A Legacy Of Mistrust In Detroit

The 7/5/2011 edition of the Detroit News published an article by Lawrence B. Johnson that examines the ongoing impact fallout from this season’s prolonged strike at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO). In particular, Johnson focuses on the growing list of musicians who have decided to take jobs in other orchestras, retire, or simply up and leave as a result of an overwhelming lack of confidence in the orchestra’s leadership…

All in all, the article includes quotes from four DSO musicians; two who are leaving and two who are still with the orchestra and in some sort of representative position, but none of them had very much to say that was positive. The article included reactions from DSO leadership including DSO President Anne Parsons who, according to Johnson, “acknowledged the tension between management and musicians and said a certain amount of upset goes with any transition.”

The departures, [Parsons] said, “are individual decisions of people who chose not to make a commitment to Detroit and to the DSO. People who don’t want to stay with it shouldn’t stay with it.”

And according to the article, that’s precisely what one section violinist has decided to do. Lilit Danielyan, an 11 year veteran of the ensemble, has decided to leave. Johnson’s article quotes her as citing “a lack of mutual trust and respect between the musicians and DSO President Anne Parsons as a primary reason for her departure.”

So it seems that not much has changed in the relationship between musicians and executive management since the last high profile departure in May of long time concertmaster Emmanuelle Boisvert and based on reactions like those reported in the Detroit News coming from Parsons, that’s just fine with the DSO.

Postscript: more on this from a different perspective via Frank Almond at non divisi.


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 “A Legacy Of Mistrust In Detroit”

  1. “The article included reactions from DSO leadership including DSO President Anne Parsons…”

    Given her comment, I would find it next to impossible to use the words ‘Anne Parsons’ and ‘leadership’ in the same sentence.

    • Slow down there Justin, you sound like a youngish, very frustrated, manager. Let me guess, do you have an arts admin degree and jumped right from there into a big budget orchestra? I doubt anyone is going to argue that the musicians on the very top of the food chain in the largest budget orchestras are going to complain about several weeks of vacation per year, benefits, and a good salary but it sounds to me like you’re on a path toward a very bitter career and you should really get out and get to know more musicians who aren’t in those big budget groups.

      My first job as executive director back in the 80s (we didn’t call ourselves CEOs back then) was at a band that paid the musicians no more than a thousand bucks a year. We paid the person who answered the phones and filed paper work far more than that so take a step back and realize that the business is a lot bigger than what you see.

      You wrote “Because they [they being managers] are severely underpaid, definitely over worked, and generally treated like they are incompetent.”

      Have you had a job in a big corporate environment before? My wife worked in one of those places and with her two degrees (biology and business admin) she moved from the lab into a management position and was responsible for a team of employees and nearly all of her bosses over the years treated her exactly the same way you describe. So what exactly is your gripe?

      The buck has to stop somewhere and it sucks when it lands on your desk but that’s the way it is whether you’re an orchestra manager or running a research department for a Forbes 500.

      The one thing I think you’ll benefit from is to get rid of this “ownership” idea. I really hate reading that these days. The ownership of an orchestra is simple, it’s the board and the large donors. The musicians don’t get to make the decisions nor do all of the middle managers and honestly, NOR SHOULD THEY. They aren’t much good at it. Most of what I hear when people talk about “ownership” is a cheap excuse to pass the buck along to someone else.

    • Careful how you use the term “naïveté,” especially when asking questions like “Where else would you ever see all of the union employees earning more than 90% of the “Management”?

      Allow me to introduce you to the airline and medical industries.

      And screaming about ROI proof like you’re some character out of A Few Good Men won’t win you many brownie points either. I’m curious if you know anything about how large donors are cultivated. There’s a reason why the Maestro Mystique exists you know.

      By the way, the amount of individual large donations are confidential, even by the tax man’s standard so in that sense, unless the donor wants to tell the world they are giving because of a conductor, you’ll never know about it.

    • HI Justin,

      There’s quite a bit of ground to cover in your comment, thanks for taking the time to write all of that out. However, there’s one item worth pointing out that has a tremendous impact on all of your points and that’s regarding what type of orchestral organizations you’re talking about.

      In your comment, you’re using universal terms “musicians” managers”, etc. without any comparative parameters. In that sense, it appears as though you’re talking about the field of professional orchestras as a whole, and even within that context, there’s room to play with.

      For example, when we examine the field in something like the Orchestra Compensation Reports, all of the Group 1-3 orchestras (mostly ICSOM) and a progressively diminishing ratio of Group 4 and 5 (ROPA) are used as a frame of reference. Within that context, the assertion that the average base musician compensation level is greater than the average orchestra management salary is accurate for only the top one third of ensembles.

      But if you take a larger context, such as all of the orchestras considered to be professional organizations by the League, that ratio grows considerably smaller as the cumulative average musician annual compensation drops well below $10,000.

      In the end, although there certainly are orchestras that have higher musician base compensation levels than average management compensation levels, they are a distinct minority within the field.

      I do think it is very useful to point out the distinctions you made about the levels of management. In fact, I make a regular distinction between the three typical levels of administrative employees within the orchestra field: Executives, Managers, and Staffers. Within each tier and throughout all budget sizes, compensation rates vary, sometimes to a considerable degree.

      I would caution anyone against taking for granted your assessment behind the move from what we currently define as nonprofit and for profit. In fact, modern definitions for those classifications don’t even apply to the reality of operating environment from more than hundred years ago.

      Lastly, I found your inclusion of Apple among your examples of businesses that have reinvented themselves, lest they become obsolete, intriguing. I would assert that they do precisely the same thing now that they did when they launched the original Macintosh: design and build computers while shrewdly developing demand. That last point is particularly important these days.

      In order to offer any useful feedback regarding your request “Please, I would love to hear your realistic, tangible, provable theories, thoughts and ideas to fix the problem.” the problem would need to be succinctly defined.

      • A ROPA orchestra manager/staffer will work a 40 hour work week for 52 weeks (2-3 weeks vacation) and make a salary. Full time employment. Musicians are paid per service at this level of orchestra and work far less services compared to that of their ICSOM piers. Part time employment. I don’t understand the comparison as it requires taking things (sometimes greatly so) out of context.

        If a manager/staffer for a ROPA orchestra works a full time Schedule (sometimes a lot more) and an orchestra has a 20 week season, of course the managers/staffers will be paid more in line with the pay of their ICSOM counterparts than the musicians will be. This is because their work load is more in line with their ICSOM counterparts. Full-time vs. Part-time.

      • Sure, no problem. Take the following bit:

        “In the end, although there certainly are orchestras that have higher musician base compensation levels than average management compensation levels, they are a distinct minority within the field.”

        The reason they are a distinct minority within the field is because these numbers are skewed by the fact that you are comparing salaries of ROPA Managers/Staffers (full time, salaried) with ROPA musicians (part time, per service). Without prorating the amount for the part time employees this does not paint a clear picture of the salary differences between the two parties.

        To me, it’s important to know why the numbers change after the top one third of orchestras.

      • Thanks Stephen, I think I’m getting your point but correct me if I’m wrong. you’re stating that in order in to implement a peer comparison between orchestra musicians, all orchestra musicians in orchestras with seasons smaller than 52 weeks should have their compensation extended at a pro rated amount (out to 52 weeks). Is that an accurate interpretation?

      • Not at all. The way you do peer comparisons is really useful and provides relevant information as to how the industry, at different levels, is compensated.

        In my opinion, the problem comes in when making generalizations like the one I quoted above. Without an explanation or disclaimer as to why the numbers change so drastically after the top third of orchestras, it can mislead people as to what is really taking place.

      • I suppose I’m still missing the point, what do you mean with regard to “what’s really taking place?” I think making sure we’re thinking about the same thing here is important and I’m getting the sense that we’re on different pages.

      • As the gap between musician yearly income and staff salaries changes moving into the bottom two-thirds of ensembles the number of workweeks changes significantly for the musicians where as the workload remains relatively the same for managers and staff.

        While saying a full time, salaried staffer making $25,000 earns more than a musician who will work for 12 weeks and earn $10,000, is true, it removes context by not accounting for the amount of working weeks each employee contributes to earn his or her income.

        My point is that this is important information to make readers aware of when stating which group is compensated at higher level.

      • That makes more sense and I think I’m finally getting your point. In general, I would say that your summary isn’t quite accurate either.

        Simply looking at the number of weeks a musician works and extrapolating that out and comparing to a 52 week staffer doesn’t really work. Meaning if a staffer earns $25,000 for 52 weeks of work and a per service musician earns $500/week for a 10 week season contract, then an apple to apples comparison is staffer/$25k vs musician/$26k isn’t accurate.

        For one, the musician has to spend a great deal of time outside the 10 weeks employed to maintain a minimum artistic level. They aren’t paid by the organization for that time. This is one of the long standing fundamental issues with drawing fair per service rates vs. salary rates for musicians. At the same time, and to address the original point in the thread, this is also at the root of the 52 week salary comment I made. Is that clearer?

      • I agree with a lot of your last post. The issues you mention in the last paragraph always have to be considered. I freely admit that the technique you refer to above would be guilty of the some of the same problems of method that I am critical of in your initial analysis. However, I think you have concluded that my point is that extrapolating all per-service musicians to a 52-week season is a fair way to make a direct comparison. I actually don’t. I would prefer to avoid a direct comparison altogether (see my first post).

        I think your apples to apples comment is right on. Isn’t it better just to say we are comparing apples to oranges, provide the proper context and avoid drawing generalized conclusions based on a comparison of two extremely different groups of employees who share little in common with how they work or are compensated?

      • Well, therein is the trick. People will always strive to an apples to apples comparison, especially for employees within the same organization. And I do think that’s possible but in the case of the compensation reviews, they don’t include detailed non executive management and staff compensation figures and trends. In the end, for those on the outside looking in, obtaining a better understanding those differences is a crucial step in becoming a vested stakeholder.

        Moreover, I have yet to encounter a board or CEO during a period of institutional financial distress who is willing to adopt a policy that “avoids drawing generalized conclusions based on a comparison of two extremely different groups of employees who share little in common with how they work or are compensated.” Instead, most resort to spin.

        I’m trying to think of a situation since 1996 when there wasn’t that sort of spin going on but I’m coming up blank. Does anyone else know of a situation?

  2. The musicians of the DSO (I’ve been a member of the orchestra since 1988) took an over 20% pay cut, and our season is now 36 weeks. Our experience since the strike ended has shown that the board leadership is not very interested in hearing any comments or suggestions from our musician representatives on the board. A major change in our performance schedule was implemented without any input from the musicians, despite the claim that playing in neighborhood locations as one third of out dramatically reduced (cut 25%) classical subscription season was to emulate the musician produced concerts during the strike. That’s a bad idea.
    The huge number of new concert-goers, younger people and families at Orchestra Hall concerts this spring, as a result of pent-up demand and lower ticket prices, was a very good idea. The minuscule audiences at our first neighborhood concerts this spring shows that it’s not such a good idea. Playing in the outstanding acoustics of Orchestra Hall- very good idea. Playing in high school auditoriums, multi-use arts centers, and temples with really poor acoustics- not a very good idea. Reducing the number of concerts in Orchestra Hall to half of what we did just a few years ago, a very, very bad idea.
    Spending scant resources to try to market a dozen neighborhood concert locations, most within a 10 -15 radius of Orchestra Hall, and spending money to try to improve the acoustics and orchestra set-up in some of these locations, a very, very bad idea.
    Creating an environment which has led to an unprecedented loss of some of the very best musicians to other orchestras, where the musicians are valued and respected, a very bad idea.
    Building an addition to Orchestra Hall and financing it with an 30 year interest only loan, with a $54 million balloon payment, a bad idea, leaving the orchestra very vulnerable to downturns in the economy.
    And, paying staff low salaries, something we have complained about, is a very bad idea. Having a revolving door development department, a very bad idea.
    Okay, so I’ve laid a lot of things that I think are wrong with the DSO, but if we were doing really well, then there wouldn’t much to complain about, would there. We still have a great concert hall, which we should be using a much as possible. We still have a very good orchestra, although down about 30+ from what we should have, because of all the departures to other orchestras, and now, an increasing number of retirements.
    I truly hope that we will be able to attract outstanding musicians to the auditions to replace those who have left, but we are a much less attractive or competitive orchestra because of the atmosphere, lower salary and shorter season than we were a few years ago. Like it or not, those things are important to those who audition for an orchestra and try to decide where best to spend their energy and money to come for an audition.
    It is highly unlikely that we will attract candidates from orchestras such Baltimore or Dallas, as has happened in years past. Our concertmaster, principal timpani, and a section violinist have left for the Dallas Symphony, an environment that is starkly different than Detroit is now, and is seen as an orchestra that is striving to higher excellence, whereas Detroit is now viewed as an orchestra in decline.

  3. It is sad,but not surprising, that the distrust and unhappiness go on. The problems took years to create, and will take years to resolve. What is most amazing to me, at this juncture, is how disconnected one “side” is from the other. I have spoken with many board members, as well as with major donors in Detroit, and count many musicians as friends. It is clear that a majority of the board absolutely and unwaveringly believe in what they have been told by DSO management, with an underlying promise that the artistic quality of the institution is not at risk. I am not arguing that premise at this juncture. But, the mindset is so strong with minds so closed, that I am not sure where the twain shall ever meet.

    Is there a way out of this?

  4. I was sorry to read Justin’s comments that he posted on July 6th. Clearly he is a member of, or has very close connections to, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra administrative staff. He is angry and quite frustrated with the state of affairs within the DSO organization.

    Great management and leadership during a time of stress in an organization call all-hands-on-deck and, using respected wisdom and skill, rally all the troops within the organization, seek out and correctly define the real problems within the organization, accurately define a course of action, and then get everyone working towards a common vision and set of realistic goals. People are respected and truth within the organization prevails. People may not like the news but if they have been told the truth and all believe in those goals then they will be willing to pull together to help the organization recover, and in some cases thrive. I have been part of an organization that has gone through such turmoil in the past and have seen real leadership take charge and using this approach successfully navigate through very troubled times.

    But bad management during a time of stress, however, does exactly the opposite. Under bad management respect of the individual is lost, group rivalries are generated, the blame game kicks into high gear, and fractures and disintegration occur within the organization. Divide and conquer with domination and ultimatums become the norm. Factions are formed. It devolves to “our group is doing the right things, but those guys over there in that group within the organization are messing it all up!” Under bad management the hope of a common vision or actions toward that vision is difficult.

    Justin’s post (and I am sure without intending to do so) exposes the true state of affairs within the DSO organization in a poignant manner. If Justin seeks evidence regarding the capabilities of the current DSO management then he should read and reflect upon his own words.

  5. Drew:

    I believe that unless Justin’s post would have injured Justin, it should not have been removed. I remember nothing libelous in his post.

    The replies to Justin’s post are now meaningless.

    Hey, it is your blog, but controversy is what makes for great discussion.

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