Detroit priorities

I haven’t said anything here about the Detroit Symphony mess, even though it’s the leading conversation topic these days among people involved with orchestras. Or at least it is in my experience. It’s the one topic someone’s sure to bring up.

What’s happening is a mess, of course, because it might finish the orchestra. The institution was reeling, financially, which i’m sure shouldn’t be a surprise, because it’s in Detroit, a city that’s in such ghastly trouble that nearly one-third of it has been abandoned. Hard to write those words and actually believe them, but they tell the truth. 

So the orchestra management, facing a contract negotiation with the musicians, wanted really large pay cuts, and also — to create a new relationship with the community — wanted the musicians to do community engagement as part of their contracted services. 

The musicians didn’t like this, and fought back. The struggle now (of course a lot of readers know this) has gone on for so long and is so bitter that thee entire current season might be cancelled. And can the orchestra recover from that?

By the time you read this, the whole thing may have resolved. But I have to say — and maybe this is why I didn’t blog about Detroit before — that I think the musicians are wrong. I say that without knowing how management behaves, if they’re honorable, if they’re good to deal with, or problematic. I don’t know anything about them. 

And I sympathize with the musicians. They didn’t sign up for this. When they were coming up in the music world, they had every reason to believe that, if they got a job with a major orchestra, they’d be playing satisfying, high-level concerts, and getting paid like the superbly qualified professionals that of course they are. 

But times changed. Detroit collapsed. And there wasn’t so much demand for classical music anywhere, so orchestras everywhere began to have trouble. It’s not unusual to find people who’ll privately say that there isn’t money or audience enough to sustain even the most apparently successful orchestras in the number of performances they currently give. 

Not surprisingly, Detroit had more trouble ,maybe, than other orchestras. And so the musicians can bravely say that their artistry would be demeaned if they played community engagements instead of serious classical concerts, and that the entire orchestra would be downgraded  if pay was seriously cut, because now top-class musicians wouldn’t want to play in it. 

They can also say that a healthy orchestra is essential for Detroit, if the city ever is to climb out of the pit it’s fallen into. That a world-class city, if Detroit can manage to be one again, has to have a world-class orchestra. 

They can say all this, and mean it from the bottom of their hearts, and there still might not be money enough to finance what they want. 

That, I fear, is the reality. But I’d take this one step further. Given the trouble Detroit is in, can anyone seriously ask for the kind of money the orchestra used to have? In a city — think about it — one-third abandoned, should the orchestra ask for the kind of money it would take to give the musicians what they want?

I don’t think it can. I don’t think it’s proper. Not seemly, not responsible. Detroit has — has to have — higher priorities than the orchestra. 

So I think the orchestra — and not just the musicians; management, too — should change its priorities. Detroit should be its new focus. Instead of asking for money in a city crying out for money for very basic things (a small example: the Mayor, according to the Washington Post, doesn’t even have a receptionist; she’s been furloughed), the orchestra should ask what it can do for the city. 

How can it contribute to rebuilding Detroit? That, in my view, is the question it should be asking. And it should get along as well as it can, but not asking for more than is decent, until Detroit is in better shape. 

And if it does this — if it makes the rebuilding of Detroit its high priority — I can believe that a grateful city, once it’s on its feet again, will remember what the orchestra did, and will rush to support it. 

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  1. Gerard says

    The Detroit scenario is very sad. It’s where I grew up so it is especially poignant. They have a wonderful, hall, orchestra and long tradition so I understand why the musicians are unwilling to let go. But I agree with you Greg. if they cling on to it more tightly [the idea of a traditional orchestra], it will die in their hands and everyone involved, including patrons will be left with nothing. Everyone has their preconceived notions and refuse to entertain any other options so there is really no other outcome to expect than total collapse. Who knows, perhaps a phoenix will be reborn from the ashes.

  2. says

    Well said, in the opinion of this former Detroiter and musician. It’s understandable that the musicians are frustrated, but their thinking is way too insular and short-sighted, and, moreover, reeks unpleasantly of entitlement. And they’re just plain wrong about some things. I find it impossible to believe that a $70 or $80K orchestra gig, in a city surrounded by plenty of amenities and attractions, with a ridiculously low cost of living compared to other metropolitan areas in the U.S., isn’t going to attract hundreds of highly qualified applicants. I imagine that at least some of them will be changing their tune after the orchestra has been dismantled, and they find themselves standing in line with 300 others vying for the same seat in an orchestra somewhere else.

  3. ariel says

    Your article

    on the Detroit symphony shows

    a total lack of understanding of

    what has happened to Detroit and the attending results.

  4. says

    You have repeated Terry Teachout’s error on the population of Detroit. The population of the Detroit Metro Combined Statistical Area was around 5.3 million in 2000 and about the same in 2009. Detroit “proper” is a small part of that, and that’s the part that has declined dramatically. Despite the problems of the automobile industry, Detroit metro is a thriving place. If it wants to come up with $50 million a year or even $100 million a year to run a symphony, it’s entirely within its means to do so.

    You may argue that the DSO hasn’t done what it needs to do to convince the citizens of Southeastern Michigan to support it, but you can’t plead poverty because you’ve seen some footage of abandoned blocks in Detroit proper. Those don’t reflect the real economic condition of the Detroit Metro area. Just one example: Detroit Metro ranks 4th in the country in high tech employment.

    I think you’ve also done a poor job of characterizing the position of the musicians in the strike, but I leave it to them to correct you as they did Christopher O’Riley’s recent NPR blog.

  5. Bill Brice says

    …and what on earth were those orchestra musicians thinking, doing a sidewalk demonstration dressed in their white-tie-tails outfits? Was this supposed to make the public see them as part of the community? I noticed some of them were playing music as part of the demonstration. Yet, apparently, one of their objections to the proposed changes is that they do more community outreach. I am puzzled as to why a professional musician would see that as some sort of threat to their art or their position in the community. Apparently, playing on the sidewalk does not degrade their art, but playing in a high school gym might. Huh?

    If I were a politician trying to goose up culture-wars attack ads against funding the Detroit Symphony, I could hardly come up with a more effective approach than the musicians themselves did.

  6. David Othmer says

    Greg is right. Philanthropic fundraisers–people who raise money for capital campaigns and the like–know that it’s not the needs you have, but the needs you serve that matter. So–you can’t fundraise for salaries or to fix the leak in the roof, you can fundraise to make your community better, whether it’s a geographic community or a community of interests.

    And vision is critical. The best vision statement ever was MLKs dreams in his I Have A Dream speech: his dreams were not about the SCLC, or the Civil Rights Movement, or even about African Americans–his dreams were about the soul of our nation.

    The Detroit Symphony–players and management–need to come up with a vision for the soul of Detroit.

  7. Hans Buetow says

    I absolutely agree with Barry Johnson on this. There is a convenience that people exercise when talking about Detroit in terms of where they draw the boundaries. When statistics are needed about poverty and crime, Detroit only extends to 8 mile. When, however, the Wings are doing well, suddenly the boundaries extend as far as Livonia, Madison Heights, the Grosse Pointes, and sometimes farther.

    There question of relevance to an urban area is germane and necessary, but it’s important to be very clear about what that area is. In looking at the large majority of patrons of the DSO, zipcodes beyond Detroit proper dominate – with some of those zipcodes listing in the wealthier stratospheres of income. That is not to say that the orchestra should not be looking out its windows every day and thinking about how it can be relevant to the community around it – be that Southeastern Michigan, Detroit proper, or even the Cass Corridor. But is it important to know that each of those areas has a role in the survival, and ultimately a say in the ‘relevance’ of the orchestra. So let’s compare apples to apples and leave the oranges where they are.

  8. William David Brohn says

    Why can’t we just recognize the larger cultural picture: one of a chasm separating classical art and popular cuiture that is beyond bridging?

  9. Bill Brice says

    Barry, Hans — But, I can’t see that the issue is about where you draw the lines for “greater Detroit”. I accept your assertions that greater Detroit is, in fact, not nearly so impoverished as we might assume, just looking at the inner city. But, I think the point is that greater Detroit — especially including those affluent surrounding communities — no longer sees the orchestra as an important enough priority for public funding. And I think the weakest of all arguments is for the orchestra to plead its own needs, or its entitlement by virtue of its stature within the classial music world.

    Yes, many metropolitan areas do lavish enormous public funding on sports teams and venues — even in these strapped economic times. I wish our priorities were otherwise, but it isn’t so. We are not likely to change those priorities by hectoring the public on the “higher values” of the music.

    We cannot be surprised that the public is unmoved at the plight of highly-skilled classical musicians now looking at a shift from upper-middle-class to middle (or lower) middle class. Moving from a $100+K to a $75K income would be a hard pill for any of us to swallow. But it’s not poverty, and it still looks pretty enviable to the millions of unemployed Americans.

    I wish the orchestra had not made the claim that lower funding will invariably result in a lower-quality orchestra. I personally doubt that’s true (unless management throws in the towel). Sure, the orchestra will need to accept lower salaries and suck it up. Management might also consider cutting back on the engagements of highly-paid guest artists, making more use of soloists from within the orchestra. Moving away from the “superstar” mentality could ultimately prove to be a healthy thing for America’s musical life.

  10. says

    The situation in Detroit should be used as an opportunity for reform. With the looming possibility of the orchestra ceasing to exist, both the musicians and the management should use this chance to embrace change. Without reform of the concert experience and the repertoire, any resolution they agree on will only be a stopgap to the next crisis.

  11. Wolverine Arts Lover says

    I agree with Barry, Hans, William David, and Bill – there is plenty of money around Detroit, and spreading out to high tech job center Ann Arbor. However, while Ann Arbor (university town with people of all ages interested in all kinds of things) can host classical, jazz, world, folk etc. performances and pull audiences of varying ages (and some racial diversity), just try to look for a head that is not white (a white person with white hair) in the non-University classical music world of the city and suburbs. Something deep and fundamental in our culture has changed – this music is not relevant (or per the prior post “legitimate”) to many. I love it but I can see that clearly when I look around me at a concert or in the music section of a store. THAT has to be addressed, or else the donor and audience base will simply die out.

  12. says

    This is a very constructive debate, and there is of course merit on all ‘sides’.

    But it may be useful also to look at orchestras the other side of the pond, in e.g. Britain. The large majority of players in even the greatest UK orchestras, especially outside London, are paid salaries which most entry-level employees in other graduate professions would regard as derisory… and, these musicians – at least, those of them suited and trained to do this – are also often very much committed to working in their local community and schools (some general details on my blog).

    But still some of these orchestras are now under serious threat, even when their host cities are very supportive of them.

    What we should conclude from this I don’t as yet know, but it’s probably important to recognise that being closely involved ‘in the community’ is, whilst very rewarding, laudable and constructive, not necessarily a protecting factor when it comes to maintaining a high-skills and complex knowledge base such as an internationally recognised orchestra.

    I’d be really interested to know what others think about this.

    Best wishes