Bitch, Bitch, Bitch…

“All musicians ever do is complain!” If I had a nickel for every time I heard that from an orchestra manager; well, you know. But the fact of the matter is if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a musician complain about the workplace, I’d probably have just as much money (if I could collect from both; cha-ching, hello early retirement!).

Adaptistration People 090But the other side of the bitchy musician coin is the reality that most employers don’t ask them what they like about their jobs and since human nature compels most of us to opt for complaints over compliments, the general negativity should come as no surprise.

The economic downturn is having a diverse impact on the field; some groups are doing just fine and others are managing debt without incurring any long term damage, but some groups have undeniably dropped out of their traditional peer group and won’t be rejoining it anytime soon. Simply put, they can no longer provide traditional wage and benefit benchmarks for non-executive managers, staffers, and musicians.

So how does an orchestra in this situation expect to continue attracting the same caliber of office and artistic talent?

Workplace satisfaction surveys for employees who work on and off stage are a good place to begin. Even if your orchestra isn’t the highest paying 52, 42, or 32 week orchestra (you get the picture), that doesn’t mean you don’t stand a chance at cultivating comparatively higher levels workplace satisfaction than orchestras in your peer group.

The only thing keeping the field as a whole from embracing this type of benchmarking system (besides funding) is anxiety over what the results might produce.

No one wants to discover they might have mortifying workplace satisfaction levels while others who are more confident might be afraid to implement initial surveys during periods of economic downturns when a number of groups have implemented wage concessions or freezes.

But that’s exactly the right time to begin gathering data. The economic climate will change; fiscal cycles go up and down so having reliable data from the peaks and valleys will produce invaluable evaluation parameters for decades to come.

We examined some specific solutions and how an employee satisfaction survey for orchestras can get up and running in an article from 9/22/2010 and those recommendations are just as valid today.

So who wants to get the ball rolling? Think of this as an open call-to-arms. I’d love nothing more than to hear from board members, managers, musician representatives, union leaders, and philanthropic foundation officers about their ideas and willingness to set this in motion.

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 “Bitch, Bitch, Bitch…”

  1. I happen to believe that the economy HAS bottomed. Indeed, I still hear almost 100% negativity, but my experience is that there is the moment when opinion swings the other way.

    For example, rather than looking at the problems in Philly as “Oh my God, if that could happen in Philly, the whole orchestra business is over,” I say, “OK, one of the oldest orchestras in the country has been slammed financially, could this be the height of the storm?” Blah,blah,blah-you get my drift.

    I’ve ALWAYS cringed when an Orchestra board president gets up at a podium and so cheerfully announces “WE HAVE MET ALL OUR FUNDRAISING GOALS!” Ohhh….believe me look out for next year….


  2. The reason musicians gripe so much is that they are trained to be perfectionists. You don’t get to the big leagues–or any paid public concert–if you only bat .300. You have be be close to perfect in the production of the notes to succeed…and then the intangibles of personal expression and artistic performance cause more difficulties and stress.

    So, no wonder musicians are always looking for the best possible management, facilities, and working conditions…and are vocal about telling people around them how things could be better.

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