I’d like to direct your attention toward two upcoming and worthwhile projects concerning the American symphony orchestra. Both promise to explore the various challenges and opportunities facing orchestras today, and I’m optimistic that they will generate some new conversations and ideas that are worth spreading.

This season, the San Francisco Symphony is celebrating its centenary by presenting the country’s seven largest symphony orchestras (Boston, LA, Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland, Chicago, and SFS itself). To accompany these visits, they’re also hosting the American Orchestra Forum, a year-long conversation addressing the promises and perils of the modern symphony orchestra. According to the SFS

Brings together voices from diverse cultural perspectives and the general public to explore the twenty-first century American orchestra. Topics to be considered include how orchestras connect with their communities; how orchestras balance creativity and innovation with artistic traditions and practices; and what orchestras can learn about changing audience patterns and engagement strategies from looking outside their own industry.

The project includes both live and virtual discussions, and includes regular blogs, podcasts, and public events featuring lots of interesting viewpoints. If you’re in San Francisco this coming March or May, I highly suggest checking out one of the public discussions; if not, then head on over to their site and get involved today!

The San Francisco Symphony’s visit to Ann Arbor next month coincides with yet another orchestra-related extravaganza: American Orchestras Summit II: A “Maverick” Collaboration: Listening, Learning, and Making Great Music. Building on a series of conversations held in January 2010 and organized by friend/adviser/orchestra junky Mark Clague, the summit will include a series of keynotes and panel discussions to accompany the SFS’s American Mavericks residency, presented by the University Musical Society.  Check out the impressive list of confirmed speakers, and consider attending the concerts and symposia this coming March 21-23, 2012.

I’m eager to follow these conversations and see what comes from them. Here’s hoping for some new partnerships that will bring the field together and move it toward a healthy–and sustainable–future!

A new post regarding adaptive innovation in the performing arts has been released over at ArtsFwd, EmcArts’ online think tank.  In it, I try to synthesize some of the oft-mentioned challenges facing orchestras today. But instead of dwelling on the current crisis (is it a crisis? read on to find out…), we present some important organizational lessons gleaned from recent success stories.


Anyone who follows the ebbs and flows of the performing arts knows that many organizations have struggled to survive, let alone thrive, given the current economic environment.  The challenges facing symphony orchestras are particularly acute, due to the significant costs associated with a large resident ensemble of skilled musicians and the staff needed to fund, produce, and present concerts.  Nearly all of the major music critics and bloggers (here, here, here, and here)have opined whether the current state of affairs constitutes a crisis, and if so, what possible alternatives might exist. Is inadequate funding and limited public support to blame, or corporate greed and mismanagement?  Has the conservative and intransigent stance of musicians landed orchestras in hot water, or are these institutions “built to fail,” encumbered by an organizational structure that begs for drastic alterations?  The breadth of these questions reflects the field’s divergent perspectives, but they don’t offer an explicit solution to the core challenges facing orchestras today. Instead, we must identify the routines and assumptions motivating these challenges, and heed some notable success stories that question the status quo.

One of the most visible developments indicating “crisis” is the recent string of bankruptcies and musician strikes. Since 2009, no fewer than six orchestras have filed for bankruptcy, and several others have experienced lengthy labor disputes or work stoppages. To summarize: the Honolulu Symphony filed for bankruptcy in 2009, forcing the organization to liquidate all of its assets due to mounting debts and limited local support.  The orchestras of New Mexico and Syracuse followed suit in 2011, while the Detroit Symphony Orchestra survived a 26-week strike that concluded with a more than 30% pay cut for musicians and potentially irreparable damage done to musician-management relations.The Louisville Orchestra filed for bankruptcy in December 2010, and recently issued an open call for auditionsafter failing to come to an agreement with its regular union musicians. In Philadelphia, the orchestra is in the midst of using bankruptcy to erase structural debt and renegotiate disadvantageous contracts with various vendors and partners, including Peter Nero’s Philly Pops and the musicians’ pension fund.  And, earlier this fall, two-thirds of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra’s board resigned following stalled negotiations with musicians, leading to a series of finger-pointing articles that captured the attention—and the ire—of musicians and patrons while foreshadowing talk of a “new business model.”

I have argued elsewhere that bankruptcy might be interpreted as a form of “innovation through annihilation,” but the quick succession of these events suggests a boiling point has been reached, exacting concern from even the most seasoned orchestra executives. Despite the tremendous artistic achievements attained by today’s orchestras, little doubt remains that they are in the throes of a longstanding organizational crisis that demands adaptive solutions…

[Go here to read the rest of the post and tell us what you think!]


Happy New Year, everyone!

I’ll be posting something from my final blog for EmcArts in the near future, but first i wanted to plug the upcoming Arts Enterprise Summit, which will be held from March 23-25, 2012 and is titled “The Creative Economy and You.” Like each of the previous AE Summits, the event explores the challenges and opportunities surrounding the intersection between the arts and business, and is being produced by a gangbusters group of students from Claremont Graduate University, host of this year’s conference. Keynote speakers include Craig Watson (Director, California Arts Council) and David Malmuth (Co-Founder, I.D.E.A. Partners).

You can register online here, and if you sign-up in the next ten days you’ll get a discount. Check out the Summit website or facebook page for information regarding the schedule, program, and other details. Hope to see you there!

To bring us into the holiday season, here’s a recent book review that was published on the ArtsFwd blog over at EmcArts. Titled “The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovation,” the book gives a nice blow-by-blow account of some of the world’s most innovative leaders and companies, extracting insights that apply to all kinds of organizations, including those in the arts. Enjoy!


The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovation. By Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen.  Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2011. 296 pp.

Steve Jobs untimely death has reinvigorated a decade-old ad campaign featuring the Apple CEO’s voice. The ad’s tagline, “Think Different,” succinctly reflects what Jobs (and Apple) are all about, and its continued popularity reflects the mainstreaming of creativity and innovation in our society.

These skills or traits are now expected from all kinds of organizations, and a recent poll of corporate executives suggests that creativity and innovation will be among the most important leadership competencies for the future. The implications of these findings are particularly acute in the arts, where “creativity” and “innovation” have become so commonplace that they have lost their meaning.  Yet while some folks assume arts organizations are inherently innovative, the recent struggles faced by many performance ensembles and dance companies suggest otherwise. What does innovation look like in the arts, and how can we think differently in trying times such as these?

In their recent book, The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovation, Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton Christensen attempt to demystify innovation by helping readers understand where disruptive business models come from. Each of the authors comes from a major business school (Dyer from BYU, Gregersen from INSEAD-Paris, and Christensen from Harvard), and collectively they bring together real-world observations and research findings to expose the nuts and bolts behind the world’s most innovative CEOs and organizations. The book takes the form of an integrated case study, drawing upon nearly a decades-worth of interviews with leaders from some of the world’s most successful companies (including eBay, Amazon, Virgin, IDEO, and of course Apple) to describe how innovation works. It also serves as an invaluable guide for managers interested in cultivating innovative practices within their organizations.

[Read the rest of this review here]

Next up in our installment of ArtsFwd posts (brought to you by EmcArts) is an interview with the fabulously interesting Margo Drako (musician, entrepreneur, and COO at Instant Encore). Margo is one of those rare leaders who is using technology to really transform the performing arts. We talked about everything from her experience as a tech entrepreneur to her suggestions regarding how arts organizations can utilize technology to better engage audiences. Enjoy, and thanks Margo!

Audiences and Technology Series: An Interview with Margo Drakos, Co-Founder of Instant Encore

For the twenty-first century artist, technology represents more than just an innovative tool; it redefines the possibilities of what artists can do and how they connect with audiences.

Perhaps more than anyone else, Margo Drakos recognizes the transformative powers of technology in the performing arts. Margo is a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, former assistant principal cellist of the Pittsburgh Symphony, and co-founder and chief operating officer of Instant Encore, a technology-based company that provides artists and arts organizations the tools they need to succeed in a digital world.

I recently interviewed Margo and asked her about how technology is transforming the way we experience and think about art, both from an artist’s and audience’s perspective. Her experiences and insights are valuable for arts professionals of all kind; I hope you’ll find the conversation as stimulating as I did!

Michael Mauskapf: Tell me a little bit about your background, and how you ended up at Instant Encore.

Margo Drakos: I went to a music conservatory at 15, and was fortunate to graduate from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. I got my first job when I was 21, when I became principal cello of the Oregon Symphony, and then three months later I was hired to be assistant principal with the Pittsburgh Symphony.
When I was there, I found that it was the most unhappy I had been. As a student, I felt as though I lived in a utopian bubble, then I found the reality of the workplace for an orchestral cellist was not all I had hoped it would be. So I left Pittsburgh and joined the American String Quartet, taking on residencies at the Manhattan School of Music and in Aspen. It was wonderful, but I became frustrated by the obvious disconnect between performer and audience, and the relevance of this work to our broader society.

So I went back to school for fun, studying International Affairs at Columbia. While there, I thought a lot about what it meant to be a steward of the past, and to reflect on what it meant to be an innovative performer. Around that time, I had the good fortune of meeting Bill Stensrud, who provided the financial backing for Instant Encore, along with some wonderful young engineers, and we started to explore how one might create a powerful platform that would enable fans to be connected to the artists and organizations that they love—anywhere, anytime. I decided to leave my performance position, and that’s how Instant Encore got started. I didn’t have any ‘grand plan’ at the time, but it turned out to be the right decision.

[read the rest of the interview here]

The fine folks over at EmcArts have recently launched a new project called ArtsFwd, which explores innovation (defined broadly) across the arts. I was invited to be a guest blogger, and will have several posts coming out in the next few months regarding innovative leadership, innovation and technology, and a host of other topics. Every week or so i’ll post a link here so that interested readers can stay apprised of what’s happening over at ArtsFwd. Please also check out the work of Eleanor Whitney, Karina Mangu-Ward, and any other folks contributing to the conversation over there. They (and you) have interesting and important things to say!

Here’s part of my post on shared leadership models in the arts; head over here to read the rest!:


Both in the arts and elsewhere, “leadership” sits atop a growing pile of buzzwords aimed at capturing the essence of what makes a successful organization, well, successful. But what makes for a great leader?

As a PhD candidate interested in this topic, I reached out to Scott DeRue, a professor at the University of Michigan and one of today’s leading experts on leadership. According to DeRue, CEOs and executive directors do not have to be authoritarians to ensure success. He instead argues that leadership can be considered “a series of acts that are distributed throughout a group or organization,” serving to coordinate individual goals and tackle the diverse challenges facing all complex institutions.

Recent research suggests that adaptive leaders, not heroic ones, are the most prosperous. One of the most powerful forms of adaptive leadership involves sharing executive responsibility with other employees and stakeholders (think, for instance, of a basketball team). Such distributive techniques should resonate especially well in the arts, where overlapping artistic and administrative structures can inhibit effective leadership. Navigating these different structures and leveraging internal dissension to enact change takes an incredible amount of trust and hard work, but the potential payoff is well worth it…

[keep reading here]

Note: We’re back from a brief hiatus, and have a few exciting things coming down the pipeline, including our co-founder’s secondment to work on a new project sponsored by EmcArts addressing organizational innovation in the arts. The present report is authored by our fabulous summer intern, Michael Ceurvorst, and reflects a brief view of his work with us. Thanks, Michael!


In order to help arts organizations like yours, we set out this summer to learn about arts management consultants. Whether or not you are in the market for one, we want to share with you a few key points to consider when you are looking to a hire a consultant to help you with your arts organization.

The Method: We selected 41 firms working in the United States and profiled their general characteristics and specific service offerings. We grouped firms in various ways (for example, by target client) so we could get a sense of who was offering what, and to what extent.

The Results: Our survey suggests that most firms in this field are small (1-3 employees), have balanced service offerings, and employ consultants with some background in arts management, frequently with a master’s degree of some kind. Here are some things to keep in mind as you consider hiring outside assistance:

1. Most firms advertise a short term tactical focus over research and evaluation services

The majority of the firms we researched primarily offer strategy and implementation services, placing less emphasis on research. Nearly 75% of an average firm’s advertised offerings fall under the areas of capacity-building, marketing, or development.  Only 20% of the typical firm’s offerings could be characterized as research and evaluation, and that number is even smaller for firms that specialize in the performing arts.

If you are an arts organization hiring a consultant to help tackle urgent challenges, then you will be faced with many choices. If you are looking for more in-depth research and evaluation services, you may have to dig deeper to find the right fit.

2. Are you looking for development services for your musical organization? 

Music-oriented firms offer a smaller selection of strategic development services than do other types of firms.This is a little surprising, given that many music organizations have to raise significant funds–often more than 50% of their annual budget–to cover expenses. Perhaps not surprisingly, we found more instances of music organizations hiring dedicated fundraising firms than arts-specific consultants. As you start to plan your fundraising strategy, consider what your  goal is and who is best positioned to help you achieve it.

3. Still looking? For each firm you see, another 10 are out of sight.

You’ll have no trouble finding an arts management consultant in an internet search. In fact, as this field is characterized by many small firms, you may be overwhelmed with options.However, only 25% of firms maintain an active social networking presence or blog.Four consultants in our sample do not even maintain a professional website. If you’re scanning the Internet for options, you may want to supplement your search by checking professional association listings, and you may need to dig deeper than professional websites to ensure the right fit. And don’t forget to ask your peer organizations who they would recommend.

4. Final thoughts as you search for the right consultant

As you know, identifying and reaching your audience is one of the most challenging things you do every day. Finding the right consultant can be just as challenging, and just as important. When you start to search for outside help, be certain about the needs of your organization and the potential value offered by an outside expert. If consultants wish to provide innovative but sustainable solutions, they must ground and substantiate their recommendations in research.

So, based on your experiences, what do you think consultants could do better in order to meet the needs of your arts organizations?

Michael Ceurvorst is an emerging composer whose mission is to help build community around live arts. He is currently pursuing a master of music composition at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He finds balance and synergy between localized work as a composer and organizer on the one hand, and engaging questions about policy and management strategies on the other. This past summer, as an intern with Symphony Bros, he designed and executed research projects to support internal business strategy.

Most of the people who read this blog know about the prolonged challenges that the Detroit Symphony Orchestra has faced over the past few years, culminating in a nine-month labor strike that received a lot of press and reflected unprecedented animosity between musicians and management. Perhaps more importantly, the strike—and the contract negotiations undergirding it—represent a broader tension concerning the value of traditional orchestral concerts in downtown Detroit. Although we’ve remained mum up until this point, we haven’t been hibernating underneath a rock. As former residents of Ann Arbor who are deeply invested in the continued vitality of the orchestra in general, we care about the continued success of the DSO and its musicians.  Now that the orchestra is back performing concerts and the dust has (relatively) settled, we wanted to share a few thoughts on what has turned out to be one of the most acrimonious strikes in recent memory.

I won’t take space here to give a blow-by-blow timeline of the strike and its resolution (local music critic Mark Stryker did a fine job of that for the Detroit Free Press), but suffice it to say that things got ugly and stayed ugly for a very long time. To summarize, the disagreement stemmed not only from musician wage concessions but also the inclusion of community engagement activities as a contracted responsibility. Musicians saw this is an attempt by management to overreach its artistic role and redefine the role of the orchestral musician in general, while management insisted it was simply trying to put the orchestra on firm footing for a sustainable future. Although the orchestra’s musicians continued to perform as a separate entity throughout the strike, the DSO’s regular subscription concerts in Orchestra Hall were uniformly canceled, as musicians and management did their best to dismantle the credibility of the other side. Claims of ineptitude quickly entered the mainstream press, and some board members began to waver in their support of the orchestra’s direction.  Senior management stayed out of the fray for the most part, but with the recent announcement of executive director Anne Parsons’ new contract extension, tension within the DSO is still very much alive. The concertmaster and a handful other musicians have left Detroit for other opportunities, and the future of the orchestra remains uncertain.

So why did this happen, and what can we learn from it?  Can all of this really be explained by broader economic circumstances or, as the musicians claim, gross mismanagement on the part of the administration?  Could the complex and sometimes paradoxical world of orchestra labor relations be to blame, or was the strike just a symptom of a larger problem concerning the DSO’s relationship with its potential audience?

Besides a handful of vocal supporters from the city’s wealthiest suburbs, much of Detroit remained relatively unaffected when the DSO stopped presenting concerts.  Despite all of the noise created by the strike, people in Detroit were concerned with other issues that they felt had a greater impact on their daily lives.  Every orchestra would like to say that it’s an irreplaceable cultural asset to their city, but what if its concerts only reach 5%or lessof the community’s populace?  How can the DSO and other orchestras move forward, both artistically and organizationally, without a broader base of support?

In order to begin answering these and other questions, I would invoke some basic “rules of the road” that can help organizations move forward in a healthy, sustainable way:

1)    Decide who you want to serve and seek to understand their needs

2)    Cultivate a continuous, open and honest conversation with your audience

3)    Dislodge arbitrary industry standards and define your organization’s success—and its relevance—in consultation with the community you wish to serve

4)    Form substantive partnerships with other organizations in order to provide top-notch programming despite the economic and cultural realities of a shrinking city with scarce resources (just as Mayor Bing is doing more generally for the city of Detroit)

We understand that these are not easy things to do, but we believe they are imperative for the survival (or revival) of any cultural institution. The principles listed above are predicated on the notion that it is better to have a healthy, happy, and relevant orchestra with a smaller budget than an inflexible and injured orchestra whose large budget comes with the mythical title of a “top ten” ensemble.  In other words, lean and mean is far better than overweight and out of touch. To be clear, we’re not necessarily supporting wholesale pay cuts or a reduced concert season. But before the DSO can really move forward, all of its stakeholders must take a long, hard look—both inward and outward—to take stock of untapped resources and collaborators that might promote positive growth and development in the years to come.

Postscript: Some early indicators suggest that the DSO has begun securing significant community investment in the form of both increased ticket sales and annual giving, while others suggest that a divisive atmosphere continues to breed mistrust between orchestra musicians and management.

Just a quick note to say that we (Andrew and Michael) are here in Nashville for a few days to work on Symphony Bros.-related business. Andrew is normally located out of the music city, but it’s not everyday that we get to work together in person, so there’s reason to celebrate. We spent today updating our business plan, firming up some new partnerships, and talking through the work being done by our fabulous summer intern. And we’re even taking a break to soak up the city’s great bluegrass scene. Here’s to a productive summer, everyone!

Symphony Bros. at work

One of the biggest orchestra-related news items over the past few weeks has been the announcement that the Philadelphia Orchestra is filing for bankruptcy (Chapter 11, to be exact). Given all of the negative finger pointing often associated with these types of proceedings, I wanted to take a quick look at how organizations can use bankruptcy as a legitimate—and positive—means of change.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the Philadelphia Orchestra as much as the next person (full disclosure: I attended concerts at the Kimmel Center on a nearly-weekly basis when I was in college), but it’s not that surprising that the orchestra is struggling, especially when one considers the general state of the industry and the perfect storm that has been circulating over Philadelphia the last few years. In the mid-2000s, the orchestra experienced an unprecedented lacunae in administrative, board, and artistic leadership (i.e. near-simultaneous vacancies for executive director, board chair, and music director). The resulting uncertainty was exacerbated by new venue growing pains and a conservative and at times disinvested listening public (i.e. some concerts last year were reported only 60% sold). The orchestra is now filing for bankruptcy in order to protect itself from mounting costs that will inevitably continue to grow, given current business practices and contract agreements. According to the orchestra’s management, “Our operating funds are rapidly dwindling and will be exhausted by June 2011, [and] while the Orchestra does not have any debt, we are operating at a significant loss with a structural deficit of $14.5 million.”

One could certainly ask why local foundations, donors, or the board itself is not stepping up to bailout the orchestra, but there is a relatively simple explanation: they’ve done it before, and it doesn’t solve the broader issue at hand, which is now too large to ignore. The Pew Charitable Trusts have recently provided the orchestra with emergency funding, but these grants were predicated on an understanding that such “rescue aid” would not become an annual crutch. Bailing out the orchestra is, in essence, prolonging a problem that will require further fixing down the road. I’m sure the orchestra’s administration knows this, and I suspect that their filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy is a clever way to begin the necessary strategic change process (by renegotiating their pension responsibilities, contracts, etc).

Chapter 11 is usually used as a conduit for reorganization (as opposed to Chapter 7, which is essentially a liquidation of assets and erasure of debts), but filing for bankruptcy comes with lots of baggage that will surely impact the Philadelphia Orchestra’s reputation and the health of its brand—something that the ensemble’s musicians are very much aware of and, of course, opposed to. But the whole picture is more complicated than that (isn’t it always?). As the first major orchestra to file bankruptcy in recent history (or maybe ever), Philly is entering uncharted waters. From the musicians’ point of view, the orchestra has plenty of cash to spare, including a $120 million endowment from which to drawn on ($140 million if you include the Academy of Music’s assets, which the orchestra still owns). From management’s perspective, however, dipping into the already-restricted endowment would only postpone an inevitable day of reckoning caused by the continued growth of the “structural deficit” mentioned above.

In other words, their current way of doing business is unsustainable, and in order to right the ship, the board has declared bankruptcy in the hopes that the orchestra can renegotiate its current contracts with musicians and various long-term partners and vendors (the Philadelphia Pops, the Kimmel Center, etc).

Some have said that such “preventative” bankruptcy measures are shortsighted, but I think it’s just the opposite. This isn’t about near-term cash flow problems, it’s about long-term stability. True, musicians will take a severe pay cut that is largely undeserved, and management’s intention to reorganize its current pension agreement will hit musicians even harder, likely leading to a loss of some serious talent. But the goal (arguably) is to put the orchestra as an institution in a better place financially so that it can excel artistically in the near and not-so-near future. Whether the bankruptcy will proceed as planned remains to be seen, but to shrug it off as a self-serving attempt to cheat musicians of what is rightfully theirs is both overly simplistic and needlessly antagonistic.

Will Philadelphia’s decision reverberate across the country? Is it a clever or sneaky way out? Is Philadelphia no longer the city of brother love? Tell us what you think!

NOTE: For a decidedly different take on the subject, check out this article, and for some great source readings see this and this.