Sunday, August 10, 2003

Rock shows in tune with CSO strategy

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

It's doubtful that the average person listening to Aerosmith and Kiss at Riverbend this week will know the hard-rock superstars are brought to them by the symphony.

Although it's a nontraditional source of revenue for a symphony orchestra - whose main fare is Mahler and Beethoven - the rock side of Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra operations has been a mainstay, even as ticket sales for its classical activities have fluctuated.

While traditional methods of supporting symphonies - such as endowment income, foundations, government grants and individual giving - are drying up, the CSO strategy has been to diversify its operations.

"All orchestras are struggling with how to, No. 1, get new audiences, and No. 2, simply survive," says Susan Elliott, editor of, a performing arts Web site. "There are few people interested in strictly classical music. So, (orchestras) are trying all manner of ways to attract new audiences and try different programming."

For 18 years, it has diversified its business into the realm of rock, overseeing pop acts (booked by Clear Channel, the country's largest concert promoter) at the orchestra's summer home, Riverbend Music Center.

It was the intent of Riverbend's original donors, J. Ralph and Patricia Corbett and Hulbert Taft Jr., that Riverbend would provide income for the orchestra, as well as a home for the CSO and Pops. For the last decade, its contemporary shows have added $1 million or more each year to the symphony's bottom line.

Two years ago, the orchestra again branched out with Music and Event Management Inc., its own nonprofit subsidiary, which produces events like Jammin' on Main and will produce Tall Stacks (Oct. 15-19). The riverboat festival will be reinvented into the biggest musical event held in Greater Cincinnati - five days, four stages, 30 national acts and more than 50 local artists.

Other orchestras have benefited from rock, jazz or country music acts booked by presenters in outdoor venues. Such concerts at the Cleveland Orchestra's Blossom Music Center are presented by House of Blues, which also operates Blossom for the orchestra.

But the CSO may be the first orchestra in the country that owns its own subsidiary production company.

"If you can find untraditional sources of revenue to support your orchestra, you are ahead of the game," says Henry Fogel, president and CEO of the American Symphony Orchestra League, who just stepped down as executive director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra after 18 years. "I don't have a problem with them presenting rock. The one thing it really should do is make money, and that money should support the CSO. If it does that, it's enhancing the mission."

In fiscal 2001-02, which ended Aug. 31, 2002, the orchestra netted $1.4 million from its Riverbend contemporary activities. Music and Event Management's financial benefit to the orchestra is not yet established (the orchestra will be paid an undisclosed fee for producing Tall Stacks).

It's not just orchestras that are getting into the presenting act. Last month, the Atlanta Opera announced plans to present pop concerts to help pay off its $1.3 million debt.

But do such activities cloud an arts organization's very raison d'etre? For the CSO, that has meant presenting great classical music for 108 years. Today, the CSO sees itself as a diverse operation that includes symphonic, pops and rock music, appealing to all facets of the community.

"It may be true that orchestras are sort of sidestepping their original mission. But their mission might need to change," says Elliott. "These days you have to be more fluid, more responsive to your audience. Otherwise you won't survive."

Fogel disagrees, if only slightly. "If you're serving an audience with another kind of music, and your organization is connecting to those people, it's not a bad thing," he says. "But I would not pretend that presenting concerts was an enhancement of our mission to reach a diverse audience with the music of the Cincinnati Symphony."

Although owning its own entertainment company is a creative way to make money, it's also a somewhat risky venture, admits CSO president Steven Monder. It leaves you at the mercy of the weather, as well as the availability of the best touring acts.

Jammin' on Main, a gift from the now-defunct Cincinnati Arts Festival Inc. to the CSO in 2001, arrived with liabilities (the CSO took a $91,000 write-off in 2002). The first year, the festival was canceled because of civil unrest in Over-the-Rhine, but returned to sizable crowds in 2002.

"In Jammin, that is something we have to watch," Monder says. "From time to time we're going to have a bad year, but the majority of time it will be a positive cash flow for us."

Board chairman Daniel Hoffheimer is wary of relying too much on such activities.

"One has to be careful that we don't become a rock music organization, with an incidental symphony," he says.


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