Harvest, Build, And Destroy – Part 1

There’s little doubt that the recent events surrounding the breakdown of negotiations at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra will be examined in minute detail over the coming months; who did what, 20/20 hindsight, etc.  These examinations will more than likely result in some improved tactics for both managers and musicians for future contract negotiations.

Nevertheless, it might be more worthwhile to step back and examine the overriding process of how managers and musicians interact during the length of a contract as opposed to during the transition period of negotiations; after all, they are irrevocably intertwined.

The current system used by most orchestras to develop working conditions and pay scale is based off of the model adopted in the early 1960’s, when symphony orchestras were declared interstate commerce by the NLRB.  As a result, this ruling allowed musicians to represent themselves during contract negotiations; which they took to with vigor.

Shortly before the onset of negotiations, the musician’s elected representatives begin to gather information about what the players want to ask for regarding changes to their compensation, benefits, and work rules.  In order to prioritize, they compile a list of grievances or complaints that have been filed over the term of the previous contract and request financial records from management.

Next, they put together their proposals and sit down at the bargaining table with the managers with the intent of hammering out an agreement.  The “hammering out” process has become more contentious in recent years, culminating in the detrimental situation recently completed in St. Louis.

In order to increase the likelihood of this process producing less core damage to the institution, the musicians may need to consider altering their traditional process.

Playing by “Turn Based” rules in a “Real Time Strategy” game
The fundamental rapport between managers and musicians is defined by a reactionary relationship; cause and effect. The collective bargaining agreement serves as a sort of “rules” for the professional relationship, it even goes so far as containing language outlining the process to file grievances and resolve disputes.

The initiator in this relationship has traditionally been managers, and as such, the very nature of a collective bargaining agreement places the musicians in a reactionary position. A considerable amount of contract language related to work rules stems from abuses (either real or perceived).  The collective bargaining agreement is one of the only enforceable tools at the musician’s disposal to enact some control over their environment; so as long as they feel they are being harassed, they’ll respond within the contractual means at their disposal.

This model has, with a few notable exceptions, functioned reasonably well over the past 40 years.  However, recent events are beginning to suggest that the business has evolved to a point where this model may require some significant modification.

In a traditional Turn Based game, one side moves, then the other.  Each subsequent turn includes moves designed to react to the opponent’s action in addition to furthering a tactical objective.

In a Real Time Strategy game (RTS) both players must deal with a multitude of events simultaneously and time is limited; if you end up wasting yours, your opponents will probably be taking advantage of theirs.  Players must focus their efforts on harvesting resources, building procedures, and destroying a competitor’s opportunity to act in bad faith.

Using the Turn Based approach has naturally appealed to musicians because it provides a greater a mount of flexibility related to observing day to day dynamics for the non artistic portion of the institution.  If it’s a particularly busy time artistically (numerous rehearsals, concerts, tours, recording sessions, etc.) musicians simply stop paying attention to administrative activities.  Furthermore, many orchestras have longer periods of no activity over the summer which only compounds the problems associated with inactivity.

But the reality of an orchestral organization is that it moves in perpetual motion.  If musicians take too much time out between periods of increased interest and observation of administrative activities, they have to play a significant amount of catch up and inevitably miss out on fully understanding critically important events.

Since the musician’s elected representatives who serve as a liaison committee between the players and managers (typically called a “players committee” or “orchestra committee”) usually change from year to year, there’s also the inherent loss of historical memory from one group of representatives to the next; all of this conspires to compound the problems mentioned above.  More often than not, the musicians end up abandoning attempts to serve as an effective institutional watch dog and merely react to whatever current events exist.

If the musicians are fortunate, they have a group of managers who accept the responsibility to act in good faith toward the musicians.  They go out of their way to involve the musicians in administrative activities and take the time to build a good working relationship each and every year with a newly elected orchestra committee.

Conversely, a more opportunistic group of managers will use the existing situation to keep the musicians in the dark and leverage that advantage of greater institutional control and sole retention of organizational details to their advantage when negotiations roll around.

Is it possible for this relationship to evolve?  Can musicians pay more attention to administrative activities while not sacrificing their artistic duties?  Can opportunities for abuse be diminished so good people won’t make bad choices?  Is it possible for “harvest, build, and destroy” to be a good thing? Yes.

Tomorrow’s article will examine some of the changes musicians may need to implement in order to transform from a Turn Based mentality into a sustainable Real Time Strategy model in addition to exploring how this new approach will benefit the entire organization.

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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