Musicians Aren’t The Only Stakeholder You Should Worry About

Following last week’s news about the Philadelphia Orchestra Association (POA) President and CEO’s contract extension, a good bit of negative feedback has popped up by way of culture blog readers at a number of outlets. Although much of the criticism is focused on the long list of executive perks, deferred payments, bonuses, etc. and the related impact on musician labor relations, the group folks should be wondering about first and foremost is staffers.

In order to make sure everyone is clear on the distinction, administrations the size of the POA have much clearer divisions between the executive strata and those below in staff positions such as middle managers and entry level positions.

At the very least, musicians have the means for acting on their displeasure over strategic and executive board decisions in the form of a collective bargaining agreement. That agreement also provides a degree of job protection when it comes to speaking out against perceived malfeasance.

On the other hand, staffers are afforded no such protections. Yes, there are the Sarbanes-Oxley whistle-blower provisions but for the vast majority of instances, they have to sit in quiet desperation under the threat of losing their job if they vent their frustration.

Likewise, in an orchestra the size of the POA, staffers are typically paid at levels far below musician co-workers. Just imagine how much frustration can build inside an office where systematic budget cuts have reduced the overall workforce, instituted a series of wage cuts and/or freezes, reduced pension contributions and benefits, etc. yet the President and CEO receives a long list of contract renewal rewards, perks, and bonuses. If that’s not enough, don’t forget to include the fact that staffers get zero voice in the strategic decision making process.

Does this sound like the sort of seeds an institution should sow in order to grow a satisfying workplace environment capable of meeting the challenges related to an organization in bankruptcy?

In the end, it’s important to keep in mind that stakeholder membership isn’t a zero-sum game and the actions of executive leaders have just as much impact on staffers and the office workplace environment as it does on traditional musician/management relations.

So yes, it’s absolutely warranted to consider how a contract renewal scenario like this will impact musician relations but at the same time, the staffers deserve just as much consideration.

Here are some links to culture blog outlets that feature comment discussion on the POA executive compensation topic:

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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7 thoughts on “Musicians Aren’t The Only Stakeholder You Should Worry About

  1. I wonder what would happen if the staffers joined the AFM and got themselves included in the CBA. Some orchestras already include the librarian, as that person generally tends to be a musician, but has anyone ever tried adding the rest of the office staff to the bargaining process?

    • From a practical sense, there’s little chance of staffers becoming unionized although there are some long standing examples in the form of stage crew members via IATSE.

      As for the librarian issue, that’s an interesting, if not contentious, point in the field. Although this is a simplistic overview, groups that include the music librarian in the CBA typically consider them non-playing musicians whereas those who don’t, consider them strictly managers.

      If orchestra staffers were to ever unionize (and that would be a *tremendous* long shot) it would likely happen vis-a-vis one of the existing professional service or unions.

  2. I work for an orchestra as a staffer. I would never want to join the AFM because if my orchestra ever were to go on strike, I’d be out of work too for that period.

    • That’s a fascinating comment CA; on one hand it demonstrates some of the practical concerns that create the sort of quiet desperation syndrome mentioned in my article. At the same time, I think you have better odds of winning a lottery jackpot than witnessing orchestra staffers joining the AFM 🙂

    • I wouldn’t want to lose income during a strike either. However, I wonder if having a unionized staff and orchestra would make it less likely for a strike to occur in the first place. If the staff and players were members of the same union, not only would the staff have the right to vote on a contract, but they’d have the right to participate in a strike vote. Depending on the size of the orchestra’s staff eligible for representation, this could have a profound influence on the whole negotiating process.

  3. I’m a staffer, and I guess I’m sort of comparable in pay to the “middle manager” tier. I do, of course, get paid quite a bit less than any orchestra member or the CEO. I don’t hear complaints from my coworkers about this, though. My fellow staffers do complain if there is a wage or hiring freeze, but people don’t complain that the musicians and executives get paid a lot more than the rest of us.

    Rather than higher pay for my work, I’d MUCH rather have a clearer path to advancement which would theoretically come with higher pay and more interesting work. If I want a promotion, my only solid hope is really the retirement of a superior (because they haven’t got much opportunity, themselves, to move up) or a move to another city. I’m not holding my breath for more opportunities in my current organization.

    I also don’t want orchestras to inflate numbers in the higher management tiers and instigate churn there just so I can have more promotion opportunities. But it’s definitely a huge downside to working in this industry. I’m certain not many tears will be shed for us, though. 🙂

    • Well you can at least count on one tear being shed on my end but you bring up some excellent points; especially the lack of career advancement in some institutions.

      One of the more intriguing aspects of this field are the similarities in employment status between musicians and managers at institutions of varying size budgets.

      For example, I’ve seen managers in smaller budget groups get promoted very quickly; even cases from an entry level to department head in only a few years. But in larger budget groups, traditional career advancement hurdles are far more common and in that sense, it is very similar to musician openings (one doesn’t happen until someone dies).

      Although I can’t offer too many details due to confidentiality agreements, I can say that I’ve worked with medium and larger budget groups on this issue and there is almost always a great of resistance to the idea of implementing a veteran pay structure similar to that instituted in most musician master agreements.

      It isn’t a perfect solution but it does help to mitigate career ennui in the office. Unfortunately, I’ve seen these structures dissolve during periods of cutbacks and from there, the cycle starts all over again. If anything, it’s one of the unfortunate double standards in this business within the admin side of things; mediocre CEOs have a much easier time holding positions and perks than staffers because boards don’t want to be bothered with finding a replacement. But middle managers and staffers are far more likely to be perceived as cubicle cannon fodder.

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