Detroit Season Is Officially Dark

It has been an eventful weekend at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) and if you haven’t already been keeping up with what’s going on, here’s a breakdown of what you need to know along with when it unfolded…

  • Thursday, 2/17/2011: DSO musicians hold full meeting to discuss the terms contained in management’s latest offer. The musicians’ negotiating committee recommends the rank and file reject the offer due to what was deemed as unacceptable conditions in healthcare deductibles, increases in absorbing work related travel costs, $1 million in reductions for community outreach, unacceptable hourly wages for participating in community outreach events, unacceptable reductions in the minimum number of musicians needed to perform in community outreach, and removing the principal librarian position as a defined position within the collective bargaining agreement (CBA).
  • Thursday, 2/17/2011: DSO issues a statement extending its previous season cancellation deadline in order to accommodate the musicians’ minimum 72 hour review period prior to conducting a ratification vote.
  • Friday, 2/18/2011: musicians begin online voting.
  • Saturday, 2/19/2011: online voting ends and musicians announce that the contract offer was officially rejected.
  • Saturday, 2-19/2011: DSO issues a statement informing the public that they have officially “suspended” the remaining 2010/11 concert events. Likewise, 2011/12 season planning and subscription sales have been indefinitely put on hold.

MAJOR UPDATE 2/21/2011: DSO announces they intent to hire replacement musicians if current musicians do not accept terms “less generous” than those in the offer they rejected. Details in the 2/21/2011 edition of the Detroit News in an article by Lawrence B. Johnson.

A flurry of traditional and new media activity accompanied each step in the process as well as the aftermath of the season suspension announcement. Several outlets provided quotes from DSO executive vice-president, Paul Hogle, which attempted to clarify the difference between suspending and cancelling the season as the official DSO press statement made it seem as though the organization was interested in continuing negotiations. Hogle’s statements published in the 2/20/2011 edition of the Detroit News in an article by Michael Hodges made it clear that the suspension meant that the season was off.

“Even though we were careful in using ‘suspension'” rather than cancellation, said DSO executive vice-president Paul Hogle, “no one should misinterpret this as some tactic. The season is off. Artists have been released from pencil contracts. This is the end.”

The 2/20/2011 edition of the Detroit Free Press published an article by Mark Stryker that included harsh words from Hogle about the musicians and their perspective on the labor dispute.

DSO executive vice president Paul Hogle said the musicians appear out of touch with the realities facing U.S. orchestras and the desires of a younger generation of entrepreneurial musicians.

“This isn’t about financial issues versus work-rule issues,” said Hogle. “It’s about the survival and looking forward, not lingering in the past.

According to additional news reports, the DSO musicians voted down the contract offer by an “overwhelmingly” majority. Given the sensitivity of the dispute, I contacted DSO cellist and musician spokesperson Haden McKay to inquire about the ratio of votes cast rejecting, accepting, or abstaining the contract offer but at the time this article was published, he has not provided a response.

For the time being, I’m going to reserve any detailed analysis of content included in official press statements in the hopes that something positive will transpire over the next few days. Given the freshness of this latest wound alongside all of the vitriolic public commentary, both sides will likely need to calm down a bit before they can begin to see straight once again.

When Pressure Points Fail

In its most contentious incarnation, a labor dispute defined in the context of a work stoppage is a game of pressure points employed by both sides with the goal of compelling the other to capitulate. It’s never pretty to watch but typically, one side eventually succumbs. In the DSO’s case, it seems that both sides were willing to play the game of chicken right down to the bitter end.

Officially rejecting the latest offer knowing full well that it would mean cancellation of the remaining season’s concert events is likely not something that was entered into lightly. Consequently, the musicians seem to have made it clear that they are willing to suffer enormous hardships in lieu of accepting a strategic plan they find lacking.

For management, cancelling remaining scheduled concert events and, more importantly, suspending 2011/12 season planning and season ticket sales all but guarantees that there will be no way to generate enough revenue to fund what they believe are the necessary steps for realizing a new institutional vision. The only thing the institution can look forward to now are layoffs and angry creditors.

Ultimately, it is no longer a game of pressure points. The real concern at this point is whether or not this latest waypoint means both sides have crossed a point of no return regarding the ability to work together. I simply can’t stress this point enough.

That’s one question blogger and Oregon Symphony assistant principal violist Charles Noble answered in a recent post where he asserts that it is time for the current DSO leadership to go. In Mark Stryker’s 2/20/2011 article, it might appear to some that Paul Hogle sees it differently by distinguishing the orchestra association from the musicians and presented what might be interpreted by some as an option for replacing some or all of the current musicians.

“We will figure out how to keep the DSO Inc. alive so when an orchestra does return, it will be a healthy place.”

At the same time, opting to use an indefinite article (an orchestra) as opposed to a definite article (the orchestra) or even a pronoun form (our orchestra) when describing resumption of future mission based artistic activity could simply be an unconscious decision. In order to replace conjecture with fact, I contacted Paul Hogle to inquire about this issue and although he acknowledged the potential for confusion and confirmed that the choice of wording was intentional, he declined the opportunity to expand.

Postscript: you can find an exhaustive list of media reports covering the weekend’s events at Adaptistration’s twitter feed. Likewise, you can find the DSO’s official announcement suspending the season and the musicians’ official response at their respective websites.

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 Season Is Officially Dark”

  1. I have believed all along that the major reason this strike has lasted this long is because the musicians have been under extreme pressure from their colleagues in other major orchestras to not set a new precedent in regards to work rules and pay structure. Their fear is that if the domino were to fall in Detroit, then every other management would eventually try to follow suit. As someone who has worked both as a player and as a manager, I will admit that the current model is not perfect and that changes need to be made. Both sides need to find room for compromise. Ideally, both parties would be able to find common ground on a model that is sustainable while continuing the maintain some semblance of the traditional orchestra structure. Unfortunately, this did not happen.

    Now we have what could be a total game changer. The DSO management is considering a plan to completely throw the Union under the bus and hire a scab orchestra. My guess is that they will try to model the “new” DSO in the mold of the New World Symphony. (The NWS is a pre-professional training orchestra in Miami.) Essentially, they’d be taking young musicians and paying them a fraction of what they had to pay before while being able to work them as much as they like. Those inside the field will hail the new model as the “Revolution in Detroit” or the “Renaissance of a Symphony.” What it really is is just another example of the race to the bottom which has been plaguing this country for the last thirty years. That is the mantra that you should expect to do more and be paid less and if you don’t like, find a job somewhere else because there are plenty of other people who are eager to take yours.

    I tried to keep an open mind as this entire debacle unfolded last fall in the hopes that the two sides could find common ground. I really wanted to believe that agreement was within grasp. I guess that was never the case. It’s now clear that the DSO management never wanted a deal to begin with. Their goal all along was to present a proposal that they knew would be untenable to the musicians so that they could force a long and destructive strike and eventually break the union altogether. What the DSO management is trying to do now cannot stand. I’m speaking out now because what is about to happen in Detroit goes far beyond the future of orchestral music. This is about the future of middle-class America. This is about a small group of very wealthy individuals who are trying to enrich themselves even more while giving their workers the middle finger. This has been going on for years, but it is finally happening in our business. We need to take a stand here once and for all. Let’s get the parties back to the table, but for god’s sake, don’t burn the timbers to save the house.

  2. “This is about a small group of very wealthy individuals who are trying to enrich themselves even more while giving their workers the middle finger.”

    I was following the previous argument until I got to the comment above and now need enlightenment. Just who are the wealthy people mentioned and how do they further enrich themselves in an enterprise whose ticket sales cover only 1/3rd of the expenses. Are they enriching themselves by losing less money?

    I too am saddened at the result, and frankly disappointed in all parties involved in that they could not break themselves out of entrenched positions. But I don’t think adding “class warfare” language to the conversation is at all helpful in re-establishing trust…if there is any left to salvage.

    This whole process seems to have been about taking sides, assuming winners and losers, resulting in losers all around.

  3. Without having any sort of inside information, I have to wonder if any of the DSO musicians have given thought to actually forming their own ensemble? Granted, this would be an enormous undertaking, but perhaps now is the time to at least consider such an action.

    These musicians are (or were) committed to living in Detroit or the Detroit area on a full time basis; they know the community as well as anyone. Surely they have sought alliances among patrons, sponsors, donors – they could announce this idea and aggressively court as many as possible to go along with the new effort. They already have a functioning web site. They already self-produce performances. And in addition to seeking out local help, they could submit a general request to any and all AFM members for whatever help they can send to further bankroll the new ensemble. I can only speak for myself, but I would gladly send a donation to assist such an effort – I speculate that I wouldn’t be alone.

    I realize that this might come off as a pipe dream, but regardless, I submit my idea. Especially after reading the post by concerned; I agree with all of their major points. Game changer indeed, so why not have the musicians be the real agents of change? The audience will follow; they want to hear the existing DSO musicians, not a scab group. I hope DSO musicians are frequenting this site and these posts as I only wish them the very best. These are turbulent times we find ourselves in!

    • Orchestra musicians forming their own ensemble following the collapse of a previous institution is something that happens on a fairly regular basis following situations of institutional collapse. In fact, I think one of the recent Detroit News articles had some quotes from Peter Pastreich on that very topic and what he had to say is spot on. To paraphrase: sure, it can be done but they are always a shadow of their former incarnation.

      In short, starting an orchestra isn’t really all that difficult but growing it to the size of one that pays a living wage, provides benefits, etc. for all employees (office and musician) is a different ballgame.

  4. That (latest news in article by Lawrence Johnson) is a “major update” all right. Yikes. I wondered if this was heading in that direction when I saw the use of the phrase “an orchestra” vs. “the orchestra” in the earlier comments from DSO management. We are now heading into uncharted waters…here be dragons and all that.

  5. Unfortunately, the musicians (whether they realize it or not) likely have opened the door for other orchestra managements, in negotiations down the line, to follow suit–i.e., race to the bottom, hire replacements, provide little to no benefits, and vastly lower wages–and I mean potentially orchestras of the size of DSO and perhaps larger. I for one had hoped they’d have seen this much larger potential downside industry-wide and accepted the latest offer. Now, they themselves will likely be a shadow of their former selves–that is, those who can find a future continuing in their field. Most middle-aged folks probably are not realistically going to get on the audition circuit…thus, for many, their careers might indeed be more in the past than going forward. This kind of tension is not sustainable in the long run for this field, regardless of what one side accuses the other side of doing or trying to do. It just is not working and it might unfortunately collapse the system for everyone, given enough time.

    • I’d say that the concern about how this will impact the field as a whole would certainly be one of the factors that drives participation among musicians and their supporters outside of the Detroit area to become involved. If there was any softening among the current DSO musicians’ resolve, Hogle’s comments appearing in the 2/21/2011 Detroit News will not only galvanize the DSO membership but it will serve as a rallying call to orchestra musicians across the country.

    • I would argue that by rejecting the offer the musicians may give pause to other orchestras who might try the same thing. I think the DSO management underestimated the resolve of the musicians. While the economic situation in Detroit has not been good it is probably not permanent. There are many orchestras with creative marketing and management that have not only been able to weather the downturn but thrive artistically and economically.

      This seems very similar to the situation in Wisconsin right now- the musicians were ready to share in the economic pain but the DSO management and board seem to be intent on union busting.

      The DSO management obviously had this agenda for a while. If they didn’t get all of what they wanted now they would come back in another year or so and claim that more “adjustments” were needed. In fact other musicians owe a great deal of gratitude to the DSO musicians for holding out for the integrity of their organization.

      It’s going to take a lot for Mr. Hogle’s bright,new future to come to pass!

      Probably more difficult than the DSO musicians starting their own orchestra…

  6. @ Chris

    While my rhetoric above was just a bit overheated, I don’t want to belittle the seriousness of what is happening here. I did not mean to imply that that the DSO management team is guilty of anywhere near the same kind of greed we are seeing in corporate America. There is no comparison. However, what they are trying to do is just another example of what has already happened to so many industries in our great country. They are telling their musicians who are the heart and soul of the organization that their services are no longer needed, that they can be replaced with cheaper labor and that no one will know the difference. Trust me, there will be a difference. As I said before, the fear is that once this happens, who’s to say it won’t happen elsewhere? What Detroit will have is a good (good, not great) orchestra that will be the envy of every other board struggling to make payroll. These other orchestras will eagerly trade down for a lesser product simply because “Detroit did.” I don’t want to imagine what the orchestra business will look like in a few years if this is allowed to happen.

  7. Watching this from many miles away, it looks like both DSO management and DSO musicians did the city of Detroit and their colleagues around the country a disservice. Attempts by either side in this dispute to negotitate on behalf of symphony boards or orchestral musicians all over the country make these situations even tougher than they are. And a corollary to the above, any attempt for parties in other cities to use the result in Detroit, however it develops, is idiotic and counterproductive.

    The DSO negotiation should not have been about a new orchestra paradigm, union busting, holding onto the past etc. . .it should have been focused on their community. . .on building a community-based resource that maximizes the assets and talents of the entire organization. This will mean that some past practices will need to be left behind. It also means that orchestras will not look the same from community to community.

    • Well said, Reid. Different communities have different needs, perhaps inspiring experimental models of what orchestra can be. One size does not necessarily fit all.

      The advent of micro-brewery and crafted beers after many years of the hegemony of Bud, Schlitz, Miller (and others with approximately the same taste model) is testimony to the opportunities that may present themselves when one discards the proverbial “thinking box”. Maybe something similar will happen in some corners of the orchestral field.

      • Excellent points! I think come communities are already doing just that–the “micro-brewery” idea. Especially as we get into the issue of there being other kinds of art music. Bassam Saba has been doing great work with the New York Arabic Orchestra ( ) not just in performing but in outreach an education.

        Bassam and members of the Orchestra tour around the US to give intensive seminars in Arabic Art music–often stopping in communities with large Arab-American populations.

        Other ethnic groups are also starting to “go public” with Art Ensembles related to their cultural backgrounds rather than just a European one, and I can only see this growing as the monopoly on Art music that Western Classical Music has had in the US slowly breaks down.

        Only those Orchestras (whether Western Classical or not) that can cater to their local communities and integrate themselves in economically as well as culturally meaningful ways will survive, I think.

  8. It seems to me that part of the issue is that there are so many competent, young professional musicians graduating from music schools every year, but hardly any jobs for them. Strong violinist? Dime a dozen. How many great music schools and conservatories are there in the U.S. – – graduating dozens (if not hundreds) of excellent musicians every year? These musicians are hungry, willing to work and willing to drive a long way to get the work.

    Of course, this is not a problem to have too many good musicians, the problem is that U.S. audiences are simply not that interested in classical music. Sooner or later, the realities of the market kick in.

    • This is something similar to what Eric Edberg said at his blog!

      I’m living in New York this semester, and have met a number of young free-lance players, some of whom are graduate students at big conservatories. Guess what? Most have little if any sympathy for the DSO players (who have not managed to successfully reframe the conversation and are losing the PR war, even with music students). They love all sorts of music in addition to classical music. Plenty find traditional symphony (and other) concerts boring. There are plenty of classical-change advocates, in various stages of self-awareness, among them. Right now, they have little or no work. Student and, in many cases, instrument loans to pay. Fantastic players.

      Many see the union as the problem (even if they’re not going through one of those college-age Ayn Rand phases). The players have been successfully characterized to/construed by them as greedy, selfish, and/or out of touch. A lot of these incredibly-accomplished young players (and I bet there are bunches more in Baltimore, Bloomington, Cincinnati, Cleveland, LA,Miami, etc.) seem excited at the idea of going to Detroit to work in a “new model” symphony.

      They aren’t horrified by the idea of service conversion and the “Memphis Model,” as is, for example, longtime DSO clarinetist Doug Cornelsen. They find it appealing.

      So that’s the bad news for my friends colleagues in the DSO. Given the economy and the over-supply of unemployed excellent young (and not-so-young) players, there may well be high-level musicians who would line up to take their places. And that may well be what the DSO management is not just gambling but counting on.
      more here:

  9. I am a classically trained musician, and I certainly side with the artists in this case. In my opinion, you can’t pay them ENOUGH for what they do. It’s not about the money, but it is ultimately about being fair.
    My husband is in primary care medicine, and the same problem is plaguing that field. Pay is less and less, and people are doing other things with their lives. Everyone needs a doctor, but the sacrifices required pre-and post-education are becoming less and less worth it. It has nothing to do with wanting that BMW lifestyle. It’s about doing a job you love, and being able to make a LIVING doing so.

    Like medicine, music is also career that is very needed (sorry people, but musicians ARE also vital to a society), and yet it comes to a point where it’s just not worth it for people to put in the time to enter the profession. My training was just as rigorous and long as my husband’s medical training. I knew when I started that I wouldn’t end up rich because of it. but I at least majored in music with the thought that I could somehow survive financially.

    I do think that there are some in the corporate music business side of things that are in it for the cash, but I have NEVER met a classical musician who is in it for the money. We do it because we love it, because we love sharing a form of beauty, and because we love our communities. Hey, we’d ALL do it for free if we could. The DSO is one of the best orchestras in the world. They need, they SHOULD, be paid appropriately.

  10. And for those who say that orchestras are needfully dying because they are not relevant today, I would also argue the opposite. Simply because people don’t go, doesn’t make the concept any less vital.

    To take the medical example again, primary care is dying because people are naturally choosing to specialize (and sub-specialize), and the masses also are preferring to forgo preventative care. Does that mean then that primary care SHOULD die? Who could imagine such a world?! That would be insane! At least in this case, Washington recognizes it is because the profession is so FUNDAMENTAL that it is under-appreciated. In this case, the government is stepping up to change the system –to encourage the masses to embrace this as good and beneficial to their lives. Insurance companies are talking about discounts for preventative care and healthy living.

    I think those who say orchestras should die if they aren’t “relevant” to the masses would be the first to cry foul at the results. Yes there is tourism, yes it brings in high-class business to an area of town, but the presence of a good orchestra touches all levels of a community, starting at the pre-school education level. It does so much for discipline and training in youth. It is a source of pride to a community. I think we would all be shocked –dumbfounded even– to see what the world would look like without this.

    I also think that Washington’s national funding for the arts has been positive to a whole generation in this country. It has made us all smarter, better aware of ourselves, and a better people. I don’t know how you could quantitatively measure this, but that makes it no less true. Though we young people may not care/value them, we HAVE created a rich heritage for ourselves. I fear for the future of our museums and ballet companies in this country as well.

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