Looking Beyond The Numbers In Detroit

The 9/19/2010 edition of The Detroit Free Press published an article by Mark Stryker that dives into the non-monetary issues Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) labor dispute. It is good to see an article of this length focus on work rule oriented items, doubly so given the depth and magnitude of the changes being proposed…

Of particular note is the fundamental change in the mission driven activity being proposed by the DSO management, the results of which they claim will expand their vision. Moreover, Stryker’s article includes comments from New England Conservatory president and former Minnesota Orchestra president Tony Woodcock, who asserts that expanding musician duties and responsibilities, such as the DSO’s proposed extensive in-school mentoring and performance activity, would make the organization a more vital part of the community and increase support.

Undoubtedly, that’s a wonderfully idealistic notion but it is a far cry from a predetermined outcome. For instance, if the community felt that having increased music education through in-person and exposure to performances were important, they likely wouldn’t have allowed their schools to cut the programs in the first place. If nothing else, a vast amount of additional study is required to move this point from theoretical ideas to worthwhile conclusions.

The article is loaded with plenty of point-counterpoint content (for even more, you can check out the comments), but the overriding point is whether or not a period of substantial financial quandary is the best time to reimagine a multi-million dollar nonprofit performing arts business.

Postscript: I had an intriguing conversation with a long retired orchestra executive about all of this a week or so ago and I found his reply intriguing and with his permission, I’m going to post what he had to say.

“All of these sweeping work rule and job description proposals are a brilliant distraction tactic on management’s part to get what they really want, which is to permanently lower the budget. And if the players ultimately accept some of the proposals then it’s a negotiation twofer: lowered budget and less musician interference.”

Cynical? Perhaps, but it’s an outlook that certainly conforms to Occam’s razor.

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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2 thoughts on “Looking Beyond The Numbers In Detroit

  1. I foresee the proposed “work rule changes” having a dire impact on all instrumentalists. As the article mentions, DSO musicians are already, “paid extra for additional work like teaching or playing chamber music.” I don’t envisage the DSO creating new opportunities for teaching and playing chamber music. I suspect they will simply appropriate the opportunities that already exist in the community. In essence, they’re asking DSO musicians to hand over their extra income to the orchestra in addition to the proposed cut in salary. I understand that the extra revenue (presumably in the form of new grants for their new programs) is good for the DSO, but how is that equitable to those that have come to rely upon that extra income?

    I also suspect this would hurt the larger community of instrumentalists not under contract with the DSO. In large metropolitan areas, there is (for lack of a better term) a second tier of musicians who earn a living performing in smaller per-service orchestras, teaching, and performing chamber music. The per-service orchestras don’t pay a living wage, so the income they earn from teaching and chamber music is not extra pay; it’s the food that goes into their mouths.

    It doesn’t take a degree in economics to figure out that if the DSO is offering teaching and chamber music for free or a reduced price (because of grants), then the second-tier musicians who charge for it are going to suffer. In time, so will the DSO. Large orchestras rely upon a community of competent musicians to substitute in their ensembles, as well as enhance them in works that require more instrumentalists than they can muster. If those musicians lose the meager incomes they eke out through teaching and chamber music, they’ll have to seek occupations in other fields. If that happens, whom will the DSO call on Sunday morning to fill in at the matinee for the bassoonist who came down with food poisoning?

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