Thursday, January 24, 2008

Wanted: Experienced vocalist with good typing skills

One of my choral groups is looking for ways to streamline the budget. We choristers are paid for our services; the organization certainly doesn’t want to give us a pay cut. But, the organization is also spread so thin taking care of the day to day stuff required to keep the engine running (coordinating concert logistics, promotion, personnel management) that they do not have enough time to devote to long term development (i.e. grant-writing and fund raising). It was proposed that the choristers take on more of the day to day business in order to give the business-folk more time and energy to secure the groups’ future.

This proposal wasn’t outlandish for the group. Over half of the artists have been members for more than one season- many for 3, 4, 5… even 11. Their loyalty and commitment goes beyond the paycheck received. The average singer in this group is also an accomplished over-achiever who excels in subjects outside of music, and have many other skills to bring to the table. I am sure that people are going to step up.

But, all professional choral groups are hurting. I think that the group described above is atypical in that it is both professional, yet commands an amateur’s loyalty from its employees. By amateur, I mean “involved through love”, not “involved, though lacking in the skills dictating remuneration”. Also, this group is established enough that each artist can be relatively secure in their future employment.

This model cannot work for groups that

  • Hire unionized artists
  • Make no guarantees about future employment for artists
  • Really pay far too little to demand anything else from their employees
  • In general, work in the “pick-up” format- that is, the group really doesn’t exist outside of the concentrated time period surrounding performances

In short, the organization must first succeed in earning the loyalty of their singers before stepping up their demands, and only organizations with security can really earn this. It’s a case of bad Catch-22 for nascent groups.

Having said that, let's consider volunteer choral societies. Not only are budgets "streamlined" by having a largely volunteer labor corps, but singers often contribute more to the group than their voices. Many of these societies charge their singers a quarterly fee, which makes for a big chunk of the operating budget. These volunteers, these "amateurs" in both senses of the word, gladly pay for the privilege of creating beautiful music and performing in high-profile venues for high-visibility events. However, there are limits to bringing this model over to the professional singing world. First off, the reverse-flow of income is completely out of the question (although some professional non-profit choruses can ask their employees to return part of their fee as a tax deductible donation). But, why is it that the volunteer society member is willing to give not only their money and non-musical efforts to the group as well as their time and musical talents? Why is this paradigm completely moot in struggling professional groups?

Another professional-yet-developing group that I am in is trying to put together a volunteer guild, following the model of established groups like American Bach Soloists (link to volunteer page). Such volunteers can run concerts, get word out by pounding the pavement and putting together mailers, give room & board to artists traveling in from out of town, etc. The guild members are rewarded not only with warm and fuzzy appreciation, but can be given complimentary season subscriptions and other material regalia.

Going back to the first proposed model for streamlining choral organizations; is this a necessary survival step in today’s zero-margin cut-throat corporate world? When does this model work? What are other alternatives? What have been your experiences with finding warm bodies to do the grunt work necessary to keep an organization running?


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