15 things that surprised, delighted, and inspired at the ABO 2018 Conference

I’ve always regarded conferences not as passive experiences but opportunities to develop thinking.

That view was reinforced last year when, at the end of the day-long OMTF conference, PRS Foundation’s Vanessa Reed chaired the final panel of the day, inviting delegates to actively commit to one act of change to improve inclusion in their workplaces.

Such invitations help reinforce thinking, making the conference experience all the more valuable.

I wanted to use this post to capture some insights which emerged for me during and after the Association of British Orchestras conference I attended late last week in Cardiff.

Specifically, I wanted to ask myself the questions I was asking everyone else on the podcasts: what have you learned, what surprised you, what delighted you, and what will do you differently after this conference.

1. The orchestral sector is a good deal smaller than I had previously imagined it to be.

2. The warmth, friendliness, and openness of many within that sector was really surprising.

3. Recording companies (big and small) feel like a solid and indispensable part of the orchestral ecosystem, more so than ‘traditional’ broadcasters.

4. Classic FM is a lean operation who consistently communicate with pride and with a sound understanding of their audience.

5. It was really lovely to see St John’s Smith Square’s Richard Heason get Concert Hall Manager of the Year award.

6. Pleased as I was to see that orchestras are acknowledging and acting upon the need to provide well-being services for their personnel, I’m slightly disappointed it’s taken this long to take hold.

Also, the assumptions made about self-awareness in musicians didn’t just surprise me, they alarmed me. No-one doubts that musicians are self-aware – its a requirement for performance – but that doesn’t mean that they’re not susceptible to awareness blindspots.

7. Producing a podcast (on the fly) means you can benefit from gaining a unique perspective on an individual. Every person I spoke to possessed great spirit and determination, the type of individuals I benefit from being around. I feel reassured by that.

8. I felt ‘at home’ at the conference. The OH texted me before the conference began reassuring me not to feel anxious because ‘these are your people’. I saw familiar faces and trusted friends, and heard rehashed preoccupations from 25 years ago when I was an orchestral manager.

9. My heart beats faster when I hear people discuss content and how its created. The Creative Collaboration session led by Vanessa Reed featuring the work of Rhiannon Pritchard, Jennifer Walker, John McLeod, Live Music Now Scotland and Live Music Now Wales was a revelation. It made me ponder whether my place in the orchestral and performance world is producing or possibly even writing.

10. I went to the conference sort of hoping someone in management would be able to articulate what Brexit meant for orchestras. No-one could really tell me. That’s largely because no-one knows the detail yet. I find that frustrating.

11. It’s easy to see orchestras as part of some kind of gilded cage in the UK. They’re not. Orchestras are part of a much-larger entertainment industry.

12. More people recognised me than I was expecting. One senior person I interviewed even said, “Yes I follow you on Twitter.” “I’m sorry,” I replied. “Don’t be,” she said, “I think you’re quite funny.” Bit of a shame really. For the past six months I thought I spent most of the time pissing and moaning on social media. I’d like to not say ‘sorry’ when someone says they recognise me or follow me on Twitter.

13. I was massively encouraged by speaking to two relatively young people who will, I’m sure, make great waves in the industry. Articulate, erudite, passionate, and energetic individuals. These two people actually persuaded me that just because young audiences like short-form content now, doesn’t mean they won’t like long-form orchestral music in years to come.

14. I was delighted to be reunited with four former university contemporaries of mine during the conference, two of which I haven’t spoken to for 25 years.

15. Thinking as an audience member, there’s a disconnect between the outlook of the manager, chief executive or marketer, and the classical music experience that inspires me to write about it. That says to me that there’s an element to the experience which is out of the hands of those who produce the events themselves.

I really enjoyed attending the ABO conference this year. Loved producing the podcasts. Loved connecting up with an industry I still feel enthused by. Still not entirely clear why anyone would actively want to become an orchestral fixer though.

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