It’s Not A One Size Fits All

Throughout my almost 23 years as a negotiator for the American Federation of Musicians Symphonic Services Division, I have listened to accusations by symphony managements and others that what we engage in is pattern bargaining. That is, if Orchestra A achieves something new in their contract, then B through Z orchestras must do likewise. Not true…

While each orchestra’s local union and their negotiating committee do keep abreast of financial and working conditions advances in the field, each orchestra does weigh the appropriateness and usefulness of any new development or idea for their orchestra, and I certainly encourage and cultivate that mechanism.

Most contract language that we see happens for a reason; to attempt to resolve a local problem to the parties’ mutual satisfaction. If a committee says to me “we want this because Orchestra X got this” my first question would be “what have been your problems on this issue” and proceed from there. Some 20 years ago I recall one orchestra that achieved an extremely progressive but rather complicated procedure for selecting a new Music Director. Thereafter, many orchestras sought to copy that procedure.

The orchestra that originated this language did so in large part to repair damage to the relationship between the musicians and the Board of Directors that occurred, due to a serious mistake that occurred during a previous music director search. To seek to apply this language elsewhere where a parallel situation did not exist was often viewed as unnecessary, but sometimes destructive to a relationship where musician participation in the conductor search process was already inclusive and welcome.

This concept is perhaps most critical when it comes to analysis of the finances of symphony orchestra. While our industry leaders and the media want us to believe that all orchestra woes are due to the economy, it’s not that simple. There are many reasons orchestras are in trouble (and some are really not in serious trouble). Admittedly, a tough economic climate truly exposes the plethora of gross mismanagement that has been occurring in our field for years. Following financial analysis and further examination, the following are some of the reasons for financial trouble in some of my negotiations:

  1. An orchestra where there had been no development or marketing plan for the past 3 years.
  2. A orchestra where there was clearly pre-determined board agenda to cut the orchestra way back, even to the point of evading and turning down contributions that would have helped keep the orchestra status quo. A philanthropic organization commissioned a study/report which identified the Board as a major source of the orchestra’s problems. The Board later commissioned a respected symphonic Executive Director to do a follow-up study/report which found similar problems. Both studies were ignored by the Board of Directors. Now the community has found nearly $150 million dollar for concert hall renovation, but the Board continues to claim that there is no money in the community for a professional orchestra.
  3. An ensemble where the Board of Directors and management did absolutely no fundraising whatsoever.
  4. In part, an institution that had greatly diminished ticket sales, due to programming which clearly alienated the audience.
  5. A summer opera company that has in large part has ignored marketing to larger cities within proximity of their location, and the average ticket buyer, in favor of catering only to the “jet set” crowd.
  6. One orchestra that took substantial cuts for this past season later announced an $89,000 surplus, following suspension of contributions to the musicians’ 401K plan and their electronic media guarantee.

Just as it is ill-advised for the union to recommend solutions that don’t fully consider the unique local issues, likewise symphony boards and management should not make proposals that do not effectively address the underlying problems identified. If they do, the underlying problems will continue, fester and likely become toxic to the entire organization, which no amount of musician or staff cuts can solve. Thus would begin the institutional spiral downward that we have seen far too frequently.

It would serve both the interests of musicians and orchestral institution if both the union and employers would focus on their unique issues within, and use industry ideas as catalysts for local analysis and discussion, rather than as copycat goals and solutions.

About Nathan Kahn

Nathan Kahn is a Negotiator for the Symphonic Services Division of the American Federation of Musicians where he negotiates, advises and assists in the administration and negotiation of symphony orchestra contracts in the United States, and occasionally in foreign countries. He has negotiated hundreds of collective bargaining agreements including 6 comprehensive first-time collective bargaining agreements and provides varying levels of assistance in the administrations of collective bargaining agreements to over 250 different bargaining units. Nathan gives lectures to students at colleges and conservatories across the US on the subjects of symphony orchestra career preparation, and the role of the American Federations in those future careers.Nathan has been a member of the string bass section of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic (formerly the Colorado Springs Symphony) since 1991. Previously he was the Principal Bassist of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, and an active recording musician in Nashville, recording for such artists as Charlie Daniels, Roger Whittaker, Roy Clark, Sandi Patti, Dan Fogelberg, and many other recording, television and film productions. Prior to coming to the American Federation of Musicians, he was Founder and is President Emeritus of Regional Orchestra Players' Association (ROPA). In his limited spare time Nathan enjoys hiking, cross-country skiing, bicycling, cooking and collecting pop music from foreign countries.

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