AFM Calls Out The League

The August, 2010 edition of International Musician published an article by Christopher Durham, American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Symphonic Services Division (SSD) Director and Assistant to the President, titled Quality Leadership Is Essential in Difficult Times. Don’t let the obvious nature of the title fool you, the article essentially levies blame on much of the hardships throughout the field as the result of and in response to the practices and policies endorsed and implemented the League of American Orchestras…

Durham makes some intriguing points, some of which are more fleshed out than others, and I had intended to provide some observations on several items, but his article is only available to AFM members. I’ve submitted a request to the magazine’s editors seeking permission to reprint or for the article to be made available to non-AFM members. Consequently, without a way for you to read the original content, anything I have to say without the original content as reference would be an exercise in tedium.

Update; 8/6/2010, 4:30pm CT: thanks to Antoinette Follett, International Musician Magazine Managing Editor, for providing a copy of the article, which is posted below.

If you are a member of the AFM, I recommend reading the article and in the meantime, I’m interested to hear what you think about whether or not the League has any substantial influence on the evolution of the field and if so, has that influence been positive, negative, or a little of both?

Feel free to submit a comment or send in a private message.

Quality Leadership Is Essential in Difficult Times

by Christopher Durham, Director, AFM Symphonic Services and Assistant to the President

Originally published in the August, 2010 edition of International Musician and reprinted here with permission.

For the past two seasons symphonic collective bargaining agreements have suffered reductions in wages and conditions like never before. In some cases the cuts and threats leave remnants of orchestras that were once viable structures, both artistically and financially.

Popular terms in the boardroom and on stage over the past few years have been structural deficit, stakeholder, facilitation, change, and bankruptcy. The League of American Orchestras (formerly the American Symphony Orchestra League) set the theme of their two most recent annual conferences as “The New Reality” and “The Orchestra Revolution,” as if they are promoting the opportunity. Is it not odd that the League, at a time when it’s tough to make the mortgage payment, is remodeling the house? The League’s purpose, in my view, should be to assist in the promotion of symphonic music and serve as the catalyst for organizations and managements to network wherein they can share ideas about ticket sales, fundraising opportunities, and yes, sometimes, labor relations.

Looking Back

If we take a look back, we see that the restructuring and dismantling of orchestras is not a result of the current world economic crisis, but I believe, seeds of change that were planted in various orchestras for many years, which have come to bear fruit. The poor economy has been a shield and a convenience for this change.

During the 1960s and 1970s, many orchestras, which were then “major” symphonies in status, bargained hard for improved wages and conditions in their work places. This growth was assisted by Ford Foundation grants. As these orchestras united and networked through the establishment of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM), the success of unity and power in numbers proved itself and wages and conditions improved.

During the ’80s this formula held true again for “regional” orchestras with the formation of the Regional Orchestra Players Association (ROPA). Bargaining was sometimes fierce. Some orchestras made tremendous strides and others ceased doing business.

Bringing in the Educators

Though gains were made, artistically, musicians were unhappy. Discussion about workplace boredom, lack of artistic input, and limited career advancement formulated the idea to “bring in the educators” to study and resolve such workplace issues. I do remember this pronouncement and must say that I did not particularly feel the relief felt by others. Into the industry came educators like J. Richard Hackman, Erin Lehman, and Jutta Allmendinger, selected to study this situation. I don’t, in any way, attempt to diminish the great intelligence and intent of these scholars. In fact, their final report was well done.

Excerpts below from an article in Harmony, (Issue No. 2, April 1996), “Life and Work in Symphony Orchestras: An Interview with J. Richard Hackman,” by Paul R. Judy is reprinted with the permission of The Eastman School of Music’s Orchestra Musician Forum and its website An editor’s note cites that Hackman, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, and Allmendinger, then a professor of sociology at the University of Munich, had recently completed a large-scale study of 78 professional orchestras in four nations.

The study concluded that “symphony musicians have a high level of internal motivation” and “they are fueled by their own pride.” The study identified the general satisfaction of symphony musicians and satisfaction with growth opportunities to be seventh behind federal prison guards. At the top of both lists were performers in a professional string quartet, having the greatest satisfaction. The study revealed interesting information and comparisons such as the high degree of satisfaction of musicians from former East Germany.

The Role of Managing Director

In response to Judy on his description of the managing director, Hackman states: “He or she [the managing director] is the person at the nexus of the orchestra organization, the only one who can integrate and coordinate the diverse contributions made by members of the board of directors, by the music director, and by the players. Note that each of these groups is present and active only part of the time: the board is a volunteer group, the music director of major orchestras usually has a contract that requires his or her presence for but one-third of the calendar year (or less), and the players generally are on-site only when they have a rehearsal, concert, or recording service to provide.

“The managing director has a challenging undertaking, made the more so by responsibilities for overseeing various volunteer groups, outside professionals such as attorneys or public relations consultants, and one’s own managerial staff. It is in the managing director’s office where it all comes together—or, in some cases, comes apart.

“There are, in US orchestras, some absolutely superb managing directors. There also are some who are hanging on by their fingernails, focusing more on keeping things from collapsing entirely than on squaring up their orchestras as organizations and drawing upon the contributions of the orchestra’s diverse constituencies to develop and realize a challenging orchestral future.

“Sometimes the problems and pressures can become so great that managing directors fall into a pattern of blaming various individuals or groups for the orchestra’s problems. ‘It’s the fault of the music director; he’s hardly ever here, and when he is, he acts like King of the World, ordering everybody around and insisting that his own needs come ahead of everything.’ Or: ‘It’s the union’s fault. All they care about is showing their own muscle, demanding things that they very well know this orchestra cannot afford.’ Or: ‘Some people on this board don’t understand the first thing about orchestras. They don’t care about music, they don’t come to concerts, and they act as if an orchestra is just another business. They’re on the board only because it looks good on their résumés.’ Or: ‘It’s the damn players. All they do is whine and complain. They begrudge every single contribution we ask them to make.’

“The irony is that when managers fall into a pattern of blaming others for the orchestra’s problems, it almost always reflects a failure of their own leadership. There are indeed lazy, self-centered, and even evil people in this world. But most of us, including musicians, are not that way. It is the job of orchestra leaders to bring out and cultivate the best that all who are involved with the orchestra have to contribute. Great managing directors know that and know how to do it. Poor ones find their work more akin to herding a bunch of strong-willed and ill-tempered chickens across the barnyard than to helping groups of talented and potentially committed professionals come together to create an artistic product that no one of them could possibly create alone.

“Without question, leadership is a critical ingredient of orchestra effectiveness. But we must also acknowledge that there are limits to the height of the mountains that even great leaders can climb.

“Are we, as Fred Zenone of the National Symphony Orchestra has suggested to me, trapped and limited not only by the classical repertoire, but also by the classical orchestral form? Are fundamental changes in the very idea of the 100-person symphony orchestra required if serious music is to survive, let alone prosper, in contemporary American society? Must the institution of the professional symphony orchestra be dismantled and reconstructed, in order to make it manageable?

“I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I do find myself worrying a lot about them.”

Seeking Solutions

What seems to have happened after this study, though not necessarily as a result of it, was that the field went off in several directions, seeking solutions to a problem that was never really identified but was perceived as worthy of a solution. The League, akin to the managing director role of a singular institution, did not have the wherewithal to figure out how to manage its constituent orchestras in a positive direction and seems to have watched the floodgates open. Following are a few examples.

Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra went off in the direction of a “so-called” change in internal governance. Their idea was to change that “classical orchestra form” of the music director holding the ultimate authority in artistic decision-making by removing that position entirely and moving musicians into decision-making roles. Ultimately, this change divided the musicians and the position empowered was that of the executive director.

In its 1998 annual report, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation wrote a lengthy assessment of its findings of the state of the symphonic industry, making comparisons with other reports. This report announced that six orchestras would be awarded grants. These grants were for three years and renewable up to three times. The continuation of these grants is predicated upon “meaningful and measurable progress.” The belief of Mellon in continuing these grants is “that productive change and development cannot occur without clear purpose, constant stewardship, realistic goals, honest evaluation, and sufficient time to institutionalize behavioral, structural, and cultural modification.” Ultimately, what these programs fostered with some of the individual orchestras was to move the representational voice away from the union/orchestra committee to a group of so-called “stakeholders” and individual musicians, thus diluting the concerted activity of the collective.

Another of the League’s best efforts appears to be the promotion of the activities of several orchestras, including the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and its executive director. Most of the public rhetoric on the “Memphis model,” especially the manner and pretense in which changes were made, appear to be greatly exaggerated. Changes purported to have been made by “building a culture” were carrots of lost wages dangled as opportunity to replace wage reductions, forced through concessionary bargaining. Memphis did not “invent” services away from the stage. It has encouraged services called “capacity building,” which amounts to doing office work. And a term they proudly use, “service conversion,” I cannot find in their agreement.

Core Orchestras

The concept of performing services with less than a full orchestra, away from the stage, is 40 years old. Regional orchestras developed “core orchestras” during the 1970s, an idea attributed to Ralph Black, an ASOL leader who convinced many orchestras in smaller communities to hire a “core” of musicians to perform during the daytime in venues such as schools, church chamber music programs, and other civic functions. The success of the core orchestra attracted better musicians, provided higher compensation to them, and increased the presence of the orchestra in the community.

Somewhere back in the early to mid ’90s, a group of employers, prominent in League affairs, retained the assistance of a management side labor attorney. The point of this exercise, as I have been told, was to educate and provide tools for managers to defend themselves against musician demands at the bargaining table and to take control of the negotiations. By coincidence or not, this is when we started to see a different approach to bargaining. Contract terms (lengths) were shuffled and made longer and staggered. Orchestras, whose contracts would normally expire at approximately the same date, were separated in their bargaining scheme. More concessions were demanded by employers and terms like structural deficit were introduced; also, more time was being spent with individuals and groups of employees in “focus” meetings. This activity developed a communications network within the ranks of musicians, which can be effectively activated and used for the employer’s benefit.

These attempts at correcting “perceived” problems in the industry has divided our organizations and given us terrible public relations.

The League has not, in my opinion, taken a position of leadership to correct what must be corrected in the industry, but rather has acted as a facilitator who welcomes all ideas, filters few, if any, and then throws open the door to chaos. The most frustrating aspect of the League’s behavior is that it doesn’t seem to recognize the problems that exist, nor resolve them, and it believes that upending the industry will have a positive effect on resolution and public perception. Does the League truly believe that circulating reports by Wolf, Flanigan, and the NEA into the public domain really elevates our industry? Our public is fragile and negative press is the last thing our industry needs.

Working a 24-hour Day

Our world has changed. We no longer have the 40-hour workweek, spread over five days. We work throughout a 24-hour day, all seven days of a week. The small town businessman going to a concert on Friday or Saturday night, at the start to his weekend, has become as dated as a scene from It’s a Wonderful Life. Do you remember when responding to the Friday mail at the workplace was the end of the week and the week began with the Monday mail? How many e-mails do you receive between 5:00 p.m. Friday and 9:00 a.m. Monday? And, what about the guilt and prodding you get if you don’t respond. Our lives and routine are not as predictable as before, nor do we plan ahead. We must keep this in mind when selling tickets.

During the past two years, orchestras have been subjected to employer threats of shut down and bankruptcy during bargaining and mid-term contracts, if musicians refused to accept agreements with deep concessions. Why must we still defend an eight- to 10-service week and other time off? We have accepted services off the stage, but they should not be used to demean our profession.

Marketing is not selling tickets; it is creating demand. It never ceases to amaze me that our industry reports how bad business is and seems to believe that people will respond by flocking to us in sympathy. No board member would retain (in their own company) a manager who was not producing positive results and certainly not for as long as some ineffective managers are allowed to work in a symphony orchestra. More than 15 years ago, after NAFTA was passed and the global economy was beginning, I observed that orchestra funding sources left when companies merged and/or moved to other parts of the world. During this time, the number of companies who have started and failed, or merged, has been enormous. We have neglected to match our fundraising needs and sources to the opportunities of the global economy and global market. Our media opportunities are beyond comprehension.

Importance of Quality Leadership

Throughout the studies and articles, the common thread is leadership and the importance of quality leadership. Our industry has suffered from the lack of effective managers, leaders with great vision who understand and appreciate our industry and who can market our industry. We pay conductors extraordinary salaries and they “fit” us into their busy schedules. Where we have success, we have strong leadership, and where we have crisis and failure, we have chaos.

Cultural institutions are more relevant than ever. We must promote our industry. We must stop sending negative images to the very people we want to be a part of a winning organization. It is vital that we have an industry catalyst to provide leadership.

This is a different world, but it is still a world for Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. We, as musicians, must not allow ourselves to be isolated and divided. It is important to have relationships with members of the board and supporters in the community. We must be willing to use our talents and personalities to promote our art and our organization. We have already shown our willingness to make concessions, when it will save our institutions, and we know what role our institution must play in our communities.

When it comes to our collective we must speak with one voice, the voice of our elected representatives. We must preserve and promote the performance of great music. We must not be led down the path of mediocrity disguised as the future. We must be managed effectively so that we are able to perform great music and are rewarded for our artistry.

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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10 thoughts on “AFM Calls Out The League”

    • Thanks for the comment Will but I think most folks reading this, regardless if they agree or disagree with Durham’s points, would say that rises to a higher level than simple finger pointing.

      Granted, Durham is writing decidedly toward a specific audience and one which must have an insider’s level of knowledge and sense of history; as a result, the suggested actions are much more between-the-lines oriented than I would have preferred.

      Although I am curious, what would you like to see along the lines of constructive input?

  1. Boy, this article covers a lot of ground. Where to begin . . . I guess the thing that struck me most was the number of different entities that get blamed. Yes, the League bears the brunt, but funders such as Mellon are portrayed as accomplices/enablers, knowledge centers such as the NEA produce research deemed unhelpful for the field, conductors who are paid “extraordinary salaries and they ‘fit’ us into their busy schedules” . . . Heck, it even feels like musicians who choose to participate in “focus” meetings have knowingly or otherwise served management/the League’s trick to “develop a communications network within the ranks of musicians, which can be effectively activated and used for the employer’s benefit.” I appreciate that the intended audience may be sympathetic to much of this, but it does feel like Durham has taken the scatter-shot approach and is not concerned about whom he upsets.

    I’m curious, though, about his comments about the Memphis Symphony. I’ve read and heard about the changes there, but Durham describes this as “carrots of lost wages dangled as opportunity to replace wage reductions, forced through concessionary bargaining.” I honestly have not heard negative reaction from the musicians, so I’d be curious to know if there is another side to the story in Memphis that has not been told.

    • Ha! I certainly can’t claim to know Durham very well but I think most folks who do know him would chuckle at the thought of him being self conscious regarding upsetting anyone’s feelings.

      But in all seriousness, I agree that one of the shortcomings in the piece is its breadth and the inherent space imitation of the print medium make it all but impossible to cover everything in the amount of detail necessary in the space provided. As such, I hope the AFM has plans of launching an online version that provides the room for additional details. In fact, I think Durham could easily turn this into a multi-post series with each installment covering one or more topics per sub heading.

      As for Memphis, I’ve heard a wide variety of feedback from players that covers the extremes and everything between. One of the real problems is that I have yet to hear any stakeholder side (sorry Chris) present a truly comprehensive overview; meaning, there’s a lot of cherry picking going on. I think it would be enormously useful to bring together proponents and critics in a live, neutral moderated forum to address their concerns that would, in turn, be available in an archived format (transcription, audio, video, or all).

  2. I don’t have time to post an extensive narrative of what we’re doing in Memphis, but I’ll be happy to briefly comment, since as our orchestra committee chair and as someone who helped negotiate the language that seems to be causing all this ruckus, I think I have a pretty good perspective on our situation.
    For three seasons now we have allowed for musicians to work under our cba performing tasks that do not fall under our standard definition of a service (rehearsal or performance). These have included mentoring kids at a local charter school during their orchestra class, designing a leadership development program for corporate executives using the orchestra as a lens for putting a different perspective on corporate worplaces, putting on a musician led concert series, etc. The important points that need to be made here about these alternative services are that they are optional, they result in additional compensation, they do not displace any service guarantees, and they were were not initially negotiated in a concessionary situation. We accepted cuts in our scales last season, but that was not the case in the first two years of these new, optional services.
    That’s the short version. There seems to be a big misconception out there right now that we’re leading the way in “service exchange”, which is simply not true. I’ve worked extremely hard over the last week to start getting this word out and hope that this post can help to quash this misinformation.

  3. One sentence in Chris’s piece that especially caught my eye: “The poor economy has been a shield and a convenience for this change.” I found that interesting, because I happen to believe that it was the preceding years of a good economy (especially a strong stock market and accompanying high returns on investment portfolios) that was the shield and mask for underlying problems in many orchestras. When the economy headed south, many orchestras found themselves “unmasked” and facing a double-whammy –financial issues that had been building for years, combined with the worst possible environment for trying to address those issues.

    Two sides of the same coin, perhaps. Overall, though, there is a conspiracy-theory ranting quality to Chris’s piece that, while it may appreciated by its target audience, is not going to be that helpful to anyone at the end of the day. Apparently everyone’s in on it – the League, the NEA, the Mellon Foundation, musicians who take part in focus groups, no doubt the Freemasons and the Trilateral Commission as well.

    There is no doubt some managerial incompetence out there, but the AFM seems to be pushing back with an across-the-board “blame management” theory that I don’t think really holds up. In my experience, orchestra management attracts some very talented, bright, and committed individuals – many far more gifted than I. Many come from musical backgrounds and excelled as performers themselves. Their enthusiasm and vision for orchestras can’t be questioned. I’m not saying every orchestra manager I’ve ever met fits that bill, but many do.

    So I’d say that when an orchestra faces challenging times, it MAY be due to a lack of vision or competence on the part of the top manager. However, I would strongly counsel anyone against adopting that as some kind of universal explanation for the problems of the field – just as I would similarly not put it all on the union.

    One other observation – I don’t consider myself the League’s biggest fan. However, it will be a cold day in hell when you see a piece like this going after the AFM in Symphony mag. The League goes out of its way, in its public pronouncments, to strike a positive tone about musicians and the Union (as it should).

    • I’m glad you pointed out the alternative outlook that the good economy has been masking underlying problems Paul. I’m assuming you’re referring to the overall financial condition as well as the related administrative and governance activities associated with that condition but correct me if I’m wrong. If anything, the economic downturn is beneficial in that it has stripped away the veneer of stability that was covering a tenuous condition. Stronger organizations have certainly felt the sting of the downturn, but they will manage and emerge without succumbing to crippling fear or institutional impasse.

      Of course, an interesting discussion in and of itself is why those veneers have been tolerated and what should have been don (and can yet still be done) to make those situations the exception to the rule. But that is likely best suited for another place and time.

      I found your final paragraph intriguing because although I entirely agree that it won’t be likely to find an article in Symphony with similar language critical of the League, I can recall a wealth of situations where discussions with labor oriented individuals have inferred the same sort of response I assume you had to Chris’ article. So regardless of semantics, perhaps the impact of actions over words has been the same.

      In all fairness, since Durham did mention the Mellon Foundation by name, I do recall one of the midsession reports from their Orchestra Forum program that caused quite a stir when it singled out the musicians’ union as one of the hurdles to the program’s progress. Although that’s paraphrasing, they did nonetheless mention the union by name and went on to use a very similar tone to describe the union’s activity that Durham used in his piece.

      Yet, I can’t recall an instance where the AFM published something as specific as Durham’s piece with regard to mentioning the League. That fact alone makes me wonder what sort of threshold has been crossed. Is it a single event or a series of events that have culminated here and now?

      Regardless, there is a strong sentiment and it makes me wonder if there will be anything following this piece.

      As someone who works between both sides, I always find it curious at how much alike they are (in failings and accomplishments) but how unlikely it is that they would admit, or perhaps even recognize, those similarities. In the end, it seems to be a battle over majority control in the comprehensive decision making process throughout all aspects of the institution. But the reality is that sort of one-sided control is incompatible within the nonprofit performing arts model.

    • Thanks for pointing that out Steven, it was a very good article but I didn’t reference his piece becasue Nathan recently wrote something for me here as a guest author and I didn’t want to make it look like I was favoring him. But I agree that it was a well weritten and thoughtful article.

      In a very similar fashion, it isn’t unlike the article on the very same topic I asked Roger Ruggeri from the Milwaukee Symphony to write for when I was working there:

      Again, I wish the AFM allowed access to these articles without requiring membership.

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