Relax, It's Not A Crisis

In case you missed it, WQXR hosted a live discussion panel webcast titled American Orchestras: Endangered Species? yesterday which you can watch online at wqxr.org or in the embedded video after the break. In complete candor, I haven’t watched the entire session yet myself but I was disappointed at the onset by phrasing of the initial question from host and WQXR VP Graham Parker…

“Dire changes for Detroit, Philadelphia, [and] Louisville. Chapter 7 for New Mexico, Syracuse, and Honolulu. Are we actually in a Crisis or is this just things as normal? Who wants to start?”

At which point Tony Woodcock, President of the New England Conservatory, jumps in.

“It’s a crisis. And until we face up to it being a crisis and get our arms around it as a problem, we won’t be able to find a solution.”

Wonderful. So we have a crisis. What exactly is the crisis about? That seemed to be a reasonable follow up question but if you were wondering the same thing, you’ll be disappointed as the moderator simply asks if anyone disagrees.

Fortunately for the panel, they have a willing participant in Ray Hair, President of the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada, who was all too eager to rush into a logical fallacy that any first year angel would have been wary to tread.

Hair’s reply was everything you’d expect (and because he likes you, the hyperbole is free of charge) and by the end of it we still have no idea what the crisis is referencing (although we do find out that Woodcock thinks Hair is the problem).

Is “the crisis” a shortage of bankruptcy attorneys? Perhaps it’s referring to the oversupply of musicians being produced by conservatories and schools of music. Maybe it’s the complete lack of preparation and training musicians receive when joining committees to represent their colleagues. Wait, could it be the seemingly willful deficiency of transparency and accountability within too many professional orchestra administrations?

At this point, I had to hit the pause button. Within the first few minutes, the entire event seemed to be unfolding along the lines of predetermined outcomes. No one bothered to define “crisis” or juxtapose the Detroit fiasco and the bankruptcies alongside the equal numbers of healthy, extraordinary examples of groups doing well during the economic downturn (LA, San Francisco, Nashville, Chicago, etc.).

Instead, the moderator let it devolve into a battle of stereotypes and yes, that’s fun to watch in a sort of sad but sorry reality show sort of way, but I’m not sure how productive it is

I’m going to try watching the rest of the video over the weekend for a more comprehensive perspective. Hopefully, it will end up in a better place than it started.

I’m curious to know what everyone thinks, especially if you’ve watched the entire 76:30 session.

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Postscript: I watched another 30 minutes of the video before reaching my next limit and jotted down the following thoughts:

  1. Since when does a panelist tell the moderator which topics to talk about and when to do it?
  2. Does Ray Hair even know what orchestra musicians do for a living?
  3. It would have been nice to see more of a balanced panel.
  4. The moderator asked Hair and Parsons to step around to the other side of the bargaining table. Spoiler: they both saw things from their original point of view. So that’s what being open minded is all about.
  5. Apparently, Tony Woodcock doesn’t know any creative adults. How very sad for him.
  6. Shhhhh. Don’t tell Anne Parsons that orchestras besides LA and Boston have pops series.
  7. Good to see that WQXR listeners think ticket prices are too high.
  8. Anne Parsons may know that she’s not supposed to talk about their own organization but that didn’t seem to stop her. It’s fun to break the rules.
  9. I wish they would let Eric Jacobsen talk more.
  10. I still have no clue what the crisis is from the first part of the discussion or what the direction is moving forward.
  11. So far, I’m glad to see the event unfolding, but it is decidedly a first attempt and has substantial room for improvement.

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 “Relax, It's Not A Crisis

  1. Many professional orchestra musicians already are directly and powerfully engaged in their communities in the form of private teaching. When orchestra managers talk about redefining the role of the musician and increasing educational duties at what point does this adversely impact what is now supplemental income for many musicians?

  2. Thanks for pointing out Tony’s blog post Paul. As it turned out, it was pure coincidence as I didn’t see Tony’s blog until this morning. I selected the title based on the moderator’s opening question and my guess is that’s what probably prompted Tony’s title too, but that’s mere speculation.

    I wish Tony’s blog post was availalbe before I wrote this post as it would have been useful to respond to some of his points, but perhaps that simply means it is better suited for a separate post.

    I will say that I’m disturbed by Tony’s post on a number of levels; it conveys a similar sense of detachment as Terry Teachout’s WSJ article last weekend and I find it shocking that NEC would sanction something that ostensibly declares war on artist unions to go up on an official institutional media outlet (I believe Polyphonic merely reprinted the post, although that isn’t clear on their site – even though it should be).

    I share your desire for the transcript and wish I had a resource. Consequently, if anyone out there knows of one, please take a moment to share – thank you!

  3. I’m getting two main points from this discussion:

    1. The moderator and certain members of the panel seemed fixated on the YouTube Symphony. While this was a great, monumental occasion, it doesn’t seem to be a sustainable business model, especially for the musicians who volunteered their services to the effort.

    2. So much focus was given to training young musicians to serve as entrepreneurs and stewards of music education. This is a noble endeavor indeed, and it is already widely being done. However, we do still face a very real issue of hundreds thousands of professional musicians currently facing unemployment. Asking musicians to do more community outreach isn’t going to help them pay their mortgages, nor will it do anything in and of itself to increase the financial solvency of orchestras.

    Rather than focus on attracting more viewers online and in the community, I wish more orchestras would make a concerted effort to bring paying, ticketed customers into the concert hall to see a living, breathing performance. The Colorado Symphony has managed to do exactly that. According to a Denver Post article, the Colorado Symphony has seen a 20% increase in ticket revenue, and a 73% increase in the total number of seats sold through season subscriptions. This is a positive, exciting step that I’d like to see other orchestras take.

  4. Agree with you on many points, Drew. Where is the major orchestra musician–the person whose primary employment comes from orchestra playing– on this panel about orchestras.
    I wish Ray Hair had a big artistic vision instead of talking in these old-time labor terms. That’s what I don’t hear from anyone except the people who started their own groups, and unless my instincts are way off, they’re probably barely scraping by–not a recipe for making the high quality orchestras of the future.

  5. I watched the whole thing. There was no balance at all: four of the panelists nodded in agreement with each other, while Mr. Hair looked very uncomfortable most of the time. I didn’t feel that Mr. Hair was the most articulate spokesman for the point of view he was advocating, especially when compared to the other four panelists, all of whom were able to present their cases in a fairly convincing manner.

    However, style does not equal substance. The conversation became repetitive, with a recurrent emphasis on “community outreach” (one panelist did make a point of rejecting the term “community outreach” in favor of “community engagement”, as if this semantic sleight-of-hand might resolve all of the issues associated with the concept). There was also a lot of emphasis on “new technologies” and how to exploit them. (The two panelists who seemed most entranced by these so-called “new” technologies also happened to be two of the oldest members of the panel; younger people don’t tend to talk about these technologies as “new”, and they’re also aware that simply employing technology does not guarantee a quality product). It was almost embarrassing to hear the panelists’ reverential comments about the YouTube Orchestra concert that snagged over 33,000,000 viewers. They didn’t really talk about the merits of the performance itself, perhaps assuming that if 33 million people watched it, it must have been good. Don’t get me wrong: I’m an avid consumer of digital media in all forms, and I’m in favor of anything that brings classical music to a wider audience. However, most of those 33 million viewers experienced the concert in isolation, and not as part of a live audience in the same location. Music lovers have been able to enjoy performances at home on their own for many years, with LPs, CDs, DVDs, or live broadcasts on TV.

    Attending a live performance in person, as part of an audience, offers immediacy, intimacy, acoustics, a sense of excitement, and yes, “community”, that simply cannot be reproduced in any other manner. It does not require any form of electronic device or a fast broadband connection, and it allows you to take part in an event with a group of fellow music-lovers. I got the impression that at least two of the panelists would sacrifice these elements of a concert-hall performance in favor of concerts performed “out in the community” or “on the internet”.

    It is tempting to look for quick fixes that give the appearance of keeping up with the times, and clearly, orchestras need to do a better job of connecting with their communities and using technology to reach new audiences. However, the performance of classical music in concert halls has survived several hundred years of previous economic collapses as well as technological and cultural change, to say nothing of numerous wars and periods of social upheaval. The panelists didn’t spend much time discussing this great tradition, which I suspect they may see as being too outdated and outmoded for today’s modern audience.

    I hope that a future panel might offer a more balanced outlook, colored less by panic and fear, and more by a desire to build upon what orchestras already offer, with new enhancements that are carefully planned and implemented.

  6. I think you’re spot on about the YouTube concerts. I think everyone agrees it was a great event but that’s really more of what it was, an event. It isn’t a sustainable business model so discussions about what does and doesn’t apply to the full time business need to be well defined before moving forward.

    I also think you’re on track with bringing the larger perspective into focus by looking at the extended reality. Overall, I really like your outlook on all of this Brian.

  7. Thank you very much for the overview Phil, I share your conclusion in that I hope future endeavors from WQXR (and I do hope there are more) will be better balanced and focus more on specific issues.

  8. The long term impact of entrepreneurship is something I think goes missing in many of the programs in today’s conservatories and schools of music. It’s one thing to teach students how to create a start-up ensemble that’s rewarding both financially and artistically when you’re in your 20s but it’s something else by the time you’re 48, thinking about health care, retirement, college, families, etc.

    Suddenly, artistic satisfaction and the excitement generated as a byproduct begin to decline when placed within that context. I hear nothing coming from these groups about those issues nor do I see many 50-something classical music entrepreneurs on these panels.

  9. Hi Drew,

    I am unsure what you are referring to when you assert that Tony’s post “declares war on artists unions”. Or, frankly, what you mean by the “detachment” of Terry Teachout’s article.

    They both make reasonable arguments, backed up by facts and studies. Some may disagree about their conclusions, however, it’s simply not true that either one of them is simply declaring war on unions.

    You seem to be very sensitive to criticism of the musicians union, so much so that it could lead one to the conclusion that you find so little wrong with their positions that there is nothing of substance for criticism.

    There are economic realities that symphony orchestras face in America that, while perhaps not directly the unions fault, still require the union to endure and adapt to reasonable criticism.

    Do you have any specific criticism of the musicians union, and their positions on symphonic contracts?

    Peter Sachon
    Local 802

  10. Drew,

    Ironically, I was at the Philadelphia Orchestra concert in Carnegie Hall while its bankruptcy was being mentioned at WQXR. I managed to watch the archived stream of the panel the following day. While I agree with Phil M’s assessment, I was moved to post a comment on Tony Woodcock’s blog. The following is an edited version:

    Woodcock’s example last night of the Berlin Philharmonic’s musicians not being paid for their digital concert hall was disingenuous. Their country, state and city supported income is among the highest anywhere. The funding affords the orchestra double sets of principal players, extra rotating strings, 5-star hotels like the Essex House here in NY when on tour and the ability to afford more than one expensive instrument. They manage themselves, hire conductors, soloists and audition new players. There is no Board of musically uneducated tycoons or CEO to order them around. If they play digital concerts for promotional purposes without remuneration, it’s because THEY VOTED to do it.

    As a Brit, you must know that the only full-time orchestras in London – both government- funded jobs – are the BBC and Covent Garden orchestras. LSO players (your model) run from one freelance movie scoring gig to any church or chamber venue just to make ends meet. Of course, national health and pension plans relieve these musicians of some of the burdens that are placed on American orchestra bargaining committees to achieve.

    In using the Berlin Phil and the LSO as examples for American orchestras to emulate, you have essentially compared apples to automobiles.

    Those remarks may be some of the missing counterbalances you asked about….

  11. Hi Peter, thanks for your comment. By the nature of your comment, I’m going to go ahead and assume you aren’t a regular reader. If so, you would know that we challenge musician positions during labor disputes as much as those from management.

    Moreover, we don’t examine AFM issues as a whole nearly as much as management issues simply becasue this isn’t a blog about artist unions (although check out Robert Levine’s The AFM Observer blog for that sort of content). At the same time, we do examine those issues from time to time and a quick search through the archives (check the AFM tag) and it won’t take you very long at all to see that the AFM, the player conferences, and player associations (see the Labor Relations category) have all been repeatedly scrutinized with the very same level of detail as the content in this post and my letter to Terry Teachout.

    I invite you to take some time and go through those archives and once you do, you’ll not only have a much more comprehensive picture about the orchestra business but you’ll see that articles routinely challenge positions throughout the field which adopt a universally accusatory tone toward entire stakeholder groups.

    Consequently, your final question would fall into that latter category as there is no reasonable way to address any issue as it applies to all professional orchestras with any sort of productive outcome. My experience is that those sorts of discussions tend to evolve (devolve?) into low-grade gripe sessions and there’s enough of that availalbe throughout the internet already, I don’t need to contribute anything new. Instead, if you’re curious about examining a particular issue, please let me know.

  12. Drew,

    Thanks for your prompt response!

    While I look forward to reading your prior posts about the AFM, and other issues surrounding labor in the symphony, I remain curious why you feel disturbed by the two above mentioned articles.

    They both offer reasonable and factually supported positions, even if one disagrees with their conclusions. Teachout writes that orchestral management is now trying to change the symphonic business model (even using bankruptcy). Part of that restructuring will mean that union members should expect that their employment terms will have to change along with the larger institution. Historically, unions are adverse to change. Are they not? One may dislike the tone of the piece, but the substance is worth discussion and constitutes more than an ignorant attack.

    Tony’s article simply asks for a reexamination of the orchestral business model. Nothing, as far as I understand it, that NEC should be ashamed of. What do you see there that NEC would object to?

    These articles make some good points. I trying to understand why these issues and ideas are framed as a “war on artists unions”. As a professional union musician, I understand and support that argument for Wisconsin state employees. But, not here.

  13. Hi Peter, everything via Terry’s piece is spelled out pretty clearly and I try not to repeat article content in comments so I’ll direct you toward that post for more detail. As for Tony’s piece, I haven’t decided if I’m going to write a dedicated post about it or not yet. If I do, it won’t be until next week so if you don’t see anything by that point, feel free to ask again.

    In the meantime, I’d suggest you take some time to study artist unions in greater detail. I’m getting the sense from your comment that you might have some misplaced assumptions that would certainly make issues more confusing than they should. Likewise, your universal application of collective representation in general and how it functions prompts me to suggest learning about the differences between the artist unions then recognize how they operate in the cultural frontiers as opposed to the city-state operations like Local 802.

    If you’re like most, you’ll begin to see that the landscape is far less monochromatic than the pictures painted recently by Teachout and Woodcock.

    As far as what does and does not constitute reasonable and factually supported positions, watch this fantastic video posted recently by Proper Discord. It says everything that needs to be said on this topic: http://youtu.be/hi2aHybWBJg

    And thank you for using the reply feature, it makes following comment threads much easier!

  14. What’s odd about these calls for more musician involvement is that most of us musicians feel like our union is our best chance to have a say. (Tony Woodcock cited the Berlin Phil as an example of an orchestra whose musicians have a great deal of say in their work.)

    These calls might be based on the idea that somehow our union is mainly the “toughs” from New York, but that is plainly false. The locals are composed of local musicians. We control our local through voting and debating with each other.

    We orchestra members staff every one of this nation’s Orchestra Committees, Artistic Advisory Committees, and Negotiating Committees. We vote regularly on contract waivers for management, and elect Committee members and our musician Board members. Committee service is serious and intense, and if it isn’t involvement, then I’m a grizzly bear. Without the union, would any of this be true? I wonder what the jobs are like in Brazil these days. . .

    I’d love to make 90,000 Euro’s a year, and have direct say in artistic decisions in my orchestra. . . but how would my board feel about that? Woodcock should just come out with it already- the boards don’t want to devolve power to musicians. He’s wrong if he thinks we’re not involved, and he’s wrong again if he thinks that the path to greater involvement means leaving our unions behind.

  15. Those are some interesting observations Charley. In many ways, unionization and the subsequent collective bargaining process as dictated by the National Labor Relations Act, is the only was musicians have a legally enforceable method of asserting stakeholder responsibility. Beyond, that, it is a system of ongoing trust resulting from years of mutually respectful working relationships.

    One of the things I do with board members and management when working with them on labor relations is to make sure they start using the word “musicians” instead of “union.” In some cases, I’ll even read back something they just said and make those substitutions and it can be surprising to them at how it comes across.

    the point of the exercise is to reinforce that their own musicians have far more control over everyday working relations along with the collective bargaining experience. As a result, anger or frustration directed toward some outside union overlord stereotype can easily be interpreted as a personal attack by their actual musicians. The result of which is increased hostility.

    One of the showstopper flaws in Woodcock’s Berlin comparison, that consequently rips pretty much everything else apart, is the difference in governance models, some of which you touched on in your final paragraph.. And that’s something I may be writing about in the coming week.

  16. just a quick observation (no pun intended): the AFM Observer (linked above in one of your replies) re: artist issues etc, has not been updated since September 27 2010.

  17. Exactly, I believe Robert updates the blog mostly during conventions and during other items of note. He’s also cut back since blogging over at polyphonic.org but that doesn’t detract from the fact that there is some very useful content there. I still recommend people give it a red if they aren’t already familiar with it.

  18. Not to mention the crisis Classical Music in Germany had to endure to get to the point it is currently as summarized by Anne Midgette’s recent post: Orchestra’s in Germany: a snapshot of a crisis.

    I think using, say, the Berlin Phil as a possible model can be disingenuous if we don’t understand how it has gotten to the point it has. And that’s if we leave out other problematic issues regarding “sexual discrimination” out of the equation.

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