The Fast Track To Getting Typecast

Last week’s article that focused on comments made by Joe Horowitz to WDET News has generated a great deal of thoughtful, and sometimes verbose, feedback, including two comments from Horowitz. Horowitz also posted an article on 12/5/2010 more at his own blog and to date, the trio of comments to that post have been short of sympathetic…

Robert Levine took issue with Horowitz’s reasoning in his blog post from 12/3/2010.

It’s an unfortunate fact that some of the discussion about orchestras and musicians seems to be motivated by nothing more elevated than envy. “I can’t make a living writing books, therefore musicians shouldn’t be able to make a living by performing” fails both as humane sentiment and as intellectual analysis.

The question of what orchestras should do with their employees’s time is a lot more complex than simply saying that orchestras “give more concerts than people want,” even if one assumes the question is not being driven by a desire to take musicians down a few pegs.

Horowitz likely never took any econ classes; if he had, he would realize that “want” is a complicated concept. “Want” under what conditions? What price? What venue? What repertoire? What kind of presentation?

It’s like saying that libraries have too many books because most of them aren’t taken out very often. It really misses the point of having orchestras – or libraries – at all.

Subsequent to Levine’s post, Horowitz offered additional insight into his reasoning from his 12/5/2010 blog post where he expands on his initial position as well as offering a glimpse of insight into some of the source of his thinking that Levine criticized. Horowitz’s final two paragraphs appear to be attracting the most attention.

It seems to me merely self-evident that frequency of performance cannot be predicated on the number of rehearsals and performances necessary to amass a full-time salary for the instrumentalists. An orchestra’s chief beneficiaries are not its member musicians – fundamentally, it serves others first.

If I sound unsympathetic to the musicians, it’s because I’ve heard one too many times the strident union litany blaming ignorant boards and incompetent managers. Running an orchestra is a thankless task. I’ve done it.

The Fast Track To Getting Typecast

If there is one sure fire way to get your opinion marginalized by anyone in this field who doesn’t reside at either end of ideology spectrum, it is making universal accusations against an entire stakeholder group. “Greedy union musicians,” “bungling management,” and “lazy board members” are all fantastic ways to get your perspective typecast in the greater cultural conversation. Before you know it, you’ve become the poster child for being pro/anti management/labor.

To give you an idea of just how much impact these labels carry and how they come into play in the real world politics of this business among those who stand to benefit from an entrenched mentality, I want to relate an event that took place in my professional life (no, blogging isn’t what I do for a living; it’s an unpaid labor of love).

I recall a conversation I had with a pair of executive board officers during a conference call related to a bid I submitted in response to their organization’s executive recruitment RFP. The conversation was going well and toward the end, one of the board members decided to drop pretense and showed one of the cards he was holding close to his chest.

“Frankly, we weren’t sure what to expect during this meeting,” he said. “We got a call from [blank] who said he learned that you bid for this job and he told us to stay away from you because you were ‘labor friendly’ but after talking with you, I don’t understand why he would say that [everyone chuckles].”

Fortunately, the project had a happy ending. My work with the group was very productive and the lesson learned is simply this: demonizing stakeholders or painting them as stereotypical caricatures isn’t a very productive use of time. Instead, it is far more valuable to identify patterns and trends and recognize how each situation contains a unique set of variables shaped over time by an equally unique set of circumstances.

Identifying the good, the bad, and the ugly within each of those instances is a delicate process but there’s nothing wrong with pointing out what works alongside what doesn’t; however, it should always be specific, verifiable, and never driven by any sort of agenda, personal or otherwise.

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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