ISCOM: We are losing orchestras

ISCOM: We are losing orchestras


norman lebrecht

August 20, 2019

The International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians is holding a crisis meeting in Utah.

‘We are losing orchestras,’ says ISCOM chair Meredith Snow, a Los Angeles Philharmonic violist. ‘We’re a little bit like the canary in the coal mine because we’re so dependent on public support and funding that … we lose oxygen first.

‘There’s no symphony orchestra that sells enough tickets to keep themselves afloat. It’s just not how the business model works. You have to have private funding and people who donate to keep the doors open … and those people are harder to find.

‘You look at most orchestras, we’re very white. Our donors are white and our patrons are white, and that does not reflect the society that we live in,” Snow said. “We need to be looking at inclusion and diversity, and offering female composers and conductors and people of color and Latinx — all of those things are relevant to how we maintain ourselves. We’re definitely behind the eight ball.’

Read on here.

UPDATE: Meredith Snow has sent us this clarification:

The 2019 ICSOM conference is not a “crisis meeting.”  Rather, it is our 57th annual conference.  We’ve been holding it every year since 1963, in good times and bad.  While there is always discussion at the conference regarding the challenges facing our orchestras, we firmly reject the notion that there is a “crisis” among ICSOM orchestras; to the contrary, despite a small number of workplace disputes over the past year, the vast majority of ICSOM orchestras are alive, well, and thriving.  

In fact, the majority of ICSOM orchestras who recently bargained successor agreements have settled with progressive, non-concessionary contracts. This includes the Atlanta Symphony, Columbus Symphony, The Florida Orchestra, Grant Park Symphony Orchestra, Hawai’i Symphony, Kansas City Symphony, Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, MET Opera Orchestra, Milwaukee Symphony, Nashville Symphony, New York City Ballet Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Oregon Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, Phoenix Symphony, Rochester Philharmonic, San Francisco Opera Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Utah Symphony, and Virginia Symphony. 

Similarly, the quote “we are losing orchestras” was taken entirely out of context.  In the interview with Deseret News, that statement was made in the course of discussing economic crises in 2003 and 2008, in which some orchestras indeed faced difficulties.  That is simply no longer the case. 

Orchestras, like other arts organizations, will always require the support of patrons. But the arts in America are an economic engine:  according to Americans for the Arts, the nonprofit arts and culture industries generated $166.3 billion in total economic activity and supported 4.6 million jobs in 2015.  Creative solutions to the economic challenges that face orchestras are evident in the hundreds of cities across America that support orchestras of every budget size.  ICSOM sees a bright future for symphonic music, and for ICSOM orchestras in particular.


  • The View from America says:

    “You look at most orchestras, we’re very white. Our donors are white and our patrons are white, and that does not reflect the society that we live in,” Snow said. “We need to be looking at inclusion and diversity, and offering female composers and conductors and people of color and Latinx — all of those things are relevant to how we maintain ourselves …”

    Yeah, good luck with that.

    • Cubs Fan says:

      I play with a fine orchestra in Arizona that works really hard at reaching out. In a few weeks we have the annual Mexican Independence Day concert with mostly music by Mexican and South American composers. Every year 20 or so of us travel to Mexico and volunteer our services playing in a summer opera festival. The vocal competition held alongside is run by our brilliant Brazilian conductor, Linus Lerner, and brings in students from all over South America and some from the US and Europe. Many of our guest conductors are non-white. And where does all this get us? Does it bring in a huge LatinX audience? Of course not. Does having a woman conductor help? No. Women composers? No. Even playing pops music is starting to wear thin with audiences. People are so attached to their screens for entertainment (movies, TV, video games, porn, websites, etc) that competing with them is becoming impossible. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that orchestras are dying: so are newspapers, magazines, churches, shopping malls, pro baseball….anything that requires an active audience is in trouble. It’s all very sad, and at least there are wildly popular things like the BBC Proms and the Salzburg Festival that reminds us that classical music still matters. And this website.

    • Tyrone says:

      It would be funny to see the viola section twerking.

    • Karl says:

      They’ve tried a bit in Hartford to reach a more diverse audience. In 2012 they had a beatbox soloist named Shodekeh. They played Finnish composer Jan Mikael Vainio’s “Fujiko’s Fairy Tale” for Beatboxer and String Orchestra. I think they increased black audience attendance by 400% or so; I saw about 4 black people in the audience instead of the usual one. And they still have that one black double bass player.

  • NYMike says:

    Not a “crisis meeting” – it’s ICSOM’s ANNUAL meeting. All AFM player conferences hold annual meetings. More clickbait…..

  • SMH says:

    “You look at most orchestras, we’re very white”

    This quote needs more context. Is she counting persons of Asian descent/nationality “white”?

    Perhaps sections of the orchestra with low turnover are still mostly white but take a look at the violin sections of any ICSOM orchestra and I don’t believe you’ll find a majority white persons……

  • Bruce says:

    It almost sounds like they are just waking up to a decades-old problem. Surely that’s not the case — the article is most likely written for the general public who has no idea — but it makes orchestra managements look even more disconnected than they are.

  • jjwp says:

    Mixing apples and oranges (if that isn’t a fruitist comment). There are at least four separate issues here – lack of female players, lack of diverse audiences, lack of donors, aging audiences, etc. No single plan is going to solve these!

    • Robert H Wilkins says:

      Lack of female players????? Most American orchestras have at least half (if not more) female members!!!

    • SMH says:

      Do you genuinely feel that there is a shortage of female players in US professional orchestras? Perhaps in low brass/double bass, but from what I can tell many sections are well represented or majority female.

  • John says:

    It’s encouraging that this is coming from ICSOM. Hopefully it means that musicians will actively support policies around auditions and hiring to further diversity and inclusion, as well as support and participate in educational efforts that will get instruments into the hands of more children from underrepresented groups to fill the pipeline with future talent. If orchestras don’t start looking more like their communities, they won’t have those communities’ support, nor will people from diverse backgrounds see being part of them – as a performer on stage, an audience member, or a donor – as an option.

    • TubaMinimum says:

      There are three things you can do to be more representative quickly in what you put on stage as an American orchestra. You can program more diverse works, you can hire a conductor, you can collaborate with more outside arts groups or guest artists. Those things are a board/Artistic management decision and can be implemented next season.

      The thing that you honestly can not change quickly and without stirring up a bee’s nest is the makeup of your orchestra musicians. Orchestras all draw from a national and international pool of musicians, so just like with an NFL team, the racial makeup of a group in Green Bay, Wisconsin looks a whole lot like a team in Baltimore. Unless you changed your hiring metrics (which honestly might ostracize the national musician unions), your strings and brass section in Los Angeles on stage will look a lot like their counterparts in Indianapolis. I’m not saying this is good or bad, just saying this is the reality.

  • Rudiger says:

    This is ICSOM’s annual conference, not a “crisis meeting”.

  • Caranome says:

    The only way to survive is with gov’t funding, or more likely, big tycoon funding like back in the old days of kings. Classical music started out as the music of the courts and will end up the same way with a little more distribution, say 2% of the population. In the US, you’ve lost 50+ years of classical music appreciation. The days of Lenny Bernstein with the NY Phil. talking seriously about Mahler on prime-time network TV to a hall full of white boys and girls and their parents in their Sunday best are over. Orchestras can do all the grassroots outreach they want, but they are not going to replenish the dying core audience since: 1) they don’t have the resources to make a collective difference, and 2) they can’t overcome the cultural and musical tides against classical music.

    The current mantra that the solution is to make it more relevant through modern music and “diversity and inclusion” are doomed to fail. 99% of modern music is unlistenable; the other 1% is high-brow muzak. The only emotions they evoke to me are irritation, boredom and sometimes even anger. The music establishment is shoving it down our throats saying “this is good for you”, intimidating many casual listeners to pretend they must like it, or else be branded a rube. In private, they are all disgusted. So this is not going to grow the core and devoted audience. It’s hard to think these noises will attract the newer/younger audiences either. They are bused in for “high culture”, and they think “this is high culture? Yeach.” 99% of these modern pieces will be forgotten in 5 years; some shouldn’t survive their debuts.

    As for “diversity and inclusion”, that’s just PC pap. Would more men go to a concert with a new female conductor? Would a woman? Same goes for ethnics. That kind of racialist thinking is just wrong. Music is either good or bad. There is a universal reason why Beethoven will last forever whereas John Adams, Tan Dun et al will not.

    • TubaMinimum says:

      The PC pap is actually very relevant to receiving government funding or even private donations. Even in America where orchestras receive far less public money than Europe, classical music is privileged over other genres in terms of government support and status. Classical institutions don’t really have the luxury of say country music that can say “well the reality is we only appeal to part of the country, and that’s fine, not all art is for everybody” because they could have the state or federal support pulled perhaps justifiably when some taxpayers or legislators say “why are we all being asked to pay for what is enjoyed by the few? And what’s worse, they’ve made no efforts to be inclusive.”

      But bigger than the few dollars that flow to orchestras is the government-sanctioned status that classical music receives. What I mean by that is it is the music form and tradition that schools teach. Now that might seem obvious, and we can argue about the pedagogical merits of that which I think are many, but let’s step back and ask what the goal of teaching music in schools actually is. It is not to churn out large crops of jobless professional orchestra musicians. The education goal is for student enrichment, maybe cognitive development, and hopefully teaching kids to be creative thinkers (which you hope the kids get before the vast majority drop their music lessons after a few years). So if the music form you’re teaching them is deemed by a large part of the tax-paying population to be exclusionary or irrelevant, maybe it’d make sense to teach kids something they are more interested in learning, like guitar over violin. If the goal is cognitive development, maybe improvisation should be emphasized, and maybe it would make sense to re-prioritize the emphasis and teach a distinctively American-born music tradition in something like jazz while classical gets relegated to the smaller elective status.

      I’m not advocating for any of this mind you. But if classical makes no attempt at the PC pap, you really couldn’t blame any taxpayer who starts questioning why it deserves its status or resources.

    • k says:

      You had me until ‘There is a universal reason why Beethoven will last forever whereas John Adams, Tan Dun et al will not.” Much, perhaps not all,of Adams and Tan Dun’s music is accessible and quite enjoyable to listen to. I’m a musician but I’ve heard this from non-musicians.

  • drummerman says:

    Playing music by Latin composers does not necessarily mean that Latinos will buy a ticket. Take it from a guy who has programmed orchestras for a living, including a city with a very large Latino population.

  • Allen says:

    “You have to have private funding and people who donate to keep the doors open … and those people are harder to find.” And you do not find and encourage those types of large donors by trying to appeal more to minorities. I’m sorry to be the voice of dissent. Sure it is nice to try to offer classical music to inner-city schools and to reach out to under-privileged or to minorities, but when you spend too much of your organizations efforts in changing your mission, your appearance, and what you are offering, then that can have the adverse effect of scaring away your best donors. American orchestras have always (even in reports from the 1960s) been afraid of their grey-haired, white, upper-class audiences of dying off. But the reality is that this is exactly their audience which they should be earnestly trying to hold on to instead of appealing to diversity and minorities. Sure, we can all be inclusive, but please think more about who we will need supporting us in the near future. The current strategies of American orchestras are not helping to secure their future at all.

    • Brian Bell says:

      H.T. Parker wrote the following about the aging of audiences over the decades at the Boston Symphony:

      “Newcomers to Symphony concerts say the audiences look middle-aged, lacking the youth on which they must depend in another generation. The wise in the scrutiny of publics say that another must be speedily added to that which now maintains the concerts…”

      He penned his commentary in March 1911, on the occasion of the orchestra’s 30th anniversary.
      In the United States, as in many other countries, the fastest growing age group, with the highest disposable income, and the greatest amount of leisure time is 65 and above.

    • TubaMinimum says:

      Appealing to a more diverse crowd and pouring more of the organization into education, is entirely aimed at the rich white donor crowd. And if you’re an orchestra who can still pull down a big corporate sponsorship, that absolutely has to be there.

      You are begging for the same philanthropy dollars as cancer research, homeless shelters, Big Brothers Big Sisters, you name it. People who give to something like to feel like they are giving to an organization that is doing good. As cynical as it sounds, the more pamphlets of kids learning violin in the inner city, the more likely they are to give to you. They aren’t checking research to see if your program was actually effective in teaching a new generation of diverse classical music fans (also you have to do at least SOME education because it’s where the tax-exempt status comes from.) The industry seems to have collectively decided they can raise more money for their core product by also spending on and tying their brand to education, rather than just trotting out a half-million-dollar concertmaster to say “we need your money.”

    • Paul Hess says:

      You have a point.

  • SOS says:

    Say there are 2000 white patrons at an LA Phil concert. Thats, roughly 20 white patrons per musician. Now, you hire a couple African-American musicians. Do you see roughly 40 African American patrons? No, Never. All of the endless hand wringing, musical outreach in the inner city, and diversity in the orchestra and programming inclusivity does not produce the desired effect in the audience.

    • MWnyc says:

      We’re looking at a relatively short time frame, though. With respect to the LA Phil, I do wonder if the participants in the Sistema-style programs there, as they become adults, are going to attend the Phil (and if any of their families and friends will come along with them). Since those participants are largely nonwhite, they would diversify the audiences at the Phil at least a bit just by themselves.

      And I hope to God that someone at the Phil is, or will be, making a point to track participants as they age out and see what percentage of them continue to participate (as players or listeners) in classical music as adults.

    • NYMike says:

      First of all, hiring a couple of A-A musicians isn’t as easy as it sounds since the rigorous standards of entering a top ICSOM orchestra will disqualify most black musicians (and others as well). It’s a cultural thing – how much classical music can you hear in black and Latino neighborhoods compared to rap, salsa, rock, etc.? If the kids in those neighborhoods don’t study classical music, how can they enter the best music conservatories and become professionals? The same is true of potential audiences.

    • Tom says:

      I’m not sure that ‘the desired effect in the audience’ is the point. It may be more about optics, ticking boxes on foundation grant applications, making friends among decision makers, social responsibility, doing the right thing. Seen that way, programming inclusivity is about ‘giving a voice’, ‘moving the needle’ and so on. (The way programming works it’s once-standard overtures that get pushed to the sidelines, sadly. For the audience’s sake, I’m not sure it’s a good trade-off.)

  • Karl says:

    We just lost our Burlington Chamber Orchestra in Vermont. They were really good too, not some community orchestra.

    • Doug says:

      What, didn’t anyone think to enlist the support of Bernie Sanders? Or was his reply the orchestra wasn’t playing enough “Lenin, Marx and Mao”? Or was it the conspicuous lack of Shostakovich in the repertoire because of his animosity with Great Leader as Teacher Stalin? Or could it be that granola headed affluent virtue signaling whites in Burlington have come to despise their very own cultural heritage out of fear of appearing “racist”? They’d rather stay home glued to FakeBook bemoaning all the “deplorable Nazis” hiding under their beds.

    • Plush says:

      There are way too many orchestras to survive. Herd must be thinned.

      • John Borstlap says:

        It may also simply be that orchestras have too many concerts. In former times, say around 1900, orchestras had much less performances in a season and much more time to rehearse. But the players were underpaid, so with the better organisation as a serious profession, expenses went up, as all the expenses of halls went up, so every corner of the diary had to be filled to make the orchestra ‘more efficient’. Nowadays there are even orchestras who have more office staff than players, because of all the complexities of running the thing. Hence the overcooked schedules and financial instabilities, the star system, etc. etc.

        I foresee the orchestral world will shrink and orchestras becoming smaller, and simpler to run. Maybe there are also benefits to such a situation.

  • Conally says:

    I think that the failing of many institutions of classical music follows our societies (most of the Wests) overall decay in terms of culture, attention-span, spirit and non-materialistic values.

    Most people today, through little fault of their own, are simply incapable of enjoying classical music.

    Along with that, is the rising levels of wealthy inequality that results in less money for mid to low level (prestige wise) classical music organizations.

    The “Classical music Problem”, unfortunately, is a society wide problem.

    I hope some day our way of life changes to value things like community concert goings, art, beauty… in general comes to celebrate and value those things that makes us more than “things receiving biological stimuli”.

    Till then, we’ll just have to keep on squeezing “blood” (money/audiences) from dry rocks through the means of “outreach”, “music education” and trying to make classical music somehow “relevant”.

  • Mark says:

    I don’t see how depending on aging white people to fund your orchestra is a problem when life expectancy and population growth is constantly on the rise. In short, you have more and more white people living longer, many with greater disposable income than was the norm in the past.

    I dunno. If I were running the show, I’d double down on attracting more older white people to my orchestra. After all, there are millions of them who aren’t currently orchestral patrons. The audience may well be predominantly blue-haired, but that doesn’t mean every potential blue hair has been captured.

  • John Borstlap says:

    “Our donors are white and our patrons are white, and that does not reflect the society that we live in”.

    Classical music concerts are not to suppose to reflect the society that we live in, they are there for the people who are interested in classical music, they are public, and open to anybody who can afford a ticket. Classical music is supposed to reflect the best of the human mind and heart, and therefore is not mass entertainment. Classical music is not white, or black, or hispanic, not even Chinese in spite of the many Chinese people playing it and listening to it; it is a ‘thing in itself’, without any reference to minorities or majorities.

    It is incredible that so many people in the profession and around it are keeping-up this misunderstanding, year after year.

    The only effective measure to sustain classical music concerts in the long run, is education, and correct information what the art for is and where it is for.

  • Tromba in F says:

    ICSOM’s definition of a thriving orchestra is one in which the musicians wring every penny they can from a management team that is struggling to keep their organization relevant and solvent. There can be no denying that the market for orchestral classical music is dying everywhere. Perhaps a bit more slowly in some isolated highbrow areas, but suffering mightily overall.

    The reasons are myriad and many have already been discussed. At the risk of sounding like a middle age white male, I would posit that the decline in orchestra attendance and popularity is a reflection of the rapid cultural decay we are experiencing. We are a fast food instant gratification society that mainly settles for the lowest common denominator in the name of convenience or expedience. Pay big bucks for dinner, parking and tickets to hear an orchestra? Hell, people nowadays rarely even purchase a hard copy of a recording if it can be downloaded instead.

    Children are no longer taught classical music in schools and the presence of classical music in our daily media is minimal. How many concerts of standard repertoire are broadcast on tv? How many classical radio stations are in a given marketplace compared to all other genres? Classical music is not widely heard so it is not widely known. The result is that it is not widely valued. Classical music can’t seem to find its way in the daily cacophony of noise, busyness, social media squabbling, and thousands of other groups or products vying for our time and money. It can’t be conveyed in a sound bite or a 15-second tiktok video and people are increasingly reluctant to stop long enough to savor this once-wonderful art form.

    I know a number of people involved in running major American orchestras and I don’t envy their plight one bit. Trying to strike the correct (and sustaining) balance of appealing to a broad spectrum of potential customers without alienating a number of them is nigh unto impossible.

  • Patrick says:

    Youth Orchestras and school orchestras are thriving in our community. Young people are attracted to the experience and are joining in large numbers.

    Yet at the university colleagues talk as if this repertoire is irrelevant in “today’s “ world.


    It sure as hell isn’t classical music’s fault. The preservation of great art is a responsibility of a civilized society. This stuff is bigger than us. It’s not a passing fad and shouldn’t be treated as such. It’s easy to attack institutions, but what do you put in their place?

    • John Borstlap says:

      Indeed. And people who think classical music is ‘no longer relevant for today’s world’, simply have no clue where they are talking about, whether it be ‘today’s world’ or ‘classical music’.

      ‘The relevance of classical music lies in its irrelevance in relation to practical, worldly concerns.’

      ‘Where modernity draws modern man out of his own inner realm, classical music offers a place of inner restoration, anchoring one’s Self and creating a point of orientation and awareness from which the outward, modern world can be seen and dealt with.’

  • Nice Try says:

    Play all the women/latinx/POC music you want, do all the outreach you can get anyone to pay for, “advocate” in your “community”, subsidize all the tickets you want for “young people” who won’t buy them otherwise and don’t want them anyway, play all the crappy new music by Brooklyn lesbians with 1500 word “artist statements”. Or play Wagner, Beethoven, Brahms for subscription holders. Either way it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. It’s all going away. Nobody really cares, and no amount of administrative hand-wringing, earnest essays by Anthea Diarrhea of the mouth Kreston or fancifully conjured concept programs will change that. You’re all just treading water.

  • Max Raimi says:

    When the Chicago Symphony was on strike last spring, we played a number of free concerts under the rubric “From the Heart of the Orchestra” in neighborhoods all over the city. We were delighted to encounter large, diverse, and enthusiastic audiences. My sense is that we accomplished more “outreach” (if I may use the current buzzword) in the seven weeks of our strike than our management has accomplished over several decades, notwithstanding the whole office floor full of well meaning bureaucrats they employ to accomplish this, manning computers at their cubicles.

    The key issue is that the concerts were free. There is nothing wrong with our product; not in the least. Indeed, it is among my core beliefs that anybody with an open heart and an open mind will almost certainly be moved by a great performance of a great piece of classical music. But good luck getting somebody who is struggling financially in the door if ticket prices run in the $50-$200 range.

    Back when Henry Fogel was the CSO President, I once wrote him an email. I pointed out that our extensive and expensive outreach efforts didn’t seem to have any discernible effect on our attendance. I urged him to try an experiment: What if we took all the money we were spending on outreach and invested it into reducing ticket prices, and putting on a few concerts each year costing little or nothing to attend? To be fair, I sent Henry lots of emails; no doubt he wearied of them. He did not deign to reply to this one.

    • Tromba in F says:

      Excellent idea, Max! It is one thing to have an occasional run out concert in a neighborhood. But imagine the potential impact of hosting programs of that ilk in a major hall and inviting those who may otherwise never get to experience a performance in a venue such as that. Follow the performance with a meet-and-greet with the orchestra members and THEN you may be achieving some meaningful outreach. Certainly an established organization with the resources of the CSO could facilitate this. At some point people must connect with the musical experience. A group in which I play routinely sets aside time to interact with audience members either before/after a concert or during intermission. This goes a very long way toward establishing rapport and, subsequently, support for the group.

  • Fridolf says:

    Ms. Snow’s suggestions do not address the underlying challenges facing American orchestras.

    Alas, orchestras are ill-equipped to be vehicles for social justice and focusing on political priorities will only serve to limit orchestra’s relevance. Politics divides; music has the potential to unite. Orchestras only thrive by galvanizing a community of those who, by choice, attend and support concert activities.

    As nonprofit businesses financed by a combination of box office, contributions, and investment income, orchestras would do well to understand the sources of their financing and invest where there is greatest potential return. If you combine orchestra revenue by source rather than type, the picture gets clearer. The majority of ticket revenue comes from people who attend frequently. The overwhelming majority of annual fund donations come from people who attend concerts frequently. And the majority of endowment contributions come from loyal audience members, who attended regularly for years. Adding together ticket sales, individual donations, and endowment appropriations, you see that American orchestras receive over 80% of their operating support from audience members who attend frequently.

    (Government, foundation, and corporate support plays a smaller role and is often restricted to programs that produce no independent revenue, such as education and community engagement.)

    This should be seen as good news, orchestras are healthy when they galvanize a community to support their work. Relevance can be measured by audience engagement patterns (how often do they attend, do they bring friends, do they volunteer, how regularly do they donate). Since attendance and donations are voluntary, the concert experience either drives the business or hurts it.

    For American orchestras to thrive, they must be disciplined in aligning mission and business. They must create art that, in turn, creates loyal, enthusiastic audiences.

  • John Porter says:

    The most important point made is about the business models. If the donors decline, the orchestras will suffer. If the donors decline enough, the orchestras will close. The other point is that art music is less “popular” than ever. You used to hear classical music in advertisements, in the background of movies, at restaurants, etc. Today, it’s mostly urban contemporary. This doesn’t bode well for the earned revenues. The future doesn’t look bright.