• Dan Perttu

The Muse in Music - American Orchestras Past, Present, and Future: Perspectives from Jesse Rosen

By, Dan Perttu

Photo by Dan Rest

For this post of the "Muse in Music" blog, I am most happy to be interviewing the President and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, Jesse Rosen. Mr. Rosen has been the President and CEO of the League since 2008 and "has been a leading voice for the League’s more than 2,000 member organizations and individuals, empowering them with knowledge and perspective to navigate a rapidly changing environment" (LAO website). Jesse has been known for leading advocacy for orchestras to engage more deeply with their communities, to address diversity and equity issues both in concert programming and in workplace culture, to use data to inform decision-making, and to enhance their engagement with the work of living composers. In this blog post, Jesse and I talk about his perspectives on American orchestras -- past, present and future. True to the blog's identity, we discuss what is inspiring about what is happening with orchestras today. We also talk about issues pertaining to diversity and equity, new music, audience age, among other engaging topics.

Dan: Thank you for agreeing to talk with me! My blog is about what inspires musicians to do what they do, and it’s a pleasure for me to talk with you about what is inspiring about the current and future state of orchestras in America. So, let’s get started: what is inspiring to you about the future of orchestras?

Jesse: There are many things. The variety, volume, and quality of new compositions nowadays is at an all-time high. I ran the American Composers’ Orchestra for ten years, and when I started there, in the 1980s, there were two camps: the “uptown composers” and the “downtown composers.” You had to declare which side you were on. Since that time, not only has that wall crumbled, the idea that there are only two camps has also dissolved, and we’ve had such an explosion of genres. Part of it is from immigrant composers, from Asia and parts of Europe, as well as our home- grown composers with the influences from various idioms throughout America. Just a great, great wealth and variety of music today. I think that has contributed to the closing of the chasm that separated audiences from the new orchestral concert music. I think that gap is not closed, but it has been closing very significantly, and it’s a great cause for optimism.

In addition, musicians today bring a broad array of interests and skills that are really enriching music making. Some of that has to do with an interest in many different genres, a heightened attention to audience engagement, and creating experiences where there is genuine back-and-forth with the audience. There is a desire to do good with music and to contribute to our society, and also a sense of agency, of taking responsibility for creating your own musical experiences, working with the people you want to work with and creating music you want to play. These have all been features of the generation coming up that really adds to the way we think about and “do” orchestra.

Dan: Thanks for sharing this. This leads nicely into my next question. What about the ways in which orchestras are being managed now as opposed to in the past? Is there anything that is particularly inspiring about the future of orchestras from the perspective of management?

Jesse: I think that the understanding of leadership in orchestras today is increasingly infused with new, very relevant attributes. In recent years, people in leadership roles and organizations are prioritizing their organizational cultures more than in the past, so the quality of experience in the workplace really matters. People are paying attention to that, and it is manifested in many dimensions. It's partly in attention to creating equitable, inclusive, and diverse workplaces, and it's also creating collaborative workplaces in many sectors. We've seen workplace cultures move from the command and control/organizational model to the servant/leadership model, and I think that's been playing out also in orchestras. So, the leader is not necessarily the person who knows more than everybody else and tells everybody what to do, but it's the person who surrounds himself or herself with gifted and talented people and creates the conditions for them to flourish and be part of the strategic and generative work of an organization. When the organization moves forward, it does so with good alignment and collaboration across the organization. Also, in terms of administrative leadership, we are seeing increasingly more women in leadership roles, particularly in our larger budget orchestras, and I think that's been a welcome change. We do have a long way to go in terms of greater representations of other underrepresented groups, but we’ve made progress.

Dan: Besides what you have just outlined, are there other essential trends in orchestras that you have observed over the course of your career?

Jesse: This will be a bit of an oversimplification, but for purposes of answering your question, I would say that orchestras have moved from a more transactional way of doing their work to a more relational one. In the past, orchestras believed their job simply was to produce concerts and sell tickets to the people who wanted to buy them. When we did that work well, we put on really great concerts, people came, and donors made contributions. But, the environment changed. When there were threats to the income streams, changes in audience behavior and preferences, and changes in civic priorities, the transactional model was really not really up to the task. Doing more concerts at higher levels of quality, marketing harder, and fundraising harder were really not adequate to meet the challenges and opportunities in the environment. So, I think in adapting to some of these changes, orchestras become much more focused on the relational aspects of their work by investing a lot more in understanding how audiences are changing in what they're looking for, what they're valuing in the performing arts experience, and what their preferences are. And similarly with donors, donor relationships have become far more nuanced; there is much more give and take. The days in which the donor gave you a gift because you were the orchestra are largely in the past. Donors are interested in impact and results, and they want to be a part of the process. They want a relationship; whether it's donors or audience members, those people desire a relationship. Similarly, internally I think orchestras are focused on the quality of relationships within the organization, as I said earlier. It was said in the old days that the musicians play; the managers manage; and the board governs, but now I think that orchestras have shifted their approaches. In order to be strong and sustainable, internal constituents have to have a healthy, constructive relationships to do the hard work of adapting to the very changed environment. That's how I would characterize, in a very generalized sense, how the orchestra environment has changed over the last 25 years or so.

Dan: Then following on that, what do you see as being the most significant challenges for orchestras in the near future? And are these challenges different from the difficulties that you have observed in the previous 25 years? How might orchestras position themselves to address these challenges?

Jesse: You know, in some ways, there is the continual challenge of how do we support a very expensive proposition. Orchestras cost a lot of money. Sustaining the musician workforce with the wages, benefits, and challenges surrounding pension plans today, as well as the cost of health care is difficult; it costs a lot to keep these things going. The facilities and venues are extremely costly. I think there always is the continuing struggle to identify sufficient resources to keep the organizations going. I think the long-term strategy that's been emerging has been to create more value for more members of the community, partly because it's the right thing to do, and also because it's a way of opening up more sources of support, and more people who care about the organizations are prepared to support it. That's a long-game strategy, and what's always needed is the good short-game strategy, and every year the orchestra must make it work. Every contract cycle they have to figure out how they're going to manage the next three to five years of their costs, and so on the one hand, playing the long game, but being able to navigate the immediate circumstances, is a big challenge. Now, you kind of have to be in both places at the same time.

This circles back to my earlier comments about the internal work of orchestras, dealing with the lives of musicians, staff and everyone associated with the organization. This often occurs in a constrained environment for having adequate resources. You need people to be aligned and to be able to function together successfully.

I also think that issues around equity are very much in the forefront of most orchestra leaders today. Whether it's gender pay equity or creating more inclusive environments for unrepresented peoples, particularly African Americans and Latinos (given where our country’s populations are heading), these are huge challenges for orchestras. Given the relative lack of change over a long period of time, there is a degree of impatience among orchestra stakeholders and a real urgency for creating change.

Dan: This topic actually touches on my fourth question. Since we are now seeing more programming of more music by people other than white males, can you comment on the current state of this issue now from your perspective, where it has been recently, and also what you hope to see for the future?

Jesse: I think we are in a much better place now than in the past, and I think we have a really long way to go. The positive change that I've seen is that orchestras are moving beyond a surface kind of approach to dealing with equity, diversity, and inclusion. Orchestras are moving toward more holistic, organization-wide conversations and strategies, including at the core artistic level. In some ways, I think some of the most promising change is when music directors embrace these ideals and see them as an operative driver, and how they think about their core comes from programming. In the past, these were issues that were relegated to the community engagement department or fellowship program, and so when music directors are saying that these issues matter, and they’re going to address this in their core work of concert programming, the changes on these fronts are much more significant. So I think that's all been a really, really positive change. And having said that, I acknowledge that these changes don’t come easily or quickly, and there are barriers and push-back. So there is a lot of work to do. Overall, though, I'm encouraged by the shift from a rather cosmetic response to a move toward a more holistic and core artistic change.

Dan: How long do you think this shift from a cosmetic response to a more central artistic change has been going on?

Jesse: In the last five years, I've seen this shift to a deeper, more authentic engagement with these ideals of equity, diversity and inclusion.

Dan: And what do you see with respect to the future?

Jesse: It's hard to predict, and it's going to take a while. Doing this requires years of work; a quick turnaround does not happen. However, I do think the prioritization of this work has occurred in a relatively short amount of time, from this being a more of a back-burner item to becoming a front-and-center item for many orchestras.

Dan: I’m now going back to just another one of the other follow-ups from one of the earlier questions. We had talked a little bit about the future of orchestras. As we're talking about shifting demographics, and responses to those shifting demographics, I also think about the issue of audiences aging. People come down on multiple sides on this, because on the one hand, we see aging audiences, but on the other hand, I've heard the argument been made that audiences were old in the 80s, and they were old in the 90s, and they were old in the 2000s. So given these two sides, where do you fall on the issue of aging audiences?

Jesse: The data on this is pretty conclusive. The audience was not always old. It’s a lot older now than it used to be. This was captured first in an NEA Survey of Public Participation in the Arts in 2008 and demonstrated the increase of the audience age for classical music over a 25 year period. The median age went from 42 to 48. I don't think anybody disputes the data, but I think the myths and mythology still prevail that the audience is always old, and if it is mostly about old people we have no problems. And I think there's other data that further dispels that; there's research we commissioned from McKinsey that shows that every successive generation participates in attending orchestra concerts at a lower rate than the generation before it. There’s also data that indicates that, at a time when the largest proportion of our population is going to college, we have fewer college-educated people going to concerts than we ever had before. Having a college education was always the biggest predictor of becoming a symphony subscriber, so you know the data is not very encouraging. Things used to be different, but that’s not that way they are now. In the 1960s, some orchestras’ subscription campaigns might consist of a one-page letter with dates, artists, and repertoire, and they were then sold out on subscription. That was a time when there was a great alignment of the product with what the market wanted. Those days are long gone, and there's no reason to think they're going to come back in the normal course of things. So, the challenge now is that the current core audience subscriber skews older and is more traditional in his/her tastes and buying habits than the coming generations. The question becomes: how do you retain your core audience while investing in the cultivation of a new one, whose behavior is different from the older ones. Orchestras are doing a lot of experimentation, and a lot of innovation is happening in the development of new audiences. The good news is that more people are going to concerts than ever before, and we don't have any issues around people liking the orchestra experience. The music is as strong and healthy as it has ever been. But people's buying patterns are different, so that poses a challenge, but there's nothing existentially wrong with the experience or with the repertoire. The challenge is, how do we develop the loyalty, frequency, and volume that is sufficient to meet our needs.

Dan: So are you saying that people are going but they may not be returning or they may not be subscribing?

Jesse: They're coming, but instead of buying multiple tickets every year they're buying one ticket or two tickets, and they may be coming back year after year, but it is not what it used to be. And there is in fact a shift now. We've turned the corner a couple of years ago where there's more revenue coming in from single ticket sales than from subscriptions.

Dan: So, going back to the initial question about what is maybe inspiring or optimistic about this: orchestras are adapting to this and are trying to find creative solutions to engaging these younger generations. Is that fair to say?

Jesse: Yes, absolutely.

Dan: And do you think that financially speaking, with these adaptations, we are seeing evidence that they are yielding positive results, or is it hard to know?

Jesse: There is a high degree of experimentation taking place in the field. What's hard to tell is what's going to stick. What works in one place may not work someplace else. There is a lot of interest in the membership model, which is being tested in a variety of places. It's a really different way to think about how you achieve loyalty and frequency that's quite different from the subscription model, but is more aligned with how people think about being affiliated with an organization these days. In the membership model, people a flat amount of money and go as often as they want. It’s being experimented with.

Dan: In some senses, linking back to what you said earlier, the membership model is in line with this notion of a relationship, built between the consumer and the orchestra as an organization.

Jesse: Right.

Dan: Well, there’s some potentially exciting experimentation going on. I try to remain optimistic about the future of orchestras, since I love them so dearly, and this shows some promise. Well, thank you for your time! I really appreciate hearing your perspectives on these issues.

Jesse: Thank you so much!


© 2017-20 by Daniel Perttu. 

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