International orchestra touring – a changing business

Orchestra touring started as a phenomenon in the late 19th century, touring blossomed with the development of modern transport. Often it underpinned quasi-diplomatic missions, with orchestras serving as ambassadors of goodwill and national culture. Today, touring is also an important marketing instrument, with certain markets – such as Asia – booming, while others, like the USA, are facing economic problems. Yet touring also has more individual aspects, impacting on the ensemble members as well as their group dynamic: jet lag, the conditions of travel and accommodation all influence mood and performance. It is a potentially stressful time, but also a period of intense personal interactions between musicians, management and accompanying sponsors and donors.

Over the past 30 years, touring has become both, more complex and more standardised. More ensembles than ever are touring, yet negotiations through unofficial channels are hardly possible anymore. It is a business strongly dependent on longstanding experience. Other aspects are the logistic challenges of touring orchestras – combining tight budgets with the availability of different forms of travel, time limits, the freight load of instruments, or customs and visa directives. Instrument logistics is perhaps one of the most crucial aspects of orchestra touring.

Jonathan Nott, chief conductor of the Bamberger Symphoniker – Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie, recently pointed out that touring has become crucial to ensure international rankings; yet at the same time, touring has become far more complicated than 20 years ago in terms of planning. And it is true: while often expensive and logistically complex, touring makes sense for the ensembles in order to establish and maintain a reputation. In addition, spill-over effects make touring interesting for political and business interests of an ensemble’s home region. However, the touring business will see much fiercer competition between a select group of top ensembles and top touring destinations in the future. The Japanese concert agency Kajimoto is one of the global players in the business. Its managing director recently highlighted, the Japanese market has undergone profound changes over the past fifty years. The demand for classical music is high, yet tastes have remained fairly conservative compared to Europe and the current economic crisis raises particular challenges.

Another topic problem for orchestras: orchestras might become too streamlined under the primacy of branding and corporate interests. Business tools do have their uses, but ultimately it is the nature of art to be critical and subversive.

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