Special Mid-Day Update: News From Detroit

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) released a bevy of PR content this afternoon following today’s annual meeting. There aren’t any surprises but if there are any quick and dirty key points to take away from the DSO’s meeting recap and a letter from the DSO Executive Committee to the Board it is this: we have no plans to cut our executive loose and we are not backing down

If nothing else, the provided recap did confirm that the DSO has hired Bruce Coppock as a consultant although what he’s doing with the organization beyond his meeting presentation is not clear. Requests for information to the DSO asking about Coppock and his work have not been returned.

What is known is that the far-reaching changes Coppock put into place at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra during his time there as the president and managing director don’t seem to be helping that organization fare any better than their peers. Over the past decade, the organization has had endured numerous staff cuts and musician base pay has been cut three times, the most recent of which was in 2009. Whether or not this was taken into account by the DSO when deciding to hire Coppock is unknown.

You can read the PR recap of the annual meeting as well as the Executive Committee’s letter at the DSO’s blog.

At the time this post was published, there was no official response at the DSO musicians’ website.

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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18 thoughts on “Special Mid-Day Update: News From Detroit”

  1. Drew, I mentioned this before—according to national labor law, it is illegal to officially ask for the removal of executives/board during a strike. Let’s just hope there’s enough push from the community to have them leave without it.

    • But taking a vote of no confidence isn’t (provided it doesn’t include a demand to remove the respective exec). Historically, that usually has some sort of impact on public sentiment but it can also backfire if handled improperly. The other political reality is closed door deals can seal an individual’s employment status just as easily.

  2. Let’s discuss the loss of $8.8 million, and the $15.6 million in two years. The drop in overhead and the increase in operations.

    Coppock or no Coppock, there needs to be plan that stops the bleeding like a haemophiliac in the 1950s.

    New management or old management; $100k musicians or $70K musicians – does anyone really think that this ship can be turned around before it sinks?

    How do you grow your market to cover such a hole? No one but a fool is going to give that kinda of bailout. In the real world you go out of business.

    At this rate DSO musicians will be lucky to make $30K by 2015 – supported by weddings and lounge acts.

    This isn’t an attack on musicians or managment. This is a wake up call – the money is not there.

      • True the goverment bailed out GM, but let Crystler die.

        Louise Nippert’s gift (from my understanding)was to cover the cumliative $2M deficit. And the orchestra will only recieve between 3 and 4 million a year and is mainly an endowment to benfit the orchestra and groups to employee the orchetra musicians (opera, ballet, community – stuff that DSO musicians seem to be balking at).

        So based on back of the envolope math it would take a gift of $250 million to cover DSO on the same terms.

      • Which is no different than the San Jose gift but what it does provide is maneuverability, especially over the next two seasons which is what the group needs to see how the local economy shakes out.

        Unless that’s an Enrico Fermi designed envelope, I suggest estimating anything related to the DSO’s finances is, at best, a counterproductive exercise.

      • Um, the government bailed out both GM and Chrysler, and Chrysler is far from dead. It recently posted a large operating profit and is on track to make more money next year.

  3. This from one of our negotiating team:

    “I attended the DSO Annual Meeting this afternoon. The event really gave me an idea of the attitude we are trying to combat. There was no urgency from anyone about the strike, and very little of it mentioned. There was no talk at all about the negotiations or proposals.”

    “The Keynote address was the worst – a vision of the future of the DSO by (paid consultant) Bruce Coppock. It is his view that in 9 years, the only orchestras left with 52 week seasons playing orchestral repertoire full time would be these five – New York, Boston, Chicago, San Fran and LA. The rest will fade away or have some new model in which Detroit will lead the way! …”

    I assume we should notify the orchestras of Cleveland, Philly, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Dallas, and more that according to the Pied Piper of St. Paul, their days are numbered!

    Seriously, if nobody calls out this BS for what it is, Coppock may be right.


  4. RE- “The Money Just Isn’t There”

    No, it isn’t- especially if you have a track record of bumbling, and a “tradition” of clueless management. No, the money just isn’t there – not when we’re saddled by this crew.

    “GM Foundation gives $27M to raise graduation rates in Metro Detroit”


  5. Drew, you “suggest estimating anything related to the DSO’s finances is, at best, a counterproductive exercise,” yet this is what management already has done and what the union needs to do if it wishes to reach an agreement. The main issue in this negotiation is how much the DSO can afford to pay the players. If the players think management’s numbers are wrong, they need to make a credible case for a rosier alternative scenario. Does anyone really think that the DSO Board will do a deal based on a wing and a prayer?

    Calling for someone’s resignation would be of a piece with most of the union’s tactics since this dispute began. It’s not that the union’s positions are necessarily wrong on the merits, it’s just that they are beside the point. The players must focus their energies on persuading the folks across the bargaining table.

    • I think you are misinterpreting my remark to Wm Will’s comment, which was directed toward the envelope math. But your final paragraph is a fascinating point and I’m glad you brought it up. It might seem that during a bargaining session, the objective for either side is to convince the other of their point of view. That is certainly the case during normal bargaining conditions but when things have gone public and/or a work stoppage is in place, the exact opposite takes place.

      All things being equal, the impasse was reached because both parties were unsuccessful in finding common ground, or to use your example, persuading the folks across the bargaining table. In cases like this, it is typical for both parties to begin identifying and cultivating support via outside sources in the hope that said support will provide additional pressure on the other side to find that common ground and reach a settlement. There are numerous examples throughout the field over the years with wildly varying degrees of success.

      However, one thing I wouldn’t do at this juncture is universally declare that either side’s positions are beyond the point. That’s typically the sort of thinking that led to the impasse to begin with. It is never as cut and dry as “raise more money” or “there’s no more money so you need to earn less” and that’s not really a bad thing, but that’s perhaps a discussion best suited for another time.

  6. The large question that looms is the future of
    subsidized art performance and exhibition.

    We imported from Europe the incredible and moving
    philanthropic model of “gap-filling” the financial distance between admission receipts and the actual cost of operating professional symphony orchestras, art museums and the like.

    It has served us well for at least a century and a half. But right now conditions vary greatly from one geographic area to another. And exactly to which 501(c)3s available philanthropic dollars will flow may well be undergoing a profound change.

    However, for those of us who are employees,
    management, trustees or donors in the microcosm of the professional symphony orchestra – the bottom line has become very plain to see. If there is not a sufficient number of indivuals of means who are both able and desirous to
    continue “filling the gap” – it really doesn’t matter if the budget is $26 million or $600 thousand – our orchestra is going down.

    When we consider the fact that famous rock stars have had to curtail or cancel tours during this recession, we know that people are spending less on live events. Obviously the recession and
    easily accessed electronic pastimes are not helping orchestras with either end of the gap.

    But it is not that classical music is dying.
    It will not die as long as there are readily available digital files of performances – and individuals who want to listen to those files.

    We could also say that as long as conservatories are training classical musicians who can re-create those notes on the page, there will be
    individuals at the ready to give live performances. Whether they will be able to earn
    a living doing so has always been another

    Whether or not people will choose to attend live concerts in the numbers they did for decades as opposed to consume classical music
    electronically – we’ll have to wait and see.
    We know the numbers from the latest NEA Survey of Public Participation in the Arts are not encouraging.

    But, regardless of attendance stats, what happens
    when there are not enough gap-fillers? Just ask the residents of Honolulu, perhaps Louisville, maybe Detroit and definitely Morristown, New Jersey.

    Making sure there are still some individuals who at least desire to listen to those electronic files is the concern of The Discovery Orchestra.

  7. Drew,
    Please, go to detroitsymphonymusicians.org
    and saveourorchestra.info.There are several updates.The musicians are doing a remarkable job reaching out to the audiences, the community,the public and media.Gaining support almost daily.
    Yes, there has been a letter to management ,etc.. that is posted and appeared in the newspaper.It calls for a
    “clean-sweep” of management- period.
    You are all more than welcome to come and attend the concerts and to see for yourselves the attendance and responses.it will be simulcast on WDET FM radio.
    Will, I strongly, suggest you look at various models of funding after you see what and how the management has done to reach this point.It is not what it seems.
    There are innumerable ways to acquire funding. There are fundamentals that now have to be addressed,as well.This is not just about monies.

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