There’s Nothing Like a Having Gun At Your Head

The Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony’s new “merit based pay” structure is something that has caught the attention of a few managers and musicians alike here in the U.S.  Initial word of the deal came out several weeks ago and the most recent article in the 6/12/05 edition of the New York Times by Makiko Inoue reveals a few new details.

My favorite part from the article was when TMS violist Kaori Minamiyama was quoted as saying,

“We finally decided to agree to introduce the contract-based system, as we did not have any other choice in order to continue the orchestra.”

Talk about an offer you can’t refuse.

Frankly, the thought of a merit based performance structure for an orchestra in which managers control setting criteria and conduct evaluations (which is how the TMS system is being described) is perilous at best.  Nevertheless, the issue of retaining artistic integrity and conducting regular artistic review within a tenure based system is difficult in its own way to achieve balance.

It’s an old argument that tenure based employment breeds lethargy and malaise.  At the same time, a tenure based system has been at the heart of the unprecedented artistic growth and academic accomplishment enjoyed by the multitude of professional American orchestras and music conservatories.  In less than 100 years, the American classical music establishment went from being backwater upstarts to world leaders without mass government funding; and the tenure system has been along for most of that ride.

In 1962, when musicians won the legal right to represent themselves in collective bargaining negotiations, they quickly set up contractually obligated work rules which prevented abusive music directors and managers from firing them without any sort of formal artistic review process.  At the time, critics of such a system bemoaned that it would be the end of artistic achievement and American orchestra musicians would become fat and lazy.

Fortunately, they were all wrong.  Artistic growth increased exponentially among the bulk of American orchestras and American conservatories began to attract the best students not only from the U.S. but they began to siphon many from European and Asian countries too.

That isn’t to say the tenure system of artistic review isn’t without its problems.  There’s always stories of abusive conductors and managers attempting to side step contractual obligations and of musicians who refuse to release a colleague whose playing has obviously become subpar.

Nearly every one of these encounters results in new contractual language designed to refine the artistic review process so artistic accomplishment continues to move forward at a pace we’ve become accustomed to.

There have been a few public tests of these measures over the past season.  One of the most public was the dismissal of former Oregon Symphony principal flautist, Dawn Weiss.  In that situation, all parties appeared to have followed the contractually mandated artistic review process, but shortly before the final stage of that progression, Ms. Weiss decided to go public with her battle.  History will be the judge on the wisdom of that decision and Ms. Weiss ultimately conducted herself in whatever way she felt was necessary.

One aspect which is missing form the equation of the artistic review process within American orchestras is a system used by the for profit business world all the time, that of an early retirement incentive.

More often than not, players who have gone well past their peak are well aware of that fact.  But the precarious nature of being a musician is that you aren’t really trained to do anything else with your life.  Therefore, if a player in their late 50’s who’s been in their job for over 20 years and finds that for whatever reason their playing has been compromised they should have a guaranteed option of an early retirement; complete with severance and pension opportunities.

In more cases than not, it ends up being a win-win scenario for all involved:

  • Orchestra musicians don’t have to deal with cannibalizing one of their own with an artistic review process that only breeds hard feelings and fear among other musicians.
  • Musicians who, although they are not currently playing up to requisite levels, have still dedicated numerous years of their lives to the art and an institution leave with their dignity in tact and a reward for their service.
  • Music directors and managers who are doing their jobs don’t unnecessarily look like renegade bullies.
  • All of the other positive qualities about tenure and artistic review remain in tact and function to their full effect.

In the end, it’s a situation where each orchestra will need to examine the issues based on their unique status (some orchestras retain players for much longer periods of time compared to others who experience frequent turnover).  Even so, once those solutions are mutually agreed upon between all constituents, they should become part of the collective bargaining agreement.

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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