The Economics Of The Symphony: Why Do So Many Struggle?
October 2, 2014
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 ticket 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 whoever 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.”
The Atlanta Symphony Lockout Continues, Musicians Picket On Peachtree Street | September 28, 2014 7:35 AM ET by Adam Ragusea
A stingy market, unsupportive politicians — to the musicians on the picket line, these sound like the excuses of a symphony management that just hasn't tried hard enough. Principal flutist Christina Smith is on the union's negotiating committee.
"The musicians refuse to accept the premise that everything has been done to excellently fundraise for this institution," Smith says. "When you look at Atlanta, the size of this city — drive around this city, there is money everywhere."
Smith points out that, despite the deficits, Romanstein has been awarded bonuses by the Woodruff Arts Center. The symphony's parent nonprofit also includes an art museum and a theater company. Smith thinks the Woodruff's real goal is to shrink the Atlanta Symphony from an international powerhouse to a less expensive regional orchestra, like it was before legendary conductor Robert Shaw took over in 1967.
Downsizing could cause musicians to leave for better-paying, more prestigious gigs, as could the lockout itself, says Drew McManus, an orchestra consultant in Chicago.
"Some of the other labor disputes in the country have demonstrated that, yes, musicians can and will leave to get different jobs," McManus says. "And [the orchestras] do have a harder time attracting and maintaining quality musicians of the level they had previously established."
That may explain why the ASO's current conductor, Robert Spano, and its principal guest conductor, Donald Runnicles, wrote a letter urging management not to balance the books on the backs of players. Conductors traditionally stay out of labor fights, but the maestros felt they had to, they write, "speak out lest we fail in our duty to preserve the extraordinary legacy that has passed into our hands."