Philharmonic’s success starts with artistic planning

Symphony orchestra management is a strange career choice, but I’m pretty sure it’s the best job in the world. And a darn good challenge.

Imagine an enterprise built on a century-old business model with four distinct constituencies, high fixed costs, a highly skilled and unionized workforce, strictly held traditions, and a mission to perform music written by mostly dead male Europeans. Nothing — no assembly line and no automation — can perform Beethoven’s 5th Symphony with fewer than 75 of the finest musicians.

There are no guideposts for a symphony orchestra in 2012; no lighthouse in the fog. Our compass is one of discipline, understanding and artistic passion. The Colorado Springs Philharmonic stands out today, thanks to its exciting performances and corner-turning fiscal improvement. Behind the scenes, it’s the artistic planning — more than anything else — that makes all the difference.

Artistic planning begins as much as 20 months prior to the performance. It’s so much more than just choosing music. Expense budgets, marketing, revenue goals, and indeed our entire reputation, ride on these decisions.

To illustrate this, understand that some music is more expensive than others to perform. Does it require more musicians? More rehearsals? Expensive sheet music? A pricey soloist? Tens of thousands of dollars can hang in the balance for every concert planned.

Artistic planning also can be the time of greatest conflict. Oftentimes, it’s a battle of wills between artistic directors (conductors, musicians) and administrators (CEO, CFO, marketing), with one side protecting the music at all costs with the other side desperate to spend as little as possible. Sadly, this conflict is where some CEOs and music directors come to a destructive stalemate.

This is where the Colorado Springs Philharmonic behaves differently. For us, artistic planning has turned into a joyful, invigorating experience because of a quirky rule. It takes discipline, but it works. We never begin by talking about money.

By leaving the dollars out of the picture, our team unleashes creativity from the start. Instead of dwelling on barriers, we talk about what the community needs from the Philharmonic, or how the orchestra can push itself beyond artistic boundaries. Putting the money aside also brings our team closer and closer together, with everyone in the room speaking candidly and trustingly with one another to achieve the best possible result.

Eventually, we do discuss the financial ramifications of the concert programs. Some music sticks, some is changed, and to some ideas we say “not never, but not now.”

In another city, with a different team, this financial phase would frustrate everyone involved — the “clash of music vs. money,” usually accompanied by flared tempers, staplers hurled at the CFO, and general gnashing of teeth — but that’s other places. The discipline to put money aside at the beginning makes this crucial stage so much easier. Believe it or not, I’ve found artistic directors downright eager to engage in the tough financial decisions because they know that the music was put first.

At the Philharmonic, we value the natural push-pull between artistic excellence and financial wellbeing. It’s a thread woven throughout the organization, leading to superior concert programs and a growing business model.

Running a successful symphony orchestra in 2012 is challenging work, but the payoff is huge. Yes, it’s a business, and yes, we live in a world of real economic pressures. But hearing the Colorado Springs Philharmonic is a thrilling experience; like breathing the air of other planets.

We’re in the business of captivation. In a world filled with distraction, intolerance and fear, the arts provide moments of inspiration, generosity and communion with our better selves.

Occasionally putting money aside is a key discipline for creative businesses. In these moments, we allow our people to stop, breathe and envision a better tomorrow.

Here in 2012, a creative workforce has never been more crucial to success. For generations, arts organizations like the Philharmonic have been called to put artistry first.

It’s our strength, and it’s a model for the rising creative class.

Nathan Newbrough is president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic.