Hiring an Orchestra on Someone Else’s Dime

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Photo by Molly Sheridan

Nearly every composer I know has an orchestra piece that has received one or fewer performances. As orchestras struggle to make ends meet, they tend to take fewer chances with new music, and program more of the tried-and-true warhorses (Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, etc) to get more bodies in the seats. And yet they still struggle. In 2007, for example, the St. Louis and Seattle symphonies posted deficits of 3.4 million and 2 million respectively. In 2006, the Oregon and Boston symphonies incurred deficits of close to 1.5 million.

With all of this attention on attendance, it might surprise you that a 2007 NEA Study concluded that only 36% of an orchestra’s revenues are derived from ticket sales. Basically, this means that an orchestra’s fundraising machine has to generate the remaining 64% to put on each concert. If you don’t program enough warhorses, you might upset your chief donors. It seems that the deck is stacked against living composers. But, as the old saying goes, there is a silver lining in every cloud. Composers can use these stats to their advantage.

Consider funding from the point of view of the orchestra’s executive director. For any given concert, he or she has to cover over 60% of the concert’s costs. What if a concert came along where over 80 or 90 percent of the concert’s costs were covered? Would they jump at the chance? I’ll bet you they would! And while I don’t know this with absolute certainty, it’s worth noting that executive directors are basically business people. If they regularly have to raise 60% of the costs every time they put on a concert, they might take a close look at a concert where they only had to fundraise somewhere between ten and twenty percent. And this is where composers have their opportunity, if they’re ambitious and organized.

In early 2006, I approached Rachel Ford, then the executive director of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony (WCFSO), regarding a concert of entirely new music by members of the Iowa Composers Forum (ICF). I was pleasantly surprised to learn from her that the total cost for a string orchestra concert was below $10,000 and the cost of a chamber orchestra concert was below $20,000 (and that includes musicians’ fees for the standard two rehearsals in addition to the performance).

I had been watching the concert programs of several statewide orchestras and was intrigued by the programming of the WCFSO. Occasionally, they would program the work of an up-and-coming composer. A few of the board members of the ICF knew the symphony’s conductor, Jason Weinberger, and confirmed that he was a supporter of new music.

With all of these facts at my disposal, I arranged a meeting with Jason at a local coffee house. My sales pitch was simple: “If I was able to raise $12,000, would you consider putting on a concert of music by local composers?” He immediately agreed to the proposal, and we began planning a concert for the end of the 2007-08 season (which was about 2 years away). Of course, I had already floated this proposal by the orchestra’s executive director. Decisions at orchestras are not made unilaterally. Luckily in this case conversations with the principal parties were already in the works at the time of my meeting with Weinberger.

Our timeline was coordinated around grant deadlines. We knew we had to have the concert program in place prior to applying for grants, and we also knew we needed to advertise the call for scores for several months prior to reviewing materials. (This was a project for our entire organization of 75 composers, so we wanted each of them to have a shot at being included. However, we wanted a buy in from the orchestra before we made them go through the trouble of sending in materials.) We involved a panel of composers and conductors in the initial review process, and culled the initial 67 entries down to a manageable 30. Weinberger reviewed the short list, and came up with two potential concert programs: one that involved fewer forces (and was thus less expensive) and one for full orchestra.

Prior to the initial grant application, we had each of the selected composers write a letter of support for the project, detailing the impact the concert would have on their career. We then used excerpts of these letters in the actual grant applications. We also worked closely with the executive director to come up with a budget that covered the costs of the orchestra, the hall, the hall’s staff, and the programs. Finally, we came up with an outreach component. Free tickets would be provided to members of a local Big Brothers/Big Sisters chapter and I would facilitate a session ahead of the concert where they could learn about motives and some of the instruments they would hear.

In all, we submitted four grant applications. Luckily, we hit gold on two of the four, receiving $8,500 from the Iowa Arts Council and $4,500 from the Northeast Iowa Community Foundation. Those of you familiar with the grant application process know that many grants have to be matched by other funding sources. For the Arts Council grant, we used the Foundation grant as matching funding, along with roughly $3,500 in “donated” labor by members of the symphony (the conductor, executive director, administrative assistant, and librarian). The ticket sales more than made up the rest.

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WCFSO Music Director Jason Weinberger (far left) and four of the Iowa composers (from left to right): Jon Chenette, Michael Gilbertson, Brooke Joyce, & Jerry Owen

On May 10, 2008, Weinberger and the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony performed the works of five composers with ties to the state of Iowa: Jerry Owen, Michael Gilbertson, Jeremy Beck, Brooke Joyce, and Jonathan Chenette. The concert was broadcast on two occasions on Iowa Public Radio and now, as an indirect result, Orchestra Iowa is including the works of seven local composers on its 2009-10 Masterworks season.

In all, the concert cost roughly $14,000 for two rehearsals and a performance by 55 orchestral musicians. (I think it worked out to over $80 per service for the musicians. The administrators and the conductor are all on a base salary, so they actually didn’t take a cut of this money.) But the best part of it was that our organization didn’t pay a dime for this!

I’m confident these sorts of projects could work in other areas of the country. If you decide to pursue such a venture, here are some points to keep in mind:

  • Scope out granting organizations in your region to ensure there are multiple sources of funding. Research state and city arts councils, private foundations, community foundations, even some national organizations, e.g. the National Endowment for the Arts. Additionally, the BMI Foundation allows non-profits to apply for funds “to further the creation, performance and study of contemporary music” regardless of the performing rights society affiliation of the composers being performed.

  • Map out a timeline that works backwards from grant deadlines and includes advertising the call for scores, processing and adjudicating the scores, and preparing grant applications. Then work the timeline forward to include rehearsals, concerts, etc.

  • Many granting organizations want to see evidence that your project provides benefits to underserved populations (or people without regular access to the arts due to economic circumstances). To satisfy this requirement, work with a local non-profit, such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters, providing them with free tickets to the event and access to a pre-concert demonstration of some of the instruments they will hear in the concert.

  • Give the orchestra’s music director the flexibility to choose the final concert program, but make their life easier by using a committee of composers/conductors to cut the initial number of the scores down to 20 or 25.

  • Secure a letter of support for the project from each participating composer, the orchestra’s music director, and a representative who can speak on behalf of any outreach component.

  • Involve the orchestra’s executive director in creating a budget for the project. Ticket sales, other grants, and donated labor by the orchestra staff can be used as matching components on grant applications.

  • Apply for grants through a nonprofit 501c(3) organization. (The symphony could serve as the fiscal sponsor for this function, with the composer(s) doing the legwork for the grant applications.)

  • Gather statistics from the concert programs of local orchestras to show that new music is an underserved art form. For example, “In the last two years, only one out of the 135 works presented on the programs of the five major Iowa orchestras was written by a living Iowa composer.”

  • Use a survey distributed to the audience to measure the success of the project. Include questions like, “After this concert, are you more likely to attend a future concert with new music by local composers?”

  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. Most grant applications are very similar. Reuse material from one application to the next.
  • I hope you’ll consider embarking on a similar project in your neck of the woods. These sorts of initiatives not only help to change the culture of the symphony involved, they also serve as a beacon to other symphonies in the region as to what is possible. Most importantly, they help fight for the cause of new music—a cause we all believe in.

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    Ralph Kendrick
    Photo by Jay Messina




    Ralph Kendrick is a Cedar Rapids-based composer that fuses funk, blues and rock into classical pieces for chamber, choral, and orchestral ensembles. He is also Chairman of the Board for the Iowa Composers Forum.