SEPTEMBER 2020: Recovery Edition, Part 17

SEPTEMBER 2020: Recovery Edition, Part 17
September 1, 2020 leonard slatkin

“So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work.”
—Peter Drucker

Our strange journey to a destination still unknown has been a bumpy ride so far. Musicians and orchestra staff have hit a stumbling block completely unlike the shutdowns that occur with strikes and lockdowns. Somehow, most have remained optimistic, even though a few ensembles have had to close up shop for the entire season.

But on August 29, many of us received the following news, which sent shock waves to all sectors of the classical music world:

Statement from Columbia Artists:

It is with a heavy heart that, having endured a prolonged pandemic environment, we must announce that effective August 31, 2020, Columbia Artists Management, Inc. will close its doors. Throughout our 90-year history in supporting the arts and artists in New York and around the world, it’s been a joy to be your advocates in your careers. We still believe in every one of you and your creations and are hopeful that the world will come back performing and creating like never before.

Columbia Artists has engaged with a fiduciary to enter into an assignment for the benefit of creditors, a form of insolvency proceeding where assets are liquidated, and claims addressed in an orderly manner. We are working tirelessly to provide each of you individual, concrete guidance on your specific situation over the coming days. In addition, we’re working together with the fiduciary to see a safe place to land for your Columbia Artists relationship.

In order to comprehend the significance of this announcement, it is necessary to understand the storied history of this company. Founded in 1930 by Arthur Judson, CAMI—as it came to be known—oversaw the American careers of almost all the leading conductors, singers, and soloists of the day. Through shrewd management and some strong-arm tactics, they dominated the field and remained on top right until the end.

The company’s influence in the industry grew even further when Ronald Wilford, manager to the world’s most prominent maestros, took over as president in 1970. Ruling with an iron fist, he kept a tight grip on the controls for forty-five years. Even though he had “retired” in 2000, Ronald remained as more than the titular head of the organization. There were small shake-ups as agents and artists came and went, but CAMI’s strength remained resolute. When Wilford died in 2015, there was a power struggle, and the direction of the company became unclear.

There were other competitive agencies—small, medium and large—however, they were also going through changes. With the decline of recording sales and the upsurge in online content, artists had to find their own ways through the minefield in order to get recognition. The managers were no longer career-builders but acted more like travel agents and schedulers.

Clearly the final straw was the virus. Since agencies operate on a commission basis, if the conductors and soloists are not working, there is no income. Moreover, CAMI played a major role in organizing orchestra tours in the States, another major source of revenue rendered moot. In the past there were few worries about profit, with artistry ruling the day. One time, the Vienna Philharmonic was brought over for a quarter of a million dollars but still managed to lose more than $100,000 on the tour. No one batted an eye.

With all that in mind, let’s try and figure out what happens next. The longer COVID-19 hangs its hat in our country, the greater the danger to the artist agencies. What is singularly important to remember is that these companies are in business to make money, taking anywhere from ten to twenty percent of the musician’s fees, and this remains the only viable way for a management agency to continue to operate. There is no question that fees to artists will go down significantly. I already know this with my own dates going forward, not only in America but also in Europe. That means that the commissions will be less as well.

The larger corporations will hang on a while longer, but there might come a point at which they cannot sustain any degree of profitability. More than likely, several of the individuals who have worked for CAMI will start their own boutique agencies and bring along their clients who have a proven track record when it comes to being engaged for appearances. The real problem is for those in the middle, as well as musicians who are just beginning their concert careers.

While none of us wishes for our profession to disappear, it seems as if we are fast approaching the survival of the fittest. It is also a time when musicians have to take charge of their own futures. A more collaborative relationship between the artist and manager must occur, not one in which the musician believes that the agency can do everything for them. In turn, the organizations that hire the artists will have to become more involved in seeking out the talents they wish to engage.

At this point, some of you may be wondering what I am personally doing about management. Two years ago, just at the end of my tenure with the Detroit Symphony, I decided that it was time to stop being a music director. With a couple of heart scares behind me, it was also a good idea to cut back a bit on the travel, which caused so much wear and tear on my internal system.

Instead of remaining with a large agency like CAMI, I went to a company where I am the only classical music client. Everyone else is on Broadway, in movies, and on television. We mostly work on special projects, and my assistant secures the engagements with orchestras. We plan out the next couple of years and stick rigidly to that timetable. If there is a period blocked out for Europe, hopefully dates will come in. If not, I have more time off.

I also have more room for educational events, whether working with conductors, teaching at universities, or giving speeches. But I am privileged. Age and experience have their advantages. I no longer need to focus on my career. When I conduct, my job is only to go out and make the best music possible. At one point, I did think about self-managing or perhaps just retaining a public relations consultant. Maybe that is one way today’s generation of musicians can look at their futures.

One has to feel sorry for all those that have lost, and are about to lose, their jobs, whether onstage or behind the scenes. The dissolution of CAMI is a huge blow to an already pummeled musical world. We can only hope that at some point, everyone will realize that the world has changed, and with that acknowledgement, the way we approach the career path must change as well.