Can Small-Market American Symphonies Survive? Probably. But There's a Catch.

Whenever we stumble upon a potentially interesting story involving the state of Michigan, we remember the classic journalism adage, "As Michigan Goes, So Goes the Country."

OK, not exactly. The adage is actually, "As California Goes, So Goes the Country." But sometimes it's important to take a closer look at what's going on places like Michigan, because in many ways, Michigan is more reflective of the country than California. (Or to quote Groucho Marx, "Will it play in Peoria?")

Take symphony orchestras, for example. If multi-million-dollar donations are a metric of overall health, one could convincingly argue that the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics of the world are doing just fine. But what about symphony orchestras elsewhere? Like in Michigan?

This interesting piece from Michigan public radio takes a look at some of the challenges facing the state's symphony orchestras. And if Michigan is any kind of barometer for the health of smaller-scale symphonic outfits, it suggests other states are facing similarly alarming issues.

The most obvious problem is that many pockets of the country—particularly the Rust Belt—have yet to fully recover from the Great Recession. Consumer confidence remains stagnant, and many Americans are reluctant to open their wallets. In addition, other entertainment options, including the Internet or television, vie for audience attention.

And while some communities have rebounded economically, the recovery has yet to translate into financial peace of mind for their region's orchestras. Take Grand Rapids, Michigan. Studies suggest that the city ranks third in the U.S. for economic growth, yet to hear those in the field tell it, the general populace fails to recognize that support for its orchestra is an investment. "The greater the investment for these orchestras and for these musicians, the greater the return for the community," notes Bruce Ridge, chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians.

Yet this kind of investment is slightly more complicated than most. For many orchestras, the elephant in the room is labor costs. (In this sense, orchestras are not alone. As we noted here, nonprofit theater groups are struggling to manage performer pay, which represents the biggest drag on the bottom line.)

As of November 3, the Grand Rapids Federation of Musicians was still trying to come to a contract agreement with the Grand Rapids Symphony. Its four-year contract expired at the end of August. The dispute echoed events from 2011, when the Detroit Symphony Orchestra had a six-month strike before musicians agreed to a 23 percent pay cut.

The cost of paying for "professional musicians," coupled with sagging attendance, also doomed the Green Bay Symphony Orchestra, which in 2014, announced that its upcoming season would be its last. Executive Director Dan Linssen's assessment was stark: "The bottom line is the things that are going on in society. There's changes that make going to the symphony just not as a popular as it once was," he said at the time.

Other high-profile labor disputes have wracked symphonies in Atlanta, which reached a deal with musicians in November of 2014 after a two month lock-out; and Minnesota, where Minnesota Orchestra musicians were locked out for 16 months. In Minnesota, the orchestra was able to balance its budget thanks to expense savings and strong fundraising. And Atlanta Symphony musicians received small raises in exchange for paying more for their health insurance.

Other outlets called attention to this systematic problem years ago, noting that symphonies' financial models create a kind of vicious cycle. With attendance and donations down, salaries get cut. Musicians either strike or leave for more lucrative opportunities. And so on.

The missing players in all of this, of course, are the foundations. Some may look at the tumult and say, "We agree, musicians should be paid more." Others, meanwhile, say, "Our musicians may be underpaid, but given the lack of money coming in, a raise would be financially irresponsible." Of course, each city and each orchestra is different. Foundations in Minnesota, for example, stepped in and provided "bridge funds" to help end the lock-out. 

What's the solution? Barring a miraculous turnaround in box office sales and more draconian operational cuts, symphonies are left to turn to that one source of steady income: foundations, many of which may provide funding knowing full well that the long-term financial prognosis is grim.

Will they step up?