most passive venues alternatives for their audience. They are expected to just sit there. And that is not good. One of the big appeals at a Springsteen performance was that somewhere in the show he would pick out a beautiful girl from the audience to briefly dance with him on stage. That was a big deal. (I knew a gal who got that honor—she bragged about it decades later—and yes, she was stunningly beautiful). Have you ever seen people rush the stage at a symphony?

Hypothesis About Success Models #4: They Provide a long list of benefits.
As mentioned earlier, symphonies provide only music and status (and perhaps neither one as good as some alternatives). Other performance options provide much more, including:
  1. Hero Worship. The “gods” of our culture are found on celebrity gossip shows and in the magazines next to the supermarket checkout. You go to the performances of these people in order to see your god in the flesh (regardless of how well they perform). The local symphony does not have this godlike status to offer for worship.
  2. The ability to vent and express our emotions. Other alternatives are more open to yelling and screaming and dancing in the aisles.
  3.  A socially acceptable opportunity to overindulge in alcohol (think Jimmy Buffett concerts or a sporting event).
  4. The opportunity to experience something new (be there for the first offering). Symphonies rarely do a lot of brand new compositions.
  5. And then there are the things mentioned earlier, like experiencing winning & losing, being involved in the process, surprise, and so on.
The more benefits you offer, the greater your appeal.

A Story 
I once heard a lecture by a music professor from Berkeley talking about what classical musical performance was like at its peak (like when Mozart was still alive). The professor said the symphonies of that day were like the National Football League (NFL) teams of today. Each major city had one and people rallied around the local symphony team like we do with our NFL team. Each team had its equivalent of the quarterback hero—the composer. The local composer was part of the local symphony team.  The symphonies would travel to each other’s cities to compete against their local symphony. Each symphony team would pull out its latest composition and perform it. The fans would often travel with the symphony teams to see these contests.

And there were strict rules about how a symphony was supposed to be structured (like the rules in football). And the audience was very familiar with these rules. If the new composition did not play by those rules, the crowds would get rowdy and boo at the symphony. (Remember the stories of the great riots caused by Igor Stravinsky when his Rite of Spring broke too many of the rules?) The professor said that Mozart played very well within the rules, while Beethoven went to the very edge of what the rules allowed. He was sort of like the 1930s Green Bay Packers American Football team who looked at the rules and saw nothing which prevented the forward pass (even though no other team at the time was doing it).

So what can we learn from these earlier performances?
a)      They had superior team bonding with the local community.
b)      They had the excitement of winners and losers
c)      They let the crowds get very emotional and expressive at the performance.
d)      They had the hero worship of the local composer (the rock star).
e)      They played mostly brand new material (the excitement of seeing it performed for the first time).
f)       By getting everyone involved in understanding the rules of play in composition, they broadened the appeal of the music.
g)      There was a compelling reason to be right there, right now because you never knew what would happen.
h)      They made the spectacle much more than just the music.

Without getting into a lot of detail, I think symphonies need to do more of what they did hundreds of years ago and more of what successful performance acts of today do. They need to broaden the appeal by making it about a lot more than just the music. They need to get the audience more involved in the performance. They need to create winners & losers, heroes and goats. They need more spontaneity and surprise. They need more new stuff.

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