One of the things that drives me nuts about the ASO is that they don’t seem to market the individual concerts at all to people who aren’t already engaged with the ASO. I think about the packed houses for Joshua Bell or Yo Yo Ma and know that most of the people attending are there because they’d like to go to a concert and know that those names mean that it will be a good show. The same goes for the more recognizable pieces of music, such as Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. I’ve never really seen any meaningful attempt to inform people about the various other soloists who come to town. Can you imagine an Atlanta audience not giving a enthusiastic (even for Atlanta audiences) standing ovation to Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg after seeing her vivacious, kinetic playing? Can you imagine someone who is excited about Beethoven’s 5th not getting a charge from the scherzo from Dvorak’s 9th? If they like Dvorak’s 9th, how about Smetana’s Ma Vlast? Why isn’t the marketing team making this kind of info easily available to potential audience members?
Sadly, we don’t have much in the way of arts journalism in this town and even less devoted specifically to classical music, so we aren’t getting previews of most of these concerts beyond a blurb from Lois Reitzes on WABE. Gresham and Atlanta Music Critic have a lot to offer but they mostly write about things after they happen and their target audience is already familiar with their subject matter, which isn’t a good substitute for marketing to inform potential audience members about what is being offered. As good as Ken Meltzer’s program notes are, they aren’t marketing material, they aren’t that easy to find on the website, and they aren’t available far enough in advance to sell series tickets. It can be hard for the general public to find out what’s going on in classical music in this metro despite having a scene large enough to include several professional, semi-professional, and amateur orchestras and chamber ensembles spanning the entire metro area and venues that bring in some incredible acts that are frequently featured on national radio. The season brochures are pretty and have a lot of easily digestible information, but it doesn’t build excitement for individual concerts and, if I didn’t already know enough to find the soloists, conductors, and pieces of music that I will enjoy, I’d not find it to be terribly helpful. Beyond that, they mostly go out to people who are already going to concerts, which might help a little in subscription sales but does nothing to build new audiences.
Where is the marketing? Where are the commercials making a trip to Symphony Hall rank up there with going to an expensive restaurant or buying a diamond for trying to impress your date? Where is the ad telling me that if I liked Beethoven’s 9th that I’ll enjoy Brahms’ 1st? I can find out more about the Atlanta Opera’s upcoming concerts from the side of a bus than I can find out from most of the ASO’s ads that I see or hear in any medium that isn’t mailed directly to me as an existing customer. For that matter, I tend to be able to find out more about what’s going on at the High or Alliance Theatre from ads around town than the ASO. Admittedly, there’s more going on in an ASO season than there is in the rest of those organizations, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t focus on a few concerts that would otherwise fly under the radar to help build new audiences and help those who only come for one or two concerts of familiar music with familiar soloists find more concerts to attend.
The fact that it is more challenging just means that we need marketing professionals who know what they are doing and we need management at the top that will challenge them to get the word out. That’s where Romanstein and Hepner have truly failed: no business can sell something if their potential customers don’t know about the product and they haven’t done much to educate the public about their product. Yes, they have tried some new things in marketing (e.g. suggesting BYO packages or ASO Go!/introducing the musicians to the public, which is probably helping the Musicians garner support during the lockout moreso than developing new audiences) but, as Pruitt points out so well and my own experiences confirm, they clearly haven’t done anything different enough from the same-old-same-old to reach people and stop the decline in ticket sales and donations. I find myself wondering if they are working from actual marketing research and, if not, why they haven’t set aside part of their budget to hire a top-notch firm that actually knows enough about the product to do a study of it. The ASO cannot thrive under management that fails to enthusiastically engage potential new customers; no amount of bean counting and benefit cutting will change that.
For my own mental well-being, I prefer to think that it is incompetence and not part of some nefarious scheme to degrade the symphony orchestra that I love so dearly. Hepner’s business experience is in managing the corporate finance division of Wachovia (which failed shortly after she left due to poor financial investments, I might add). Client development for that kind of work is very different than donor and audience development for the arts (if she had to deal with it at all in an organization that large with so many specialized departments). She’s not selling a promise of financial returns or good financing costs anymore but a promise of an enjoyable and meaningful encounter with the arts, which any salesperson will tell you is much more difficulty and requires a good understanding of how people do and want to enjoy the product and, also, a very good understanding of the product itself. Romanstein’s work with the MN Humanities Center, similarly, failed to provide him with the kind of experience that would be required to evaluate the efficacy of an arts-producing organization’s marketing program. His PhD in musicology should provide him with the understanding he would need of the product that the ASO sells, but the kind of business networking that he would be used to is, again, radically different than selling people on attending an orchestra performance.
What we have, I think, are two people who are in the wrong jobs but who are not clever enough to understand that fact. The collective backgrounds of the constituents of the WAC governing board doesn’t help things very much, either, in regards to providing the kind of insight needed to guide the executives in their duties. Setting aside the bashing of the fools who childishly decided to throw the musicians — and their own raison d’etre, I might justly add — out when they didn’t get their way, the financial shortfalls in question go back well before any of these jokers had any meaningful control.
And these shortfalls really are a problem at the WAC: we can’t pretend that they aren’t after Moody’s downgraded their bond rating from A1 to A2 in 2009 and the rating outlook downgrade from stable to negative last year. But, that said, notice the “A” is still in there. It would still be in there if they were downgraded to A3. All three of those ratings are in the Prime-2 range, which is actually pretty good for an arts organization of any size in this economy. People used to running a bank or real estate firm might not be used to considering anything below Prime-1 to be a worthwhile investment, but when a business is out to develop social and cultural returns rather than financial returns on investment, it’s a little different.
The WAC could have some bonds rated as Prime-1 — even AAA — with the backing of the city or county, which is something that they have had for some of their specific-purpose bonds for capital improvement debts in the recent past (including, I think, the bonds for building the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, which would make paying them off less desirable than paying down their other outstanding bonds with the lower ratings, though I think that the outcry would be even louder if money for the ASO went to general WAC bonds rather than an ASO-specific bond). While it would be great if the City of Atlanta, Fulton County, or the State of Georgia were to guarantee all of the bonds issued by their largest arts organization, it’s unlikely to happen and, frankly, it’s not necessary. An A1 or AAA bond rating is great, but not absolutely necessary to keep financing costs to a reasonable level if there is a long-term sustainability plan. That said, if they had a true long-term sustainability plan then they wouldn’t have been given a negative outlook. The truth is, the kind of urgency that would necessitate heavy-handed negotiation tactics simply isn’t there; it’s just that they don’t have any idea how to get where they need to be without degrading the quality of the very product that they are supposed to be selling.
Of course, we all know that a long-term plan to reduce the debt would do more for them than shooting themselves in the foot by reducing the quality of the orchestra and, thus, the music and their customers’ experience. The ASO may lose money, but it also brings in an order of magnitude more than either the High or the Alliance Theatre and the WAC won’t look good if they end up cutting their overall budget in half just to balance the books. Shrinking isn’t a particularly good way to ensure donor and sponsor confidence. The past few years under Romanstein have shown that he cannot formulate a long-term plan to get out of debt and, since Hepner came on board just before the previous lockout, they haven’t even tried to develop one that would leave the WAC as strong as it has been up to this point. I think that it is clear that they lack the vision to do so.
There are two ways to deal with growing debt: control costs and raise revenues. What the current leadership team has shown is that they have ideas regarding how to do the former but not the latter. It is their job to do both and, as such, we can clearly affirm that they are not doing their respective jobs well. They simply have no idea how to sell some of the greatest art on the planet. Every time someone who has even a remote interest in attending a classical music concert within the Atlanta Metropolitan Area shows that they didn’t know what an amazing orchestra they have in their own backyard they are providing prime evidence that the WAC/ASO leadership has failed.
This problem has developed from years of a kind of mismanagement and short-sightedness that will take true visionaries to correct. Romanstein and Hepner have now twice shown very publicly that they cannot offer this kind of vision and direction: first by their ham-fisted, childish negotiation techniques and secondly by not holding up their end of the bargain from 2012 and showing that they could actually raise the money that they promised to raise to compliment the concessions by the musicians. This lockout is the third strike against their credibility as competent leaders.
To renew Romanstein’s contract after he failed so miserably to deliver the promised funding shows that the WAC’s leadership cannot be trusted to provide the kind of oversight that a world-class orchestra with financial problems needs. Such failure speaks to the need to replace Hepner, as well. If our valiant and brilliant world-class musicians can stay unified and strong throughout this ordeal, I do not see how the WAC can possibly continue effectively with Hepner and Romanstein still in charge. Simply put, the credibility that they’ve already lost with us will be lost to their less musician-sympathizing donors. My hope is that, when the ASO and the Musicians come through this, they — and the rest of the organizations under the WAC roof, as well — will find themselves with the kind of leadership that they need and deserve.
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