Destructive Management Philosophy

One of the issues this blog is devoted to is the ongoing discussions and examination of orchestra management philosophy.  Even the seemingly innocent of attitudes and beliefs held by an orchestra’s executive management arguably shape organization’s future.

Over the past several weeks, there’s been a heated battle over a fundamental philosophical difference between the managers and musicians of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.  The difference between what the players believe constitutes minimum necessary requirements for artistic excellence and what their executive managers believe is needed to meet those requirements is at the heart of this debate.

So where does a manager begin to shape their personal philosophy?  How do they determine what will become their frame of reference in all matters related to this business?

I’ve been following a young manager-to-be in a blog he’s keeping about his experiences as a current ASOL management fellow, his name is Jeff Tsai.

In one of Jeff’s recent posts from 1/22/05, he makes a comment that ROPA ensembles are only part-time musician organizations*. That’s a staggeringly unaware comment to make for an individual participating in a fast track arts management training program.

If allowed, this seemingly innocent assumption holds the potential to grow into a philosophy that will be much more detrimental.  This type of misguided philosophy is unfortunately shared by other seasoned managers and can be traced back as the root cause for much of the labor unrest within ROPA ensembles.

Managers who subscribe to this mentality also run the risk of having this diminished attitude bleed over into their opinions of the musicians.  They see them as “just” part time employees, cogs in a wheel if you will, and treat them accordingly.

These managers tell board members and individual donors that the musicians are only part time employees, they’re happy that way, and they should stay that way.  When contract negotiations come around and the players begin to insist on being paid a fair wage for the work they are expected to perform, they not only have to argue against their managers but they have to fight this preconceived notion the manager has been seeding into the minds of the board members as well.  It’s a fight most ROPA level musicians simply aren’t prepared to win.

However, there have been several ensembles which have moved from paying less than living wages into something better over the past 20 yeas.  Some are still ROPA groups and others are now classified as ICOSM ensembles.  For example:

  • Fort Worth
  • Richmond
  • Grand Rapids
  • Virginia
  • Jacksonville
  • Louisville
  • Nashville

Some of these orchestras had managers that didn’t subscribe to a diminished philosophy and those administrators helped grow the organization to begin reaching its true potential.  Other groups had to skillfully fight bitter labor disputes in order to force their managers to abandon their flawed notions which were preventing their orchestras from growing.

Some ROPA orchestras, such as the New Mexico Symphony, have musicians that are in the midst of fighting for being paid their rightful wage based on the amount of work they are required to perform.

Equal Pay For Equal Work
The New Mexico Symphony Orchestra (a ROPA ensemble) has a contracted season which is 35 weeks long.  During those weeks the musicians must be available for rehearsals or performances six days a week and 12 hours for each of those days.

In Memphis (another ROPA ensemble), where Jeff (our management fellow) is currently stationed, the musician’s 39 week work schedule is similar.  They have one day off per week and must be available the remaining six days for rehearsals or performances.

In Richmond (another ROPA ensemble) their musicians have a 38 week season and must also be available six days per week and 12 hours per day for rehearsals or performances.

What sort of part time job has this rigorous of a work schedule?

These three ROPA ensembles all have very similar work week schedules and they even have similar budgets; New Mexico is $4.1 million, Memphis is $3.5 million, and Richmond is $4 million.

Here’s the catch, the base pay for each orchestras core musicians varies wildly; New Mexico is $15,758, Memphis is $20,499, and Richmond is $28,837 (an interesting side note; Jeff, our manager in training, earns more with his fellow stipend than any of these base salaries).

Among these three comparable ROPA ensembles it becomes easy to see which organizations place a greater emphasis on “part time” status compared to the others.

Long Term Damage
Here’s where this “they’re only part time” philosophy is really detrimental; having a manager continually tell the board members and community at large that their musicians are just part time creates an artificial frame of reference in those individual’s minds as to what the organization is really capable of – they’ll never expect it to be any better.

Would the retired executive director of Fort Worth Symphony, Ann Koonsman, have been able to convince her community that they should put in the hard work necessary to grow that organization from a ROPA ensemble into an ICSOM if she simply thought of the players as just “part time” employees?  I doubt it.

What sort of donor wants to put up the necessary funds for a bunch of musicians that all have “day jobs”?  And what happens if this mentality sticks around for awhile, how does an organization shake off this shroud of marginalization?  The answers are neither simple nor pleasant; implementing them is even worse.

Now you can see just how damaging a simple belief such as thinking of ROPA ensembles as part-time musician organizations really is.

The ASOL management fellowship program has a phenomenally high success rate of placing graduates in leadership positions upon completion of the program.  That means Jeff Tsai will either make that viewpoint a building block for his overall managerial philosophy or he’ll realize just how harmful an attitude like that really is.  Either way, some orchestra out there in the near future will be the recipient of that philosophy one way or another.

*Update: Since this article appeared, I’ve heard from Jeff Tsai and he promises that he’ll be posting a blog entry which will further explain his point of view regarding ROPA musicians as part time players.

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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