11 Must-Haves for Growth at an Orchestra

Lessons After Four Years at the California Symphony (Plus Ten Years in the Field Before That)

The arts are a hard business. From Baumol’s cost disease due to being in a highly labor-intensive industry, to deep and long running emotions between management and musicians, to being under fire for lack of diversity, to a limited administrative talent pool, managing an arts organization is no cakewalk. But enough of victimizing ourselves — a meme unfortunately so prevalent in our field (more on stopping the negativity below) — this is a post about turning the victim into the victor, and how the last four years has taught me that growth at an orchestra is absolutely possible.

When the California Symphony was recruiting me during the summer of 2014, I knew it was in financial crisis. I also knew I had been developing and employing a lot of strategies and tactics with success in my previous roles at much larger institutions that I wanted to unite under one roof. And I decided this would be the place I would go to test, authenticate, and verify it all.

The following stats give away the end of the story. About a year ago I posted a similar chart, and this is the updated version as my fourth year here comes to a close.

How did we achieve this kind of growth? I get asked that a lot. The following outlines my top 11 must-haves for growth at an orchestra (note: this list may not be exhaustive — there are additional things besides these 11 below that can also contribute to growth — but this is the list of the non-negotiables for me):

Anyone who reads my posts regularly or who has heard me speak at a conference knows this is a big one for me. One that has made all the difference. From my first article on why “getting new audiences” isn’t the right answer, to launching a new model for audience development — all of which I had assiduously tested in various components in my past jobs before coming here and putting it all together — to doing UX research on why new attendees weren’t coming back for a second visit which resulted in what The Wall Street Journal called “a new approach to audience outreach,” to efforts to invite and welcome multicultural audiences to our core repertoire rather than one-off programs that encourage one-off culturally specific attendance, we are constantly focusing on how to keep the patrons we have coming back for more. In other words, we diligently, consistently, and even obsessively put the patron at the center of what we do. At every organization I’ve done that, the revenue has followed.

In an industry that can be incredibly subjective­ — which on one hand makes sense as art of any kind lends itself to subjectivity in its evaluation, but on the other hand has led to unobjective approaches in other aspects of our business— using data has served me and the organizations for which I’ve worked very, very well. Many times over the years, I’ve seen or been part of discussions about what color the brochure should be or what verbiage the fundraising appeal should include, and early on, I discovered that these decisions do not have to be based on opinion nor require a big time suck for debate; they can and should be tested and measured so the people executing this work (more on that below) can proceed with confidence. In other words, data matters because it’s the opposite of opinion or conjecture; it’s betting on a winning horse. Business author and Stanford Professor Jim Collins said it this way: Fire bullets before cannonballs, meaning try something and see how it plays out — whether that’s two different copy elements to our digital ads, or trying “save 30%” versus “$20 off” on our sales offers (a real test we are currently running), or giving a subset of donors a special version of the appeal letter to see if the response rate or average donation is higher, or running a pilot education program before launching a full scale behemoth. And then when we know what’s working, with assurance we put more money behind it.

This approach is also called iterative design. Try something, measure its effectiveness, revise, refine, and try again in the next go-round. It’s trendy in other industries because it works. We now think this way in just about everything we do at the California Symphony.

Scaring people into action works in the short term; it does not work in the long term. I’ve read this is because motivating others out of fear or negativity articulates what we are against, which is more vague than articulating what we stand for. And when we are looking at orchestras, acting out of fear and/or negativity is sometimes an unfortunate part of our culture spanning fiscal year end campaigns (help us balance the budget to keep the music playing!), union negotiations (do this to avoid a work stoppage!), and the way we all talk on social media (boy do we collectively complain a lot about the field we simultaneously profess to love!). None of those tactics ever work to create lasting change, and certainly not growth. Ever.

What does work though, is positivity. Martin Luther King Jr. was so motivational because he spoke about the world he could envision, not the one with which he was dissatisfied (remember, it’s about what we stand for?). Talking about the future we imagine for this orchestra has excited donors more every time over “give by June 30” (a deadline that’s relevant only to the organization, not the donor…see above point about putting the patron at the center); talking about programming and projects we are actively planning has proven better at the bargaining table with the musicians (in other words, talking about how much we want to be playing over what it may look like to not be playing); and using posts like this to talk about how the California Symphony is actively addressing problems instead of only pontificating about them has built a following. Our job is to believe in and articulate the future we are building for our orchestras (think how Dr. King literally said “I believe…” over and over in his speeches). When we are positive, others believe and buy in too. Positivity isn’t just a mindset, it’s a strategy.

I say all the time to my staff that ideas are a dime a dozen. Lots of people have them: staff, board, bloggers, journalists. (Raise your hand if you’ve been to a meeting where someone said, “You know what you should do…?”) What matters — to me and everyone else, i.e. the people we’re serving — is being able to execute those ideas. This starts at the top, and creating an organizational culture where everyone in the org chart knows how to brainstorm AND create a plan, timeline, and budget for how they are going to bring those ideas to fruition has absolutely set us apart.

If you’re tracking so far, this all goes hand in hand. The ability to articulate the vision for the future we want plus the ability to deliver results toward that vision, and then knowing how to use data to measure and evaluate those results makes the difference between a surviving organization and a growing one.

To be clear, executing something well once isn’t enough; every time I’ve led teams to growth, it’s because we’ve delivered time and again, and more important, leveraged that repeated success externally. Why? Because in a universe where low hanging fruit for ticket sales and donations is less and less plentiful, in order to grow these revenue streams, the rest of the market (e.g. the community, the general public, potential supporters, prospective patrons, those not already drinking the Kool-Aid) needs to see proven and authenticated success before they’ll join the family. In other words, we need to give people a bandwagon, and bandwagons don’t happen because of that one cool concert that person went to that one time.

Author Simon Sinek said it this way in a recent TED Radio Hour podcast, “A movement is voluntary.” Call it a movement or call it a bandwagon, the point is, in order to grow, we need the audience and donor base to voluntarily buy into this work.

How we’ve done this: First, when we’ve focused on retention through all those strategies, projects, and tactics mentioned above, and when we’ve used data consistently, repeating success is feasible because it’s built into our daily operations. Second, and equally important, we’ve communicated that success regularly and contextually, meaning we’ve taken every opportunity to let people know there is a bandwagon worth joining. For example, we unfailingly choose language in public facing messaging that says our audience and donor base is expanding: in welcome remarks from the stage, intro letter in the program book, e-news communications, and acquisition materials for both marketing and development efforts. Psychologists call this normalizing the behavior. “It is normal to attend and support the symphony” is the message we are telegraphing. Deliver success again and again, and then make sure the market knows a lot of people are on board with that success, and they can be too.

In America there are over 150 higher education music schools compared to only 42 arts administration programs. That’s three times as many university and conservatory programs pumping out musical talent every single year as there are arts management training programs. As I said to 30 rising leaders when I presented this information as guest faculty at the League of American Orchestras “Essentials of Orchestra Management” seminar this summer, I wish we had the same talent pool on the admin side as is available on the music side. Many of us in these management jobs didn’t even come from a formal training program (we were first musicians ourselves, or some other major entirely, or smartly pursued a business degree which covers a lot but definitely not all of what’s needed to run an orchestra), which further supports the point that while there is a plethora of talent on stage, there is comparatively a dearth off.

Therefore, when I see that there isn’t a windfall of people who are the fully equipped jack-of-all-trades marketing/fundraising/operations/fill-in-the-blank rockstars required to do this work well, I see that I need to invest in talent and talent development for my staff. This is backwards from most non-profit organizations of any size that are strained financially: the hiring and professional development budgets are often what gets squeezed, which only perpetuates the talent problem. Over the last four years, I made sure every opportunity to hire was an opportunity to raise the standard for the talent needed to do this work well. And every time I looked at the budget and thought, “how am I going to pay for this?” Then every time, I made the leap, and then they were more productive and lucrative for the organization, and it paid off. Over that same time period, I also brought the professional development budget from virtually non-existent to having a stipend for every employee to use for their own training each year. And over that same time period, contributed revenue grew by 54%, earned revenue grew by 128%, and the number of people served by this organization annually has doubled. Paying highly qualified people to do high quality work is an investment right back into the organization to position it for growth.

True confession: sometimes this is really hard. Like at my very first rehearsal at the California Symphony after starting this job, I was backstage trying to meet as many musicians as I could, and one of the players passed by, looked me up and down, and said, “You’re the new ED?!,” sighed, rolled their eyes, and walked away. Nice to meet you too. That interaction proved an anomaly I’m happy to report, and instead, what almost always transpires is that the musicians are amazing at their jobs and nice human beings who are far and away doing their part to get people on the bandwagon, and I’m a total fan. Another true confession: at concerts I usually hoot and holler and cheer for them during the applause. I might be the rowdiest audience member of all, and I do it because 1) they’re so darn good, and 2) I want to normalize this behavior too.

Arts organizations face tremendous short-term pressure to maximize revenue, and our budgets are always lean and getting leaner, which is a foolproof formula for leaving no room or culture for experimentation. We all have top notch artists, quality programming, and education initiatives that make a difference, and failure to fund on any one of these fronts because an experiment did not pan out to be profitable in its first iteration is a miss most of us can’t afford. Nonetheless, we must challenge the idea that trying something different is delinquent or going against the grain; rather, it’s imperative for innovation, creativity, and ultimately growth.

In year one of this job, it was pretty lean, as it felt at every sized organization for which I’ve worked, including some of this country’s leading institutions. Yet systematically, through a focus on patron retention, consistent use of data, positivity…(read the list down at this point)…we changed that, and have created a culture where pilot projects and experimentation are expected. By year two at the California Symphony, we were able to build in a few programmatic experiments (testing market expansion to Napa Valley, a new outdoor concert, a new gala model, and were doubling down on audience research projects. By year three we had new music on every concert in the season, made hefty changes based on the findings of said research (which was possible since we fired bullets before cannonballs), and in year four (this past season), we piloted a full new program testing if adult education can serve as a gateway to ticket sales (future blog post to come, I’m sure). Some of these experiments worked, and some did not. What we’ve learned from each was invaluable to the continued growth of this organization.

I had to create this culture; the board didn’t hand it to me. It’s up to the leader to build in risk capital in order to grow, not to mention finding the talented staff with whom to ideate, collaborate, and execute this work.

While this is how most orchestras are set up: with two equal partners, the executive director and the music director reporting up to the board, as I’ve met more and more of my executive director peers, I’ve learned this isn’t at all the case. Yes, the reporting structure is generally that way, but the relationship isn’t. Here are some of the exchanges I’ve had with my executive director colleagues:

Peer ED: “How did you get buy-in from the board on all these changes? Who was your ally supporting you in all this?”

Me: “My music director.”

________

“Wait, how did you get that [insert complete management decision that is not musical at all in nature] past your music director?”

“Uh, I told him I was going to do this and he said ‘great.’”

“Why didn’t he protest or meddle?”

“He trusts me to do my job?”

________

“So when you were planning the season, how did you convince your music director to program more pieces by women and composers of color?”

“I said, ‘Hey, are there any women or composers of color you’d like to program?’ And then he said, ‘Oh yeah! I want to do this and this and this and this.’ And then I said, ‘How would you feel about making a commitment to doing that every year so we make sure we are always trying to represent the full breadth of talent available to us?’
‘Love it — let’s do it!’

And then he made a list in our ongoing programming doc for future seasons of underrepresented composers whose amazing work he wanted to bring to our audience.”

[Sidebar: making a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion really was about that easy; and then when it was time to go to the board with it, as well as their piece in the organizational DEI plan, see the first example above as to how that played out.]

________

It wasn’t like this from day one; I had to work at building the relationship, just like any other relationship or partnership, which is important to say. It takes two to grow an orchestra, and now I have a really high standard for any music directors I’ll work with in the future.

I repeat: the arts are a hard business. People at arts organizations across the country now reach out all the time asking for guidance and answers on how to grow, and in response to those questions, I made this list.

This list isn’t a list of ideas to cherry pick. It’s a list of must-haves in my book, meaning we have to fire on all cylinders to do this work well. Managing an orchestra is a lot of work and even a test of will sometimes. All of the achievements here and in my previous roles have been a tireless effort, and while some things have gotten easier — momentum is a great thing — there is no silver bullet to solve all the challenges of managing an arts organization. So I’ll conclude with #11:

It can be done. Growth that completely defies the trends of our industry can be realized when you strategically and intentionally forge a path. Just like building a muscle, when you persist with the right work, you get stronger. The last four years (and 10 more before that for me personally) have been purposefully doing just that, and we have a lot to show for it. Everyone reading this is wholeheartedly invited to join the bandwagon.

Aubrey Bergauer, Executive Director, California Symphony
Aubrey Bergauer defies trends, and then makes her own. In a time when most arts organizations are scaling back programs, tightening budgets, and seeing declines in tickets and subscriptions, Bergauer has dramatically increased earned and contributed revenue at organizations ranging from Seattle Opera to the Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival to the California Symphony. Her focus on not just engaging — but retaining — new audiences grew Seattle Opera’s BRAVO! Club (for audience members in their 20’s and 30’s) to the largest group of its kind nationwide, led the Bumbershoot Festival to achieve an unprecedented 43% increase in revenue, and propelled the California Symphony to nearly double the size of its audience and quadruple the donor base.

A graduate of Rice University with degrees in Music Performance and Business, for the last 15 years Bergauer has used music to make the world around her better, through programs that champion social justice and equality, through marketing and audience development tactics on the forefront of trends and technology, and through proving and sharing what works in the rapidly changing landscape of funding, philanthropy, and consumer behavior. If ideas are a dime a dozen, what separates Bergauer is her experience and record of execution and impact at institutions of all sizes. Praised for her leadership which “points the way to a new style of audience outreach,” (Wall Street Journal) and which drove the California Symphony to become “the most forward-looking music organization around” (Mercury News), Bergauer’s ability to strategically and holistically examine and advance every facet of the organization, instilling and achieving common goals and vision across what are usually siloed marketing, development, and artistic departments, is creating a transformational change in the audience, in the office, on the stage, in the community, and is changing the narrative for the classical music industry.

“The Steve Jobs of classical music.” (Observer) Working to change the narrative for this business.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store