St. Louis lockout/strike

Happy new year, everyone. I didn’t think I’d be coming back from my holiday to news of a strike (or lockout). St. Louis, everybody always says, is a happy orchestra, and at least, in the middle of this sad news, it preserves its reputation in one way — all the reports I’ve gotten, from the press and from personal sources, tell me that management and the musicians have remained friendly.

I’m hardly going to take sides, or try to sort out every major detail of all the issues involved. But one thing seems clear. Management thinks it’s more important to shore up the orchestra’s longterm finances; the musicians think it’s more important to keep their salaries reasonable. This summary isn’t completely fair, because both management and musicians would say they share both goals. Still, there’s a certain sum of money that’s in dispute, because management wants to put it to long-term use, and the musicians either want it put toward their pay, or else have more money raised.

Both sides, obviously, have their points. Ideally, both would get what they want. The orchestra, if that happened, would only be stronger.

But what if there’s a larger issue? What if orchestras — with their current budgets, and current sources of income — just can’t sustain themselves? What if major orchestras have no business playing 52-week seasons, with their musicians making the salaries they currently make? What if the support for that — ticket sales, donations — just isn’t there? What if, behind the current crisis, is a cultural shift, slowly gathering speed in the past decade, but now maybe moving faster, away from classical music? What if people just don’t care about classical music as much as they used to?

Only yesterday I talked with a high-ranking staff member of a major orchestra, who agreed that a cultural shift might be going on. We’d been talking about how badly ticket sales had gone for his orchestra this fall. And his orchestra wasn’t alone, he added. Many orchestras had a hard time in the past few months, he said (something I’ve heard elsewhere as well). Could a cultural shift be the reason? I asked. Very possible, he said — and, again, he’s not alone in saying that.

Of course, there could be other, more immediate causes for any current fall in ticket sales. People who’re afraid of larger trends might be overly alarmed. Some orchestras are doing well. Maybe they’ve got secrets nobody else has yet figured out.

But maybe the larger trend is really dire. Maybe all the graphs point downward. And if that’s true, what then? Let me be very clear that I’m not supporting management in this. I’m not writing this as some sort of lecture to musicians, telling them to moderate their demands, so they won’t force their orchestras out of business. Musicians have every right to be paid the way other top professionals are, and if orchestras say they can’t do that, musicians have every right to ask why.

But what if the trends are really downward? What if even major orchestras can’t sustain themselves (and their musicians)? What will happen then?

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