The Fragile Powerhouse

Hot on the heels of developments in San Antonio the labor situation in Detroit seem to be building pressure…

Adaptistration People 099On 8/22, The Detroit Free Press published an article by music writer Mark Stryker which outlines the crux of the issues in the ongoing negotiations. You can get yourself up to speed by going through that article and kudos to Stryker for using data freely available from the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) to help supply facts and figures for the article; it’s good to see reporters using that resource.

I don’t think things are ready to fly apart at the seams just yet, there is sincere potential mind you, but it isn’t desperate at this point. Nevertheless, one of my biggest concerns in this situation is if the discussion degrades into the “well, the players earn six figures, why should they bitch about any cuts at all.”

Case in point, Stryker’s article includes the following quote from Robert Allesee, a member of the Detroit Symphony board,

“If they’re making enough for the year, then anyone who quibbles about not getting paid for a vacation is crazy,”

The moment you begin walking down that path things get ugly. Who is to say what qualifies for “making enough?” Is a six figure salary good? Of course it is, but if all musicians need to do is “make enough” then why shouldn’t they accept an annual salary of $75,000, $50,000, or even $25,000 a year? Could those musicians find a way to survive on each of those salary levels? I bet they could but that isn’t the point.

Instead, it has much more to do with what I like to call “The Fragile Powerhouse” scenario. Creating a destination orchestra takes decades to accomplish and is ultimately the result of several board and administration regimes successfully building on one series of accomplishments after another. Conversely, it only takes a season or two to tear much of that progress down and more often that not, you don’t notice the cycle has even started until it is too late.

As such, destination level orchestras are not unlike a Faberge Egg: it takes an enormous amount of time and dedication to craft but only a few seconds to cause irreparable damage – the Fragile Powerhouse.

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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