Labor Oversupply: Reversal To The Rule

The 7/5/2010 edition of the New York Times published an article by Dan Wakin that examined the uncharacteristically large number of section, fixed chair, and principal positions open among the largest budget US orchestras. What’s interesting here is the groups in Wakin’s article are destination level ensembles, meaning these are the orchestras where the very best musicians aspire to win a position, it won’t be surprising to see these groups adopt practices usually associated with labor shortages…

So much for the labor oversupply theory.

This is especially true in light of the fact the caliber of the musician occupying a fixed chair or principal position not only has an enormous impact on the overall quality and sound of the ensemble, but it cements artistic reputation for years to come. When you consider that these decisions can have a 20 to 40 year impact on an ensemble, far longer than a music director, the magnitude of the situation becomes clear. In short: the very best ensembles must do everything they can to attract the very best musicians lest their level of musical accomplishment suffer.

Managed debt be damned, most orchestra leaders have no trouble realizing that the long term health of the institution demands they remain competitive when it comes to attracting artistic talent. So regardless of how much new meat conservatories and schools of music churn out of their performance degree grinders, the number of destination orchestras remains relatively fixed and the musician leaders within these ensembles rarely arrive hot off the heels of earning a degree. As a result, any ensemble considering a market demand based approach to filling premium openings is also accepting a considerable long term, risk.

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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8 thoughts on “Labor Oversupply: Reversal To The Rule”

  1. Hey Drew,

    Interesting post and thanks for pointing out the NYT article. I think I get your basic point (orchestra’s should be careful about not filling positions as a cost savings approach), but I didn’t understand what you meant by the phrase ‘market demand based approach’ in your next to last line. Could you explain it in this context?

    • Hi Alex, after reading my original bit about the demand based approach again following your question, I can see how that might be confusing. Thanks for pointing it out. What I was referring to there is the static oversupply approach: more players = more leverage to negotiate lower overscale. Does that answer your question?

  2. Yup!

    I think that the very idea (or identity) of being an elite (or ‘destination’) orchestra sets up nicely to argue that there isn’t an oversupply of labor. From where I sit, not being able to find acceptable musicians to fill positions is one of the ways that orchestras and conductors assert their identity as elites. Not that it’s conscious necessarily, but that idea of themselves as elite combined with an increasing number of choices helps assure exhaustive searches for ‘just the right one’. That helps make the argument that salaries have to be high (relatively) and helps to drive that end of the market up. Arguably, that’s good for everyone’s salary in this business.

    At the same time, I think that ‘non destination’ orchestras don’t benefit quite so much from the argument that we need ‘better salaries in order to attract the best talent’. Here, without that status as an elite or destination ensemble as a backstop, I wonder if it brings up questions about the abilities of the musicians currently in the band. Following the logic, if better salaries attract better musicians aren’t the ‘lifers’ in this non destination ensemble something much less than the best?

    • Oh my, I’m not even going to touch that last question other than saying I’ve heard players at the end of the careers sound every bit as good as anyone else in their respective ensemble and I’ve heard the exact opposite.

      Beyond that, every ensemble determines how their peer review process works and like every process, it is only as good a the people involved.

      • My last question was more rhetorical than anything – I see myself as a lifer in a non-destination orchestra – and proud of it, too.

        It’s just that I’ve heard ensembles of all sizes (some ‘destination’ some not) use the argument that ‘we need better salaries to attract the highest quality musicians’ and I think that there are more negative implications the farther the ensemble is from being considered a ‘destination’ (a loaded term, but I know what kind of orchestra you’re talking about).

        For me, it’s an example of how the non-destination orchestras can benefit from developing their own language for talking about what we’re trying to do and the role salary plays in it.

        Thanks again for pointing out the original article.

  3. The physical ‘holding’ of auditions in a major orchestra is a big effort, requiring conductor free time, orchestra player’s committee (suitable to the chair open) hall, and management personnel to manage things. This considerable expense makes it a little embarrassing to have gone through the whole process and come up empty. Simply winnowing the applicants down to a ‘manageable’ number is a time consuming process.

    About salaries: The orchestras have their own way to decide who is top and next to top: budget! Who spends the most is concluded to be the best orchestra. So, while the musicians attempt to negotiate larger salaries, the management ALSO wants to have an attractive wage to persuade the best and brightest to appear at the auditions. A great orchestra with a poor salary cannot, over time, maintain its edge compared to others.

  4. Maybe the problem these “destination” orchestras are having is the audition process itself. The article mentions that the NY Phil hasn’t been able to find the “right” candidate yet. Certainly there are plenty of extremely talented musicians currently playing in “non-destination” orchestras who have years of experience and are exactly the kind of musician that “destination” orchestras are looking for. The problem is, the people left standing after the preliminary round at most major auditions are recent conservatory grads. Working musicians don’t have the same kind of time to dedicate to practicing excerpts as college students/recent grads might, not to mention the fact that today’s conservatories are teaching students how to win auditions, not how to be good musicians. Perhaps the solution to this problem of not finding the right candidate is to change how the orchestra searches for those candidates. The current process doesn’t show a committee what kind of a musician is auditioning – it only shows how perfect someone can be.

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