The classical performing arts are facing huge challenges right now. Organizations are facing immense pressure to maintain their place in the market, and individual artists are seeing dwindling performing opportunities. Given these circumstances it is natural to get defensive, put up walls, and protect your own.
While playing defense might make sense in some circumstances, I would advise thinking about what you can give away, who might be interested in that, and what you can get back in return. You might be surprised how successful a partnership can be for your organization. We built Symphonia Caritas on the basis of partnerships, and in this post I’ll talk about how to make a partnership work for your organization.
What makes for a good partnership?
A good partnership is like any worthwhile relationship: both parties need to significantly benefit from it. The key is the benefit has to be big enough that both parties are energized and committed to the partnership. Symphonia Caritas partners with other nonprofits to perform benefit concerts, and our partner organizations keep all proceeds from the concert. Our benefit is we get to play sold out concerts while spending very little energy on marketing or outreach. The benefit to our partners is they get to raise money through a elegant event – an orchestra concert in a great setting preceded by a wine reception – without requiring the knowledge and experience of how to produce an orchestra concert.
Just like a relationship between 2 people, both members of the partnership need to be equally committed. Friendships don’t last when the relationship is one sided, and neither do partnerships. Likewise, friendships based on trivial factors don’t last, and neither do partnerships. Knowing your value to your partner while knowing your partner’s value to you is crucial in any partnership.
Like any other relationship, partnerships can be limiting
As great as it sounds to join forces and conquer the world, partnerships can bring significant drawbacks and challenges. Limitations might include:
You won’t take in as much gross income as a result of the partnership, even though you sell more tickets.
It will be more difficult to carve out your identity in the marketplace
You will have to make artistic compromises.
The lesson here is to be aware of what you give up when entering a partnership. There is certainly much to gain, but a good partnership will involve a give and take, and you have to be content with what you give away as well as happy with what you take.
Personal relationships and trust is what matters
Things need to “make sense” on paper: I’m good at A, you’re good at B, let’s join forces and maximize our potential. Beyond the basics, personal relationships and trust greatly matter in a good partnership. That’s why a partnership isn’t simply a business arrangement. Both parties need to trust that the other is working hard for the benefit of the partnership, not simply for itself.
There are always going to be unknown challenges when producing something as complicated as a classical music concert. When challenges arise, it’s the strength of the personal relationships that get you through the day. Both parties need to know the other is committed to making the partnership a success, not just try to maximize their own individual benefit. In game theory this is known as the prisoners dilemma. It is certainly wise to have a written agreement in place. But beyond that, it is equally as important to take a lot of time talking to different people in the organization and really getting to know them. Some questions you’ll want to have answered include:
What value does the partner organization get?
Does the partnership align with the organization’s goals and values?
Does the organization value the partnership, or just your contact person?
What is the track record of the organization when it comes to follow through?
Before the going gets tough, you need to be absolutely confident the partner organization will work with you to solve hard problems. This comes down to the people who make up the organization.
A Short Case Study
“In 2016, I formed New Piano Collective, an alliance between solo pianists that affirms the unique contribution of each artist as an asset rather than a threat. Usually the only time you see a group of solo pianists in the same room is during a competition, and that environment precludes deeper connection and collaboration. Through this process, we expanded our activities to found and present the annual San Francisco International Piano Festival, now in its third season. Even though we frequently appear on stage solo, the possibilities now open to us as a collective are far greater than what any one of us could achieve."
- Jeff LaDeur, concert pianist
Once you have identified your strengths and weaknesses, and have identified a person or organization that is a good candidate for a partnership, how do you proceed? To reiterate the value of personal relationships, try to find a common connection - somebody who knows your work and can vouch for you - and ask them to introduce you. Attend one of their concerts or events, and invite them to one of your concerts.
It’s very important at this point to understand what you perceive to be your value isn’t necessarily what the candidate organization will perceive. Be flexible, understand your assumptions might not be true, listen, and adjust your expectations. You’re just starting the conversation, and it may not work out. Take your time, talk to as many organizations as you can, and with a little luck you will build that great partnership whose value is greater than the sum of its parts.