Avoiding The Music Police

Every orchestra has these musicians and if you’re lucky, you’ll never have to encounter them throughout your career as an orchestra manager. Unfortunately, luck isn’t something you can rely on all of the time and at some point, certain managers are going to stare a potential Music Police quagmire square in the face. The good news is that quagmire can be avoided at almost every turn…

Who Are The Music Police?

The Music Police are orchestra musicians who, for a whole
host of diverse reasons, believe they have an innate authority to
determine what qualifies as acceptable musical standards within their
respective ensemble. These musicians act alone or sometimes form one of
the numerous cliques found in the vast majority of professional
orchestras. It is important to point out that there’s nothing
inherently wrong with one musician having an opinion about a
colleague’s musical abilities (you’re more likely to find Waldo than a
musician who doesn’t); however, when one or more musician decide to
impose their musical standards on fellow musicians in a way that
involves a manager is when the silent alarms should start going off
through the office.

Over the past few years there has been a marked increase in my
conversations with managers who relate some sort of horror story about
how they got caught up in the middle of a musical standards turf war
among the musicians. In most cases the managers could have avoided the
quagmire by identifying some of the warning signs and exercising
extreme prudence.

Like most quagmires, these situations usually present
themselves with good intentions and most members of the Music Police
play on a manager’s natural sense of protecting the organization.

What To Do When The Music Police Come Knocking

Fortunately, the saving grace of every manager in the
business is that the overwhelming majority of professional orchestras
has some sort of language in their collective bargaining agreement
(CBA) which dictates how artistic/peer review is initiated and
implemented. The key word here is "initiated" and I have yet to run
across a CBA which grants individual musicians or a musician committee
the authority to initiate an artistic/peer review procedure against
another musician. Instead, this authority is granted to the individual
who serves as the artistic head of the organization: the music

Although each CBA has different language dictating how the
artistic/peer review process works, the language is there nonetheless.
A good manager will make sure that his/her music director is familiar
with this language even if it means sitting down with them and reading
it aloud word for word. Walk the music director through a hypothetical
process and make sure he/she is asking questions. Let the music
director know in no uncertain terms that the organization expects them
to abide by these procedures and if they have any questions or need to
discuss issues related to artistic/peer review, then approach the
appropriate manager before taking any action. Failure to do so will
likely result in the process being improperly implemented, therefore
providing ample opportunity for any musician in question to avoid
related action as dictated by the CBA.

If your organization has measures in place to encourage
musical professional development make sure the music director, not to
mention the musicians, is aware of them. Ultimately, the best way to
avoid a problem in musical standards is to marginalize it from becoming
an issue in the first place and this is an issue that will be examined
in greater detail in a separate article.

If you’ve done your job by making certain that the music
director is thoroughly briefed on artistic/peer review procedures and
is fairly implementing those duties in a responsible and professional
fashion, then Music Police outbreaks will be marginal. The worst case
scenario a manager can end up in is to have a music director who
refuses to abide by the artistic/peer review procedures or has strong
passive aggressive tendencies (another issue best left for closer
examination at a later date).

Now that you have your administrative house in order, here are
two of the primary contact points Music Police use to ensnare managers.

Contact Point #1: One-On-One

In this case, a musician (or small group of musicians) will
approach a manager requesting to talk to them in private about an issue
in the ensemble that is causing problems. Typically, the managerial
targets include operations personnel that have the most frequent
contact with musicians and/or senior executives who have the authority
to dispense disciplinary action (executive directors, personnel
managers, general managers, etc.).

This is where the quagmire is most vulnerable and you can put
it down before it starts to creep up your leg. Make sure you know what
the musician want to talk to you about and don’t be shy about asking if
it is a matter of musical standards. Some managers, such as personnel
managers, usually have a good idea of which musicians belong to what
clique and if they’ve noticed a Music Police clique forming, they
should always ask that question if a member of that clique won’t say
why they want a private meeting.

The more wily members of the Music Police might get through
your first line of defense by creating an artificial issue and once
they are sitting across from you without their colleagues around,
you’ll get an earful. The less tactful members of the Music Police will
be blunt enough to say something like "Here’s a list of all the
musicians I think you should fire because they simply aren’t good
enough to be in this ensemble anymore." The more diplomatic might
breech the subject by talking about the musical level of musicians
hired in the past decade and then segue into Music Police issues.

Either way the polite, and proper, thing to do is adopt a
diplomatic tone of voice and remind the musician about the established
artistic/peer review policies currently in place and your meeting
violates the terms of the CBA and is therefore, not permitted. If there
is nothing else they wish to discuss, make sure the musician has a copy
of the current CBA (odds are, they probably haven’t read the related
language), sincerely compliment them on something from their most
recent performance, and conclude the meeting.

Contact Point #2: The Committee Approach

This tactic is sometimes more difficult to notice and can
sneak up on even the most experienced manager. Let’s say that the Music
Police in your ensemble are aware of artistic/peer review procedures
stipulated in your CBA but they still wish to interject their musical
standards on one or more colleagues. The most likely route is for those
musicians to begin forming majority voting blocks in any one of their
elected committees; a common target is some sort of artistic committee.
However, there have certainly been cases where members of the Music
Police have been a bit more proactive and will commandeer what is
usually one of the most influential elected committees, an orchestra

These instances are a bit more difficult to deal with because
the Music Police will effectively circumvent your fist line of defense
by presenting Music Police issues under the guise of legitimate
committee business. Nevertheless, the same procedures above apply to
the committee approach. The only difference is an even higher degree of
diplomacy is involved because the last thing you want to see happen is
for genuine committee business to be negatively impacted by rebuffing
Music Police business on committee time.

Keep in mind, the last thing you want to say to any of the
Music Police is "If you don’t like how the CBA deals with artistic/peer
review then change it." That will only encourage them to gain majority
(or worse: entire) control of a negotiating committee. In this case,
there is nothing preventing the Music Police from using the negotiating
forum to address their issues of musical standards. In a case such as
this where you have to start off neck-deep in the quagmire, your best
resource is your own personal resolve.

Simply put, don’t accept a proposal that provides any ensemble
musician, or group of musicians, the ability to initiate artistic/peer
review. The only upside here is that the traditional forum of
collective bargaining works in your favor. If the negotiating committee
dominated by Music Police thinks you are being unreasonable for
rebuffing their attempts to acquire musical standards they can
personally enforce, let them go back and tell all of their
colleagues about it. Odds are they won’t go that far because they are
acting on their own in the first place and if they do, their colleagues
will probably solve your problem for you. 

Final Thoughts

In all likelihood, the Music Police won’t respond well to
being referred to contractually defined procedures but too bad;
remember, the CBA applies to managers and musicians equally and you
should expect the musicians to follow its terms just as much as they
expect you. At the same time, a good manager will keep an eye on the
situation to make sure none of the musicians involved end up creating
phony non-musical issues to serve as a surrogate for their Music Police

In the end, managers need to work toward creating an
environment where all musicians can grow musically and feed off of each
other’s musical strengths in a healthy way. At the same time, there may
be musicians who aren’t content with that process but so long as you
keep up your guard and don’t let them pull you into a musical standards
quagmire, you – and your organization – will be better off.

Postscript: There’s another side to this issue that
deserves to be examined in a future article. In particular, managers
who take overt action to become involved with the Music Police. That
issue will make a worthwhile topic in conjunction with how to deal with
a passive aggressive music director who refuses to do their job with
regard to artistic/peer review.

In the meantime, I’ve received a number of requests to address
this topic so I’m interested in reading what sort of feedback it
generates. Please feel free to post a comment below or send in a
private email.

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 “Avoiding The Music Police”

  1. What do you make of a musical director who tells the Board of Trustees that there are only a dozen or slightly more, members of his orchestra who could get a job playing in other orchestras?

    What does that say about his leadership?
    What would be his remedy, if the statement were true? Fire all the rest? How could he justify it?
    What steps would he have to take? How would he deal with the union?

    My first thought is “why would a conductor take a job at an ensemble he/she has such a low view of the players and does this opinion take into account how well the musicians sound cumulatively?” Nevertheless, regardless if the number is one or 100 any music director must abide by the artistic/peer review procedures as dictated in the master agreement. That pretty much answers the question of the steps he/she would take and how he/she would deal with the local musicians’ union but some interesting points to consider are some contracts limit the number of musicians a music director can file artistic/peer review charges against in any given season.

    Additionally, some contracts prohibit a music director from engaging any any artistic/peer review activity in the first or last year of their tenure. The argument here is that a conductor needs at least a full season to really make a fair determination of a player’s musical ability and restrictions in the final year prevent any sort of retaliatory action. ~ Drew McManus

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