The DSO's Bombshell Of Profound Magnitude

The 2/21/2011 edition of the Detroit News published an article by Lawrence B. Johnson that reports the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) intends to hire replacement musicians if the current DSO musicians do not accept terms for an agreement that are “less generous” than the offer they recently rejected. Simply put, this turn of events has the potential to have a profound impact on the field for decades to come…

Since the Detroit News article was published, the DSO has denied that it has plans to form a replacement orchestra and claims that the News’ article “drew independent and inaccurate conclusions based on an interview with DSO Executive Vice President Paul Hogle.” (full statement) But eagle-eyed reader Christa Grix pointed out in a comment that this is the second time the DSO has asserted that executives were misquoted on issues surrounding the status of current musicians (the DSO responded to this as well, details).

Moreover, the Detroit News published a follow-up article on 2/21/2011 that contained additional quotes from Hogle where he indicated the parameters behind why he believed his comments were taken out of context. You can also find a wonderfully entertaining summary of both of Johnson’s articles written by Susan Elliott at

The fact that this brouhaha was made public less than 48 hours after the musicians rejected the latest contract offer is a good indication that this isn’t merely a knee-jerk reaction, claims of inaccurate reporting notwithstanding. In yesterday’s article, I presented the following analysis:

Ultimately, [the ongoing labor dispute] 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.

That was published before the disputed replacement musician announcement and in hindsight, it was exactly the correct question to ask. I contacted the DSO to arrange an interview with CEO Anne Parsons but was presented with the press statement published in yesterday’s post.

However, I did speak with DSO violinist and musicians’ spokesman Joe Goldman on the morning of 2/21/2011 and asked him whether or not the replacement musician announcement meant the musicians were no longer willing to work with the current executive leadership and he confirmed that they are.

“Our goal and intention is to keep working with the current executive committee and executive administration to reach an agreement,” said Goldman.

Clearly, it’s one thing to say you’re going to hire replacements and actually hiring replacements; the dynamic impact of implementing that process is enormous. On one hand, if there was any softening among the current DSO musicians’ resolve, this incident will not only galvanize the membership but it will serve as a rallying call to orchestra musicians across the country. We’ll likely see a sharp increase in involvement from the national office of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) and given the parallel events transpiring in Wisconsin, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the AFL-CIO become involved.

And then there’s the legal brier patch involved with attempts to unilaterally terminate a collective bargaining agreement with employees. Let’s just say it isn’t as straightforward as simply willing it into existence.

Reaction to this incident has originated from a number of sources, especially those from musician organizations. International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) chair and North Carolina Symphony bassist, Bruce Ridge, provided the following message which focuses on optimism.

“The unfortunate statements from Mr. Paul Hogle in [the 2/21/2011] Detroit News article seem to be born out of emotion and retribution, and not out of a desire to serve the community that surrounds the Detroit Symphony,” said Ridge. “No replacement orchestra could ever approach the level of service the musicians of the Detroit Symphony have provided for so many years. It is interesting that Mr. Hogle acknowledges that the DSO music director, Leonard Slatkin, has not even been consulted about any such potentially disastrous plan.

The musicians of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) once again urge the management and board of the DSO to resist engaging in negative and injurious rhetoric, and we further urge them to return to negotiations so that an agreement can be reached quickly. There is still an opportunity to save the DSO season, and to serve every citizen of Detroit.”

The AFM issued an official press statement which denounces the plans to form a replacement orchestra while simultaneously making it clear that any attempt to do so will be met with a clear response.

AFM Denounces DSO Management’s Plans

February 21, 2011 – Following action taken last weekend to suspend the remainder of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) season, DSO management has announced that it plans to create a new orchestra in Detroit. Current DSO members would be eligible to play in the new orchestra only if they were to accept unilateral terms, which are now harsher than those outlined in the proposed contract that was overwhelmingly rejected by musicians last week. DSO management’s commitment to staff the new orchestra with professional musicians rings hollow, given that nearly all professional orchestral musicians stand in solidarity as members of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). The new orchestra would therefore have to be made up largely of amateur musicians.

“The DSO’s threat to hire amateur replacements reveals the business model that management wanted all along. It is part of a larger plan to impose unjustified concessions on professional musicians to adversely reshape their lives, not just in Detroit, but everywhere,” says AFM President Ray Hair. “The American Federation of Musicians will not grovel to these union busters. We will take comfort in the power of our music. We will never surrender.”

Management has flatly stated that no further negotiations will take place, but DSO musicians are convinced that a settlement of the 20-week-old strike could still be reached, if only management would allow musicians to have a say in how funds are allocated. A sticking point in negotiations has been how much money would go toward the orchestra’s community engagement projects, versus musicians’ base pay. Musicians point out that, while management has been discussing a new model for community engagement, they have been living it for four months, performing self-produced concerts in schools, churches, and other community venues.

A donation to the DSO Members Fund will enable the DSO musicians to continue to take a stand for their art form, and will resound nationwide. Checks should be made out to DSO Members Fund and mailed to: DSO Members Fund; C/O Susan Barna Ayoub, Secretary-Treasurer; Detroit Federation of Musicians; 20833 Southfield Rd.; Detroit, MI 48075. More information on the DSO strike is available at

As of now, the field watches and waits to see what comes next and whether or not this regional bushfire can be contained or if it will erupt into a national labor war.

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 “The DSO's Bombshell Of Profound Magnitude”

  1. Good morning. In today’s Detroit Free Press (2/20/11) Mark Stryker writes this”The Orchestra has no plans to hire permanent replacements for the 85 musicians who have been on strike… Detroit Symphony Orchestra President Anne Parsons said today” ” Parsons said that the possibility of hiring replacements had come up during discussions with donors and community leaders and was likely to arise in the future as DSO leaders explored ways of operating its business without a resident ensemble.” So it sounds like there are plans to replace them with something, sometime. Or maybe not. I know the musicians have made some mistakes along the way, But I can’t recall any thing as dissembling as the series of messages coming from DSO inc. in the past couple of days. Have a good day.

    • I think one of the lasting hallmarks of this dispute will be the series of complex mixed messages from both sides. It is already an excellent example of the vastly different needs between standard PR and experienced crisis management. Unfortunately, labor disputes aren’t the sort of thing most managers and musicians spend time analyzing unless they are directly involved and that’s a real shame becasue most of the missteps could be avoided with some basic understanding and/or proper crisis management guidance as it applies to this field. What little work is done is sporadic , one-sided, and so incomplete that it actually serves to make matters worse.

      In fact, I don’t know if there is anyone in the business who has analyzed as wide of a variety of disputes as we have here at Adaptistration and from my position as a public observer with the business experience and knowledge on this topic, it seems at times as though you can see the mistakes weeks in advance heading toward both parties like a slow motion train wreck.

      • Drew, aren’t there likely members of the DSO Board and members of AFM’s national administration who should be very seasoned in crisis management around labor negotiations? I can’t help but believe the resources were there in some form.

        I do agree that it appears the official PR efforts and the unofficial back channels from both sides have been counterproductive, to say the least.

      • I don’t know if there is any statistical likelihood of that or not. All I would feel comfortable saying is there’s no guarantee. Likewise, even if there were individuals with those qualifications, they would still need to be able to remove themselves from their respective positions to approach issues from an independent bent.

        I think the term “counterproductive” is about as nice a way that this mess can be described.

  2. I’ve been following this story closely for the last 24 hours and have been browsing comments at the MDSO facebook page and elsewhere. Many people have offered ideas for possible ways to end the standoff, short of allowing the DSO to hire a replacement orchestra. One idea I’ve seen is for the parties to submit to “binding arbitration.” I don’t believe we’ve talked about this at all. Can you please speak to this? What is it and how would it apply to this situation? Does one side typically benefit more than the other? Thank you very much!

    • Arbitration is always a creature of contract and must be agreed to by the parties. Where parties do agree to submit a dispute to binding arbitration, the parties select a neutral arbitrator, typically through FMCS or AAA, to hear their positions and issue a decision. In the collective bargaining context, this mechanism is governed by the CBA. Certain CBAs (especially in the public sector where the alternative of a strike or lockout is especially unpalatable) contain interest arbitration provisions, requiring submission of unresolved negotiation matters to an arbitrator. As Robert says, interest arbitration would technically be an option in Detroit, but it would require both parties’ agreement–and you don’t need me to opine on the likelihood of that.

  3. Here are my thoughts on the Lawrence B. Johnson Detroit News DSO story.

    1) Mr. Johnson is a highly capable journalist with many years of experience in the Detroit area and with the Detroit News. He is no rookie and, because of what he knows about the character and nature of Detroit, he would have fully understood the serious implications regarding what he was writing about and the meaning of his Monday morning piece in the News. Mr. Johnson is a seasoned professional journalist.
    2) Mr. Johnson has been covering this story since the beginning last summer, and the DSO for decades. He is not new, nor inexperienced with the key people in this labor conflict. He knows exactly who he is dealing with, often on a first-name basis with both the musicians and management of the DSO.
    3) This was the leading story on the top of the front page in yesterday’s Detroit News, which would mean that it was reviewed by the managing editor and the Detroit News editorial staff. They knew this was a hot story and that it had to be right before they would print it. Based on my knowledge of the news business Mr. Johnson would have been asked a few times to be absolutely sure he had the story right before the Detroit News would run this as their front-page lead marquee story.
    4) Mr. Hogle is also a knowledgeable professional with years of experience within orchestra management, who also knew exactly who he was dealing with regarding his comments last Sunday to Mr. Johnson. If such a misunderstanding were possible with a reporter, Mr. Hogle should have clearly taken extra care to make assurances that no such misunderstanding could take place. Mr. Hogel knew he was speaking with a professional reporter. Anyone in the public eye knows that if you are speaking to a reporter, you had better understand that you are going to be quoted…so make your statements short and very, very clear.
    4) This story went out to circulation in the web version of the Detroit News yesterday at 5:30 AM Monday morning. It appears that the DSO management did not issue a correction request until well into the mid to late afternoon yesterday. If this story was so inaccurately portrayed, and due to the inflammatory nature of the story, this should have been dealt with immediately. For a basis on this I use the example of how the DSO management responded within 15 minutes to the media rejecting Senator Carl Levin’s and Michigan Governor Granholm’s proposals to the DSO management for a possible settlement submitted a few months ago. The DSO management knows how to get the word out.

    Based on all of this I am struggling to see how Mr. Johnson would have gotten this one so terribly wrong.

  4. I’m curious as to why no one has pointed out that the Detroit Public Schools are closing half of their schools due to lack of funds. I’m a musician by training and an administrator by profession, so I can appreciate both sides of this debate. However, it seems to me that if things in Detroit are THAT bad they’re closing SCHOOLS, a symphony orchestra at a certain salary-scale is a luxury, not a necessity.

    • That’s an interesting proposition Geoff and as the dispute has progressed, I think it has become increasingly clear that money isn’t the lone showstopper issue. Make no mistake, it isn’t insignificant but it appears that there are as many if not more fundamental issues at stake. Unfortunately, because both sides in the dispute have been pushing back against the typical amount of transparency that exists in situations like this, we can’t get a clear view of exactly what all of those issues nor their respective details. If we did, I think everyone would have an easier time understanding the issues at hand and it would likely contribute toward an accelerated resolution to the conflict.

  5. I see no hard connection between these two issues. that may sound heartless to you, but consider this: Schools close for a variety of reasons, not simply because times are hard. The philanthropy that sustains a major arts organization can have a positive impact that propagates throughout the community, even the public schools. DSO members have been teaching and mentoring students for decades. Put another way, should the rest of Europe adopt the same austerity measures because Greece is having problems? Should we eschew all entertainment because there is hard work to be done? I use these metaphors because our business can be hard to explain to non-musicians.

    • I’m sorry to say you lost me Thomas, there are enough micro discussion threads going on to this article I don’t know exactly what you’re responding to. Do you mind shedding a light on that? Are you replying to Geoff’s comment or your original comment at the top of the thread (or something else)?

      Reader tip: you can use the “reply” link located at the end of each comment to have your comment segmented and attached to the thread you are responding. This will help other readers from getting lost in the discussion as well as prevent your voice from getting lost becasue it was “disembodied” from the respective thread.

      • I appreciate your comments and see your point, but I think public school education is lower on Maslow’s pyramid than a symphony orchestra. If I had extra public or philanthropic dollars at my discretion, I’d throw them towards schools before orchestras. That’s all…

  6. I’m sorry Drew. I was responding to Geoff’s comment in a rather elliptical way, now that I read it it back to myself. I’ve had to answer this question many times, so I may have forgotten who I was talking to this time. I hit the reply at the end of his comment, or at least I thought I did. Again sorry.

  7. So now what?

    I feel like I’ve just watched a game of chicken that actually resulted in a horrible, non-swearing and without applying the brakes crash. Now we are all standing around not sure what to cheer for, when before you was either cheering for red, blue or for the perverse entertainment?

    From the management point, I can understand the bomb shell statement of defiance and that of an optimist. They can’t show that DSO will disappear or not only is the game over the plug as been pulled. Kind of in kin to, “sir you’ve wrecked your car, what now.”, “I’m going to go get me a new car.”

    From the $34 MM v. $36 MM v. $38 MM, that is all gone. Management said it was already a struggle to get to $34 MM. Management will try to secure someone(s) or something(s) to continue to fill the gap, but they now have no product to present. Anyone says “grow the market” right now is fooling themselves – grow the market with what? A wrecked car? No financing institution is going to give them a break when they have no means of operational income.

    Along as it is the same parties without the financial backing of a third party – the position will not change and it can only deteriorate.

    What about the musicians? Start their own orchestra? Good luck (seriously), I wish it the best. They too will need to show that DSO didn’t just die, that it is more than just a name – it is music. You will only in time come to realize what all arts organizations are feeling. A squeeze on all ends, with a product that money has to be “donated” to run. Especially those that find themselves moved from the playing to the operation side.

    Should a contract settle for something that management just can’t make, what is the point in getting it? You will only find yourself in the same position at the end. We need some Susy Orman!

    • That specific Chicken analogy feels right in this context. I also agree that a musician run orchestra is not a particularly viable option, I believe Peter Pastreich mentioned that in a Detroit News article and I would agree with it. I don’t think I would have phrased it in such a “I told you so” sort of way, but the reality is musicians don’t have the skills to take the roles of managers for an organization even half the size of the current DSO. It just isn’t what they are trained for.

      The wrecked car analogy is a bit more dubious since the lack of transparency in these negotiations prohibits any sort of confident analysis to produce those sorts of conclusions. It would be great if we had that much info, but I don’t see that changing any time soon (although I’d love to be wrong about that one).

      If Susy Orman shows up, you can have her all to yourself 🙂

    • Thanks for the kind words! On that point I was curious myself when writing the post and found a great deal of contradictory information and went with what seemed to have the most amount of support. But given the fluidity of source material, I’ll be happy to switch it over if you like – but you get to respond to anyone who thinks it should be the other spelling 🙂

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