Saving the Symphony: Student Entrepreneurs and the Arts

What kind of problem sounds just too big for three college students to tackle? Maybe this one: Symphony orchestras nationwide are in crisis.

Their audiences are shrinking at 2 percent a year—and even here, in ethnically diverse Tacoma, 90 percent of Symphony Tacoma's attendees are white.

“It’s a really thorny problem,” says Andy Buelow, who was Symphony Tacoma’s executive director for 10 years before he moved back to Michigan in January.

It was clear that Symphony Tacoma needed to reach out to younger and more diverse concertgoers in order to survive. Enter business leadership students Danny Liebster ’18, Carly Dryden ’19, and Nik Bernhardt ’19. Last semester, as part of their Entrepreneurial Mindset: Arts class, they worked directly with Symphony Tacoma to take on that challenge.

For two months the students scrutinized business models in class, pursued demographic and marketing research, and conducted interviews with key Symphony Tacoma stakeholders including Andy Buelow, music director Sarah loannides, and board members.

“We worked to reframe the problem in a different way,” Danny says. “We saw it as an issue that [the symphony’s] staff are stretched thin, and they don’t have access to community voices.”

This is more than just a grade for us. There are skills involved that you literally can't learn in the classroom."

– Nik Bernhardt ’19

In early October, toting a draft plan, Danny and Nik took the 100-year-old Pantages Theater’s clunky elevator to Andy’s sixth-floor office. Leaning over an oak table, they shared three alternative ideas to attract new audiences—covering funding, marketing, and community outreach. Danny led the pitch. Andy, brow furrowed over a notepad, listened carefully.

Twenty minutes later, the broad outline of a plan was agreed. Danny wrapped up: “Our goal is to give you a report that in five years will be tattered and earmarked, and be so well-read that it’s barely legible. We really are excited to get to work on that.” The three shook hands, and the students’ work continued.

Symphony Tacoma music director Sarah Ioannides. Photo courtesy of Symphony Tacoma

By late November, a smartly packaged report, stuffed with charts and citations, lay in Andy Buelow’s hands. The students had proposed that the symphony set up two new bodies: a community advisory board (CAB) and a marketing intern team (MIT). The CAB would bring together local leaders from various demographic groups and seek their ideas on attracting new concertgoers. Music director Sarah loannides’ own vision on musical programming would, of course, remain paramount.

The MIT would be made up of student interns from local colleges. They would assist with marketing, using their design, computer, and social media skills. Overall, the plan was heavy on time commitments, but light on financial needs—essential for an artistic group on a tight budget.

“I thought it was very good,” Andy Buelow says, adding that he particularly appreciated the plan’s focus on “dialogue and engagement, not just outreach.”

Andy has little doubt that the plan will be embraced, even with his departure, and feels that the board is committed to this goal. “It will not be a quick fix,” he says. “But it’ll never happen if we don’t start.”

Nik, an aspiring sports manager who interned with the Oakland Raiders last summer, says the experiential learning opportunity was invaluable. “This is more than just a grade for us,” he says. “It’s really showing us what a real-world job could be. There are skills involved that you literally can’t learn in the classroom." 

Danny, who plans a career in music, adds, “More and more everything is woven with business. As a vocalist, I need to be able to represent myself.”

Business and leadership director Lynnette Claire recognized this need when she created the BUS 380 class. She says, “Everyone in the arts needs to think entrepreneurially—whether they are starting a theater company or working for the Boston Pops.”


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By Shirley Skeel
Published Jan. 24, 2018
Photos by Shirley Skeel, unless otherwise noted