BSO Musicians Paid To Stay Out Of Union

Or, that’s how the story went back in the October, 1918 edition of The Etude, A monthly journal for the musician, the music student, and all music lovers.  In “The World of Music” column, the journal ran the following bit about labor issues at the Boston Symphony Orchestra,

It was reported a few months ago that the Boston Symphony Orchestra (the only large organization of the kind which has remained non-union) was about to become unionized, but the event failed to develop.  It is now reported that the management offered a cash bonus of $250 to every member who would sign a contact to continue with the organization and also remain outside the union.

Although the BSO is most certainly a union ensemble now, the fact that most managers and board members would prefer they weren’t hasn’t changed one bit. 

The Etude really is a fascinating look at the cultural life of America nearly 100 years ago; it’s like an early print version of Arts Journal.  Even more fascinating is the realization you would have at just how little things have changed over all that time.  In many cases the headlines and feature articles seem to be carbon copies of the articles Arts Journal links to today (albeit with less flowery language and, thankfully, larger type font).

Discussion of Nationalism in foreign countries, labor issues in the “Big 5” orchestras, the troubles associated with finding donors to fund income gaps in cultural institutions, and so on.  It would all be quaint if for the fact that many of these problems and resulting discussions seem to be unchanged today.

It reminds me of a recent conversation I had with an orchestra musician who started into the business before 1962, they said,

“No matter how much things change, they stay the same.”

This copy of The Etude just goes to support that statement and is at the heart of what people mean when they talk about this business being stagnant. 

Over the next few weeks we’ll look at some of the articles in The Etude which draw closer parallels to events today.  As the old saying goes, “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.

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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