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MA Top 30 Professional of the Year: James Gourlay
By Brian Wise
December 4, 2018
Music Director and CEO
With more than four decades in the brass business—as a tuba player, administrator, and academic—James Gourlay has won back audiences for the River City Brass (RCB), just as they were slipping away. The Pittsburgh-based ensemble, which was founded in 1981 and today has 28 players, was staring down a financial crisis when Gourlay arrived in 2010. Attendance had dropped by 12 percent in the 2008–09 season and another 17 percent in 2009–10. “Pittsburgh newspapers already had our obituary in the top drawer,” Gourlay says. But the affable Scotsman soon discovered “a fiercely loyal subscriber base” with which he opened a dialogue.
Armed with subscriber feedback, Gourlay began to shake up the programming. Over time, there would be a greater focus on arrangements of classic rock songs, Broadway tunes, and jazz standards. This season’s 35 concerts mark a rebound from a low of 21 in 2009–10. “Because about 60 percent of our annual revenue has to come from ticket sales, our motto is ‘we can only eat what we kill.’ We’ve gone from a kind of pseudo-symphonic art-music organization into an entertainment organization. That’s been successful for us in terms of winning the audience back.”
With subscribers still representing a majority of RCB’s followers, Gourlay says he routinely meets with them during intermissions. Once, he personally visited a 90-year-old subscriber at home to serenade her with Happy Birthday. He’s also reached out to newcomers, offering ticket deals through Groupon, or creating special programs, like a concert of Bollywood film music for the Indian community.
New to American arts administration, Gourlay previously conducted England’s Grimethorpe Colliery Band (depicted in the film Brassed Off) and has served as principal tuba of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony, and Zurich Opera Orchestra. He has held administrative posts at the Royal Northern College of Music and the Royal Conservatoire for Scotland. He’s currently an adjunct professor at Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University.
Gourlay says that while the largest segment of RCB’s audience is over 60, it is no longer shrinking. “We’re in a really enviable position,” he says, “in that about 95 percent of subscribers renew their subscriptions.”
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