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8 Non-Profit Lessons From The Minnesota Orchestra’s Cuba Tour

The Minnesota Orchestra recently returned from a groundbreaking trip to Cuba. It was the first time an American orchestra had performed there since the process of normalizing relations began in December 2014. It was also the Minnesota Orchestra standing up on the international stage and saying, in a particularly badass way, we’re back, baby.

Lots of people who were lucky enough to be on the trip have been sharing their ideas about what the week meant. We’re all still digesting. But the people on the ground in Cuba weren’t the only ones to come away with exciting new perspectives. Eight big ideas keep repeatedly swishing around my brain like Caribbean waves along the shore…

You too can recover from disaster, because damn the Minnesota Orchestra is back in business. Their performance of the Eroica in particular was probably the greatest I’ve ever heard of that piece. It certainly far, far outstripped the intensity of their live performances I heard in April 2015 and July 2012. The Eroica was also the first symphony they played after the lockout ended in February 2014, and the difference between the two performances was mind-boggling. Can this orchestra play even better? Oh, I’m sure. But do they currently stand with the great ensembles of the world? F-, yeah. Give them a few more years and I have no doubt whatsoever that the lockout will recede into organizational history, eclipsed by fresh artistic triumphs from a new era.

One-on-one interaction is beyond priceless. Look at this photo gallery and tell me otherwise.

Twitter is an amazing tool to use during big live events to cement connections with readers and patrons. I associate Twitter more with political live-blogging or passive-aggressive celebrity feuds, but it actually works really well for documenting big live events like this tour. I’m still split about the idea of “Tweet seats.” But for a radio broadcast, where I was holed up in my bedroom and my furious typing wasn’t bothering anyone, it was a marvelous format. (And I definitely understand the appeal of Tweet seats now way more than I did.) I gained lots of new followers and had some truly meaningful exchanges with readers, including the official Classical MPR and Minnesota Orchestra accounts. That loops back to my preceding point.

At big events, non-profits need to employ someone whose main responsibility is creating content for social media. The Cuba trip was unique in that not all the responsibility for documentation was laid on the Minnesota Orchestra’s staff, since many major media outlets were toting along their own photographers and videographers. But the lesson still stands. All of my friends are sharing the Cuba pictures with all of their friends, and I have no doubt all their friends are, too. I wish it was possible to convert the value of that increased enthusiasm and engagement into dollars. But I have to believe the Orchestra at least broke even on the $1 million that Marilyn Carlson Nelson and her husband invested into this tour. Maybe even more than that, because a lot of the positive experiences we had cannot be bought…since they’re not for sale.

Speaking of which….

The greatest work of non-profits is, at the end of the day, not about the bottom line. There was a group of us who argued passionately during the Minnesota Orchestra lockout that the worst thing to do would be to regard the Orchestra’s bottom line as its sole metric of success. I hate to say I told you so, but… (Haha, KIDDING. I don’t hate saying that at all. I TOLD YOU SO.)

In future, all orchestras need to employ musician-writers the caliber of Rena Kraut and Sam Bergman. Click here to read a Rena entry; click here to read one from Sam. Yes, finding others with their talents may be a tall order, but it needs to happen. Rena and Sam’s accounts of their trip brought on countless of tears and bonded many hundreds of hearts closer to the Orchestra. I have to believe there are equally talented writers at every American orchestra who would be willing to step up to the plate. (I don’t know how – or if – it could work, practically speaking, but… If there were two candidates for a position in a major American orchestra, their musical abilities roughly equal, and one was a ridiculously talented writer, or photographer, or interviewer, or podcaster, or whatever, you might just want to go with the candidate whose talents extend beyond music-making.) (Might this be a way for young musicians to distinguish themselves as competitors in a particularly cutthroat marketplace? How do we train young artists to write well, and whose responsibility is it to teach them?)

Crowd-funded arts journalism is a potential game-changer. Yes, blogger Scott Chamberlain had the chance of a lifetime to go on the Cuba tour after readers chipped in several thousand dollars to get him there, but he also had quite the responsibility: he couldn’t disappoint the people who had given him that money with the expectation of top-notch writing. Because those people were, in large part, his friends. Of course, he disappointed no one. The roaring success of his coverage brings up an interesting question: what comes next in the field of entrepreneurial arts journalism? If a blogger can finance a trip to Cuba…can a writer make a part-time job out of creating online content about classical music? A full-time job? Soon somebody is going to try. And I’m excited to watch content creators (I don’t like the limiting term “bloggers” in this particular context) push the envelope even further. We will all learn a lot about our art from the successes and failures that lie ahead. I’m not saying that crowd-funding is a magic bullet, especially if / when the marketplace becomes saturated. But it could be a potent weapon nonetheless.

When you’re recovering from institutional trauma, one healing tactic is to find a big goal and go for it. I’m thinking about the Atlanta Symphony in particular. They’re in a process of real institutional flux right now. They’re searching for a new CEO and trying to establish an identity of stability and relevance. I’m wondering if the best thing they could do right now is spearhead a major artistic project. Easy for me to say that, obviously; I have zero idea what that project could be. The Cuba idea, for instance, never would have occurred to me, which is why I write about the arts and don’t administer them. But I think the incoming Atlanta Symphony president, whoever he or she may be, should find one. Atlanta needs (and deserves) a “Cuba moment.”

So let’s take a moment to appreciate what Minnesota Orchestra CEO Kevin Smith and board Vice Chair Marilyn Carlson Nelson accomplished here. They acted boldly and smartly, and they refused to act out of a place of timidity or fear. I’ve learned a valuable lesson from them both. The best way to bond a group of people together is to work toward a major goal, all together. The board gave their money. The musicians gave their talent. The staff gave their time and expertise. And together they created something far more valuable than what any one group could have accomplished on its own. And consequently, lots of healing took place. Caveat: you must be reasonably sure you can achieve your major goal. If any number of things had derailed the Cuba tour, then… Well, let’s not go there. But the potential rewards were obviously worth the risk.

Those were my big takeaways from this extraordinary weekend that all Minnesota Orchestra lovers were privileged to share.

What were yours?

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Interview with Scott Chamberlain: Part 2

In the second part of my interview with fellow blogger Scott Chamberlain, we talked about his upcoming Cuba trip. Catch up on the first part here.

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Scott's logo

The famous mask…

EH: So. I’ve ignored the elephant in the room long enough. The whole reason I even thought of connecting with you in interview format is that you’re going with the Minnesota Orchestra to cover their historic Cuba tour. They’ll be the first American orchestra in the Obama era to visit. And you’ll be writing about it, even though you aren’t a professional arts writer. And I want to take a minute to talk about that.

I’ve never heard of an arts writer – amateur or professional – trying to crowdfund accompanying an orchestra on a tour. And not only trying, but succeeding. As I’m writing this entry, you’re at 55% of your goal, and it’s only been a few days. (Readers, please, if anyone has done anything like this before, let me know in the comments.) I know this project didn’t come about as some grand plan or anything like that, but obviously as I’m watching the total tick up and up, and getting excited about having a writer friend on the ground in Cuba to share his thoughts… I’m wondering about whether you think this is a strategy that arts writers will use in future to get more and better coverage of our beloved arts. I have mixed feelings about whether it could work besides for a few very charismatic people, but I’m curious what you think. Do you think your support is just a one-off thing because you developed relationships with your readers in the depths of a historic lockout, or do you think other arts writers in other times and places could do it, too? Many times I find myself wondering, “are the cool things that are happening here a direct result of the lockout, or could these cool things happen everywhere?” Do you know what I mean?

SC: I do think it’s unusual—in fact, the co-founder Musicovation.com, a website devoted to covering news and industry trends from across the musical world, contacted me to ask these very questions.

And I have to say I’m learning as I go. Given the complexities of this tour, it is fairly expensive… even for those of us who are getting the press discount. As an independent writer, coming up with the cost of the trip seemed daunting, but a number of supporters suggested that this was a perfect fit for a GoFundMe campaign… and off I went.

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Semi-Hiatus

Some of you have probably noticed that I’ve been absent from the blog lately, and it took a while for me to find the strength to explain why.

In late January, my mother was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer of unknown origin. I’ve left my home to care for her, and nowadays am living out of a cramped spare bedroom in rural Wisconsin. The future is a total question mark.

For those of you keeping track at home, in six months to the day, that’s the death of my grandfather, the death of my sweet Sheltie, and a cancer diagnosis for my mom. So either some very good news is just around the corner, or late last summer someone invested in a voodoo doll with my face on it.

We intend to fight the cancer with everything we have. The women in my family are well-known for their persistence in the face of long odds. But fighting with everything I have on behalf of my mother means that the blog is simply not a major priority right now. I’ll write when it feels like a respite, but not when it feels like a responsibility. How often that will be, and for how long…well, your guess is as good as mine. I’m trying to take things hour by hour at this point.

This isn’t an adventure I’d have embarked on willingly. But then again, neither was the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, and in the end, that nightmare turned into something profound and indeed even sacred. And it’s certainly no coincidence that the people who are keeping me afloat nowadays are the very same people I got to know during the lockout. A deep, deep thank you to those folks.

Okay. So. Send prayers and best wishes for peace and strength. I’ll be back, some way, somehow. Thankfully every circumstance is temporary. And I’ll still be checking in online, frequently. I just won’t be writing long-form entries as often as I’d like. Stay in touch using Twitter and Facebook. I’ve found I like to check those while traveling to hospitals and wasting time in waiting rooms.

To close, because I don’t have the time or the energy to write a separate entry on the subject… I wanted to say that I could not be more excited for the Minnesota Orchestra’s new chapter. Securing the talents of Erin Keefe for the foreseeable future? A Sibelius concert at Carnegie in 2016? Becoming the first American orchestra to perform in Cuba in the Obama era? Well, holy [expletive], guys. I hope you patrons know what you’ve done. These astonishing developments could not have happened without you. When Alex Ross is sent into ecstasies March after next – when the newspaper articles about the historic Cuba concerts are written – when the eyes of the entire world turn to Minneapolis to appreciate the contributions our orchestra makes to international cultural life – remember: that was you who did that. Miracles happen when people work together. That’s a lesson I’ll try my best to hold close to my heart in the weeks and months to come.

Like I said, stay in touch. I can’t take this journey by myself.

Outside my new - temporary - home.

Outside in a gorgeous winter sunset

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Cost Disease Confusion: Part 2

Here’s the riveting conclusion of a two part essay examining Duncan M. Webb’s Baumol’s Cost Disease Is Killing Me. To read part one, click here.

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A wise man asked me a great question:

Why now? If this problem has been around forever and has even had a name since 1965, why is it suddenly something we absolutely positively have to deal with today?

My answer is that there is now a convergence of challenges (you can call it a perfect storm if you’d like) that make Baumol’s Cost Disease that much more toxic – namely, declining audiences for classical music (see the 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts)…

Let’s start there. I’m guessing that link is a cue to look at the 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. Here’s the PDF. So let me scroll down and check out what’s said about classical music attendance…

(By the way, what is classical music? Professional orchestral concerts? Amateur orchestral concerts? Chamber music? Recitals? And what might the regional variation be in these numbers? And why has my head suddenly started hurting?)

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Musicovation Guest Blog

This week I partnered with the music website Musicovation (their tagline?: “the positive news about music, for a change“) to write a guest-blog entry. For my topic I chose the relationship between amateur and professional musicians: two great tastes that taste great together.

The piece begins:

Thursday night rehearsal. I’m in a small room with twenty other string players, members of my local amateur string orchestra. I’m rehearsing a solo of the Piazzolla Oblivion. I shake my wrist out. I’ve got jitters for no reason at all.

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 Adult amateur musicians are almost universally embarrassed to play in front of other people. An adult who has just come to classical violin (or just returned to it) will invariably apologize for how they sound. Self-deprecating jokes – with an edge of desperation – proliferate. The violinist.com discussion board regularly features entries from adult amateurs asking questions like: I’m the only adult at my teacher’s recital, should I even participate?

I can relate. If I’m ever complimented on my playing, I’ll smile graciously, but in the back of my head I’ll invariably think: honey, go to Minneapolis, watch a program of their Sibelius, and get back to me on how good you think I am.

Why?

Read more here.

Thanks to the Musicovation team and especially Zachary Preucil for the opportunity. Definitely check out the website while you’re there, and follow their Facebook page and Twitter account! We can never have too many positive stories about music!

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Doug Hertz Takes On The Crazy People

It is becoming increasingly clear that the power players in the Atlanta Symphony lockout are the members of the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC) board. This impression was solidified once former ASO CEO Stanley Romanstein resigned and it was revealed that the interim CEO would have no role in negotiations. Nowadays it’s all Woodruff, all the time.

During the upheaval of the past few weeks, I’ve been chatting online with disgruntled Atlanta patrons. Lately we’ve been wondering who the Richard Davis / Jon Campbell equivalent is over at the WAC.

Well, good news: We Found Him!

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Well

Well, let’s see what the news is today, Tuesday January 14 year of our Lord 2014…

*ambles over to Google News*

Obama to Place Restraints on Surveillance. Interesting…

Some rumblings about net neutrality. Compelling…

Why Journalists Frighten Putin. Haha. Haha, yeah. Dictators better beware of the power of writers…

…There’s apparently now a first-person cat simulator

Oh, yeah, and the lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra musicians is over.

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Um, so, I don’t really know what to say tonight besides thank you. Thank you to everyone. I didn’t have anything prepared to say tonight (no, duh). In all honesty, if I’d been forced to make a prediction at gunpoint, even a week ago, I’d have said another six to twelve months will pass, my friends and idols will ultimately be forced to their knees, Save Our Symphony Minnesota will fizzle out, and I’ll enter my twenty-fifth year as a total cynic who will forevermore hate orchestras and everything associated with them. (It was not a future I was particularly anticipating.)

But…that didn’t happen.

The contract on the table isn’t perfect by any means, but if you were expecting a perfect contract, you were always going to be let down.

We saved the Minnesota Orchestra and we saved it together. Because of our work, the Minnesota Orchestra will not die.

However, the new business model did. We killed it, and we killed it together.

But. Now we have to create the model that will replace it. And that’s where the hard work will come in.

Are you ready for that?

Tonight is not the end. In fact, it is only a chance to have a new beginning.

But in the meantime, I think we’re allowed to celebrate how far we’ve come, and think with hope of a better future.

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New Year’s Notes

It’s New Year’s Eve, so it’s time for some sentimental naval gazing.

Well. 2013. You wanted soul-crushing disappointment? You wanted dizzying ecstasy? You wanted proof that arts activism is alive and well? (You wanted proof that orchestral music is alive and well?) You wanted proof that improbable, impossible things are, in fact, quite possible? Then 2013 was the year for you.

Here were the year’s most popular SOTL stories in reverse order…

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Michael Henson’s Massive Bonuses

Minnesota Orchestra CEO Michael Henson saw two massive bonuses as he was planning for his musicians’ major work stoppage, totaling $202,500.

This information comes courtesy of the 990 that covers the time period between 1 September 2011 and 31 August 2012. It was recently quietly posted on Guidestar.org. This document is not on the Minnesota Orchestra’s website, so you will have to go to Guidestar.org to see it.

Henson bonus

Click to enlarge

Henson took home $386,916 in base compensation – $202,500 in bonus and incentive compensation – $9,800 in retirement and other deferred compensation – and $20,097 in non-taxable benefits for a grand total of $619,313.

Here is the explanation on the 990.

supplemental information

Click to enlarge.

Michael Henson’s bonus amount in Part II, Section B, Column 2 consists of bonuses for two separate fiscal years that were paid in the same calendar year. The bonus for fiscal year 2011 was paid in March 2011 and the bonus for fiscal year 2012 was paid in December 2011. Per IRS regulations, this schedule was filled out based on the calendar year 2011.

For comparison’s sake, here are some other American orchestras by budget – their expenses – who their executive directors are – how much they were compensated – and what percentage of the budget their compensation is.

Here are orchestras who haven’t yet publicized their 2012 990. This is from FY 2011.

Los Angeles Philharmonic – $103,925,230. Deborah Borda – $1,602,228 – 1.5%

New York Philharmonic – $68,400,555. Zarin Mehta – $887,401 – 1.3%.

And here are orchestras who have publicized their 2012 990.

Boston Symphony – $85,844,758. Mark Volpe – $622,938 – 0.7%

Chicago Symphony – $80,055,672. Deborah Rutter – $577,189 – 0.7%

San Francisco Symphony – $78,338,012. Brent Assink – $638,857 – 0.8%

Philadelphia Orchestra – $57,182,000. Allison Vulgamore – $610,446 – 1.1%

Cleveland Orchestra – $51,298,527. Gary Hanson – $584,498 – 1.1%

St. Louis Symphony – $26,597,756. Fred Bronstein – $394,572 – 1.5%

Houston Symphony – $25,817,059. Mark Hanson – $295,979 – 1.1%

Baltimore Symphony – $25,116,360. Paul Meecham – $261,843 – 1%

The Pittsburgh Symphony, Dallas Symphony, and Indianapolis Symphony were in a time of leadership transition so I left them out.

The Minnesota Orchestral Association’s expenses were $32,908,241. Mr. Henson’s compensation was $619,313… or 1.9% of expenses, roughly double the rate of other orchestras.

Edit, 1pm: The entry was altered. I – and my proofreaders! – made a (rather embarrassing) decimal error in calculating the percentages above. Apologies. But the point of the entry still stands.

As everyone who has been following the lockout knows, the Minnesota Orchestra posted a six million dollar deficit in FY 2012. Michael Henson’s compensation and bonuses would account for a full tenth of a six million dollar deficit.

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17 Tips On Marketing Orchestras to Millennials

Yesterday I read a slim but interesting book called Marketing for Millennials, by Jeff Fromm and Christie Garton. It verbalized a lot of my gut instincts, and especially the gut instinct that most orchestras suck at marketing to millennials.

Roughly speaking, millennials are carbon-based human life forms aged 18-35. (For a point of reference, I’m 24.) It’s tough to generalize about an entire generation, but I’m about to do so.

Millennials

  • use the Internet a lot
  • tend to be more politically progressive
  • are extremely well-educated
  • value companies with consciences
  • frequently live with our parents thanks to the recession
  • possess larger social networks than any other generation

And here’s an interesting factoid: there are more of us than there are baby boomersYup, you read that right: we’re the largest generation in American history.

You would not know any of these things based on most orchestras’ marketing efforts.

So here, without further ado, are seventeen suggestions for orchestras to keep in mind as they think about how to attract young people.

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