I Worry About The Staffers

Whenever the potential for a work stoppage enters the stage of public debate it becomes troublesome to see senior executives comment on how many opportunities their musicians have to supplement their income outside the ensemble or how much less some other supposedly peer orchestra pays their musicians. Not only do those tactics (or perspectives if you prefer) send a disturbing message to the musicians and patrons, many executives fail to realize that it sends an equally dismal message to their own staffers…


One of the long-term negative impacts from a bitter work stoppage is that staffers are typically put in a position of having to choose sides: support your bosses 100% or suffer the consequences. Those consequences include being ostracized by coworkers, being passed over for promotions down the road, and everything else in-between. Worst case scenario is that you’re branded as being “labor friendly” and if you have executive aspirations that is tantamount to the kiss of death (how being considered “labor friendly” became a negative term in this business is beyond me).

Whenever I’m contacted by a staffer or middle manager at an organization embroiled in a work stoppage my advice is to listen to the rhetoric coming from their superiors. If they hear an increasingly negative stream of language devaluing the players my advice is to run and don’t look back; there is a world of hurt coming your way so get out of that job as soon as possible and detach yourself from the events before you get sucked into a self-defeating course of events. After all, if the executive leaders don’t place a great deal of value on musicians guess where middle managers and staffers fit into the equation?

Essentially, if your job title contains popular non-executive buzzwords such as coordinator, representative, manager, associate, supervisor, assistant, or team member then get out before it is too late. If not, the alternative is to stick it out and fight the good fight but odds are you’ll end up selling out or getting unofficially blackballed by your colleagues. Either way, the result is likely a high degree of unhappiness, complete lack of job satisfaction, and limited job advancement opportunities.

Perhaps, the worst part of this is many organizations that suffer through work stoppages end up marginalizing and/or losing a number of superb employees who are not easily replaced. The end result is the organization suffers from lowered efficiency and an entrenched “us against them” mindset between musicians and the remaining administrators. And really, who wants to work in that sort of environment?

In the end, I hope that even if some organizations have to endure a work stoppage this fall the executives won’t inadvertently eviscerate their own administrations by language they direct toward musicians.

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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1 thought on “I Worry About The Staffers

  1. What do you know about the relationship between musician wages and benefits and those of the non-union staffers? Do you see the management robbing Peter to pay Paul, or do increases on one side tend to drive increases on the other side? One thing I’ve heard is that the union can often negotiate for good benefits packages (health care, dental, retirement, etc) and it’s easier to put everybody on that plan rather than having a separate lower standard for staff, so the staff at orchestras often end up with better benefits packages than their compatriots at other arts organizations.

    Unfortunately, those issues are not straightforward. I wish they were but they aren’t. For example, the majority of the professional orchestras (when looking at ICSOM & ROPA groups) don’t offer musicians health benefits at all or if they do, they are marginal whereas those same ensembles do offer full time office employees better health care benefits packages.

    As such, I think it helps if you narrow the confines of the discussion. It makes the conversation much longer but you’ll likely end up with a better result. Secondly, you’ll need to include which state an orchestra resides since health care offerings vary from state to state, further complicating the issue (it makes me want to watch Michael Moore’s latest movie again). Was there a particular group you are thinking about? ~ Drew McManus

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