The so-called sustainability of popular entertainment

Greg Sandow opened up his recent post, “A challenge for orchestras,” with this    pithy paragraph:

Not so long ago, I happened to have dinner with a businessman — CEO of his not so small company — who’d been asked to join the board of his local orchestra. His take on the orchestra business, speaking as a businessman: All American orchestras seem to do more or less the same thing, and all of them are in trouble. Therefore the business model doesn’t work.

The last couple of statements “All American orchestras seem to do more or less the same thing, and all of them are in trouble. Therefore the business model doesn’t work” got a response from me since my previous post was speaking specifically about those orchestras and large scale arts organizations that are currently in the black.

Rather than rehash in my post (and my comment at Greg’s blog) let’s take a brief look at the popular entertainment industry since it is often the field held up to contrast against the unsustainable arts organizations.

I know I’ve mentioned in several places the NEA data that shows a decline in all ‘benchmark events’ which include the typical arts fare such as Orchestra/Opera/Ballet Concerts and Museum exhibits, but also includes Stadium rock and Sports.

Let’s look at sports since Drew McManus brought up a NYT blog post about the NBA which shows a field, that if we just substituted Orchestras for Basketball teams, for all intents and purposes could be little different.  When more than half (17 of 30) NBA teams lost money during the 2009-2010 season, maybe we should say that all American basketball teams seem to do more or less the same thing, and all of them are in trouble. Therefore the business model doesn’t work, right?  Well we don’t–the recent NBA lockout (one of four it should be emphasized) notwithstanding.

And this recent piece in today’s Wall Street Journal which opened with a section talking about Metallica’s near future touring plans:

Metallica’s longtime manager, Cliff Burnstein, is accelerating the band’s tour plans to avoid getting sucked into Europe’s debt troubles. With the gloom among investors spreading to richer countries such as France, Mr. Burnstein is worried that the euro will tank, making it harder for concert promoters in the 17 countries that use the currency to pay Metallica’s fees.

Some of the rationale:

“Look, I’m not an economist, but I have a degree, so it helps,” Mr. Burnstein said one afternoon, sitting in the back room of his midtown Manhattan office in jeans and a red Economist magazine T-shirt with “Think Responsibly” printed on it. “You have to ask yourself, what’s the best time to be doing what, when and where.”

The global music industry is already dogged by slumping record sales, exorbitant ticket prices and a limping economy. Now financial fears are making even the biggest rock ‘n’ roll rebels play it safe to protect their pocketbooks.

Both of these fit in with NEA data (at least for this country) and all protestations aside about these issues being the result of a declining economy, well–remember that for the NBA lockouts have happened repeatedly.

I think part of the problem is that, well, there’s this sense that for traditional arts organizations, the business model doesn’t work and never has (which is false) and for the popular entertainment industry the business model works except in the face of a recession (or depression).  The latter is certainly true, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t overlapping causes for both sides of the musical/entertainment coin.

Basically for any large organization, whether orchestra or sports team, a recession will adversely affect the those that are less healthy (or less lucky) while the stronger organizations may be able to weather economic decline.  Obviously, some NBA teams are making money, and Metallica is still touring around the world, and some Orchestras/Opera Companies/Ballet companies are operating in the black.

Making a claim otherwise is disingenuous, misleading and does a disservice to all the traditional arts organizations which are actually giving us data on how success can be had by an institution that is often said to be irrelevant, bloated and unsustainable.

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