Detroit News Editorial Blames Musicians

The 2/2/2011 edition of the Detroit News published an editorial which pulled no punches when it came to laying the all of the blame for the Detroit symphony Orchestra (DSO) work stoppage at the feet of the musicians and their supporters. Unfortunately, an attempt to summarize a protracted labor dispute the magnitude of the DSO’s is practically impossible in the space of a print editorial, and this one is no exception…

Frankly, the piece does an inadequate job at reviewing key points in both parties’ proposals, covering critical benchmarks in the four month strike, and providing a comprehensive overview of the organization’s recent history. Those who have been following events will likely pick out those shortcomings in short order but what really stands out with jaw-dropping intensity are accusations of hypocritical conduct among a patron stakeholder group known to support mostly musician positions (emphasis added).

This stand-off seems destined to become a disaster. It could be headed off, of course, if all of the folks who have been begging the DSO board to settle the strike would buy more tickets and make more donations. Management contends 70 percent of those in the Save Our Symphony group are not DSO donors.

I contacted Elizabeth Weigandt, DSO Director of Public Relations, for confirmation and she did verify that the organization provided that information to the Detroit News.

The DSO did an in-depth analysis of the registered members of Save Our Symphony effort and learned two-thirds are non (or very modest and long- lapsed) donors, non-attendees, or musicians.  Only 5% are subscribers.  Although one Save our Symphony member gave $125,925 in 2009-10, the total amount given by all other Save our Symphony supporters last year was $850.

Granted, the Save Our Symphony patron organization is a far cry from a model of efficient and effective patron activism. I’ve pointed out particulars in articles and comment replies over the past several weeks. There were even reports the members of the organization booed the DSO CEO before the 1/26/2011 DSO executive committee meeting, although that was the extent of negative sentiment as no board members or other attendees were reportedly booed. But one has to wonder what on earth motivated the DSO to release a statement like that.

If you’ve ever worked development, you know that attacking patrons, regardless of their position during a labor dispute, is akin to willfully and aggressively targeting civilians during a military operation, especially the ones that don’t like you.

Let’s set aside for a moment the unreliable nature of verifying small, single donations (anonymous gifts ring a bell?), or human error in data entry, or faulty database cross tabulation, or that many individuals consider ticket purchases to be a donation (how many times have you heard that Mr./Ms. Development Professional?). Forget about the fact that modest or “long-lapsed” donors apparently qualify as non-donors to the Detroit News editorial board, or that some ticket buyers aren’t in the box office database (cash purchases), or that there are single ticket buyers that regularly purchase more concert tickets than a subscriber, or that members of the patron group may not even live in the Detroit area. Certainly, don’t worry about the avalanche of variables that make an already dicey statement even more tenuous. And do we need to ask why the DSO decided to single out musicians among the group’s membership (are they incapable of donating)?

Instead, let’s explore the potential motivation behind conducting that sort of analysis along with the benefits in releasing the results.




Okay, I’m stumped. I can’t imagine anyone in the DSO would believe that approach would successfully shame ticket buyers into donating. Has anyone used this method with positive results? I’d love to know about it if you have.

As for motivation, I’d like to believe that perhaps the original idea may have been to craft a reconciliatory effort once the dispute was resolved but the likelihood of success following the use by the Detroit News is next to nil. I asked Ms. Weigandt about the motivation and she promptly offered the following reply: “own accord.” No additional details were provided.

Outside of personal motivations that have nothing to do with the wellbeing and long term health of the institution, I can’t think of a single, sincere reason why releasing that information to the press could be construed as beneficial to the institution and support its mission.

Ultimately, this latest gaffe replaces the musicians’ calling out general staff members for cashing their pay checks during the work stoppage as the new all time low. Just when you think neither side in the dispute could come up with a new technique to make things worse, they demonstrate the folly in underestimating their respective resourcefulness.

The Save our Symphony patron group called into question by the Detroit News editorial published an official response, which you can find here.

Postscript: In the 2/2/2011 edition of the Detroit Free Press, Mark Stryker reports that the DSO executive committee elected to submit a revised proposal to the musicians. In the interim, let’s hope both sides in the dispute move away from tactics that led to the sort of counter productive content in the News’ editorial.

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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0 thoughts on “Detroit News Editorial Blames Musicians”

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the DSO’s decision to take a very unique tone in the ongoing labor issue. I have been shocked by this approach. It seems very strange to on one hand state that the role of community involvement is critical to the orchestra’s mission, then to go on the attack of community members because they do not represent donors?

  2. I know that the debt connected to the Max is a big issue. I am wondering if the organization sees running the orchestra through bankruptcy as a viable way to restructure this debt? I just can’t see how the current approach would be taken if finding common ground is the goal.

    • Thanks for clarifying Scott. I don’t know the answer to that question but the recent and unsuccessful Louisville Orchestra bankruptcy filing could shed a little light on that, although I would caution anyone against using it as an apples to apples comparison.

      If anything, involuntary bankruptcy could be more of an option at this point.

  3. Thank you, Drew, for this excellent article. I think the public is growing weary, patience is running thin, and frustrations high. The point being that both sides have to put the past behind them, be honest in holding themselves accountable for their errors, and then forge ahead together to figure out a way to save this orchestra.
    Trust is the key issue here. There have been so many management errors that frankly, it’s much easier to play the blame game than to solve the problems.
    Drew, in another comment thread, I suggested that management might address the trust issue by putting either musicians or AFM representatives on the Board with voting rights, in order to assure that any new work rules are not detrimental to the musician’s health and welfare. Certainly musicians have sat on an orchestra’s board in an advisory capacity – but have you known of any situation in which a party representing the musician’s interests has sat on the Board and been given full veto rights?

    • In general, although there are exceptions to the rule, I’m not a big proponent of providing musicians with voting board seats; especially if it is viewed as some sort of stop-gap measure during disputes. I’ve written about that very topic a number of occasions here at Adaptistration but I really recommend reading an article I asked Roger Ruggeri to write back in 2006 on all of this. It is still one of the best resources availalbe on this topic. (link)

  4. “own accord”?
    Precisely what does that mean?
    Awhile back I posted a comment during the librarian dialogue/thread/riot and it seems apt yet again, especially for the DSO Board to consider:

    “Given the philosophies and proposals put forth by the DSO management in this negotiation, and the overall strategy and tactics in handling this labor dispute, does the senior staff of the DSO have the expertise, industry knowledge, and common sense to lead it out of this quagmire, even if a negotiated settlement is reached?”

  5. I was very surprised to see this stat put forth by the DSO on their facebook fan page and on twitter. Even aside from the questionable tactic of attacking the SOS group, the comments on their facebook postings show that they have created a forum for patrons on either side of the issue to attack each other…

    I suppose in the divorce analogy their patrons are the children over which custody is being fought.

  6. I gasped audibly when I read the DSO’s announcement “the numbers are in…”. Not only are they offending those who care the most about symphonic music, but in using twitter and facebook, they announced it to their youngest and newest patrons. I’m guessing DSO wanted to show solidarity to its board, whose accountability SOS challenges. Can you imagine walking into a restaurant and the owner announces “well, you’ve only eaten here twice last year” – not only to you, but to the world. You have to try a place out a few times before you become a regular, no? A business owner knows to treat each customer like he’s a millionaire, even if he doesn’t dress like one.

  7. I too was very surprised (shocked is more like it) by the recent posting on the Detroit Symphony Facebook page,
    “the numbers are in…” post. I don’t understand why DSO management would do such a thing. It’s offensive and succeeds in alienating fans at a time when they can not spare any goodwill. This whole situation is so painful already that I’m not sure what good could possibly come from such a post. It’s really sad.

  8. As secretary of SOS, and the person in charge of both the membership list and the online petition, I would like to point out that the two lists are not the same. While there are slightly over 3200 signatures on the online petition, the membership list is around 4000.

    Of course there is crossover, but many of our members have chosen to not sign the online petition for various reasons. This is of course their right.

    Therefore, as DSO management has obviously used the online petition for their research, one must assume the information is not accurate.

    Now, lets pretend for a second that the DSO is correct and only 30% of our members are DSO donors. That means that over 1000 of our members are also on the DSO donor list. Considering the DSO donor list only numbers 5000 at the moment, that means that over 20% of the DSO donors are members of SOS. And all of that means, that DSO management should not be dissing SOS.

  9. I’m intrigued by the fact that the editorial opens with inviting those “who believe the management and board of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra haven’t done enough to end [the] musicians’ strike” to “take a look at the DSO’s balance sheet” – if that’s not negotiating in the press, I don’t know what is.

    Has the administration made the financial details public? It seems that they are only releasing information at selected moments, and in small enough doses that no one can form a true picture of what is actually going on. How does that help anyone?

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