On Extinction Quotes and Watermelon Ballers

As many of you know, this weekend the League of American Orchestras is hosting its 2015 conference. Or, as it’s known in the biz, “Conference.” Yo.

Definite articles are overrated.

Definite articles are overrated.

It’s no secret that lots of people, especially musicians and rabble-rousing audience types, are wary of the League. I am, too. Everyone has their own reasons. Mine are complicated. I think it’s mainly because their organization provided a total vacuum of leadership during the Minnesota Orchestra meltdown, and that vacuum sucked. I understand that their responding would have come with a steep price. But if the organization’s mission is indeed “to help orchestras meet the challenges of the 21st century,” shouldn’t they have played a major role in addressing…I dunno, the biggest challenge of the 21st century? (That biggest challenge being, of course, the recent wave of lockouts, and in particular the organizational arson set at the Minnesota Orchestra.) Maybe I’m expecting too much. Or maybe they expect too little. Regardless, someday I’d like to go to a conference to get my own idea of what this group is, what it’s seeking to do, and how effective it is at doing it. I don’t know if I’ll make to Baltimore next year, but I do have dear Save Our Symphony friends in Detroit, and so I’d love to crash Conference 2017. (And I bet a ton of attendees will be just thrilled I’m doing so. /SARCASM FONT) But alas, until I actually go to Conference, obviously my perspective will be limited, so take this all with a grain of salt. This is very much the view of an outsider looking in.

Anywho. Like a good little orchestra nerd, I’m following the official Conference hashtag #orch2015. I noticed yesterday in the Twitterverse that two quotes were uber-popular:

In what ways do we listen to the public with the same quality and behaviors of attention we ask them to give us when they are in our spaces listening to our music?

If you don’t like change, you’re really gonna hate extinction.

The first quote made me want to release doves into the sky in a gesture of unalloyed orgasmic joy.

The second quote made me want to scrape my eardrums out with a watermelon baller.



At first glance, this zinger sounds clever and meaningful enough. To disagree with it insinuates you’re endorsing extinction, right? It’s like the Patriot Act. How could you be against the Patriot Act?? The word PATRIOT is right there! In the title!

How could you, Russ? (By the way, I would not be upset if you voted for Russ Feingold.)

You TRAITOR!! (On a serious note, my biggest regret about moving to Minnesota is that I won’t be able to vote for Feingold in 2016.)

Just now I tried to find the original source of the “you’re going to hate extinction” quote. Here’s what I found. It’s at least four years old. It seems to have a great deal of currency in the technology world. Comedian / motivational speaker / Cook Like A Stud author Ross Shafer appears to have coined the phrase, or at least popularized it. Needless to say, he was not talking about orchestras – or even non-profits – when he said it.

But regardless, this quote shows up everywhere in our field. And every time it does, I hate it a little bit more.

Let me go on the record. I’m not against change. But I am against change for the sake of change. I’m against dumb change. I’m against change that emerges from a place of fear. I’m against change that transfers power from audiences, performers, and the wider community into the hands of administrative leaders who have the power to singlehandedly decide on institutional direction. Not all change is good. Not all change is created equal. Some change might even hasten extinction. Change is risky, and the risks must be understood.

Besides. What does “change” mean in the orchestra world anyway? Reducing the budget to ease pressure on donors? Sending musicians of a major American orchestra out to play birthday parties and bar mitzvahs? Playing more pops concerts than classical concerts? Or does it mean valuing all constituencies and not just paying lip service; continually expanding the breadth and depth and reach of music-making; and ensuring there’s a direct lines of communication between board, management, musicians, and public? Some of those changes I’m totally into. Others I’m…not.

In order to be effective, change in an arts organization has to be supported, encouraged, and maybe even proposed by stakeholders. The dramatic snarky attitude found in the “extinction” quote – insinuating you’re either for the almighty principle of change, or a hopeless naive stick-in-the-mud who is going to partake in the murder of your own organization via the deadly weapon of your own incompetence – shuts down the conversation before it begins.

Another problem. This seems a very for-profit type of approach, and that sets off alarm bells. I firmly believe the Minnesota Orchestra and Atlanta Symphony lockouts could have been averted or shortened had the people in charge embraced the differences between for-profit and non-profits. The for-profit world is frequently encouraged to make change for the sake of change. As long as it helps the bottom line, nearly anything is justified, right? That’s the whole point: to turn a profit. (Or minimize loss, anyway.)

But the non-profit world is different. Even if it helps our bottom line, change is not automatically good. Our highest aspiration is our mission. The bottom line ought to be secondary to us, and is useful only as far as it helps or hinders us in carrying out said mission. We rely on literally irreplaceable employees, as well as volunteer boards and donors who will only give if they feel included and respected. Any change we embrace has to acknowledge those facts. Money is not our sole mistress. Change that comes out of a fear of extinction will not cut it.

The absence of change will break this field slowly, but dumb change will break it quickly.

So as the movers and shakers of the orchestra world party at Conference and lunch with Lebrecht, I hope they keep that truth in mind, and think closely about the ramifications of this and other awesome-sounding Powerpoint platitudes.

In conclusion, Detroit should be fun.



Filed under My Writing, The Orchestra Business

8 responses to “On Extinction Quotes and Watermelon Ballers

  1. Amy Adams

    Attention, people who are about to take issue with the phrase “literally irreplaceable employees”…Stop now. Don’t come here just to say:
    Surely you jest! Music schools are churning out bajillions of gifted players!
    They’re all ready to vie for those spots!
    Insert fresh graduate and press !
    The thing is: what Emily’s talking about is found in the nature of Love, and also in Music. (Probably other places, too, but I only know about those two, personally.) These notes, played at this time, by these players, heard by these listeners sitting with these friends at this time in their lives…
    THAT is irreplaceable. Just like those we love.

    • Sam in the pan

      If that is irreplaceable (to play devil’s advocate here) then it truly is priceless. If it is truly priceless then charging anything less than (arbitrarily large sum of money to me) $1,000 per ticket per concert seems insulting to the people who will be pouring their hearts out to perform for me. $5,000 should be the base or minimum any ticket should cost. $5,000 to cross the threshold that seperates tedium in the rest of the world to receive the gift of transcendental, handcrafted joy each sitting by a group of highly skilled, extraordinary talented individuals would bestow upon me.

      $5,000 minimum per ticket, per performance, to experience the rare bliss of l’art pour l’art, heart for heart’s sake, Art for Art’s sake.

      Agreed? (At least on some level, my hyperbole aside.)

      • A priceless experience is, by definition, unable to be priced. In kindergarten I made an angel out of cardboard for my mom. Financially, it’s worth nothing. To her, it was one of her most treasured possessions. Should I have charged her $5k for the angel? In an idealized world, sure, but we don’t live in an idealized world. If a musician gives me an experience that’s as meaningful as the cardboard angel was to my mom, should he charge me $5k? In an idealized world, sure, but we don’t live in an idealized world.

  2. Amy Adams

    (that was supposed to be “press play…”)

  3. I actually have attended “Conference” for the then named ASOL sometime in the early 1990’s. I thought at one time of becoming a professional (read: paid) personnel manager for an orchestra. I chose a different career path instead, and have no regrets. I completely agree with your thoughts on “change”, and am glad for the current changes at the MN Orchestra. I am grateful that you did some research about the phrase regarding extinction. It is important to know the source for quotes such as this one, given that it had nothing to do with classical music at its inception. If attendees at this year’s conference can learn anything of value, I hope that it includes seeing the transformation in management and governance at the MN Orchestra. Healing is possible. Some “change” really is good.

  4. ealeonard

    Also what I want to say to people who page through and read their program during a performance. You have the rest of your life to read the program, but “these notes by these players. . at this time” – also absolutely irreplaceable. It is only happening once.

  5. walfredswanson

    The extinction quote is clever. Sadly, cleverness is often quick and therefore not particularly deep. You’re right that failure to examine “change” and “extinction” in depth can lead us to the wrong conclusions.
    There’s a wonderful re-telling of the Hare and the Tortoise fable written by Lord Dunsany. Dunsany adds some little details with the explanation that those details were generally lost in a great forest fire that resulted in the deaths of most of the animals in the community. The elders among the animals chose to send warning via…the tortoise. Forced change in the wrong way will lead to extinction just as surely as trying to deny that organic changes are taking place around us.

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