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I’m Not Just An Employee, I’m A Member

Last month Thomas Cott linked to a piece on Classical Music Magazine’s website by Catherine Arlidge where she suggested symphony musicians be more effectively used to evangelize for their art.

The one part of Arlidge’s piece that really caught my attention was when she mentioned the longevity of with the City of Birmingham (UK) Symphony Orchestra and how six members had been with the ensemble for 40 years and 59% had been with the organization for over 10 years.

It struck me that many of the symphony orchestras in the U.S. could probably claim similar statistics–or at least could until the recent trend of management-musician contract conflict which has degraded the membership of so many ensembles.

Arlidge’s point about the “employee retention” rates of these groups being among the most stable compared to most other industries made the recent slow dissolution seem all the more tragic.

Arlidge mentions the pros and cons of governed and self-governed orchestras and then goes on to suggest:

But could there be a third way, a ‘John Lewis’ vision of our UK orchestras, where players and staff are employed and are members? There may not be profits to share, but there would be a vision to share and a collective sense of ownership. If we could combine the best qualities of both orchestral governance models we could create a structure that serves our art better.

John Lewis, by the way, is a department store/supermarket/services company based in London that became employee owned in 1929.

In the context of the aforementioned conflict, a governance structure where everyone in the organization, both staff and musicians, were seen as equal members, has a great deal of appeal. It has appeared that a fair bit of the acrimony that has arisen in situations like the recent Minnesota Orchestra contract negotiations has seemed to be based on a view of the musicians as being subject to the goodwill of the board and administration rather than partners in the organizational goals.

Everyone having more equal standing with equal responsibility for contributing to the organization’s success may change the dynamic enough to avoid those types of situations as well as help the organization evolve to meet changing audience expectations.

Changing the dynamics wouldn’t be easy or quickly accomplished. There would be a lot of historical and cultural inertia resisting efforts. One issue not mentioned in Arlidge’s article is the role and composition of the governing board.

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has one, in case you were wondering if it is different in the UK. Though given the arts funding model in England, the board-artist relationship is likely much different than in the US.

One of the benefits possessed by the John Lewis Partnership Catherine Arlidge cites is a strong founding constitution which set much of the culture from the outset.

Still, the idea that management was in charge and above all others was not easy to discard. Even as late as 1957, John Lewis’ son, Spedan, whose idea employee ownership was, insisted it was important that management be concentrated in a single pair of hands, even though he hadn’t been the owner in nearly 30 years. (Granted, the company survived and expanded through the Great Depression and World War II.)

I am aware of some theater ensembles that operate in a membership focused manner similar to the one Arlidge proposes, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, comes to mind. It is fairly common for visual artists to form these type of associations. I have a vague recollection of some dance companies, but none immediately come to mind.

I was wondering if there were any orchestras in the U.S. organized in a similar manner that might serve as a good example. I am not as familiar with the range of ensembles.

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They Sacrifice Virgins At The Symphony, Don’t They?

Back in April Seth Godin talked about how most purchases are either to replenish something you have or are familiar with; or it is exploring something new.

If you sell an exploration, your customer is taking a chance. Sometimes magnifying that chance fits the worldview of the purchaser, and sometimes minimizing the risk is precisely what the purchaser is seeking.

This is almost never talked about by marketers, but it’s at the core of the strategy choices that follow.

Most of the time in the arts we talk about the need to minimize the risk of new audiences. We need to make our programming, pricing and other elements in our control more accessible so that people are willing to hire a babysitter and make the drive to our event. We don’t want them going home feeling like it isn’t worth it.

I haven’t really heard a lot of conversation about magnifying the risk. I wouldn’t even have thought in those terms except that Godin links “magnifying” to a TED Talk where JJ Abrams talks about how people felt utterly stupefied trying to figure out what the heck was happening on the show Lost.

That is when I realized—people will accept having their risk magnified when they feel like that risk is shared by others. If no one knows what is happening on Lost, everyone bonds over sharing their theories, etc. People are willing to go in to Haunted Houses and ride roller coasters because everyone will be screaming.

On the other hand, when you perceive you will be participating in an activity with group of people already in the know, you are less willing to accept risk. Arts organizations are familiar with the anxiety people have about not knowing how to dress, when to clap, etc. and frequently move to minimize the perceived risk.

Having friends (or a horde of people on social media) provide assurances that you will enjoy yourself, (including helping you understand the experience), can reduce that risk aversity. Arts orgs don’t have too much direct influence in that sphere other than to really promote what others have said about the experience and provide materials that can assist in understanding it.

Is it possible for an arts group to offer a live experience that magnifies risk? You betcha. The first thing that came to my mind was Sleep No More where attendees wander through a building interacting with actors in an adaptation of MacBeth.

It has been wildly popular, but I think my theory about risk tolerance is apt. When the show first opened, everyone was on a level playing field where no one knew what the heck was going on. As I noted in an earlier post the show has become less enjoyable for new attendees because people in the know have begun to hijack the narrative and intercept experiences. This has started to create a little more wariness among those who consider attending.

All this being said, I think people tend to be more risk averse than they once were. Think about it, could the cult of the Rocky Horror Picture Show started up during the last decade or so?

As a person who has never attended you are faced with going to an event held at midnight in a room full of people in costume who are certainly well versed in rituals and responses of the evening. Attention is drawn to all new attendees who are raucously branded as virgins, some of whom are pulled up to participate in a virgin sacrifice. Given the prospect of all of this being posted on social media, would enough new people have gone to keep it sustained for nearly 40 years?

In that context, attending the symphony for the first time seems like a really comfortable choice. But then again, if a symphony gave the appearance of being as fun as attending Rocky Horror, would you chance being the center of attention for a thousand people for 5 minutes? Does that mean the symphony experience is far too tame for its own good?

I think it would be healthy if everyone started to think about what they could do that would magnify the risk for audiences for audiences that look for those type of experiences. Maybe nothing comes of it for a year or five or so, but I feel like it runs counter to the basic impulse of people in a creative field to be constantly thinking about how they can minimize the risk for audiences.

I am not saying that artists don’t go through this thought process, but managers who deal with financial reports all day may be most apt to fall into the rut of minimization thinking. Maybe thinking in the other direction would be better for their mental health. Maybe what you need to do can’t be done where you are working now and a side collaboration with others is the answer.

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Oh, Our Orchestra Set Us Up On A Blind Date

I am still working on developing my Talking to Strangers idea. Unexpectedly, the biggest hurdle right now is finding a mechanism that is easy to attach and detach from theater seats (but stays put) that has an unobtrusive profile so people can move past in the row. I think I am getting close to a solution. Those of you who said you had question ideas for me, you know who you are! Send them in!.

On a related note, you may have heard that there was a production of Once in Toronto that was far more ambitious than I am when it comes to bringing people together. Back in June, they held what they termed the world’s biggest blind date. They ended up having 5000 people apply to be one of 1200 singles who would be paired up at a performance.

Arts events are often touted as being a good date night, but the folks in Toronto weren’t gonna wait for someone to get asked out.

Part of the application process was filling out a questionnaire that enabled a computer program to match you with someone else in the audience. When you arrived, you got the name of your blind date and a corresponding ticket. Intermission was extended 10 minutes to allow people to become better acquainted.

This type of thing is a fun idea even if you have to do it on a smaller scale. Even if people don’t end up falling in love, (or if the goal of your program wasn’t focused on love), those who meet might become good friends and continue to attend events together.

I have to confess, my initial thought was that this was an attempt to draw a younger audience. If you watch the video associated with the article, you will see that participants ranged across many demographics, including age.

Holding such an event allows you to partner with area restaurants and other businesses. Even if, for whatever reason, you can’t work directly with specific restaurants, just being able to say that the uncharacteristically large number of people who filled their tables on an off-night was due to your program, emphasizes your value in the community. (Actually, they will love you more if you alert them in advance to the possibility of a large crowd on an off night.)

Romance, or the possibility of it, lends itself well to a wide variety of partnerships with local businesses.

I think Toronto was smart to hold their event in June. Being so far from the Christmas holidays and Valentine’s Day keeps the stakes low and allows participants to be relatively carefree about the romantic possibilities. If there isn’t even a platonic affinity between two people, it isn’t such a big deal.

So you may want to carefully consider if a blind date program at Fiddler on the Roof might be WAY too much pressure.

It occurs to me that someone hosting this would want to hold it at an event with anticipated low attendance. Not that you would necessarily want to this program to prop up an unpopular show, but if you are going to be matching people up you will want to set tickets at a uniform price. You don’t want the headache of trying to match up people with common interests who also both happened to buy $80 seats.

Since you will have to block off a section of your seating, you don’t want demand to end up being so high that you ultimately regret the fact you could have sold that block of 100 seats for $20 more each. But you also don’t want to set the price so high that people feel like they should be enjoying the interactions with their blind date a lot more than they are.

This said, if you turned it into an annual event held in conjunction with a show of respectable quality, the reputation for having a fun vibe can almost carry the event by itself while potentially seeding better attendance at other events.

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Work-Life Balance Trap

I frequently use the term “work-life” balance when discussing the expectations people working in the arts have, especially potential executive directors.

Recently though, I saw one of Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings about a book that questions the assumptions we have about the features of a work-life balance.

Popova writes that in his book The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship, “English poet and philosopher David Whyte aptly calls “work/life balance” a “phrase that often becomes a lash with which we punish ourselves”…

She quotes Whyte:

These are the three marriages, of Work, Self and Other.


We can call these three separate commitments marriages because at their core they are usually lifelong commitments and … they involve vows made either consciously or unconsciously… To neglect any one of the three marriages is to impoverish them all, because they are not actually separate commitments but different expressions of the way each individual belongs to the world.


We should stop thinking in terms of work-life balance. Work-life balance is a concept that has us simply lashing ourselves on the back and working too hard in each of the three commitments. In the ensuing exhaustion we ultimately give up on one or more of them to gain an easier life.

She later offers a corroborating quote from author, Courtney Martin,

There’s never been more pressure to kind of parcel yourself… It’s never been more asked of us to show up as only slices of ourselves in different places. Even just to feel like you’re showing up as your whole self in different settings is a pretty rebellious act.

This summarizes not only the societal pressures one feels in face to face interactions, but those in the social media sphere. Who you are is no longer comprised by your identity among co-workers, family and friends but also the identity created, voluntarily or involuntarily, among people we have never personally encountered.

There was one section from Whyte’s book that Popova quotes that seemed to describe the status of every arts professional out there:

Good work like a good marriage needs a dedication to something larger than our own detailed, everyday needs; good work asks for promises to something intuited or imagined that is larger than our present understanding of it. We may not have an arranged ceremony at the altar to ritualize our dedication to work, but many of us can remember a specific moment when we realized we were made for a certain work, a certain career or a certain future: a moment when we held our hand in a fist and made unspoken vows to what we had just glimpsed.

For most arts people, that passage I emphasized falls just short of being a self-evident truth. For us there is no unspoken vow. At some point in our lives, we have all recited aloud some version of “…and that’s when I knew…” Heck, even the introverts have probably told their version of the story a half dozen times.

While Whyte’s book is written for all audiences in general, my perception is that creatives have a relationship with their work that motivates them in an entirely different way from most people. The manifestation and definition of success can be far more internalized and intangible than that of a people who works in law, government, finance.

When you think about it, it is fairly clear how easy it is to become enslaved by the ideal vision of a work-life balance. It may be worse for creative people who live their lives enslaved to an idea already.

As a result, the depth of the conflict they feel while trying to achieve a work-life balance may not been fully comprehended by those around them. (i.e. How could it be, you are doing what you love? Why do you do this, you don’t make money from it?)

Since there is limited room in Popova’s column, it is difficult to know what Whyte’s solution is, if there is one. The exact steps are probably specific to each person. At the very least, one should be mindful of Whyte’s thoughts about it appearing easy to discard one aspect of your life, but ultimately being destructive to one’s self.

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