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Breakdown on the Freeway Philharmonic: Understanding the Causes and Effects of Regional Orchestra Bankruptcies in the San Francisco Bay Area


This dissertation traces the history of two regional orchestras in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Oakland and San José Symphonies, from their inceptions through their Chapter 7 Bankruptcy filings in 1986 and 2002, respectively. I pay special attention to the decades preceding the orchestras’ bankruptcy filings in order to understand the socio-economic shifts that exacerbated the orchestras’ financial problems. The 1960s and 1970s were a time of expansion for many symphony orchestras across the United States. This was due in part to philanthropic organizations such as the Ford Foundation, and government agencies such as the National Endowment for the Arts, which augmented orchestras’ budgets and endowments. A rapidly-expanding cohort of college music graduates arrived into the workforce, looking for a professional orchestra to play in. Orchestras were in their heyday, and their budgets reflected their optimism for the future. However, this led some orchestras to expand beyond their means. In the final quarter of the twentieth century, some orchestras were able to grow into the large nonprofit institutions they are today, while others were forced to file for bankruptcy by the end of the century, when philanthropic efforts changed, neoliberal ideologies became naturalized economic expectations, and orchestra managements found themselves unable to meet their budget requirements and sank further and further into debt.

For every major symphony orchestra in the United States there are multiple professional regional orchestras, with smaller budgets, fewer performances, and an inability to pay their musicians a living wage. Nonetheless, by piecing together multiple orchestra jobs, teaching, and other work, musicians in a few specific regions in the US can earn a nearly-livable wage. The Bay Area has around thirty regional orchestras with collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) on file with the Union, which makes it a unique place for freelance orchestra musicians to earn a living by cobbling together jobs in the Bay Area and surrounding regions. The same musicians often drive thousands of miles a month to get to their gigs, garnering the freelance gig economy the nickname, “Freeway Philharmonic.”

This project is rooted in a variety of disciplines out of both curiosity and necessity. As well as musicological scholarship, I draw from archival resources, journalism from the time period, anthropology, sociology, economics, communications, philanthropic studies, and draw from the research of the foundations who granted millions of dollars to the Oakland and San José Symphonies. By using the bankruptcies of these two orchestras as case studies, I uncover the many missteps the orchestras made, and suggest possible alternate suggestion for the future. In a time of overwhelming uncertainty in the music world as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, I hope to provide an activist stance that will help regional orchestral musicians and their institutions as they find their way back from a dark period of no live performances toward a (hopefully) vibrant musical future.

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