Latest Detroit News

In the wake of last Friday’s informal discussions, the management and musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) are no closer to resolving the month long work stoppage than they were since the first day of the strike. According to reports in the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News, the discussions produced no breakthroughs and since then the DSO has canceled concerts through November 28, 2010…

It is worth pointing out at this juncture is some intriguing discussion points that have popped up throughout the traditional media and cultural blogging community.

Noah Ovshinsky, from WDET News, produced a segment that examines the DSO strike alongside the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) work stoppage from 2005. In addition to a number of quotes from me, Ovshinsky includes insight from retired SLSO principal trumpet, Susan Slaughter, Classic 99 radio host, Ron Klemm, and St. Louis Post Dispatch critic, Sarah Bryan Miller. Miller was the only voice in the group to predict that musicians will have to stay put “because they have nowhere else to go.”

Listen to the entire segment:

The 11/9/2010 edition of the Detroit News published an article written by Michael Hodges that contains a similar outlook from Susan Elliott, critic, commentator and editor of

“Musicians always say good players are going to go elsewhere,” said Elliott. “But my question is — where would they go”

Although it might seem as though options are limited, we’re in a very unusual point in history for larger budget organizations in that there are more openings now than ever before. Even the New York Times took notice in July with an article by Daniel Wakin that explored the numbers of openings throughout a myriad of top tier US orchestras.

So in the immediate sense, the pickings many not be as slim as conventional wisdom might dictate and for better or worse, it will likely have some sort of impact on the DSO work stoppage.

In the cultural blogging community, Robert Levine cast a speculative eye on the recent informal discussions in a post from 11/8/2010.

It appears, though, that “willingness to talk” is not the same as “willingness to negotiate”:

“There has been no progress,”” said cellist Haden McKay, a spokesman for the musicians. He declined further comment, citing a news blackout that had been instituted as part of the ground rules for the talks.

DSO president Anne Parsons put a slightly more positive spin on the day, saying the sides made “modest progress by having a full discussion of the issues.” The two sides agreed to speak by phone over the weekend about the possibility of scheduling another meeting.

One could speculate that Parsons’ claim that progress was made by re-hashing what must be all-too-familiar ground to the negotiating teams might indicate that the management and/or board is feeling some pressure to at least look as if they’re trying to get this thing ended. But it would only be speculation uninformed by any knowledge of the specifics.

What do you think?

  • Are the stakes too high for either side to be playing (games) with fire?
  • Does the unusually high number of openings throughout large budget orchestras have any impact on labor dispute’s outcome?
  • Will things get wrapped up by the holiday season?

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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12 thoughts on “Latest Detroit News”

  1. Regarding whether players stay or go, this line of thinking always bothers me, as it is both uninformed and insulting to the musicians.
    Ms. Elliott and Ms. Miller are correct- most musicians have no place to go- in the short term. But many (especially titled chairs) will begin looking for other options very quickly. Given the timeframe involved with the audition processes of most orchestras, it’s a very real possibility that some DSO players will not be around next season. Even if the current dispute is somehow resolved, most likely a certain percentage will take the first opportunity they can to get out, given the totality of circumstances there. Further, no one should fool themselves into thinking that any resulting DSO opening can be quickly filled, particularly titled positions (as is obvious from Mr. Wakin’s piece). And by the way, over the last few years several former DSO musicians won jobs with other orchestras, probably having anticipated the current situation to some degree.

    The point is this: like any other business in the world, the most successful arts institutions do everything they can to attract and retain the best talent possible.

  2. I think you make two wrong assumptions.

    -There are a number of openings. There may be a number of openings, but not as many as you allude to that will pay more than the DSO (at current or either proposed levels).

    -That the DSO musicians would win a chair. The competition is very high for the aforementioned chairs. Could they? Yes, but I do not think to the extent that would be any greater than common turn over in a regular season.

    This is why I think the argument that imposing the DSO contract would cause such mass exodus is nothing but union rhetoric. Even at the proposed levels for DSO it is still a well paying job that will attract many fine hard working musicians screaming for a chance to play with such an organization.

    I’ve said before sometimes you have to have rebuilding years. Drew, you said it’s not like baseball that can see the difference in a few years. I disagree; I think the only reason why it might seem that way is because unlike being able to release your pitching staff in one season you can’t easily release the wind section.

    Frank, in trying to refute, seems to support this. Musicians will not leave in the short term – this lends to the conclusion that resignations will happen no faster than previous years. If it is true that musicians have been leaving DSO over the past few seasons – why hasn’t the quality waned?

    I agree with the statement that organizations will do their best to attract and retain the top talent. This is why many musicians in many orchestras have separate negotiated contracts beyond the CBA minimums. If the organization is happy with you and wants to keep you than they will pay you. (It would be interesting to find out what happens to those DSO chairs that have such individual contracts) Maybe the question is – if you aren’t receiving such a contract, what does that say about the organizations willingness to raise the base pay and their want of keeping such a player. It happens in business all the time. If an employee asks for a raise the answer will shed light on how the company views their position and performance.

    I think if the musicians want to see movement they need to come off the proposal that rates return to the $90K range within two years. As you have said there have been no comments from management, but if I were in Ms. Parsons shoes, that would be my major sticking point. She knows that Detroit will not turn around in that time period and if she agrees to it they will be worse off than the current position.

    I don’t think it will be wrapped up anytime soon. With the exception of a few loose cannons no board member, and to my knowledge no executive board member, has come out against management. This is a strong sign they back Ms. Parsons. You’ve stated they need to manage debt, but by not producing money loosing symphonic concerts they are saving money that will sure up the balance sheet and help make the $2M interest payment on the building. Again with the exception of patrons (who I hope actually contribute with their pockets and not just with their mouths) it does not seem the city of Detroit is pushing it.

    Now compare all this to Fort Worth Symphony. There has not been much in the papers, but FWSO wants to cut something like 8 weeks and base pay down below $50,000. They were to impose last offer a few weeks ago but then there was nothing – except a few Facebook rants. Now this is a city and organization that is in a better position to argue the points of quality and livable pay in a city that is growing.

    • Hi William,

      I’m not sure I alluded to any specific number of openings; instead, I referenced an article in the NY Times that does list specific numbers of openings in a variety of large budget orchestras. But since you mentioned it, I went back to that article and added everything up; the total is 48 openings.

      Additionally, the point I was referencing was the “where will the musicians go?” question and I wasn’t prognosticating the outcome of any audition. Regardless, reducing this to a stereotypical union/management bargaining tactic denies the very real problems associated with a talent drain syndrome, which impacts all organizations during period of instability (nonprofit and for profit alike).

      Ultimately, the point being made is it would be as shortsighted to look at the situation from a conventional wisdom labor oversupply perspective as it would to simply assume money will grow on trees. Clearly, solutions need to focus more on managing debt rather than implementing long term strategy that ushers in sweeping changes.

      As for the board, that dynamic is certainly one to keep an eye on but it isn’t uncommon for even those in strong dissension factions to work internally rather than go public with their views. If the outcome is not to their liking, they usually leave shortly after the settlement. either way, you rarely see more than a handful of board memebrs speaking out against their fellow board memebrs.

      As for the FWSO, I don’t believe they are in a work stoppage so it isn’t unusual to see less attention. Simply put, since it is (at least presumed) both sides are actively engaged in negotiations and working toward a settlement, proposals are currently being hashed out in bargaining sessions and nothing is set in stone. Conversely in Detroit, a proposal was implemented without ratification from both parties.

  3. Ok, 48. My point is would those chairs go to a larger proportion of DSO musicians because of the current or imposed situation than any normal year? I just don’t think so. The question will be – will DSO maintain their above minimum contracts for the musicians they want to keep? That is one way to maintain the artistic heart of the organization.

    Can you think of any orchestra that had a CBA reduction? What was that outcome? You should keep tabs on the DSO musicians and see how many leave within 2 years of a return. What has happened to Baltimore? Although the musicians helped the acceptance of two cuts, what has their turnover been?

    I’m not just reducing it to a union/management argument, but why does this concern only come up during negotiations? And who uses it? Is it shortsighted to see the oversupply of labor? I would say the union recognizes it because of tenure clauses.

    What would you do in Detroit to manage debt? I think that is what management is trying to do, and unfortunately their circumstances call for major change in the largest budget line. Does it suck? Yes, but so will losing the DSO to bankruptcy. So who is playing with fire?

    • a few quick replies to your inquiries:

      Open seats: The 48 figure actually doesn’t include other positions I’m aware of at large budget groups that weren’t included in the NYT article. Furthermore, it only includes US groups so the numbers could be greater if foreign orchestras are considered.

      Baltimore: I believe they lost four principal players (tpt, tbn, vla, cello) but I don’t know what they other numbers are (fixed chair or section) due to attrition and/or cuts. Does anyone have verifiable figures handy?

      Turnover: The impact of compensation and benefits on musician turnover discussion takes place quite often in negotiations, but it isn’t examined publicly because most negotiations aren’t conducted in public forums.

      Managing Debt: I’d love to be able to examine what you proposed here at Adaptistration in great detail but unfortunately, there isn’t enough information about the DSO’s financial position to do that. As such, it would be akin to conducting Neurosurgery with a giant wooden mallet. However, I think it would be enormously useful for the entire field if a situation could emerge where I would take a few days to visit Detroit, talk to both sides, examine and verify financial data, and then report on what is uncovered.

  4. As a member of the Saint Louis Symphony, perhaps I can shed light on the relative likelihood of musician turnover.

    For economic or artistic reasons, there are currently few orchestras to go to from Detroit. There are probably seven or eight which compensate their musicians significantly better than the DSO.

    With a 34% reduction in pay alone, That number would more than double. When you consider the loss of tenure and the requirement that musicians now begin doing other jobs for no extra pay, that number goes to 25+. Does that mean more key musicians will leave the DSO under such a contract? Absolutely. Does it mean the DSO will miss out on attracting the top talent from the outside pool? Without a doubt.

    The subjective nature of art can lead to lots of apples/oranges comparisons, but there will be a depression of quality in the Detroit Symphony if such work conditions are implemented. The musicians of the DSO understand this, as do those in their peer orchestras. Managers I’ve spoken to do also, but the DSO board and executive director seem not to. I can only hope they will listen at some point before they ruin their orchestra.

  5. In answer to the question are the stakes too high to be playing (games) with fire? Most definitely. I agree with Drew that the aftermath considerations should not be ignored. Once situations reach this kind of pitch, it’s not only difficult for all parties involved to return to some semblance of normalcy, it also becomes difficult to reinstitute the trust and working relationships that are necessary for the organization to be successful.

    As for the work stoppage being settled by the holidays, I have no independent knowledge, but considering the musician’s latest salvo,,2010.html, I suspect that a resolution is unlikely by then.

  6. I’m not from Detroit but have a thought anyway. From reading several websites on the DSO strike…poor management appears to be the primary culprit. Why don’t the DSO Muscians start a new “Detroit Philharmonic” and sever all ties to the DSO? Same ensamble with new management. I know it’s drastic but so is the DSO management’s proposal. This is basically what they are currently doing with the independent off-site concerts by the musicians of the DSO.

    • Thanks for the question Rob, this has been done elsewhere to one degree or another. However, in each situation, the reformed organization has been a fraction of the budget size it was before its problems started. As such, if the primary DSO musician concern is maintaining quality and retaining/attracting talent, that likely isn’t the best option.

      On the other side of that coin, governing and managing a professional orchestra is not an easy business. Experiments with dominant musician control/responsibility in those areas have produced results that are, at best, indeterminable.

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