Rocky Start To New Year For Louisville Orchestra Musicians

According to a report filed by Elizabeth Kramer in the 1/6/2012 edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Louisville Orchestra (LO) musicians found themselves on the wrong side of a ruling from Kentucky’s Office of Employment and Training, which determined they are on strike and not locked out.

As a result, the 55 musicians that filed for and received unemployment benefits since the orchestra went dark seven months ago will have to pay those benefit back to the state. According to Kramer’s report, the musician’s attorney plans to initiate the appeal process with the Unemployment Insurance Commission although it is unclear if the musicians will have to begin the repayment process during that appeal process.

[sws_blue_box box_size=”665″] [ilink url=”” style=”download”]download a copy of the appeals decision (pdf)[/ilink] [/sws_blue_box]

Based on comments from LO CEO, Robert Birman, it seems clear that LO management intends to use the decision as a leverage point in the long stalled negotiations but the likelihood of that producing the desired outcome at such a late juncture amid a vicious labor dispute might be considered by many as a long shot.

The article also provides the first bit of updated news about the LO’s much criticized plans to hire replacement musicians.

Birman said the orchestra is “getting a constant volume of people interested in working,” but it is not acting on those right now.

There were no additional details regarding actual numbers or quality of applicants. In the meantime, the LO has officially cancelled all concert activity through March, 2012.

What do you think; does the ruling stand any chance at applying enough pressure to get the musicians to agree to management’s terms?

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 “Rocky Start To New Year For Louisville Orchestra Musicians”

  1. While I can’t speak for the LO musicians, I would imagine that this action will just make them even more determined. From what I hear through the grapevine, many of the LO musicians have moved on to other jobs in order to make living. Getting smacked in the face with something like this may only throw more gas on the fire, especially if the LOI gets smug about it in their PR and negotiations.

    As far as the “constant volume” of applicants goes, this sounds like hogwash double-speak. What is a “constant volume?”

    One per month? Two per week? Bi-monthly? Five per week?

    What is the quality of applicants? Students? Professionals? Amateurs?

  2. To an outsider the labor management structure seems so antiquated. The musicians are professionals, many with PhD’s. They are not lowly skilled teamsters. Either accept the offer based on donations not profits, negotiate for a better deal or if the terms are not suitable then move on. Or take control of the structure and raise funds and manage your services like the Orpheus and some of the European orchestras. It’s probably time to let the recent music dept./conservatory graduates take the places of old timers. Why block them? Let the market decide. Let Louisville get the symphony it wants. With younger, hungrier musicians the quality will suffer, but it will be “good enough’ quality for most of the residents of the region.

    • Great points and in spite of my own union affiliations and strong opinions on the topic, I actually agree with the sentiment. I have often wondered about how relevant unions are for musicians in the 21st century. And, I have always had a hard time with musicians being labeled as ‘laborers’ – in the same category as blue collar workers. It has never made sense to me personally.

      But that being said, it is the only working system we have that protects the rights of working musicians. Without it, I am not sure how many musician could achieve job security and a stable livelihood. Being an orchestral musician is tough enough without having to worry about being fired on a whim,

  3. Though devoutly to be desired. most of us in the real world don’t have “job security and stability”. Especially professionals like, say, architects. In some regions such as SF, LA, & Boston there are sufficient “customers” with the necessary discretionary income and well healed, motivated sponsors to generate the necessary income for the musicians to make a decent living. But I don’t think this is the case in second and third tier markets and not in challenged metro areas like Detroit and Phlly. If this is the New Reality in Louisville then play on or don’t. and either eke out a living teaching or try to land a position with another orchestra that is on firmer ground, as several musicians did who had played with Detroit but left when they made the cut with a Texas symphony.

  4. A lot of musical insight and history gets lost when an orchestra experiences heavy turnover. In the case of Louisville, it could be entirely lost, with the exception of markings in the music. Without job security, this could be the fate of any orchestra. “Move on” is way easier said than done, Tom.

    • Right.

      Since most musicians stay in their jobs longer than most managers, the musicians are the institutional memory. I also agree with Mike that “moving on” to another orchestra job is much easier said than done.

      A.) There is a glut of talented musicians being cranked out of colleges and the numbers keep rising.

      B.) The job market for orchestral musicians is limited.

      C.) The typical audition for a single spot may have upwards of 100 applicants, especially for the wind instruments. The factors for winning a job are many and even some of the best and most seasoned players do not advance beyond the first few rounds. It is hard for a veteran to compete with a “young buck.”

      As a member of a few professional groups myself – opera and orchestra – with limited concert seasons, I still maintain a high playing standard and actually, enjoy playing much more than when I did it for a living.

      I suppose too then that one could “move on” to a more stable and lucrative career – as I have – but that is another issue entirely that again, is easier said than done.

  5. I don’t really understand your response, Mike. Not sure what you mean by musical insight. History will be history, particularly since we have Owsley Brown’s documentary. . I don’t mean to imply that moving on is easy. It is quite difficult. But in many instances, it may still be the best option.

  6. Elaborating a bit on the subject of history, the Louisville Orchestra once was quite famous for its regular recording activities, particularly in regard to new American music. While no one would claim it was of the rank of the “Top 5” (at the time), this project really differentiated the ensemble from others in the nation.

    Then the recording disappeared, and with it a significant cachet. I’ve often wondered how that came about.

  7. I think it came about, Chris, when a small cadre of citizens couldn’t continue to support their own personal special interest that created a sense of pride but had little interest among the larger pool of classical music fans in the area. The subscribers and ticket buyers (and other donors) felt like they were being asked to swallow musical cod liver oil which tended to undermine the experience of musical enjoyment. A noble effort but doomed to failure in my estimation. Contemporary composers either do their work in ivory towers looking for peer not public approval, or they go to Hollywood.

  8. Tom, what I mean by institutional memory has more to do with musical traditions than anything else, and those will be irrevocably lost when large numbers of veteran musicians leave or are forced out.

    I have had the good fortune of having in my section musicians with several decades of experience in my orchestra. They have readily shared their insights about how we approach the music in front of us, which is different from the way it would be played in New York, Chicago, or Detroit. I listen to old (meaning before I got here) recordings of my orchestra now and think “so that’s how they did it!”

    This stuff doesn’t just happen. There’s a lot of deep experience that deserves to be passed on to the next generation of musicians. That is what I mean by institutional memory, and it cannot be recreated by an outsider with a pen or a computer.

  9. Mike: We non musicians are far less sensitive to this dimension, but as I read your words, it seems extremely important to orchestral musicians (and the few connoisseurs in the audience), and would be sacrificed with the changing times. Which is sad indeed. Sad also is the current condition of the band given its reputation as Chris noted.

    But… the average concert goer, to whom you must play if play you must, won’t really have the sensibilities to appreciate these differences. I’m in the wine biz, and the sort of qualities that you write about for music apply to fermented grape juice. But they are nuances enjoyed by such a small and well endowed group of enthusiasts–a different kind of 1%. The other 99% is looking for a favorable QPR- Quality Price Ratio. In other words, especially in these financially troubled times, they are looking for “good enough” vino. The same holds true, I believe, for the live classical music experience. The New Reality holds sway.

    • Tom, I suspect we just have different perspectives on the business. I have seen orchestras destroyed by the power of negative thinking. Our current president, Fred Bronstein, has gone on record many times to say “we cannot cut our way to prosperity.” When I see the results of such cuts, I see the truth of his statement. Cuts can easily create a cycle where the organization ends up circling the drain.

      The solution Fred seems to espouse is seeking out new ways to bring in funds without losing sight of our core product, which continues to be the production of top-notch classical music concerts. That doesn’t mean we do no pops, or that we do no chamber music, but that we keep our eyes on the main ball while juggling the others.

      I don’t see a “New Reality,” unless it is the attempt to turn not-for-profits into for-profits. If that is the mission, it is doomed. We have always relied largely on generous patrons, and probably will continue to do so. Smart and energetic leadership will do more for us than attempting to reinvent this wheel.

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