"Board Members Are Sick And Tired Of The Musicians' Complaining" In Colorado

If you’ve been following events at the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (CSO) this past week, you’ve probably scratched your head in confusion more than once. What started off as a comparatively typical request to reopen the master agreement following news of dire financial conditions has culminated in one of the most theatrical displays from a stakeholder group we’ve seen in some time.

Here’s the lowdown so far:

  • On 9/13/2011 the Denver Post reported that the CSO’s financial condition was so dire that it could go under this season. It also mentioned a consultant’s report that stipulated the organization needed to adopt a series of actions to avoid the ominous predictions.
  • On 9/21/2011 the CSO musicians “voted unanimously…to delay a decision on an emergency contract revision that calls for a 14 percent pay cut and a significant increase in performance time.”
  • Jump ahead a few days to 9/24/2011 and 20 CSO board members reportedly resigned, including the majority of the executive committee (chairman, vice chairman and treasurer).
  • Shortly thereafter, the CSO musicians accept a proposed 14 percent pay cut.

According to a series of Denver Post reports by Kyle MacMillan following the turn of events (linked in the above list), the 20 board members who flew the coup may return in the wake of the musician’s decision to accept the pay cuts.

But the musicians’ initial decision Tuesday to postpone a vote on those proposed salary cuts provoked anger on the board and led to the 20 resignations, according to Young Cho, one of the board members who has remained.

“Board members were really so mad,” he said, “because, unfortunately, our musicians are sometimes so stubborn.”

In addition, Cho said, board members feel like the musicians often place the blame on them for the orchestra’s financial struggles, even though the board has covered many of the orchestra’s budget shortfalls in recent years.

“Board members are sick and tired of the musicians’ complaining,” he said.

If the musicians had not balked on Tuesday and accepted the cuts then, Cho said, he believes the 20 board members would have not resigned. He expects at least half of them to return now that the cuts have been accepted

If the situation is sincerely so bad as to prompt stakeholders to engage in such melodramatic gestures, then it’s probably time to consider shutting things down.

Message received.

Now, whether or not Colorado is at that point or if the mass exodus is nothing more than an over the top act is something that will likely play out over the next few weeks. To that end, keep an eye on that report which prompted this nonsense to begin with; if the orchestra begins distancing itself from it then it is a good sign that there’s more going on behind the scenes that is better than not.

In the meantime, assuming Cho’s comments accurately represent his departed board colleagues’ point of view and some or all of those members plan to return, the question now is do you really want board members like that back?

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 “"Board Members Are Sick And Tired Of The Musicians' Complaining" In Colorado”

  1. Why would musicians complain over multiple pay cuts these past few years? And when the rosy news of spring turns to the dire predictions of fall, why ask for a few days extra time to consider the ramifications of this apparent negative turnaround? Aren’t the musicians just supposed to be grateful for every crumb?

    I think you’re right, Drew, about the desirability of keeping those board members. I hope Denver has some other potential board members within its philanthropic community who are a bit more appreciative of their orchestra’s musicians.

    • Well, your last point is the real trick in a situation like this. It isn’t unheard of for behind closed door agreements where musicians accept concessions in exchange for certain board member resignations. However, in order for that to be effective and not disrupt board efficiency and overall contributed revenue, there needs to be a plan to replace the funds and connections of those outgoing board members. So from that perspective, the Colorado situation becomes that much more complicated.

  2. Drew – thank you, as always, for your timely coverage and perspective. Reading this article was indeed shocking and of course this turn of events in Colorado is distressing indeed; however, in addition to your question about board members, I would really like to see a trend toward objectivity and accuracy in reporting by many of our news outlets. The article you reference about this exodus from the Colorado Symphony’s board of directors seems to have been purposefully written with the intention of portraying the musicians as a group of highly dissatisfied individuals while sharing nothing with the “general public” about the duties of any board of directors, which include fiduciary responsibility (which, if I am not mistaken – and I do ask that you correct me should I be – is that should the organization enter a time of financial turmoil, the board of directors is responsible for taking all steps to ensure the fiscal health of the organization).

    Of course, taking responsibility for fiscal health can mean many things, ranging from securing concessions from everyone employed by the organization to doubling efforts to maintaining current levels of financial health while “fixing the problem”. With my limited knowledge of negotiations, though, I can only look at this situation with grave compassion and the hopes that it is resolved both short and long-term for everyone involved.

  3. “In the meantime… the question now is do you really want board members like that back?”
    Wow, this statement is either really naive or purposefully provocative.
    Do you not understand the critical role of the board in nonprofit organizations? And that these community members are doing this as volunteers? First, they are responsible for keeping the ship floating. As Samuel pointed out, if there is a fiscal crisis they have to solve it. Second, they are often major donors to the orchestra and certainly friends with other donors. In a recent conversation with a (successful and thriving) orchestra, the COO said to me “we live or die by our individual donors.” Finally, they represent the orchestra and organization in the community. Do you need a loan? A favor? an in-kind gift? These are the people who will work on your behalf. If a community sees 20 members leaving, the message is: the ship is sinking.
    “Melodrama” is a relative term and not a useful one for getting people to talk again. Yes, you absolutely want them back and in fact, you should thank them as well.

    • Hi Mary, thanks for the comment and of course, the question is meant to be provocative. Since I don’t know if you’re a regular reader or not, rest assured I have considerable experience working with nonprofit organizations on board development and labor relations as well as serving directly on numerous boards. Consequently, you’re absolutely correct in that as the stewards of public trust, the board is responsible for institution’s fiscal condition but in order to adequately fulfill that role, they need to foster and maintain mutual respect among all stakeholders. And in the end, those efforts require equal contributions for all parties.

      Requiring any one stakeholder group to subjugate itself to another is a key element for creating a dysfunctional environment and a good benchmark for determining that sort of situation is the sort of public remark from any stakeholder representative such as the one used as the title for today’s article. Conductor Bill Eddins posted an article today on these issues that I think you might enjoy: http://www.insidethearts.com/sticksanddrones/?p=3379

  4. I’ve seen functional boards and dysfunctional boards, but I’ve never seen a publicized mass resignation like that. There must be some intense behind-the-scenes dynamics in the organization.

    My opinion as a musician who has taken multiple substantial pay cuts and eventually saw his orchestra’s board file for Chapter 7 less than 3 weeks after giving a PowerPoint presentation to the musicians and staff explaining why they had decided to not consider filing Chapter 7 is given by the following small edits of a couple of paragraphs of the article:

    “Board members were really so mad,” he said, “because, unfortunately, our musicians are sometimes so stubborn when their jobs, careers, and livelihoods are at stake.”

    In addition, Cho said, board members feel like the musicians often place the blame on them for the orchestra’s financial struggles, even though the board is totally responsible for fundraising and managing revenues and the musicians have no duties in these areas.

    • I don’t know anything about the specifics of the Colorado situation. But I would say that David’s reimagining of Cho’s statement voices what to me, not an orchestral musician, seems to be a big part of a larger issue. Which is that, as David puts it, “the board is totally responsible for fundraising and managing revenues and the musicians have no duties in these areas.” We have an economy with serious problem, a declining interest (in many areas) in traditionally-presented live symphonic music, and increased donor skepticism about the long-term prospects of institutions like symphony orchestras.

      I’m an orchestra outsider. To me it seems obvious that make things work, at some point there has to be a transformation in which the musicians are both willing and are institutionally empowered to accept responsibility for things like “fundraising and managing revenues,” including community relations. Right now, it seems that in most places the only option is for the musicians to feel helpless and complain about the management and board while watching the ship slowly sink. I have no idea how this would work. I do know that boards/management and players complaining about each other in public is not it.

      • As an orchestral musician, I have been asked many times to participate in fundraising events, donate my time for benefits, go on donor calls, and perform donor appreciation tasks such as writing personal thank-you notes and making thank-you phone calls. I also served on Board committees and task forces.

        I was happy to do these things. Yes, they are outside of my job description and area of greatest expertise, but I did them (for no additional pay) because I wanted the organization to succeed and because I thought it was the right thing to do.

        However, I do not think that it is proper or even benign to ask musicians to “accept responsibility for fundraising and managing revenues”. I don’t believe that I as a musician should have revenue targets, marketing responsibilities, or accounting assignments. That is what finance, marketing, and development departments are for. They have managers and staff members with expertise in these areas, and whose work day is dedicated to these tasks. I’m not a proficient marketer, and the marketing manager is not a proficient bass trombonist. I’m willing to help when asked and a task within my capabilities is presented to me, but I’m not willing to write advertising copy, write grant applications, or make cold calls. I need to be practicing, rehearsing, and performing. I’ll do a worse job at those other activities than someone who was hired for the job or brought on to the board for expertise in those areas. It would harm the organization to make me responsible for directly managing revenue.

        As I put it to a friend when discussing this article: You know what I hate? When research chemists spend all of their time and attention developing new drugs and never edit any company advertising copy.

      • Well, Dave, you make great points, which are helping me to think through this. And it’s great to read that you have been so involved in community interaction.

        It’s an interesting issue–in any salaried, institutional job, what do we get paid for? I’m a college professor. “Service” (committees, meeting with prospective students, planning events, writing internal reports) is a vaguely-defined part of my job description, and in the type of small college (2400 students) where I teach, almost all faculty do a lot of it. Many of us feel, though, that our real job is teaching, and all the “service” stuff is experienced as extra, unpaid work. But it really is part of our jobs, and while the specifics of what we do are left to us to work out, that we do something in this area is clearly part of the gig. (Sometimes intensely resented.) So I wonder how long orchestral musicians can go on, in most market, seeing thank-you notes and appreciation calls and similar activities as something sthey donate time for, rather than as part of the responsibilities of being part of a community/organization–regardless of the current texts of collective bargaining agreements (with which I admit I have no experience, working as a member of a non-unionized faculty). My sense is that David does these things from a sense of larger responsibility and care for the symphony in which he plays.

        I live near Indianapolis, and have played a gig or two in the temple-like Eli Lily headquarters which celebrates the vast fortunes that company generates. Drugs are a big, successful business in which a tight division of labor makes sense. An organization awash in money can operate differently than an arts organization on the brink of financial collapse

        And of course in the arts and in academia we hire good (we hope) administrators to do their thing and let the artists do their art and the teachers do their teaching. But when our problems are larger than ineffective marketing and fundraising–if (a critical mass of) people are losing interest in regularly attending large-venue performances of classical music, which no amount of marketing in and of itself is going to fix, then we’re in a new world. You market, I’ll play, and if people don’t come and donate, that’s your problem, not mine, so go fix it–that works if there is a big potential audience that ineffective marketing is failing to reach or inadvertently alienating. But if the potential audience in a particular area is shrinking, better marketing will have limited effects. It doesn’t matter how great the marketing is, I’m not going to spend a lot of money to subscribe to a professional sports team or go to a bunch of rock concerts–I’m just not interested.

        I know the term “classical music crisis” is disliked by many. But it really does seem to me that it’s not just the recession, and it’s not just incompetent management/boards/marketing, not to say those aren’t very real issues. But if the marketplace itself if changing in a fundamental way, one of the keys to (re)expanding the market/audience base may well be some sort of shift in who all has responsibility for audience development.

  5. Everyone has recession fatigue. Those being asked to give more are tired of hearing it, and those being asked to sacrifice again have nothing left to give. We are all held hostage by the economy to some degree, and we all feel under-appreciated. Musicians don’t appreciate the work the boards do, and the boards don’t appreciate the difficulty of musician’s jobs and how little remains for musicians to give back. It’s exhausting. For everyone.
    However, what is most disturbing about this story is that it’s representing a new national trend in negotiating with workers. When an organization no longer wishes to negotiate they can simply threaten to declare bankruptcy to get their workers in line. This move by the board members to quit and walk out is simply holding a gun to the musician’s heads to force the outcome they wanted. Instead of being patient with what probably would have been a process of negotiation, they pre-empted that process and bullied them into taking the original offer without negotiating.
    Of course these relationships at each locale are complicated, and unless one is in the midst of them, one can’t really understand the subtleties. However I’m unsure that having a board member call the musicians “so stubborn” in the press because they simply wanted a better agreement than the one proposed is probably not a great PR move. I desperately hope cooler heads will prevail in Denver.

  6. So, Bruce Clinton and his gang of thugs took their marbles and went home because a group of musicians didn’t IMMEDIATELY acquiesce to the Destroy an Orchestra for Lunch Playbook produced by the League of American Orchestras. Good riddance; clearly the level of dedication of these board members was down at the level of John Boeher’s dedication to the working American family (or non-working). Denver is a big, arts conscious city that treasures their orchestra and dedicated board will be found and the orchestra will prosper. Time to move on, and send a truckload of industrial strength Pampers to Bruce, Jim and Jesse.

  7. Cho’s statement about “so stubborn musicians” indicates the mindset of many orchestra board members across the country. They think musicians just PLAY for their Love of music. I played in the CSO’s forerunner DSO when the annual base pay was less than $1600/yr. Musicians drove cabs, taught lessons, worked behind store counters, etc. to make ends meet. I drove tour limos to Rocky Mt. National Park, up Pike’s Peak and Mt. Evans, leaving me not a lot of time to practice the violin. Seems like not much has changed since then.

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