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Just in: A second US orchestra is officially locked out

Musicians of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra turned up for rehearsal yesterday, only to be denied entry to the concert hall.

They join players in the Atlanta SO in being shut out by their board of management, deprived of wages and health care benefits. Unable to ply, hey went out to protest.

The season opening has been cancelled.

UPDATE: An Indy composer on why the city needs its orchestra.

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  1. Please can someone explain to me why US boards of orchestral management – around the country – seem to be so bereft of anything approaching intelligence, business acumen, or wisdom? Why is there a rash of seriously poor management affecting so many really good orchestras?

    • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      Actually, Ziggy, they ARE applying “good business practices” according to the guidelines established by the most successful American for-profit companies. It’s as if they are concerned about the stock price and the vengeance of the stock holders. You and I might think that this is bad management practice for a symphony orchestra or any organization with an artistic mission, but they (Board and management) are rather pleased with themselves, and in some cases, I believe that the skullduggery we see today is no accident. It is part of a long-range plan to bring the musicians, their union, and their pension plan to their knees, Indianapolis is in serious trouble and its very existence as a full-time symphonic ensemble appears in jeopardy. Atlanta and, certainly Minneapolis, seem in better shape and that is why their lockouts are even more puzzling.

  2. To be honest, I’m not understanding – how can anyone agree that losing $5m a year, with a deficit of $20m already in place and musicians taking 23% pay rise whilst staff take 2% pay cut be “skullduggery” or an intent to “bring musicians… to their knees”? Some musicians are beginning to sound like many teachers in NJ – spoiled with high salaries, 100% benefits and long vacations. Most of the funding public (i.e. those donating and buying tickets) would be happy to get half what the Atlanta musicians get now. It seems as though many/ some musicians and their unions are ignorant of just how well compensated they are, and the damage they are doing to the image of orchestras and classical musicians in general – globally.

    • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      Thanks for expressing another viewpoint, but I stand by my remarks. I am not willing to cast professional musicians as villains in this melodrama. As for NJ school teachers, somebody granted them the salaries, the benefits and the time off (isn’t that what we used to call summer?). Maybe its because they are so essential for the future educational, cultural, and economic health of the state. Maybe the governor will throw his weight around to fix that.

      As for losing $5M a year, a budget is a planning document. If at the end of the fiscal year it shows a deficit that large, somebody has been asleep at the switch and planned poorly. Maybe the orchestra needs to play louder to wake up the administrators.

      Just as you don’t understand my “skullduggery” remark, I don’t understand how the musicians are damaging the image of orchestras and classical musicians in general. Let’s agree to disagree.

    • another orchestra musician says:

      The discussion here revolves around whether people should be compensated for their work according to its intrinsic value, or according to its market value.

      Free-market capitalism tends to reward the administrative executive, who arranges numbers, while punishing the labourers, who produce the actual product. Centrally-controlled socialism tends to reward effort more equally, while disincentivizing superlative achievement. Both systems have their advantages and their drawbacks. Relevant to our debate is that recent advances in information technology have led to a superempowerment of the administrative executive, who today wields political and economic might comparable to that of a royal in times past. A gross imbalance of wealth and political power is re-emerging, one that could lead to major social unrest – as it has in centuries past.

      The observation that some musicians in some American symphony orchestras are overpaid, relative to the social responsibility they hold and the external market value of their product, is valid. Many among them are presently seeing, or will soon see, a downward adjustment in the compensation offered them. What their discomfort should lead us to examine are the conditions experienced by workers in other areas of society. Policemen, firefighters, soldiers, and the like, although they place their lives at the service of the common well-being, are in most cases relatively poorly compensated. Schoolteachers, although they be highly educated and bear a great responsibility for our intellectual well-being and for the healthy development of our society, are in most cases relatively poorly compensated. Primary care physicians, although they be very highly educated and bear a great responsibility for our physical well-being, are in most cases relatively modestly compensated. Airline pilots and aircraft mechanics, although they bear a great responsibility for our safety when we are traveling, are in most cases relatively modestly compensated. And so on. Moreover, among performing artists themselves, many tens of thousands barely eke out a living, while a few thousand enjoy well-paying lifelong employment, and a handful become frankly rich.

      The question, then, is not why certain musicians are being forced to accept a reduction in compensation. The real question is why we allow so many members of society to be relatively poorly compensated for the intrinsically valuable work they perform, while we tolerate a few administrative executives, and a few superstars, to take so much. To many among us, it feels as though the social contract we grew up with has been broken. Our concern for this social contract is what leads us to speak of union-busting and skullduggery. Because the bottom line has to be about more than just… the bottom line.

      • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

        Agreed. There is a bottom line that is not reflected on the balance sheet and not expressed in $$. No question that the balance between intrinsic value and market value is, to put it bluntly, “out-of-whack.” Are the leaders of these orchestras reflecting on these issues?

    • William Safford says:

      The issue is that management and the board are failing at their job. The musicians did their job: they played their music. Yet the musicians are the ones locked out from their jobs.

      Is management locked out, even though they failed at their job of raising enough money to pay the musicians to do their jobs? Of course not.

      Why do you frame the issue by opining that orchestral musicians asking to get paid is somehow bad for the image of classical music, and that NJ schoolteachers are overpaid and “spoiled?”

      Strong arguments can be made that both teachers and classical musicians are, in fact, underpaid. (This is a classical music blog, so I’ll leave further discussion of non-music teachers to other venues.)

      As for the ISO musicians, or the ASO ones, let’s be clear about this. Most classical orchestral musicians do not earn a living wage from performing, as I’m sure you’re well aware. Only a few, such as those in the top orchestras such as Indianapolis and Atlanta, do.

      So, the question for Indianapolis, as well as for Atlanta is: how important is it to them to have a high-level orchestra in their respective cities? If it’s not so important, then they’re right on track to save money with either a more modest orchestra, or possibly no orchestra at all.

      If it is important, then their efforts are counterproductive.

      It’s their call.

      • Mr. Safford,

        “The issue is that management and the board are failing at their job. The musicians did their job: they played their music.”

        This statement is one made by pretty much all orchestra musicians all over the world if their orchestra ends up in financial trouble.

        However, how do you know the musicians did their job and didn’t contribute to the financial doldrums of the orchestra? The musicians’ playing could have been boring, out of tune, not together or full of mistakes. Their union representatives could have negotiated a hardball contract which isn’t realistic given the organization’s finances. The conductor – to the extent s/he is considered a part of the musicians and not management – could have chosen the repertoire poorly and conducted it badly.

        It’s easy enough for musicians to point their fingers at management and clamor “it’s all your fault” when things go south because you can’t argue with financial statements. On the flip side, very few musicians will admit that their job performance may have something to do with the problem because, of course, their performances are always flawless. Discussing the merits of a concert is much more difficult than reading the bottom line of a P&L statement.

        That being said, I will admit that it most often is the management side which fails in its efforts to run an orchestra well. But blame should not automatically be ascribed to “bad management.” Management may in many cases be good, but the board may not be fulfilling its fiduciary duties to assist in securing the organization’s finances. Beyond the board, donors may simply have decided to withdraw their funding regardless of how well the orchestra may be managed and how well it plays. Management can’t go to a donor with a gun in hand and say “hand over the dough like ya did last year or else!”

        One of the main problems in the US is that the level of communication and trust between management and musicians is much too low. Smart management will require that musicians’ representatives attend all board meetings and involve them in staff meetings, where issues and initiatives are discussed and financial information is disclosed on a running basis. Musicians, on the other hand, could come up with their own suggestions to help their organization if black clouds loom, solutions which don’t always involve pointing to the union contract.

        Musicians should be co-owners of their orchestra, not simply employees with whom one “negotiates.” Until more orchestras realize this model, the musicians’ fingers will always be pointed at “bad” management causing problems while the musicians always do their job well.

        • William Safford says:

          @ Karin: You raise several valid theoretical points. However, how applicable are they to the situations at hand?

          Does anyone allege that the Indianapolis Symphony’s performances have been anything but professional? Ditto the Atlanta Symphony?

          I was looking forward to hearing the Atlanta Symphony again this fall. I’m disappointed that I probably will not have the opportunity to do so, due to the lockout. (It’s been a while since I last heard the Indianapolis Symphony live.)

          You are also correct that it is possible that the board is at fault, or management, or both. Irrespective of who is at fault, the musicians are still locked out, and the others are not. What’s wrong with this picture?

          There is a reason why there is such a low level of trust between musicians and management: orchestral musicians have a long history of being mistreated by management. We are witnessing history repeat itself. Unions exist as a direct response to the abuses musicians used to suffer at the hands of management. Now, management in an increasing number of orchestras wants to break the unions — just look at the recent events at Louisville for a blatant example of this.

          I would also be mistrustful were I in one of these orchestras either that have been locked out or are facing the likelihood of being locked out soon.

          You also recommend that musicians become more active and engaged in board meetings. This presupposes that their presence and involvement would be in any way welcome, or even permitted.

          The musicians of two orchestras are currently locked out. Several other orchestras are facing similar treatment. This is a scary time for orchestral musicians in this country.

          • William,

            I wasn’t trying to imply that the Indianapolis and Atlanta orchestra musicians’ playing, specifically, was at fault and a contributing cause to the situation in which both orchestras find themselves. I made my point as a general observation which could theoretically apply to any situation in which an orchestra finds itself in trouble. Always blaming management for everything – unless they are – is not a useful approach to conflict resolution.

            Likewise, I find that locking musicians out is a reprehensible method of negotiating, one which can only contribute to ill-will and distrust in the future, In these cases, management truly has shown malfeasance.

            The only way to conduct business efficiently in a modern symphony orchestra is to have the musicians involved in board meetings as observers and being regularly informed about management’s options at staff meetings. It’s bad enough when the financial floor drops out under an orchestra. Adding labor-management conflict to the mix is sheer stupidity.

            I would strongly encourage the League of American Orchestras to hold workshops covering the topic of the benefits of involving musicians in the management of their work place. That would finally make the LoAO a slightly more useful umbrella organization. the Federation of Musicians should support such initiatives with sincere good will too.

          • William Safford says:

            Karin: It is all about labor/management conflict. We are facing a time in which orchestra management, with bean-counter mentality, is trying to commoditize musicians.

            Why did the Louisville Orchestra file for bankruptcy? In large part to try to abrogate its labor contract. It failed at this, so it had to wait for the contract to expire before locking out the musicians and trying to hire a scab orchestra. It succeeded at sending a bunch of tenured players packing.

            I applaud any orchestra managers and boards who sincerely reach out to its musicians, but that is not what we are seeing in these lockouts. Instead, we are seeing the attempts to dismantle decades of progress in worker rights and artistic integrity, in the name of the almighty dollar.

  3. John Elmquist says:

    orchestras and schools are not businesses

    • So why the inequalities amongst themselves, if it’s not due to market or social demand? Clearly the current socio-economic structure is insufficient across the board. What are the alternatives?

    • You are very wrong. Orchestras and schools, just like any other non-profit organization ARE businesses. They are subject to the business variables of their industry and depend on running a fiscally responsible way while delivering the best services they can. The only difference between an orchestra and a for-profit business is that the orchestra’s stakeholders don’t expect a financial, but rather an artistic, reward.

      As such, orchestras are subject to basic market forces like supply and demand. If there is an excess supply of musicians and orchestras, prices must come down, or demand will fall.

      LeBron James can pull in a salary in the tens of millions per year, because many people want to see him on TV, which sells lucrative broadcasting rights, raises the rate per advertising minute during his games and because he can motivate the sale of spin-off products like basketball shirts, coffee mugs, etc., all worth many more millions than he is paid. This drags the salaries of his supporting cast of basketball players with it, so even the theoretically worst player on his team still makes a big, fat salary.

      Musicians’ wages are falling because the demand for their product, concerts, is falling, audiences are small and sales of spin-offs like CD recordings are minimal. And management doesn’t even have to make a huge profit from concerts – they just have to break even. Presenting the big name equivalents of Lebron, like, say, Yo Yo Ma or Lang Lang, costs the orchestra a large sum of money but brings no ancillary pay increases for the musicians who support the soloist. It may very well do the opposite, since bloated soloist salaries can often put a concert in the red.

      Yet there are probably as many talented wannabe NBA players as there are talented wannabe members of the New York Phil who never make it to the big leagues.

      As you can see, the business model has everything to do with the wages received by the employees. “another orchestra musician says” gets it right when s/he writes that changing the business models of not just musicians but teachers, firemen, policemen etc. would require a substantial societal shift. Very high marginal taxes on the richest and more tax income from all sources to pay teachers, firemen, policemen, etc. a better salary and, as a policy byproduct, giving state subsidies to orchestras.

      You’re talking introducing the European model in the US, though, if all musicians were to be compensated relatively equitably and fairly. Is America ready for *gasp* “socialism”???

      There is probably

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