Vibrant Symphony Orchestras

A Policy Analytic Perspective

by Brian Barber Dille

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This dissertation addresses American symphony orchestras and the unusual economic challenges they face, which are shared by many performing arts organizations. The policy questions that guided the dissertation are:

  1. What financial challenges do orchestras face?
  2. What is the range of orchestras' organizational goals and what are the strategies they use to achieve these goals?
  3. How do orchestra strategies change with changing economic conditions, and which strategies are associated with which outcomes?

Through a review of the relevant literature, I identified the main, interrelated financial challenges as being: 1. the cost disease; 2. declining demand; and 3. aging audiences. I used the literature review and interviews with subject matter experts to form a conceptual model that guided data collection and analysis. I conducted multiple case studies of orchestra organizations and found the three financial challenges were present, to varying degrees, and I used the case studies to explore, identify, describe, and compare orchestras', as well as their different stakeholders', goals and strategies.

The most common goals expressed by respondents across the case studies concerned 1. making classical music accessible and relevant, and 2. attempting to ensure the survival of their organizations. I found that the case study orchestras' goals could be characterized as nonprice information that prospective audience members use to decide whether they want to attend performances, but, more importantly, they are aspects of the organizations' identities and operations that affect whether board members, donors, and volunteers want to invest their time and resources. I found that orchestras' strategies seemed to be a function of their leaders' visions for their organizations, and that the changes made in response to economic conditions were more short-term and tactical. To change strategies, the case study orchestras changed leaders.

The case study orchestras had small or medium-sized budgets. I concluded that these orchestras improved both their short-term adaptability and long-term chances of survival by attempting to broaden and strengthen ties to their particular communities, meeting concrete needs and satisfying local preferences. The dissertation ends with a proposed framework for evaluating any future policy innovations that orchestras' leaders may implement.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction: The Economics of Vibrating Air

  • Chapter Two

    Background

  • Chapter Three

    Methodology and Approach

  • Chapter Four

    Results: History, Geography, and Demography of the Case Study Orchestras

  • Chapter Five

    Results: Goals

  • Chapter Six

    Results: Performance Revenue

  • Chapter Seven

    Results: Nonperformance Revenue

  • Chapter Eight

    Results: Costs

  • Chapter Nine

    Results: Revenues and Expenditures, Compared

  • Chapter Ten

    10. Conclusions

  • Chapter Eleven

    Policy Recommendations

Research conducted by

This document was submitted as a dissertation in October 2016 in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the doctoral degree in public policy analysis at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. The faculty committee that supervised and approved the dissertation consisted of Gery Ryan (Chair), Jeffrey Wasserman, and Martin Wachs.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation dissertation series. Pardee RAND dissertations are produced by graduate fellows of the Pardee RAND Graduate School, the world's leading producer of Ph.D.'s in policy analysis. The dissertations are supervised, reviewed, and approved by a Pardee RAND faculty committee overseeing each dissertation.

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