Domino Effect

Detroit, Omaha, San Antonio, and now Pacific Symphony (am I missing anyone?) are all standing on the precipice of a work stoppage…

Releasing the news via their website, the musicians of the Pacific Symphony have voted to authorize a strike for the first time in the organization’s history. The Orange County Register published an article on 8/22/2007 by Richard Chang who reported the musicians’ decision as well as some additional details.

At the heart of the issue appears to be what the musicians categorize as,

“In spite of tremendous growth, increased fundraising, and critical acclaim for high-level performances, Symphony management proposes to keep musician wages well below comparable orchestras, and is unwilling to address changes in working conditions.”

It is worth noting that the “tremendous growth” referred to in the musicians’ statement includes moving into the new $240 million Segerstrom Concert Hall (although it is worth noting that the Performing Arts Center has filed a lawsuit against the architect, construction firm). As such, it is difficult to miss the similarities with another orchestra that just completed its inaugural year in a new concert hall, the Nashville Symphony.

That organization just completed negotiations with their musicians which resulted in a five year collective bargaining agreement (CBA). By the end of Nashville’s new CBA their musicians will experience a 42 percent increase in base wages along with an additional week of paid vacation and an increase in pension. It will be interesting to see if either musicians or management in the Pacific Symphony reference Nashville’s improvements during the upcoming weeks.

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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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13 thoughts on “Domino Effect”

  1. For management to say that it cannot afford to meet the salary demands of the musicians is acceptable. That is an objective statement that can be discussed.

    To say that the musicians do not deserve the salary is totally unacceptable. Musicians start training in childhood, invest lots of money in it, and continue refining their skills throughout their careers. Other than physicians, I can’t think of any other trade that makes equivalent demands upon its practitioners.

    In performance, musicians exhibit psychophysical skills that exceed those of professional athletes. Athletes demand millions of dollars for their services. Unfortunately, athletes draw in more paying customers than musicians. And they are only good for a couple of years, whereas musicians tend to be active far longer.

    But how about factoring in the value of the instruments upon which the musicians perform. If the orchestra management had to buy, rent, or lease them, the cost would be pretty damn steep. But, instead, that cost is subsumed within the salary the musicians receive.

    It’s as if a worker on the auto assembly line had to supply his own punch press or lathe or whatever.

    This arrogant attitude toward musicians just don’t cut it. Instead of “you aren’t worth it” it ought to be “we’d gladly pay you a million bucks if we had it.”

    A little respect goes a long way.

    Paul Alter

  2. Seeing contracts like the one just signed in Nashville worry me – I wonder if the organization can support the growth over the full term of the five year contract. I hope they can, but we’ve seen the other sort of domino effect with orchestras going for (either management proposing or musicians asking for or a combination of the two) large gains in compensation which were unrealistic from a sustainability standpoint, then seeing other orchestras follow suit, only then to see a rash of re-openers before the term of the contract is up because the management/board was unable to sustain the funding to support the growth. To me it falls under the heading of “be careful what you ask for”.

    I agree that there has been a rash of boards promising more than they intend to follow through with. At the same time, I agree that Nashville’s contract is unusual but at the same time I can’t remember the last time a group has planed, executed, and followed-up on a capital project as well as they have. Frankly, I’ll be surprised if they don’t make good on their contractual obligations. ~ Drew McManus

  3. Every year the Tanglewood Music Center orchestra forms from that summer’s fellows and is immediately the rival of any of the orchestras in this article. I support fair wages for musicians, but they need to know that they can be replaced by young, eager and hungry musicians who would jump at a chance to play in a major symphony orchestra.
    Supply vs. Demand!!!

    What exactly do you mean by the experienced players being able to be replaced by younger players? If you imply that the younger players are all as good or better I would simply have to disagree as there is much more to being a good ensemble player than simply skill.

    Furthermore, I always caution anyone against adopting a position that younger players are always equal or better than experienced musicians and if they’ll work for substantially less then they should replace those veteran musicians. Thankfully, that attitude has never taken root in this business and I doubt it ever will (at least in my lifetime).

    In fact, I would assert that if you replace the majority of experienced musicians in any of what you defined as major symphony orchestras with younger players willing to work for half the base salary, what you’ll end up with is an ensemble that is no longer a major symphony orchestra. ~ Drew McManus

  4. Having been in a situation where the older players were removed by a one time offer to buy them out, I can say it was an absolute disaster! Sure, young players had enthusiasm and energy, but where they dominated in that, they lacked even more in experience and well honed skill. Then there was the added problem of not having a clue how to negotiate, how to behave in a meeting, or how to keep the business professional.

    While the music director felt he was getting a new and excited talent pool he ended up with one of the weakest group of musicians. Not only was there lack of understanding of teamwork, but they could not carry the tradition of excellence that symphony had held for so long. Audiences shrank, funding slowed, and the education in the various programs around the city suffered.

    To have a successful group, you need the old and the young. Healthy mix of both creates stability. And I totally am disgusted by the above comment. Ive seen this before, the student willing to sell out, work for less, then complain about it 6 months later once they realized they were getting abused by management. Sad.

  5. I’d hate to play in an orchestra of only young or only old players. I was a Tanglewood Fellow (1994 and 1995), and it was a great experience, but hot chops only get you so far. Orchestras (particularly great ones) have always been laboratories where the senior players and raw recruits learn from each other. You can play exceedingly well, but watching an experienced player when you’ve got a lost soul on the podium is priceless experience. Likewise, I’ve had younger players show me some new ways to play technical passages that I hadn’t thought of. Plus, when you’re dealing with negotiations and other non-playing aspects of the job, having the perspective of years of experience and history on your side is invaluable. Yes, it is important to know that there IS a line of people that are ready, able, and willing to step into your job, but most players more than earn their keep for many decades.

  6. Apples and Oranges. You can’t compare an Orchestra to Sports. Giant stadiums that hold thousands of people and bring in Millions of dollars in one game. Compared to a Symphonic hall holding maybe 2000 bringing in maybe $5,000 a concert. As far as the psychophysical skills, thats the biggest line of B.S. I’ve ever heard. For a part time Symphony, Like the Pacific Symphony, If they can’t handle the 15 to 30 hours a MONTH. Then they have chosen the wrong profession.

    When you mention “part time”, I assume you mean “per-service” which is what the Pacific Symphony is considered. Nevertheless, I think part of the what is at the center of that negotiation is whether or not that ensemble is going to move into being a salaried ensemble instead of per-service.

    More to the point, if the organization continues to gear up non-artistic expenses while requesting greater commitments from the musicians, then it will have to begin paying them at levels which satisfy those demands. Otherwise, there’s no real need for the increased expenditures if there are no plans to follow-up with increased artistic production. ~ Drew McManus

  7. Bob, if it’s BS, let me see you try it for one rehearsal, any repertoire – most likely you’d fold like a house of cards. It’s not the hours, it’s what’s done during those hours, and it is very demanding. This attitude is part of what drives me crazy, along with “what do you really do for a living” and “it must be great to be doing something you love”, as if I should do it for free and earn my money doing something “real” and worthwhile. That is a load of crap, my friend.

  8. I’m pretty sure I used the term [psychophysical] correctly. According to my Webster’s Collegiate, it means, “sharing mental and physical qualities.” Is my interpretation of the term wrong?

    I also said that “athletes draw in many more paying customers than musicians,” which seems to be pretty much what you’re saying, Bob.

    I don’t understand your objections, but I’m open to persuasion.


  9. I’ve never heard the term ‘experience’ tossed around with so much hot air as in the classical music business. Experience should mean, in the most positive sense, a body of knowledge which is not finite, but is constantly growing and changing and LEARNING, too. The best musicians are ones that do that constantly and with awareness and discipline and love, and more often than not they will continue to have the kind of musical energy which younger colleagues can share and feed off of. But there are just as many playing in orchestras where ‘experience’ is simply how many years you’ve been in the job – that’s it, period. I don’t need that kind of experience without enthusiasm in any orchestra. At some point, the issues of money, stability, comfort, etc., have got to be absolutely given over to the task at hand- why we exist, why this website is even up and running – music. Too often these discussions infect the real joy and discipline of music-making and are used as a way to avoid issues of quality, workplace attitude, and the music itself. If you want to be rich, there are many other professions to go into – those won’t be easy, either!

    Thanks for your comment, perhaps this is a good place to point out that in the vast majority of artistic quality issues are left almost exclusively to the purview of the music director. Meaning that if any particular performer is not maintaining the ensemble’s established musical standards it is the music director who is typically responsible for initiating procedures to address those issues. As such, musicians are not responsible for policing each other; instead, they are responsible for arriving to services prepared and maintaining music standards, lest they become the target of artistic review procedures initiated by the music director.
    In the end, extracting discussions of compensation, benefits, and working conditions from issues of musical standards simply can’t be done unless, as a musician, you don’t plan on getting paid for performing in an orchestra. I would also submit that these discussions don’t detract from what you have described as “real joy and discipline of music-making”; instead, they allow musicians to create a work environment which allows them to do exactly that. ~ Drew McManus

  10. The commenter who claims to support “fair wages” for musicians while simultaneously asserting that we should remember we can all be replaced at a moment’s notice by the young and hungry, is missing a few points. I see others have already commented on the value of experience in ensemble playing–trust me, that cannot be overstated. But there are other points as well. Orchestras depend on their recognition as an integral part of their communities, and to have musicians with roots in a city strengthens immeasurably that orchestra’s community connection. Those of us who own homes, who are sending our children to the local schools, whose spouses also work where we live (my husband teaches in an inner-city district, for example), who volunteer in community efforts, who have long-term relationships with students, universities, chamber music series, and places of worship– we are the cement in the symphony-city connection. Subscribers and donors look for our faces every year, and greet us like old friends, which often we are.

    When I moved here, I was one of the young and hungry. Now I am middle-aged and mid career. I am no less able technically than I was as a 25-year-old, and I bring a great deal more in terms of orchestral experience, institutional knowledge, and community involvement. The only way for a young musician to replace me would be for that musician to stay here for twenty years. And if my orchestra were to adopt the attitude that musicians like me are expendable (sadly, a real possibility at the moment), a young player would be crazy even to audition here….because if one thing is certain, it is that everyone gets older at the same rate.

    Thank you for bringing those points up Mary. Far too often the value of musicians setting down roots in a community is overlooked and undervalued. ~ Drew McManus

  11. No one goes into this business to get rich. However, the financial carrot that dangles out there in the top orchestras lures many people into a career. Those of us who make it and earn a living wage but far short of the 6 figures have a different professional life than those in the top groups. If you subscribe to the notion that jobs should be available to the youngest and hungriest you also have to agree that nobody would go into this business and its hardships, apart from the pay, without the expectation of a long secure career. It is also a little naive to think that a salary between $30,000- $50,000 can sustain a youthful vigor towards music making after mortgages and kids come into play. Also tier 2 orchestras have to play more BS than the bigger bands which erodes our personal relationship with our music making and our employer.

  12. ‘extracting discussions of compensation, benefits, and working conditions from issues of musical standards simply can’t be done unless, as a musician, you don’t plan on getting paid for performing in an orchestra. I would also submit that these discussions don’t detract from what you have described as “real joy and discipline of music-making”; instead, they allow musicians to create a work environment which allows them to do exactly that. ‘

    I have to disagree a bit, Drew. In order for musicians to form solid opinions and values about musical issues, discussion MUST be had by the whole group about what is non-negotiable and important from an artistic perspective alone. Only once the musicians collectively set the bar for what they demand artsitically should they begin to attach financial value to them. A group has a lot of collective power artistically and in negotiations if they know where they stand on the things they need for themselves artistically. Too often, we do it the other way around – we say, well, if we want to sound better, they’re going to have to pay us more for such and such activity. A better approach would be to say ‘we want this for ourselves artistically’ and say that first before entering into a negotiation. Obviously there’s a delicate balance here, but no group should hamstring themselves artistically by waiting for the money to follow simple improvements in many areas of the contract.

    And where does the music director fit into this equation? In the majority of ensembles, he/she is provided almost exclusive reign over issues of musical standards and that process begins at the respective contract negotiations with the organization. Music directors push for artistic control in a number of areas: how much influence they get to assert in the audition process, how much control they have over substitute lists, whether they get complete control of the artistic review procedure for section and fixed chair players, tenure review, etc. They don’t sit down and discuss these issues with players beforehand; instead, they leverage their influence via their personality and/or their paid representation in direct bargaining talks with management.

    The only place musicians have some tangible influence, in a collective sense, on musical standards is during the audition process, meaning they get to decide whether or not the pool of prospective colleagues fall short, meet, or exceed their expectations. Details of how that process operates are, perhaps unsurprisingly, spelled out in their collective bargaining agreements – all of which they defined in previous bargaining sessions.

    Beyond that, whether or not any particular musician decides to put all of themselves into their position is a personal decision and those decisions are judged by the individuals tasked with enforcing artistic standards, typically the music director.

    Regardless, I would be interested in hearing how you imagine a group of 80-100+ musicians will determine quantifiable musical standards (is 51% majority good enough?) and then how will they enforce them? Should musicians be allowed to initiate artistic review procedures for any of their colleagues? I’m also curious to know why you think orchestra musicians are waiting to perform at a certain artistic level based on pay as though they were, to borrow a phrase from divorce attorneys “deliberately withholding marital obligations?”

    Granted, I’m baiting your points and I don’t mean to do that with any sort of malice. Instead, my point is that conversations of musical standards, compensation, benefits, and working conditions are symbiotically entwined. Even if you could define a mandate from an overwhelming majority of musicians on musical standards (beyond playing in tune with accurate rhythm and at the indicated tempo and dynamics), those standards will never conform to a fixed set of parameters. Instead, they’ll evolve as members of the orchestra come and go and the art form (hopefully) evolves. Perhaps more importantly, they’ll evolve over time as an ensemble grows into a sound and style it is comfortable with even after music directors and musicians come and go. ~ Drew McManus

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Domino Effect