Yo-Yo Ma & Robert Shaw: On Interesting People in Musical Performance

In Atlanta on October 6, 2014 at 10:06 PM

Ecologists say the largest bounty of innovation occurs at “The Edge” of various ecosystems, according to Yo-Yo Ma. He says musicians need to bear fruit by pursuing what he calls “The Edge Effect” and policymakers need to pursue “STEAM” in education policy, i.e., investment in the arts in addition to science, technology, engineering and math. All three sectors of a community need to firing at the same time politically, economically and culturally in order to produce the most vibrant places. Robert Shaw, the former Atlanta Symphony Orchestra conductor/director, in his advice for young conductors says, “one needs to be able to arouse, to interest people in musical performance.” All of this can happen in Atlanta and major American cities on a routine basis, namely courtesy of America’s symphonies.

On the merits of expanding STEM to STEAM, Bertrand Russell, the British mathematician himself, would have to agree with Ma and Shaw only adding that we need to be respectful and mindful of facts most importantly in the overall picture. Therefore, here is walk through the finances and economics of America’s top 10 largest urban symphonies by comparing symphony budgets, deficits, incomes and city sizes in recent years.

In Atlanta, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (or “ASO”) has been in deficit for the past 12 years in a row, according to news reports. Right now, a portion of their 70th season has been cancelled due to failure of collective bargaining efforts between players and managers. Players are unhappy, management is unhappy, conductors are unhappy – and a silent symphony has been performed in elegy on the front steps of the Woodruff Arts Center in protest. Unfortunately, a poor example is being set for young aspiring classical musicians in Atlanta. And more broadly, audiences of all ages in Atlanta are now left to themselves with traffic noise, talk radio and lower-level, highly-marketed art forms.

Right now, the budget for the ASO is roughly $37 million per year with a loss of $2 million realized. Evidently, sales have been underwhelming like with other symphonies in the rest of country since the early 2000s. A demographic shift is underway, according to industry analysts. The Woodruff Arts Center’s creditworthiness has been placed on a negative watch by a prominent credit rating agency. Beyond these details, a broader searches evidences that players recently compromised with management by assuming a pay cut in order bring down expenses. Management wants to now have say in controlling the number of hired musicians, but Robert Spano, the ASO conductor, along with the players feel threatened by management and firmly disagree with lowering the number any further. On the upside, the deficit has been trending downward relative to prior years.

In a recent New York Times interview Mr. Spano posed the following warning, “If the 10th-largest urban economy in America is incapable of sustaining its cultural jewel, what does that signal about our country?” Unfortunately, the answer to that statement is fairly obvious. What appears to be thrive in Atlanta revolves around sports, e.g., televised high-school football games, immense tax subsidies for the new Falcons football stadium, and Braves baseball stadium more generally. Rivers, bridges, Shakespeare performances and the like are left in degraded positions. The Atlanta Beltline is underfunded and left to chance implementation, for example.

Where to go from here then? Leveraging National Endowment for the Arts (or “NEA”) funding could be a good start. NEA grants might fill in the ASO budget deficits and place the program in surplus. A quick search of NEA symphony grants for 2014 indicates a long list of interesting recipients from all over the country obtaining direct grants and matching funding. For example, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s $60,000 grant aimed at developing a digital media presence in that city could be benchmarked similarly by the Woodruff Arts Center. Collaboration and support for El Sistema-styled youth classical musical education programs is referenced by several organizations obtaining grants across three varying states in Kentucky, California and Maryland. In Maryland, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has landed a larger grant of $100,000. A new “Atlanta Jazz Orchestra” akin to Count Basie in style could be seed-funded by such a NEA grant with the ASO assuming the backing role of someone like retired University of Georgia Jazz Studies Program professor and director Steve Dancz and leading American trumpet players like Wynton Marsalis or Dave Douglas with performances pre-planned annually at The Atlanta Jazz Festival and surrounding area amphitheatres.

If Yo-Yo Ma and the NEA are to be believed, there is a broad multiplier effect for every dollar invested in such programs. According to one NEA press release, “For every dollar invested by the NEA, grantee organizations raise an additional $9 in support from other, non-federal sources.” Moreover, the arts and culture sector boosts the economy by “more than 3.2 percent – or $504 billion – of GDP” annually. All of these programs represent areas worth exploring more in-depth in Atlanta.

Aside from direct grants like those referenced above the NEA also issues partnership award amounts, i.e., funding that must be matched 1 for 1 by partnering state or regional agencies as a condition of acceptance. The NEA site lists the Georgia Department of Economic Development as having received $749,900 this year. It’s unclear, however, to what extent these funds are flowing into Atlanta musical endeavors like ASO-caliber performances. Judging from U.S. Census Bureau records, Georgia at the state level allocated 0.42 percent of overall spending in 2014 to “Parks and Recreation” funding which includes spending on music by definition, i.e., $188 million of $44.8 billion in total spending for the year. That percentage is slightly above the fifty-state average of 0.34 percent; however, Georgia has the fifth lowest state spending to state GDP percentage in the nation at 10.21 percent, so the funds are drawing from a lower level of overall spending in the first place relative to the typical state. The typical state government spends 13.49 percent of GDP. In Georgia, government tax subsidies have been used to offset Falcons and Braves stadium construction costs more recently, and to fund construction of a college football hall of fame. Unlike the negative side effects associated with football, classical symphonic music has the ability to promote brain growth and prevent brain injury.

On closing the ASO deficit over the long-term, funding from many other alternative source could be explored as a broader strategy. According to one AJC article, “Indeed, the ASO is expecting about $100,000 in taxpayer support this year. By contrast, the Minnesota Orchestra, fresh off its own 16-month lockout, expects about $1 million. Atlanta’s ticket revenue is also lackluster.” If you use the Minneapolis metropolitan statistical area (or “MSA”) GDP as a basis for economic capacity versus Atlanta, then you yield an interesting result. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the MSA for Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI took in $227.8 billion during 2013 and Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA brought in a higher $307.2 billion. Therefore, by analogy a tax funding level of $1 million in Minneapolis relative to GDP is equivalent to $1.35 million in Atlanta relative to the same benchmark income figure. Coincidentally, this measures just about right at the amount needed to cover the $2 deficit for the year.

Here is how Atlanta and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra compare against the 10 largest U.S. urban economies and their respective philharmonic budgets across several key financial variables:


As you can see, income inequality extremes play a part in the discussion from city to city. Leading the pack in inequality just so happens to be Atlanta, according to the Brookings Institution-produced data referenced in the table. Based on the numbers, the ASO obtains $6.73 per person on average in a given year, i.e., lower than the 10-city average of $8.53 per person. So, even though Atlanta makes the top 10 rank in terms of GDP, behind the scenes, the average personal wealth in Atlanta is still not comparable to the other nine major markets in this sample in terms of income parity. Witness the low GDP per capita number of $55,860.55 for Atlanta, and the relatively higher population estimate of 5.5 million people driving down the numerator. The Inequality Ratio of 18.8 only lends weight to this income disparity diagnosis. If you think about it, this is a significant problem from many perspectives because only so many affluent individuals can attend a symphony performance before you run out of such people. And when less and less income is distributed as equitably as it should be in the first place, then potential concert-goers on the margin drop off of the demand curve. If prolonged, then paying such poorer individuals to attend or subsidizing their attendance through some other means may be deemed offensive as well.

Ominously, the Inequality Ratio has only gotten worse from 2007 to present, according to the Brookings data, and Atlanta is documented as having the second largest increase after San Francisco. Interestingly, San Francisco Symphony is pulling in a larger share of revenues per person; therefore, the ASO could learn specific lessons from the California experience. Short of exploiting broader, creative ventures in an effort to bring in higher ticket sales from the average Atlanta household paid as is the case currently, finding external funding sources appears to be the best strategy moving forward based on this analysis.


Continuing along the same vein, the ASO might similarly benefit from better understanding proper pay distribution of salaries and benefits to be paid at the highest levels in the organization, e.g., whether the conductor or president is paid too unequally relative to the players average pay and industry averages for comparable positions held in other symphonies. For example, in 2010 the San Francisco Symphony paid its conductor and musical director, Michael Thomas, $2.4 million, well above the industry norm, while the executive director, Brent Assink, earns below the industry norm at $477 thousand annually. Right now, I am not sure how much Mr. Spano is paid because the Woodruff Arts Center books are not easily made available on-line based on my research, unlike most other large urban orchestras. As a result, confusion reigns in the meantime with no one person certain if one of the following changes might be pursued, e.g., pursuing ticket price adjustments, ensuring parity adjustments of pay plus benefits or adopting what many seems to already be calling an unsustainable orchestra-size reduction.

In order to avoid Draconian budget cuts, frontiers worth exploring for the sake of revitalizing Robert Woodruff’s non-profit organization and retaining a Crown Jewel for Atlanta include the following:

• Publish detailed, open financial statements on-line akin to other leading symphonies, making sure to document comparisons of endowment levels, pay and benefits at all levels of players, conductors, managers, etc., along with ticket sales and attendance statistics;
• Develop a cross-country symphony database for comparison of standardized budgets across all American symphonies;
• Partner with The High Museum, Georgia Council for the Arts and NEA in order to obtain a repayable grant to build a permanent symphony lab at The High Museum which would house an accessible orchestra environment exhibit, namely granting gallery-goers the ability to walk closely through the entire set of pre-arranged instruments one-by-one as one would find in a hypothetical live ASO stage arrangement;
• Partner with the Atlanta Ballet, the The King Center and Georgia Shakespeare in order to solicit high net worth individuals to endow a series of “King Prizes” akin to the Nobel and Pritzker prizes in Sweden, Norway and Chicago, respectively; but, this time awarding winners solely in an array of special arts categories in exchange for one off prize lectures and/or performances, e.g., offer the King’s “Bard Prize” for most accomplished playwright, the King’s “Baton Prize” for best conductor and “Ballet Prize” for best ballet performer; as historical background, Atlanta once had an evidently more stable funding source of private patrons prior to a famous 1962 plane crash that killed many (in fact, Auguste Rodin casted statue L’Ombre in front of The High Museum was gifted by the France government as a memorial as a result of this event); now, someone like Anne Cox Chambers might be a worthy candidate to lead the funding and organization of such an effort;
• Perform in conjunction with the AMP El Sistema children’s musical organization, New American Shakespeare Tavern and Atlanta Ballet in three-part collaborative performances at a newly redesigned and reconstituted market/performance location at the old famers market location just off the Atlanta Belt Line near D.H. Stanton Park and other comparable open-air spots;
• Fund a unique exhibit at The High that explores the interaction between architects and their favorite musical artists;
• Exploit an opportunity to provide live streaming programming of ASO performances on 88.5 FM in collaboration with Georgia State University and Georgia Public Broadcasting; and hold conversations on the arts with interviews and lectures delivered by people like Robert Spano and visiting, out-of-state performers;
• Develop an inaugural yearly, two performance book-end summer program literally taking Yo-Yo Ma up on his recommendation to explore “The Edge Effect” from ecology in music by featuring one concert at the beginning of summer located on the edge of the mountain and piedmont regions at a place of your choosing (maybe feature Richard Wagner and George Gershwin juxtaposed), and the second conference coinciding with the end of summer performed at the edge of the piedmont and coastal plain regions (Ludwig van Beethoven and Igor Stravinsky as a pairing?); ecology lectures and excerpts could be delivered by area university experts and preservationists;
• Benchmark the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s “Rivers” multi-disciplinary program effort in order to clean up the Chattahoochee River and spotlight music harmony in open air settings;
• Feature performances at Piedmont Park and Stone Mountain regularly as part of a normal ASO season, not as an weekday add-on (just like the New York Philharmonic at Central Park in Manhattan generally does);
• Collaborate with public research universities to develop partnerships for the arts, e.g., constructive workshops, on-air public programming and a reduced price $25 unlimited concert pass for college students like the Philadelphia Orchestra offers through its “eZseatU” program;
• Offer personally funded endowments for each player by chair, e.g., for first violin, second violin, etc.;
• Foster a more robust in-residence performers program internationally and out-of-state;
• Develop clinical classical musician classes in collaboration with AMP, university programs and like organizations;
• Open up ASO practice sessions for regular public view;
• Perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Cello Suites” by bringing in Yo-Yo Ma for a one-off fundraiser in order to fund an “Immediate Impact Fund” akin to what the Boston Symphony Orchestra has done;
• Commission Rem Koolhaas to design a permanent “King’s Theatre” with stage, lawn and/or steps equipped for Shakespeare and ASO-caliber performances in Centennial Olympic Park and at a spot of urban planner Ryan Gravel’s choosing on the Belt Line (if Mr. Koolhaas is not available, then pick Frank Gehry or put the project up for bid by a local Atlanta architect);
• Partner with the wider Atlanta philanthropic community, artists and interested individuals in order to endow a new annual Atlanta arts and games competition (or “Pan-Atlantan Games”) modeled on early, original notions of the 776 B.C. Olympics Games and Pierre de Coubertin’s reconstituted modern games held in 1912 A.D., whereby a more eclectic range of events will be served;
• Feature Muhammad Yunus, the only economist to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize, as chief ASO guest conductor for one night in front of the new National Center for Civil and Human Rights at Centennial Olympic Park during the Nobel peace conference scheduled for next year (also have Falcons, Hawks and Braves stars conduct on other featured nights in competition);
• Offer a three-ticket, reduced fare “Atlanta City Pass” for admission to one professional sporting event, one professional playhouse performance and one ASO symphony performance in a year; the modified pass could be marketed directly to citizen and tourist audiences by the City of Atlanta, the state of Georgia and interested private entities;
• Offer an inaugural award to the high-school that funds music programs with more balance than any other school and match their investment as a winner with tickets or complementary City Passes, as referenced above;
• As part of a new community outreach efforts, perform at one high school and/or professional sports half-time program; and at one military base in collaboration with military band players;
• Collaborate with Emory University and The Carter Center in order to develop actions that spotlight international peace efforts, leverage unique relationships with the Dalai Lama and the neuroeconomics brain studies program, e.g., in order to study the effects of music on the brain and conflict resolution efforts for children, adolescents, adults and the elderly
• Develop an “Atlanta Origins” visual/musical program featuring a fly over view of the Atlanta Belt Line and prominent Georgia landmarks and history, e.g., Zero Mile Post and railroad history, Stone Mountain, MLK’s birthplace, the Chattahoochee River and Georgia’s farms, the Ocmulgee Indian Mounds and James Oglethorpe’s Savannah, to be produced in conjunction with the Georgia Department of Economic Development, the Atlanta History Center and like-minded organizations;
• Better document to public audiences any funding inadequacies apparent at the state level of government in order to keep up with out-of-city competitive funding strategies and in an explicit effort to retain talent;
• Encourage private and public high schools to release standardized data report cards and formal budgets to parents which would document dollar funding allocated to athletic departments, music departments and other areas of education by dollar amounts and percentages, so that parents and students better understand school funding priorities; and
• Hire recently retired UGA president Michael Adams to head up a short-term emergency fundraising effort for the Woodruff Arts Center immediately effective November 1, alongside a long-term fundraising effort to be developed and made effective by January 1.

Lessons from architecture and Vitruvius may benefit us moving forward, maybe buildings and symphonies should be “solid, useful and beautiful.” From medicine, we are taught (granted incorrectly) that Hippocrates beckons physicians to “first, do no harm” by oath. This joint advice is sound and cross-disciplinary. Finance and economics should also be advanced, however, as keys parts of the equation. More Raghuram Rajan and Xenophon should be built in to the overall discussion in order to remind people of the power of art politically and economically in an effort to avoid cost overruns and excessively inequitable healthcare expenses, both centrally relevant subjects in the plight of philharmonics across the country. As one banker explained in recent years, “We have lousy bridges and a lousy financial system.”

In the face of financial misalignment and people doing as they should not, Yo-Yo Ma and Robert Shaw remain right, we need to pursue “The Edge” with full STEAM ahead in order to interest people of all ages and places for all time in classical musical performance for the sake of joy. Adam Smith and Stephen Hawkins will applaud us for not “stultifying” mankind as a species in the process.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. would word it, then and only then may we begin to fully embrace his ringing sentiment, “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s