We all know things are tough now, but orchestra managers need to lift their sights beyond immediate difficulties. Andrew Stewart got eight of the best to come up with a Top Ten tips for staying buoyant

They may be patchy and overshadowed by existential angst within the Eurozone. But there are signs that the great debate about future economic prospects, inevitably messy and inconclusive, has at last shifted from prophecies of imminent doom into a phase of serious discussion about creative engagement with change and positive ways of addressing society’s structural problems. Britain’s orchestras belong to the great company of national enterprises caught in the turbulence of global and domestic recession, public spending cuts and bad news about bad debts. While pundits can afford to churn out thoughts and assumptions dressed as facts and moral certainties, those charged with running orchestras in the UK are more concerned with tackling the practical challenges and gritty contingencies attached to arts businesses in an age of austerity. Classical Music invited eight senior orchestra managers to look beyond the near horizon’s financial difficulties and offer ideas for future growth and development.

Quality first

Fans of Test Match Special will recognise the old adage ‘form is temporary, class is permanent’. There are times when every orchestra, like every cricketer, has an off day or a principal player lets slip a few stray notes. But the pursuit of excellence really counts when it comes to building secure relations with audiences, business partners, the media and all concerned with the general wellbeing of an orchestra. Anthony Sargent, general director of The Sage Gateshead, notes that tough financial times are no excuse for diluting quality. He points to his venue’s resident orchestra, the Northern Sinfonia, and its determination to deliver consistently high-class performances.

‘In my experience the one catastrophic error that people can and do make when facing short-term financial problems in business is to abandon core principles of quality,’ he says. ‘We may respond to financial pressures by changing our repertoire, exploring different types of concerts or adjusting the levels of artists we engage relative to our budgets and their fees. But the non-negotiable bottom line has to be that the quality of experience that our musicians and their audiences receive must always be at the highest possible level. There will be growth in the UK economy again. The companies in all business areas that stick unflinchingly to their quality targets will still be here when growth returns. Those who have compromised quality for short-term returns will, I suspect, no longer be in business when the turnaround finally comes. Whatever we do, the quality of the audience experience must always remain high.’

The power of positive thinking

We saw and felt what ‘uplift’ could do during the Olympics and Paralympics. The positive mood harmonised with the spirit of this year’s BBC Proms and touched countless others thanks to the Cultural Olympiad’s wide reach. Yes, the big 2012 summer party swallowed public funds in vast quantities, enough to spare planned cuts to the welfare budget for a while longer at least. The lasting Olympic legacy may yet reduce down to the rise of can-do attitudes and a return to fashion of hard graft and positive thinking. If that sounds like lame Pollyannaism, then simply keep an eye open for civic-minded, community focused members of Generation Y, the so-called Millennials, as they accelerate past de-motivated Baby Boomers and serial moaners.

Britten Sinfonia’s chief executive, David Butcher, is clear that orchestras will stand or fall by the clarity of their vision and determination to realise ambitious plans. ‘As orchestral managers, while we must be aware of external issues such as the economic climate that challenge our businesses, it’s essential to have the vision and goals in sharp focus and then plan artistically with unfettered ambition and bravery,’ he comments.

‘In order to make these artistic projects work, we can innovate and adapt to enable them to be realised. It’s very important to be positive, as this energy can be infectious within and outside the organisation in generating support. A recent example for us was forming a professional choir to add scope artistically to the orchestra’s work, launched with a large-scale project with Sir Mark Elder conducting Berlioz’s L’enfance du Christ.’

New models

For John Summers, chief executive of the Hallé, passivity is not an option for arts organisations. He points to his orchestra’s drive to increase earned income, to rebalance its funding model by finding new sponsors and developing fresh fundraising initiatives. ‘That has been a big growth area for us,’ he observes. ‘Success here only comes about if you follow a strategic approach. We’ve been working on [fundraising from] trusts and foundations over a five- to six-year framework and are now starting to see the real benefits. You can’t just press a button [to reset the balance of your economic model].’

The English Concert’s chief executive, Gijs Elsen, stresses the value of developing networks that extend beyond an organisation’s home to reach key overseas territories. Since Harry Bicket arrived in post as artistic director in 2007, the English Concert has reinforced its position in the United States and absorbed lessons from its transatlantic experience. ‘Harry has galvanised the players, staff and board,’ comments Elsen. ‘His profile in America, particularly his activities with the Metropolitan Opera and Chicago Lyric, has helped us to achieve charity status in the US and create a development board in New York. The fundraising model that has been in place with our American board, concerned with building networks of individual patronage, is something we’re aiming to emulate back home in London.

Knowing the market

David Whelton accepts that it is not in every orchestra’s gift to book star conductors and soloists or promote blockbuster festival programmes. The Philharmonia’s managing director is convinced, however, that big ideas and imaginative presentation can boost any band’s box-office returns. ‘We constantly review what we present at the Royal Festival Hall and the way we present it,’ he says. ‘In the white noise of London concert life, we know that people are looking for clearly identified ideas and are attracted to projects with which they can identify, about which they become curious and wish to experience in full.’

Whelton cites public interest in his orchestra’s experience with big festivals such as ‘City of Dreams: Vienna 1900-1935’ and ‘Infernal Dance: Inside the world of Béla Bartók’, the recent success of its Beethoven cycle in Bonn, and advance interest in its multi-part Lutsolawski centenary celebration and forthcoming series, ‘City of Light: Paris 1900-1950’.

‘Artistic ideas remain incredibly important. A really good idea will attract everything you need to bring it to fruition, from financial resources to energy and enthusiasm.’

Product development

Labour economics professor Robert J Flanagan, in his recent study The perilous life of symphony orchestras, stated a truism all too often underplayed or overlooked in discussions of performing arts businesses. ‘Performances (“output”) and the performer (“labour input”) are one and the same,’ he wrote. ‘Indeed, in the performing arts, a performer’s presentation often is the real product – there is no way to separate output (a performance) from labour input.’ It follows that investing in those responsible for creating an orchestra’s product, namely its musicians, should be top priority for managers.

‘The orchestra’s musicians are its principal stakeholders,’ observes David Whelton. ‘My ambition is that whenever the Philharmonia players take to the platform it is with conductors and soloists with whom they want to work and admire, to perform repertoire that they enjoy and find challenging. An orchestra’s heart is its group of players. Our role as managers should be to create the opportunities to allow them to play supremely well.’

Boosting salaries and improving working terms and conditions for the UK’s orchestral workforce will require smart thinking. Above all, it will depend on a grand coalition between orchestra managers, funders, sponsors and benefactors, venue managers, the Musicians’ Union, the ABO and a broad range of other potentially supportive agencies and individuals. ‘Keep talking to everybody and, even more important, keep listening to what they say,’ notes Whelton. ‘And once you’ve had those conversations, don’t be afraid to lead.’

Communication and trust

Recent labour disputes in the United States have revealed deep divisions between orchestra managements and union negotiating committees, leaving locked-out musicians to read about the state of ‘their’ bands in local press reports or the toxic comment trails attached to partially informed blog posts. Anthony Sargent calls on arts managers in the UK and beyond to champion communication and promote trust, no matter how tough the financial circumstances or negotiating terms. The twin conditions, he says, must become part of an organisation’s culture and direct its approach to internal and external relations. ‘Nobody is saying that this is easy,’ he notes, before adding that musicians, staff and audiences should feel valued and confident that their views will be heard and taken seriously by managements and boards.

Capability management

The term alone is enough to stem communication and demolish trust between any organisation’s management and its workforce. Nobody likes to feel that their ability at work is being judged or assessed, especially those with highly developed skills and long experience. Paul Hughes, general manager of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, is adamant that orchestra managers must develop compassionate and fair methods of addressing poor performance and intervening long before an individual player’s problems take on career-threatening proportions.

‘It’s a burning issue across all orchestras, which the removal of the default retirement age has brought to the fore. There’s much misunderstanding about capability management. It’s really about management identifying a problem early, at a stage where you can be useful. The alternative is to ignore it, pretend it’s not that bad and reach the point where nothing can be done. I think we let players down if we don’t help [as soon as possible]. The misconception is that players think capability management is about finding easier ways of getting rid of them; in fact, it’s about keeping them in their jobs.

‘Why would we want to go through the whole rigmarole of trying to get another player – the auditions, the trials, the panel meetings, the loss of their experience and good will? If I wait ten years before telling someone there’s a really big problem with their playing, they’re going to ask why the hell I didn’t tell them that ten years ago. We have to find ways of doing this better and being able to talk about it, starting with the informal, first-steps approach to addressing a playing issue. This involves a massive amount of trust from the players. If somebody lets management know that they have a problem, they must be sure that it will be dealt with sensitively, positively and with their best interests in mind.’

Building an audience Part I

For all the time, energy and money devoted to attracting young audiences, especially in the 20-30 age range, orchestras could at times be forgiven for questioning whether the collective effort is working. Sinfonia Cymru’s approach to youth, like the youthful band itself, feels like a breath of fresh air. The chamber orchestra’s general manager, Sophie Lewis, suggests that strategic investment in young people amounts to shrewd business practice.

‘I don’t mean education projects or two-for-one ticket deals,’ she explains. ‘I mean investing in listening to what young audiences want, in terms of how they’re going to access their classical music, when and for how long they want to access it and what they expect from an orchestra like Sinfonia Cymru. We’re creating a hub of young entrepreneurs in Cardiff, people who love their technology and their classical music. Some are our musicians, some our graduate staff and some are local people who have volunteered to join a small curating group.

‘Notwithstanding the matters of governance and accounting that I will continue to oversee, we’ve given them responsibility to help drive our marketing, influence our repertoire and determine answers to the how, when and what questions above. We’ve also charged them with writing digital and participation strategies for the orchestra. I believe that listening to young people and investing in their ideas will give us a very clear identity in Wales and connect with more young audiences.’

Building an audience Part II

Matthew Swann, chief executive of the City of London Sinfonia, arrived in post last March after nearly three years as associate producer at London’s Roundhouse. He is determined to attract 30-, 40-, 50-somethings to CLS gigs, targeting Radio 4 listeners and creating compelling cultural contexts for the music that his orchestra performs. Swann’s way is set to be tested in practice next April with the orchestra’s Poulenc Project, which will include a French-style ‘Crazy Twenties’ cabaret night at the Village Underground in Shoreditch and a pre-concert debate at Southwark Cathedral between the Reverend Richard Cole and Anne Atkins on the theme of religion and sexuality.

‘When people say “I don’t know anything about the music”, we can reply “You don’t need to – it’s fine,’ comments Swann. ‘Are you interested in Paris in the 1920s? You are, great. Do you listen to Radio 4 on a Saturday morning? You do, well Richard Cole is leading a debate with Anne Atkins, who you’ll know from Thought for Today. At a time when people are flooding to Tate Modern, Donmar Warehouse, the BFI and other venues in droves and rushing to buy Man Booker prize-winning novels, the big challenge for orchestras is to reach out to an audience clearly open and receptive to other art forms.’

Building an audience Part III

John Summers believes that the shift in an orchestra’s marketing effort from traditional print-based to digital media requires sensitive and thoughtful treatment. ‘As a profession we often view things from the wrong end of the telescope,’ he observes. ‘We see audiences, for example, from the perspective of what we need in terms of an income stream rather than positioning ourselves to offer the best access to what we do. Klaus Heymann revolutionised the recording industry by looking at what people wanted to buy, how much they were prepared to pay for it and offering them Naxos. Technology is only a means to an end – what’s important is the mindset that goes with it.’

Summers calls on venue managers to abandon online ticket-booking fees, to cull a small revenue earner that penalises and potentially alienates digital customers. The Hallé wants its online marketing to welcome and assist an audience chiefly comprising digital immigrants, those who have moved from pen and ink to personal computers. ‘The challenge is to persuade digital immigrants of the value of using digital media as communication means. We’ve just appointed a digital manager and much of his work over the next six months will be focused on that challenge. Research shows that the biggest growth in adoption of digital technologies is in my age range, the 50- to 60-year olds who have realised they can make their lives easier. We must invest in long-term online marketing strategies as a priority.’