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League Of American Orchestras Conference, June 2012

Kate Lidbetter, CEO of Symphony Services International, attended the League of American Orchestras conference, 6-8 June, 2012, held in Dallas, Texas.  Colleague Gordon Williams came along to assist with the marketing of the Goodear Acoustic Shield, featured in the Exhibit Hall.

The report that follows is not an accurate transcription of any conference sessions or meetings and reflects only the views of the writer.  It may contain some inaccuracies or errors.

Orchestral Leadership Academy seminar

Immediately prior to each Conference, the League of American Orchestras offers a range of “Orchestral Leadership Academy” seminars – learning opportunities focussing on a wide range of topics.  On Tuesday 5 June, Patrick Pickett (CEO of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra) and I turned up bright and early to hear from Susan Nelson and Allison M Crump, senior representatives of Technical Development Corporation (TDC).  The seminar was titled Aligning Money and Organisations Strategy – Beyond Breakeven.  Patrick and I had both heard these speakers at the previous League conference and had been impressed with their clear, concise and entertaining dissection of finance as it relates to orchestras.  We were not disappointed in this all-day seminar – the hours flew by and we emerged with a range of new ways of thinking about balance sheets and how they relate to orchestras.

Fellow participants included representatives from America and other countries, mostly non-finance but senior within their orchestra, and largely smaller to mid-size orchestras.  The focus was on practical balance sheet analysis and how to connect money and strategy.  The session used a fictional orchestra, “Downtown Orchestra” to closely examine the income statement, balance sheet, key financial indicators and trends, to arrive at a thorough picture of the organisation’s health.  Some accounting differences existed between the Australian and the US approach, but the need for thorough, honest and deep analysis was common to both.  A simple but extremely telling deconstruction of the balance sheet showed that the numbers don’t tell the full story once restricted funds, advances, fixed assets and operations are removed from the list of “assets”.  In particular, this session was aimed at empowering orchestral managers to ask difficult questions about whether their orchestra is in the right space to consider launching (or adding to) an endowment.

Conference sessions

From Wednesday 6 to Friday 8 June the League ran its extraordinary conference.  Held this year for the 67th time, the League certainly has its act together when it comes to these events.  I highly recommend going online to the League’s site, where you can download many of the sessions and events that were videoed.  Enjoy them at your leisure.

A highlight for me was attending a “Constituency X” meeting (for those of us that didn’t fit easily into the many other constituency options available) led by marketing guru Trevor O’Donnell.  Author of the e-book Marketing the Arts to Death: How Lazy Language is Killing Culture, he examined the language used by orchestral marketers and common traps into which it is very easy to fall.  He talked about how audiences today are buying the whole experience – from getting the babysitter to the parking to dinner before the concert to ease of getting home afterwards.  His session made sense, and was entertaining (if at times a bit confronting) for both the marketing and non-marketing audience.  His book can be found at http://trevorodonnell.com/ or on Amazon.

The mood of this year’s Conference was generally lighter than at the previous events I’ve attended.  People seemed to feel that the GFC’s strength is waning, and although it felt like there were fewer delegates than in the past, this could possibly have been due to the vastness of the hotel in downtown Dallas.  The Sheraton had seen a conference of several thousand Anime afficionados immediately prior to the League event.  Upon checking in, late at night, I had been confronted with a sea of young people in costumes queuing for every available lift into the residential towers.  I suspect the hotel staff breathed a sigh of relief when the smaller group of League delegates arrived!

The Exhibit Hall and Goodear Acoustic Shield

One primary purpose for Symphony Services International attending the Conference was the opportunity to display our Goodear Acoustic Shield.  Although Gordon and I had attended the 2011 Conference and taken a display booth for Goodear, we felt that we could do more to reach the American audience in 2012.  This year, we not only took a booth we also concentrated on marketing our presence prior to the Conference, and as much as possible during the Conference through sponsoring the Operations & General Managers’ Constituency Meeting.  This gave me the opportunity to speak to a captive audience of decision makers – what we in Australia call the Orchestra Managers.

They were an attentive audience, interested in the history and benefits of Goodear and generous in their response.  We had also arranged, at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s request, to send 10 shields to Texas for use by the DSO in its important concert on the opening evening of the Conference.  DSO drew attention to this at the start of the concert, and it became a talking point when visitors came to our booth throughout the course of the event.  Interestingly, most had not noticed Goodear on the stage that night, and had not perceived any difference in the sound from the stage.  For us, this was great news – the product is designed to be discreet and blend into the background, and to protect the musicians while not altering the sound for players, conductor or audience.  This anecdotal feedback certainly supported our claims!

Other networking opportunities

There was quite a large Aussie contingent at the Conference, including Craig Whitehead (West Australian Symphony Orchestra), Patrick Pickett (Queensland Symphony Orchestra) and Rory Jeffes (Sydney Symphony). We were also delighted to catch up with ex-pat Australians Raff Wilson (Director of Artistic Planning, Hong Kong Philharmonic), David Pratt (Executive Director, Savannah Philharmonic) and Sally Braybrooks (Music Institute of Chicago).

I was also delighted to once more catch up with my British counterpart, Director of the Association of British Orchestras, Mark Pemberton.  Last seen (by me) in Hong Kong, Mark was full of his usual enthusiasm and interesting updates on the state of orchestras in the UK.  Mark and I spent some time with Dr Robert Flanagan, author of the fascinating book The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras (available through Amazon or from Yale Press.

Bob had quoted comparisons between American, Australian and British orchestras (among others) in terms of their government subsidies, revenue, expenditure and other key statistics.  Mark and I were each able to update him on the state of things orchestral in our jurisdictions, and to bring more recent figures and statistics.  We spent a fascinating hour learning how an economist thinks about the business of running orchestras!

All in all it was a great few days.  I learned a lot, made new contacts and caught up with old colleagues.  I highly recommend the League’s Conference to anyone in the sector who is able to attend.

Kate Lidbetter
July 2012