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Economic reality catches up to Shreveport Symphony

I participated in symphonic orchestras all the way through graduate school, but I will admit that I’ve rarely supported Shreveport Symphony productions, although not for lack of desire. Apparently it could have used my attendance, for the Symphony looks as if it will have to become comprised permanently of part-timers with its latest decision to only pay musicians per event. Even as all of the current full-time musicians, management, and patrons may bemoan this decision, the only surprise about it is why it took so long to come to it.

In comparative perspective, the Symphony has been fighting above its weight in the face of unfavorable demographic changes. While there are hundreds of symphonies across the country, most do not have a core of full-time musicians and, predictably, of those that do typically they are in larger metropolitan areas than Shreveport’s. This reflects the steady decline of full-time musicians forming the core of a symphony everywhere, coming largely from changes in technology and tastes, and specifically in Shreveport additionally through economic changes.

When it was founded not long after World War II, the Symphony faced much less in the way of competition. Within classical music itself, recordings were not widespread, nor relatively inexpensive, nor of relatively good quality. Within musical forms itself, classical still had a healthy market as it competed with newer forms largely based upon the same kinds of instruments. Within the entertainment market as a whole, live performance ruled the day.

Six decades later, the field of competition is vastly stronger. For about a buck now almost any classical composition from a world-class orchestra you like can be bought through a computer and within minutes be ready to play and/or put permanently on a disc that sounds light years better than past recordings. Classical’s share of the music market has shrunk dramatically as newer forms, many made by instruments that did not exist those decades ago, have supplanted it. As well, live performance from a value perspective for many has dropped considerably, when very inexpensive audio and video of performances so easily can be consumed through media like television.

Meanwhile, the cost of live performance only has increased since its largest expenditures are personnel-related. While this has created a diminished ability to offer cost-effective performance everywhere, this particularly acutely has been felt in Shreveport. Not surprisingly, paying patrons disproportionately come from wealthier and usually better-educated individuals. And, typically, subscriptions pay for, often substantially, less than half of revenues needed to run a symphony with much of the balance made up from local philanthropy and sponsorships usually from local corporations.

Therefore, as an area’s economy stagnates and its local enterprises wither and/or become parts or larger organizations based outside of the area, not only does the market become relatively smaller as higher-status individuals comprise a declining share of the populations, philanthropy may decline and sponsors become fewer as well. This is what has happened to Shreveport over the past quarter century – and it’s bad fortune in this regard is compounded by the fact that its one true growth industry over this time span is a direct competitor of the Symphony.

Scan the list of sponsors for it and note the one glaring admission: employers in one industry that supply jobs to thousands in the area, many high-paying – casinos. Since together they put on at least one headliner music act a week, it’s understandable, even if simultaneously unfortunate, why they don’t support what they see as potential competition.

In this environment, it’s a wonder the Symphony hung on so long with a full-time core (although in reality few have a Symphony spot as their sole employment – like the present contractual part-timer performers, they typically have other means of employment to supplement the low full-time Symphony salary of $12,683). And if you review symphonies’ financial statistics of other like-sized cities in metropolitan areas in nearby states, all of whom have better business climates than Shreveport (and no casinos) such as Little Rock, Jackson, Corpus Christi, and Huntsville, Shreveport’s actually has a larger budget.

Having a full-time core enhances a symphony, but economic realities are just that. Maybe if political and economic elites had not been (and continue to be, on both sides of the Red River) so myopic and instead of gearing their efforts to making themselves bigger fishes in a shrinking pond rather trying to make the pond bigger, the base to support a full-time Symphony core would still exist. But as long as management can act in an enlightened fashion and the musicians maintains the correct spirit of achievement, the Shreveport Symphony still should be able to provide a quality musical experience.

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