“…but, does that orchestra make any money?” and Life Cycles of Orchestras

One of frequent questions I’m asked when I point out the immense growth of opera companies, orchestras, and classical music ensembles over the past few decades is what their financial model is and whether that translates to making a livable wage or even whether that translates into the organization being sustainable and able to stay out of the red more than the mainstream, incumbent organizations.

Since my narrative, contra the Classical Music Crisis, involves demonstrating the field is simply constantly changing and evolving and redistributing total [performance and contributed] revenue to other newer organizations, I’ve been much more concerned with the trajectory of Classical Music group life-cycles.* The Crisis narrative focuses primarily on the mainstream and incumbent organizations and their health as a litmus test of the health of the field overall. Much of that narrative relies on a relatively static ensemble (and in some cases, a static and hegemonic audience culture) that’s unwilling to change.**

As readers of my blog know, I’ve been collecting data on the number of various music organizations over time, primarily in the US. I’d already been doing this for years with Ethnic Music Ensembles in the US, but after encountering a misleading (and erroneous) table about the existing number of Symphony Orchestras in the US in 1937 in an old book by Grant and Hettinger, I decided it might be useful to actually get some accurate numbers.

Grant and Hettinger, Table I. Number of Symphony Orchestras Existing in 1937 (Period Founded and Size of City)
Grant and Hettinger, Table I. Number of Symphony Orchestras Existing in 1937 (Period Founded and Size of City)

The process of reading older book, articles, newspapers and dissertations in collecting this data has given me the opportunity to read about the formation of some of the earliest Classical Music organizations in the US. One of the things I think we don’t often consider is how many of our biggest and prestigious organizations started off as smaller, part-time groups or music clubs.

In other words, most groups were no different than the community orchestras that many of us might be familiar with today. Many of the organization only sporadically put on concerts and many were “pick-up bands” that were organized by music clubs or women’s music organizations to fulfill the needs of specific events. Many of the newspaper piece about turn-of-the 20th century orchestra financial problems refer to “permanent” orchestras as a relative new thing.

This meant that what was more typical was not having an orchestra with organizational permanence. This is a reflection of the evolution of the corporation being a business entity which can exist in perpetuity beyond the original founders during the middle of the 19th to the early 20th century. It should also be noted that a “permanent” orchestra did not imply a “full-time” orchestra. As I mentioned in a post several years ago, even sports franchises were not full-time professional fields until the second half of the 20th century–which is about the time that many US Classical Music organizations also became full-time.

So from the 1850s-1870s to the 1950s we have this progression:

  • Infancy–Sporadically organized community or music club pick-up music organizations
  • Adolescence–Part-Time permanent music organizations
  • Maturity–Full-Time permanent music organizations

For the Symphonies and Opera companies, this has been the historical norm in the US. There are a few exceptions (e.g. Boston Symphony Orchestra), but there’s no reason to think that most music organizations won’t follow this trajectory. It’s basically the beginning of the life-cycle of Classical Music Organizations. The end of that life-cycle for some of those organizations is what we might be seeing in the cut-backs in seasons, musicians, and occasional bankruptcies and dissolution of organizations. Of course, we’ve been seeing the latter since the beginning as well as some near misses by some of the mainstream incumbents.

So, the question of whether all these new orchestras, opera companies, smaller ensembles, concert bands, choral groups are making money is besides the point. At nearly every point of nearly every organization, the revenue generated was small until the organization reaches maturity. And in most cases, this took somewhere between 50 to 100 years. Let’s ask the question in a few decades when we’ll actually have a comparable timeframe.***


*I mentioned in my previous post that I would discuss the life-cycles of Classical Music organizations. This is not that discussion–or rather, only an intro to that blogpost.

**Let’s set aside the fact that in some camps of the Crisis narrative there’s some nostalgia bias longing for an older Classical Music period which was “better” than today–primarily because of that period’s Classical Music being, purportedly, more popular and relevant to some imagined hegemonic and unchanging culture.

***It should also be noted that these are large timeframes, and different organizations hit those life-cycle points at different times and continue to do so, but the infrastructure and economic conditions which allowed a tipping point for this happened near the middle of the 20th century. Some of the older Ethnic Orchestras, for example, may have already reached Adolescence and might be approaching Maturity.

Top image is from a concert given by PLOrk (the Princeton Laptop Orchestra).


  1. Nice work on putting together this history!

    Yeah, I think about Haydn at Esterhazy, and his royal patron had an orchestra that would by tiny by today’s standards. Haydn later had his popular concerts in London, presumably played by orchestras that were still small by today’s standards and not permanent. Mozart scrambled to get his operas put on, get money, and fend off his creditors. London and Vienna would practically seem like small cities to us today.

    Finally, in the 19th century, the scale of things started to increase, but we ought not lose our perspective on what the giants of Classical music dealt with. The huge orchestras and opera companies of the mid-20th century, often state-supported (as in the USSR) and bolstered by limited media options in radio and TV should probably be considered the anomaly, not the rule. Instead of thinking in terms of “crisis,” we should probably be counting our blessings that things are as healthy in Classical as they are, no?


    • Yeah, if we go back far enough in the history of Western Orchestras and Opera Companies as an institution then we also find a progression from smaller forces to the large monsters required for Mahler and Wagner. With so much focus on the composers and star performers in academic music history, there’s little room left to talk about the evolution of repertoire and ensembles. And we certainly rarely talk about the post-industrial prosperity in the 20th century which created environments for full time employment of entertainment of all kinds.


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