The nonprofit classical music industry has been riddled with financial strife in recent years, with major symphony orchestras enduring labor strikes, mounting deficits, and for some, ending operations. In an industry that has taken a largely classical approach to its strategic planning—functioning on the premise that the production and presentation of classical music is highly predictable with little room for change or innovation—those orchestras that are surviving, and even more so, those that are thriving, appear to be shifting into a visionary mode.
So what makes the orchestral marketplace predictable? First, the production of symphonic music is highly systematic. Utilizing roughly the same structures for nearly a century, symphony orchestras create their product (orchestral performances) by hiring unionized musicians via collective bargaining agreements, employing management personnel to facilitate the execution of rehearsals and performances, and programming repertoire a season (fall through spring) at a time, usually several calendar years in advance. Moreover, the funding for orchestral organizations is obtained through largely repetitive, known mechanisms: ticket buyers, individual donations, corporate support, grants, and public (governmental) funding. Perhaps most importantly, the product itself is inherently limited by the corporate structure that surrounds it. As a 501(c)(3) organization, orchestral organizations exist, by law, to advance their missions—the promulgation of orchestral music. While the nuances of that mission can, do, and should change over time, the product at the core of the organization is constant…whatever the market demands.
Therein lies the rub. As costs have increased over the last several decades, demand has not kept pace. While that particular analysis is a subject unto itself, how symphony orchestras have responded to that reality illustrates well why strategic planning itself requires strategy. As Reeves et al write, “Sometimes, not only does a company have the power to shape the future, but it’s possible to know that future and to predict that path to realizing it.” Those orchestras leading the field today are the ones that have embraced the malleability of the field, recognizing that the survival of this industry that by other measures is in decline, requires actively shaping its future—so that it has one.
The embrace of online technologies is one example of those orchestras that have molded an environmental factor to its advantage as part of a visionary plan for the future. From free live streaming webcasts—such as those launched by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra—to mobile apps to engage in orchestral experiences from buying tickets to listening to concert excerpts—like that of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra—select orchestras have marshaled resources and executed plans to cater to classical music consumers desires beyond that of the physical concert hall.
In a particularly bold instance of long-term, nearly radical, planning, the musicians of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra voted on Friday to decertify its labor union, fundamentally altering their bargaining position and drastically reimagining the orchestra’s future.
While only two small examples, the actions of these and several other major symphony orchestras reflect a significant shift in strategy, bearing out the argument that for companies in decline, the environment indeed “becomes mores malleable again, generating opportunities for disruption and rejuvenation” (Reeves, 9).