Disposable Labor? Part 2

This installment will continue to examine some recent events involving the Cologne New Philharmonic’s hiring practices in order to determine whether or not an abundance of musician labor is being used as a force for positive change or toward more exploitative goals…


Part 1 examined the events surrounding Volker Hartung being jailed by French authorities for two days while they questioned him over charges that he violated French labor law by underpaying his musicians of the Cologne New Philharmonic. Part 1 reviewed how Mr. Hartung and the German (DOV) and French (SNAM) musicians’ unions determine what constitutes a “fair wage”.

As that article uncovered, a representative from the DOV offered very clear cut criteria that union uses to determine a fair wage and Mr. Hartung provided some information about what his musicians were paid but declined the opportunity to verify those payments or describe why he believes those amounts are fair.

This article will examine issues related to working conditions and benefits; issues which have been at the forefront for many of the contentious labor negations in the U.S. over the past two years.

I asked Mr. Gerald Mertens, director of the DOV, whether or not the DOV is aware of the working conditions Mr. Hartung imposes on his musicians, and if so, are they acceptable by their standards?

“As far as we know, Mr. Hartung says that his musicians are self employed, which means, that he has to pay no tax, no social insurance, no health insurance etc.,” Mr. Mertens wrote. “There are no regulations about working hours, number of rehearsals and performances, recordings, travel conditions etc. What Mr. Hartung says has to be done by the musicians. He is the only boss.”

When asked to describe the working conditions for his musicians, Mr. Hartung declined to provide an answer, even after numerous attempts were made requesting clarification. However, regarding the issues of recordings, it is known that on Mr. Hartung’s website visitors may purchase recordings with Mr. Hartung as conductor, including those featuring the Cologne New Philharmonic. The details surrounding residual compensation from the sale of those CD’s to Mr. Hartung and the Cologne New Philharmonic musicians are unknown and multiple requests for information were declined by Mr. Hartung.

However, Mr. Hartung did take the time to offer comments about the French and German musicians’ unions,

“The misunderstandings, which bring about such a huge press campaign against me and my orchestra and the international uproar could be avoided by a simple human conversation or a meeting between the unions and us. Unfortunately they seem to use us as scapegoat, as a pawn against their governments in order to push their interests and they refuse so far any direct communication. It is all a great tragedy and my case has apparently been deliberately provoked in order to make their political points clear to everybody.”

When asked whether or not they refused to talk to Mr. Hartung, Mr. Mertens wrote,

“The DOV, which I represent, could not negotiate with Mr. Hartung for his musicians until [the musicians who perform in his orchestra] become members of our union. However, we negotiate collective bargaining agreements with every public or private employer of orchestra musicians if the musicians are our members and the employer wants to negotiate with us, too.”

When asked whether or not he would be opposed to allowing his musicians to be represented by DOV or if he currently offers them any sort of collective bargaining agreement, Mr. Hartung declined multiple requests to respond with specific answers.

However, Mr. Hartung did provide the following statement regarding how his organization functions and compensates his musicians,

“We are working 25 years in the business and to be able to survive as independent symphony orchestra is difficult enough even with lower than average wages.”

The conventional supply and demand argument might dictate that some work is better than no work when there’s an abundance of labor in the equation. However, the questions regarding issues of whether or not that abundance is fueling exploitative behavior are whether or not the musician labor is being used for personal or organizational benefit.

Mr. Mertens offered a viewpoint which examines the resultant problems form these issues in a dynamic light,

“We know that Mr. Hartung wants to be the “good guy” and really is personally convinced about this. And we know that there are musicians under poor conditions in many Eastern [European] countries. The real problem is that Mr. Hartung is an unfair competitor to other orchestras: If a German concert hall engages a normal German orchestra for one performance it has to pay about 10000 or 15000 Euros for this gig. If they engage an orchestra from Poland it will be about 5000 Euro and if they engage Mr. Hartung they will get his orchestra for a lower fee from about 2000 to 3000 Euros.

I’ve never ever heard an official denial from Mr. Hartung about this figures. I don’t think that Mr. Hartung jeopardizes many German orchestras in reality but the unfair competition to smaller orchestras and to orchestras from Poland and other Eastern [European] orchestras which legally tour and perform in Europe is obvious.”

One of the key points in that statement is the phrase about other Eastern European orchestras who tour legally. It’s this point which landed Mr. Hartung in hot water with French authorities in the first place; meaning, in order to tour through France and Germany, Mr. Hartung had to secure a permit to do so.

In order to obtain that permit he had to demonstrate that he wasn’t violating French labor laws. Other Eastern European orchestras successfully tour though Germany and France because they do meet those minimum requirements; however, Mr. Hartung’s ensemble has allegedly failed to meet those criteria. As a result, his permits were revoked and he was jailed for two days while authorities questioned him about these issues.

In essence, the fundamental issues being identified here are related to whether or not the musicians in Mr. Hartung’s orchestra are being exploited by paying them lower wages than other Eastern European orchestras. In order to see if there was any merit to that point, it would depend on whether or not anyone associated with Mr. Hartung’s orchestras was earning a much higher wage than the musicians.

I asked Mr. Hartung how much he earned as conductor and executive director and if he considered his musicians to be of equal or greater caliber as compared of professional musicians found in other German and French orchestras. Unfortunately, Mr. Hartung declined to respond to any of my numerous requests. Perhaps some of the reasons behind Mr. Hartung’s resistance are because his legal problems with the French government are not yet resolved.

In similar fashion, when I asked a representative from the French musicians’ union (commonly known as SNAM) to comment on all of the issues outlined in Part 1 and Part 2 they declined to comment on specific questions due to the unresolved legal issues currently being examined by French courts. However, Antony Marschutz, Delegate for International Affairs for the French Musicians’ Union SNAM – CGT, did offer the following statement:

“I may respond in a more complete way when I will have more time, and send you the decisions made by the court when it will be so far; for the moment, the matter being before a court in France, I won’t make any comment on the basic problem.

I may just point out the principles which lead us to go on trial, among others, against Volker Hartung: in France the live performance field is determined by a set of national rules aimed to secure working conditions and minimum wages for all artists working on the French territory. These rules have been negotiated, under the umbrella of the state authorities, within the frame of our social dialog. A foreign artist is welcomed in our country, as far as he respects the rules that the French artists have fought for since for more than 50 years. Now in our view the problem of Mr. Hartung is that he doesn’t respect these rules and undercuts the French working conditions for artists.”

Mr. Marschutz also mentioned he would be willing to forward the final ruling from the French court once it is released, which will go some way in answering some of the contentious issues above.

Why Does Any Of This Matter To Orchestras In The U.S.?
The United States does not have the same sort of labor laws which France and Germany utilize. Consequently, exploitative behavior demonstrated by individuals or organizations is extraordinarily difficult to establish in this country. In the end, it becomes much easier to take advantage of inexperienced, yet highly trained, labor for personal or organizational gain.

Clearly defined lines between black and white behavior similar to those in European countries are unlikely to appear anytime soon in the U.S. and as the business of classical music continues to dive head first into a sea of change, all of its stakeholders will have to remain diligent when it comes to issues of exploitation.

The boom cycle of available musicians can become one of the most powerful tools every segment of the classical music business can use to reversing its collective fortunes and move the business into a new golden age. Nevertheless, it can be used just as easily as a tool to advance a handful of personal careers while simultaneously hogtieing the rest of the business into a self-perpetuating state of secondary relevance among the American cultural consciousness.

In order to avoid the latter from becoming the norm, everyone with a stake in this business will need to begin looking past the one-dimensional arguments of supply and demand and begin thinking in more dynamic terms.

In Mr. Hartung’s case, he has stated publicly that one of the reasons he pays his musicians a lower scale is to charge lower ticket prices. Certainly, bringing more people into live performing events is a good and reasonable goal, but using the abundance of available musicians as a vehicle to that end is something which must be examined with a dogged level of scrutiny.

The forward thinking managers of today will be able to identify the absolutely necessary goals, such as affordable ticket prices, while simultaneously divining solutions which don’t exploit the musicians and the music they are attempting to promote.

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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