ACSO Guest Blog - Betting Big: How Calculated Risks Paid Off For The Sequoia Symphony

 By Joshua Banda, Executive Director, Sequoia Symphony

I’m a risk-taker by nature. I tend to take calculated risks and, when I really believe in something, I like to “bet big.” So, just like everyone else in our field, when the pandemic forced the Sequoia Symphony  to shut our doors and we couldn’t count on ticket income in 2020, we were faced with the question of what to do. Do we just save the money we have left and wait it out (hoping that the funds in our bank account and grants would be enough)? Or do we adapt and make a plan to spend the money we have on a new kind of programming that has the potential to help us meet our budgetary needs during these unprecedented times and into the future?

 We chose the latter.

 Of course, this choice was not necessarily an easy one and required some serious strategic planning to get full Board approval, but it was absolutely the right choice for us and led to the largest influx in donations in our 63-year history.

In May 2020 when “15 days to slow the spread” became an indefinite solution for the state, we knew we wouldn’t be able to count on a traditional season in the Fall. While we had enough cash on hand to cover our basic expenses for a few more months, we knew that wasn’t a solid long-term solution. As Michael Kaiser says in his book The Art of the Turnaround, which I highly recommend by the way, “You cannot save your way to health.” We couldn’t just tighten our metaphorical belts to save as much as we could and come out of the pandemic as a healthy institution. For one, the cash would eventually run out, but more importantly, we would have to toss aside our mission in order to cut back and play it safe. After several conversations with our Music Director and Orchestra Manager, we knew playing it safe wouldn’t cut it.

We asked ourselves how can we continue to celebrate and foster an appreciation of symphonic music without a live audience. We struggled with this question and wanted to respond in a way that holds true to our mission. We didn’t want to lose sight of what and who we are. Our job is to celebrate great orchestral music and we just had to figure out how to do that in a new medium when music was needed more than ever.

 And Musical Uplink was born.

We decided that we would create a digital series that was going to be available for everyone - not just our subscribers and not just for people who buy tickets. Musical Uplink was for everyone, free of charge. The idea was that we would create these short films of a variety of orchestral pieces with striking visuals that give you a view of our orchestra as you’ve never seen, and take advantage of social media to share this content. Up close and personal, these videos were not just going to be films of the orchestra playing, but would be specifically designed for each individual work to complement and enhance what you’re hearing. We felt strongly about not charging for this digital content and wanted to use this as an opportunity to show our community what we were capable of as an added benefit, as if it were planned during a normal, in-person season.

From the very beginning, we felt that Musical Uplink had the capacity to grow and help us engage with our community in a way that we never had before. We looked beyond the canceled concerts, beyond the lack of ticket sales, and beyond our current limitations. We firmly believed that this concept would inspire our community to give and support the Symphony like never before, long-term. We just needed to convince our Board that it was going to be the right call.

After all, while the idea was great in concept, it would still cost money to accomplish in practice. Money that we were slowly running out of. When we finally had the Board meeting to discuss the future of the Symphony during the pandemic, I stated very plainly to the Board: “We are hemorrhaging money and will be out of funds by October… but we have a plan.” Our Music Director, Bruce Kiesling, and I then went on to paint this inspiring picture of what Musical Uplink would look like and how it would help transform our institution and brand, and we shared why we believed it would lead to increased income despite being put out there for free. We had no example to show off, but we believed in the vision and sold it through charismatic storytelling alone, tying it directly to our mission. And, thankfully, they were sold. The Board was willing to take this huge risk and commit to spending the rest of our funds in the bank on the production costs in hopes that this bet would pay off.

 And, boy, did it pay off.

Since October 2020, we have released 11 episodes of Musical Uplink that have been collectively viewed over 65,000 times (and counting) across all of our social media channels. Our latest episode, "You Can’t Stop the Beat", was a first-of-its-kind collaboration that involved over 150 members of our community. We have used Musical Uplink to share the spotlight with our community filled with artists, dancers, vocalists, and creative energy. Most importantly, Musical Uplink inspired so many people to give during the 20/21 Season that we saw over $1,000,000 in donations, our endowment more than tripled, and we had our most successful year financially without selling a single ticket.

Now that we’re back to live concerts, Musical Uplink is still here to stay. We have plans for future episodes and can’t wait to expand on the success of these videos. We took a calculated risk and bet big with Musical Uplink and will be reaping the rewards for seasons to come. If you take nothing else from this story, I just want to encourage you to put your mission first and don’t be afraid of betting big once in a while. I believe that if we’re not moving forward as an institution, we might as well not be moving at all. So take a risk once in a while if it has the potential to help you grow and impact your mission in a new and exciting way. After all, some things are worth the risk.

About the Author: Executive Director of the Sequoia Symphony Orchestra since 2017, Joshua Banda is passionate about music, people, and also proving people wrong (in a good way). He’s always looking ahead at the bigger picture and loves a good challenge. Constantly asking questions, growing, and never settling with the status quo, he has helped the Sequoia Symphony increase ticket sales, donations, and reach in the community. A musician himself with over a decade of retail management experience, his position as Executive Director gives him the opportunity to bring his personal passions and professional experience together harmoniously in the challenging world of non-profits.

About our Guest Blog Series: ACSO's membership network is full of incredible people with a wealth of life experiences, talents, and diverse perspectives and backgrounds. We want to share their insights, points of view, and wisdom with all of you, as well as raise the voices of individuals who are making a difference for the classical music field. Our guest blog series features people from different communities throughout California and the western region, from different sizes and types of classical music organizations, and with different jobs and responsibilities. They share what they have learned, express their opinions about the sector, and ask challenging questions that will help us shift our thinking and be better advocates for this art form that we all love.

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