Empowerment Issues

There is a big push among orchestra administrators to get musicians more involved within the inner workings of their orchestras. Although this isn’t a new idea, it is becoming more relevant, as we can observe from recent speeches by two of my favorite industry barometers: Michael Kaiser and Henry Fogel. In Mr. Kaiser’s recent address to the annual ICSOM conference (you can learn about Mr. Kaiser and his address in an earlier blog) he expresses the necessity to educate orchestra members about arts management issues. Mr. Kaiser advocates that “musicians need to be able to understand balance sheets and income statements and be able to pressure management and boards when they see a developing problem.”

Then we have the remarks from Mr. Fogel during his speech at the opening of the 2003 ASOL national conference. “This is a good time, I think, to make an important point of my own belief – that the League represents the whole institution of orchestras – management, boards, volunteers, conductors, and musicians. I intend to do all that I can to increase the involvement of orchestra musicians in the thinking at the League – the old era of enmity and mutual mistrust that has marked much of the relationship between musicians and managements simply does not work any more, and must be replaced by true partnership. That has started hearteningly in some places – and it must be expanded exponentially.”

I couldn’t agree more with both of their statements, but here is where we begin to tread on murky ground. In all of this “can’t we all just get along” dialog from orchestra administrators I don’t hear anyone advocating one critical element that will truly allow for the days of animosity to be a thing of the past and allow a new era of partnership to begin: equal power. Even with this recent trend among managers to include orchestra musicians in administrative issues, musicians still have insignificant enforceable power beyond their union representation. Historically, the musician’s previous efforts regarding governance have been defensive in nature: preventing tyrannical conductors from firing players at will, guarantees against management locking them out of their jobs, and descent working conditions.

I know that some orchestras already allow players to sit in as “members” on their marketing, development, operational, and education committees. Some orchestras even allow a few musicians to sit on the board while some even grant these musicians a vote (although a couple of votes among 25-200 amounts to as much real power as the Green Party has in the halls of Congress). In addition to the large amount of time these musicians regularly spend preparing for concerts, some freely give many hours of their personal time volunteering to sit in on administrative committees in order to contribute to the overall growth of the organization. But when push comes to shove, there is no contractual obligation on behalf of the board or management to follow suggestion and input from the musicians. If the board and management don’t see things the way the musicians do, they still have the last word.

So why should musicians become involved with the operations of their ensembles without also being given equal power in the form of checks and balances? If, in the end, no one has to listen to your voice, then why say anything at all? Currently, this system of governance doesn’t allow for any tangible benefits to the players themselves. To have any real effect on the direction of the organization, the musicians are forced into the worst possible course of action available: to strike.

But the strike process is a distressing, publicly visible tool that forces the community at large to choose sides between the players and the management. It’s more akin to using a weapon of mass destruction. In the end, perhaps the dilemma will be solved, but feelings are hurt, the rift between management and players will become greater than ever, and the landscape of public opinion is poisoned for years to come. Haven’t we learned anything from 20th century history? By allowing such a detrimental system to endure, all we do is teach everyone involved how to choose sides and loathe each other. What a horrible solution to our problems.

One recent exception to this situation is the new collective bargaining agreement at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Although we’ll go into great detail about that particular process in a later blog, the pertinent portion of the agreement is that the musicians now have significant authority regarding artistic programming and artistic personnel issues. Each of these committees is composed of five individuals, three musicians and two managers. Each individual has an equal vote with a majority of four in any matters that require a vote to come to a decision. This gives the musicians direct voting authority regarding the direction of artistic programming and all aspects of orchestra personnel.

This is a good start, but it’s still just a start. Following is my proposal to create a future of equal partnership. I believe it is a flexible strategy that can serve as the catalyst allowing the industry and the art form to adapt and evolve.

Vote of No Confidence a lesson from our British neighbors

To reiterate Mr. Kaiser’s statement: “musicians need to be able to understand balance sheets and income statements and be able to pressure management and boards when they see a developing problem.” What exactly does “pressure” mean? Without enforceability, “pressure” is nothing more than whining. I can think of at least five examples of orchestras that have collapsed in the past year due directly to bad management. In most of those cases, the musicians lobbied, urged, and finally pleaded with their boards to replace their executive managers during the final months of their crisis. But their appeals fell on deaf ears.

Here’s where we can learn from the British. In a parliamentary form of government, one form of a no confidence vote is a statement that the legislative branch lacks confidence in the ability of the executive to provide the leadership the office requires. We can adapt this to the orchestra so that the musicians, as a whole, have the ability to conduct a no confidence vote that sends a similar sentiment to the board regarding orchestra leadership.

The no confidence vote should apply to not merely the administrative leadership, but also the music directors. It’s a simple although serious process: upon a majority vote among all orchestra musicians of no confidence, the board is contractually obligated to replace any member(s) among the executive leadership that were the focal point of the vote. Musicians will be allowed to vote no confidence from among the music director, executive director (president & CEO), general manager (vice presidents), and director level administrators. This can also apply to a specific course of action or initiative undertaken by the board and management. As many executives and music directors have multi-year contracts, this system will obviously need to include a clause in those contracts as grounds for early termination based on a no confidence vote (no more golden parachutes, if the organization goes down, everyone should hit the ground at the same time).

In addition to allowing the musicians a no confidence vote in their leadership, they should also have representative voting authority in each facet of orchestra management (artistic, operations, marketing, development, & education). These representative musicians should be selected from among the musicians and approved by members of management. Through the no confidence vote and system of representative committee voting you can remove the labels of “manager” and “labor”, therefore finally arriving at an undeniable level of equality. But this new power demands responsibility, as the goal of this distribution of power is not to neuter orchestra executives, but to create a partnership among common stakeholders.

And in order to make accurate decisions, unfiltered information will need to be available to all individuals. Access to this information demands prudence, and this prudence should exist by way of the musicians signing a confidentiality clause. With the power to change also comes the responsibility of discretion, which leads us to our next point of order.

“Honesty is the best policy, when there is money in it.” – Mark Twain

In an earlier blog, I talked about how the orchestra industry should design a system of audits intended to prevent dubious actions among members of executive management, such as making an orchestra’s financial picture appear better than it actually is (pulling an “Enron”). An effective audit can only be conducted if there is a system that stipulates all pertinent information must be shared between players and management. Not simply interpretations of the information, but the actual raw data. In the case of orchestras, trust needs begin somewhere and management and the board must take that first step.

Why the management and board as opposed to the musicians? Simple, because management has all of the information as well as final say regarding artistic and operational control. By honestly sharing information, much of the advesarial nature between players and management during contract negotiations will disappear. It’s difficult to argue about the fiscal state of the orchestra when everyone has access to the same information at all times. At worst, you may have a disagreement about the interpretation of the data, but that’s minor compared to the major issues most orchestras face during their contract negotiations.

“Doveryai no Proveryai.” (trust but verify) Russian proverb

One important lesson we all need to learn is how to begin trusting each other. Here, we can once again learn from one of the biggest adversarial relationships throughout recent history: the cold war. If “capitalist pigs” can develop a trusting partnership with the “evil empire” by way of shrewd aboveboard agreements, then so can orchestras. Although I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Kaiser’s assessment that musicians need to be able to understand balance sheets and income statements, the reality is that musicians (with perhaps a few exceptions) are not trained to fully understand or properly interpret organizational business data. This is where the Musician’s Union can play a crucial role in serving the musicians of tomorrow.

In a previous blog about the effective oversight procedures practiced internally by the AFM, I suggested that the AFM institute a similar service for each individual member orchestra. Here is where we can find experts that can help properly interpret the organizational data flowing from management to musicians. In doing so, it should not be used as a “bargaining chip” during contract negotiations. Rather, they should help to educate musicians about the financial difficulties all orchestras eventually weather and advise the musicians when it’s necessary to sacrifice for the good of the institution. They can also serve as a “watch dog” effectively preventing management from presenting a misleading spin to the musicians regarding their orchestra’s financial condition.


In the end, an orchestra is neither a for-profit business nor a non-profit organization in the traditional sense. It is not designed to primarily increase any individual’s wealth or produce a tangible service. Therefore, its nature isn’t conducive to a boss/worker relationship. As an industry, it is begging to evolve from authoritative control to an entity of a collective conscious. It should function more like a small government, designed to facilitate the creation of great art and to advocate community exposure to that art. But an orchestra “government” without equal representation among all of its members only serves the interests of a few and prevents the art from reaching its full potential.

Will this be an easy system to implement? Certainly not, but the path of least resistance is rarely the path to greatest accomplishment. As I state in the Adaptistration mission: “Change is difficult, change is turbulent, and change is painful. Nevertheless, change is necessary for survival.” There is no reason we can’t start this process right now, the longer we wait the more difficult the task.

I’m interested in reading your responses. Can a system like this work? Why or why not? If you’re an orchestra manager what are your views? How about hearing from players and representatives from the AFM and it’s member organizations? And most importantly, how do the patrons of classical music feel? Is all of this worth the effort, do you really care how your orchestras govern themselves? I look forward to posting your responses over the next few weeks

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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