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State of the Society: Let's go

Let’s go—there’s more work to be done

What do you do when all your carefully crafted plans are overturned by a global pandemic? You rally the team, fire up the webcams, and get to work on the art of the possible. CEO Marty Monson sees hope, resolve, and innovation in the months ahead.

Friends in harmony—

Marty Monson, CEO, Barbershop Harmony Society

In my last note, on May 22, I summarized “Where We Are, and What Comes Next”— a snapshot of the flurry of activity bursting forth from Barbershoppers scrambling to live in a pandemic-altered world. Today, I want to bring you up to date on what we’re doing at Harmony Hall in Nashville to address the challenging months ahead. It’s a message of hope. There’s plenty of hard work in it, sure, but that doesn’t worry me even a little. Hard work brings out our very best!

It’s a privilege to lead an organization whose Board of Directors is unafraid of looking at reality and acting with courage, and they have cheered and endorsed every step we are taking. We can’t wish away the pandemic, but we have a mission and a duty to ensure that there will always be a continuing connection among people through singing barbershop together.

So… how do we plan to do that?

  • Act for the safety of all
  • Make the most of our resources and people
  • Deliver value every day
  • Change what we can change
  • Keep reinvesting in the future

We’re acting for the health and safety of our entire community

Walking alongside the leading sources of research and safety to develop a reopening guide

Our peers in the choral community value our expertise in communications, video production, messaging and unified vision. This is not bragging; this is gratitude toward my fellow CEOs Tim Sharp (American Choral Directors Association), Allen Henderson (National Association of Teachers of Singing), and Catherine Dehoney (Chorus America). Together, we have produced the widely recognized summit webinars on "The Future of Singing" (read here) and "What We CAN Do During a Pandemic" (read here). It is so vitally important that we understand the pandemic situation from all perspectives, and act in concert with the entire choral community in providing recommendations based on the best available science.

Working in collaboration with these organizations, we are preparing a “reopening guide” to help choruses and singing communities determine when and how to once again sing together, safely. We expect to issue this guide alongside our industry partners by the end of June.

Taking care of our staff and facilities in Nashville

A responsible employer maximizes the value of its workforce by keeping everyone safe and productive. At the front edge of the pandemic, we acted swiftly to shift to remote work for 90% of our team, with safety protocols for the minimal building crew of 5 or 6 people who have continued to come into Harmony Hall every day. As a result, we have managed to continue daily business functions without interruption: receiving and cutting checks, distributing chapter and district dues, processing new memberships and renewals, shipping merchandise and music within our usual service windows. You cannot imagine the pride I take in these dedicated professionals!

As the tragic and tumultuous events of the past week have unfolded worldwide, I am relieved to report that the civil unrest in downtown Nashville has not resulted in damage to our building or its irreplaceable archives, and all of our Nashville-based and remote staff are safe.

We’re making responsible changes to our business plans and budget

To say it plainly: COVID-19 has forced us to throw our business plans for 2020 and 2021 out the window. No degree of planning could ever possibly account for cancelling major events (and revenue drivers) like the International Convention in Los Angeles, or Harmony University in Nashville. Districts have faced these concerns head-on as they have moved toward final decisions about fall conventions. Chapters, quartets, and choruses are feeling it, too! However, the safety of our singers and audience members continues to be our top priority, and we are not willing to risk that safety—at any cost.

Our staff, with full endorsement of the Society Board of Directors, has radically reconfigured the business plans and budget for 2020 and 2021. The essential goals are to continue activities that deliver value and ensure opportunities for all singing communities to be active and continue to connect and engage throughout the pandemic.

We’ve consciously and responsibly built a “bare-bones budget” that projects minimal revenue and drastically reduced expenses moving forward. We must, because when we emerge from these unpredictable times, we will need to have the resources to reinvigorate the Society’s full suite of programs and activities that fuel the massive expansion in barbershop reach that is called for in our Strategic Plan.

Let me reassure you: the state of the Barbershop Harmony Society is sound, and these choices represent financial prudence and stewardship. We are taking these steps immediately::

  • We will cut $500,000 from our payroll, while retaining our full staff. Tiered salary reductions for all staff ranging from 5%-15% will help contain expenses. The choice between cutting positions and cutting salaries was pretty simple. Our team builds the value that drives revenue. Many other expense reductions are possible through reassigning and reimagining staff roles and leveraging our significant range of skills.
  • All travel expenses will be eliminated for the remainder of 2020 for all BHS staff, volunteer leaders, and Board. We’re all-in for remote work and virtual meetings! Travel and advertising for music education conferences, while a key part of our long-term youth strategy, largely eliminate themselves when these events cancel.
  • Most external advertising, consulting, and contractor expenses are eliminated, repurposing paid staff to the greatest degree possible.
  • With revenue delivered from Harmony Foundation International not reaching expected levels, we will suspend making grants for the remainder of 2020. Current applicants will receive further information in the coming weeks.

We will keep bringing value and resources to the barbershop world

As outlined in my last note, we are putting 100% of our efforts into helping you keep the barbershop experience sustainable, meaningful, and fun.

You’ve probably seen many of the free events we’ve whipped up over the past three months, and the paid premium content we’ve offered. That kind of flexibility and creativity is necessary if we want to expand in every direction: both in supporting healthy quartets, chapters and districts, and in outreach to new communities in new ways.

Rethinking how we deliver education

Harmony University has always been a tremendous value, thanks to our unmatched faculty, superb facilities, and a fantastic student experience. With HU Belmont unavailable this summer, we’re still able to deliver great instruction virtually -- while keeping the price both affordable to students and generating profit to fund all programming. Already, more than a hundred HU scholarships have been converted to Virtual Harmony University scholarships, and we’ll have more in the next few weeks.

Our Harmony Hall “virtual road warriors” are making dozens of chapter visits. It hearkens back to the days when music staff would hop in a Buick and hit the road for weeks at a time… but now, they can visit three or four chapters in a night, on opposite ends of the continent!

It’s a great example of how we are pivoting from the impossible to the possible -- and how circumstances drive experiments that can become valuable additions to future service offerings.

What to do when we can’t have conventions and events

We’re working with Districts on the hard choices around Fall District Conventions. As of this week, all 17 Districts have now confirmed their decisions to cancel for 2020, in either formal or informal District Board discussions. It’s a brave thing to set aside one of the central activities and revenue sources for a year, and it shows how your district leaders continue to prioritize your health and safety. BHS staff will continue to work with all districts as they innovate and experiment with new or modified programming throughout the year.

Stay tuned for NEW summer events and experiences

Man oh man do we have an exciting virtual event planned for August! This will be something for the history books—something that showcases legendary quartets that most of us have only heard of secondhand, and performances that even the diehard, knowledgeable fans may have only seen once, and most likely only live. You are going to go nuts over the— oh, darn, they still won’t let me tell you about this quite yet. More information coming soon, including how you can get special VIP access to some of our barbershop champs and heroes!

Bringing value to an expanded barbershop universe -- regardless of membership

For decades, we mostly counted full dues-paying membership in the Society as the only measure of involvement and success--and about the only way of earning revenue. Efforts underway over the past year are starting to yield some results, as we find ways of moving casual drop-by YouTube viewers into more connected parts of our universe. Have you seen that we now have more than 130K subscribers? Folks interested enough to hit “subscribe” turn into folks wearing our t-shirts, singing our sheet music, or dropping by your online chorus rehearsal-- and some day buying a ticket for your show. We’ve always been tasked with these efforts, but have not yet effectively executed or reported on those results. (You’ll see them soon, when the 2019 Annual Report comes out—impact galore!)

We’re putting every asset to work

Using all of our space

For years, we’ve enjoyed the growth in value of our headquarters building in the heart of Nashville. Its appreciated value has made possible some of our expansion efforts over the past two years. As we consider how more of our staff can work remotely, we’re looking at ways to earn more dollars from every square foot, including possibly offering some of the space as rental office space. It’s just another way we can wring maximum value from everything we have.

Always looking ahead to the next revenue opportunity

Our Society’s primary mix of funding has always been built from merchandise, dues, and events, as well as philanthropic support. We will continue to explore all the ways we can turn what we have—a great mission, great people practicing it, and a great body of knowledge and tradition to perpetuate it—into a compelling case for supporting it for future generations.

We keep moving forward—because we must

When the day comes again when we all stand shoulder to shoulder and carry, carry our parts to “Keep The Whole World Singing,” we’ll look back on these days as a test of our resolve. We’ll be grateful that we made sacrifices, stretched our abilities, and preserved and encouraged barbershop harmony for future generations. We promised we would, and we will.

Marty Monson is CEO and Executive Director of the Barbershop Harmony Society.