There's No Good Way To Spin News Like This

An article by Graydon Royce in the 6/11/2012 edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports the ongoing negotiations at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) are not going well. Apparently, the musicians have rejected the association’s initial offer that focused on achieving a 14 percent cut in expenses by reducing the number of weeks for most of the chamber orchestra’s salaried musicians from 35 to 20 and as few as 15 for a small number of unnamed positions.

newspaperAt the same time, the SPCO’s board chair and interim president, Dobson West, was quoted saying the organization still plans to present the same rough number of concert events per year, even if the reductions are ultimately accepted.

“We view our proposal as not changing our commitment to the community as far as putting on 100 to 120 concerts a year. And we would expect that under any proposal, the audience should expect to see the same musicians.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the last bit of West’s statement is entirely beyond an employer’s control and if the Detroit Symphony work stoppage determined anything, it concluded that conventional wisdom dictating professional musicians have little to no employment options is not way the field actually operates. Before the ink was figuratively dry on Detroit’s concessionary agreement, large portions of principal, fixed chair, and section musicians left for other opportunities.

What’s unusual about Royce’s article is it presents information from early stages in the bargaining and although the musicians have formally rejected the initial concessionary cuts, there wasn’t an attempt (at least none that were reported) on part of the SPCO to present the typical sort of “let’s all calm down” statement acknowledging that “although an initial offer was rejected both parties continue to negotiate in good faith to reach a mutually agreeable resolution.”

Instead, the SPCO opted for zero-sum approach popularized in such recent labor feuds such as Detroit and Louisville.

West said the board, in response to musicians’ concerns over guaranteed weeks, planned to present a revised plan that raises those figures but keeps the overall savings the same.

If nothing else, the SPCO’s reported troubles are a strong indication that all of the new model hype from the early part of the century lauding enhanced musician involvement, increased flexibility in work rules, etc. didn’t have much impact on providing the organization with the ability to navigate troubled waters.

Nor did it have much impact on how both sides approach contentious bargaining. In addition to the board’s zero-sum strategy, Royce reports that according to SPCO bassoonist and musicians’ committee chair, Carole Mason Smith, the musicians have hired a public-relations firm to “get their message out.” However, there was no indication as to what that message might contain.

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 “There's No Good Way To Spin News Like This”

  1. This is very sad. I have been saying for many years that the trouble with orchestra finances begins with what the orchestras have to offer nowadays – nothing. Programs comprised mostly of music written more than 70 years ago is not cutting it anymore. That is very obvious. Audiences want – and DESERVE – new music. Imagine yourself driving a new Model T or a new Packard. Old is still old. The problem, of course, is that composers have been unable – or unwilling – to write GREAT new music. All we have been getting since about 1945 is music which any good mathematician or engineer could write. This stuff has been turning audiences off since day one. Fewer and fewer people are willing to sacrifice $30 to hear another Beethoven Eroica or Mozart 40 or Tchaikovsky 6 or Prokofiev 5 or Stravinsky Petrushka. Serialism and atonality and multiple meters were never the answer.

    • Wow . . . so there has been no “great” music since 1945? And what was written since then is all “serialism and atonality and multiple meters” which could have been composed by “any good mathematician or engineer.” Hmmm . . . So you are basically writing off dozens of spectacular works composed by Stravinsky since 1945; you are deep-sixing 46 works by Aaron Copland (including his remarkable Clarinet Concerto); virtually everything composed by both Benjamin Britten and Gian Carlo Menotti; all but two works composed by Leonard Bernstein; a substantial amount of masterworks by Ralph Vaughan Williams; most of the masterpieces of Samuel Barber; dozens of remarkable compositions by Francis Poulenc. And then, of course, there are the Russians: The brilliant Prokofiev composed well into the 1950′s, Shostakovich and Khachaturian wrote some of their most masterful and evocative works throughout the 1960′s, and until 1970 . . . and, well, I am barely scratching the surface. (And not even getting into the 21st century, with miraculously gorgeous works by John Adams, Philip Glass, Jake Heggie, and so many others.)

      If we follow your adage that “Old is still old,” why don’t we just get rid of ALL those “Old Packards” out there taking up space in the art world. Let’s burn the Monets and Manets, level Versailles, and paint over the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Aren’t they old also?

      Well, of course nobody in their right mind would do any of that. And to blame the current and lamentable economic state of the symphony orchestra world on COMPOSERS, or the LACK of “great music,” is clearly just as ridiculous. There are many things missing in today’s musical world, but great musical compositions are, thankfully, not in short supply.

      Extraordinary and inspiring musical works, coming from all eras, are one of the things that musicians — and audiences — CAN be grateful for.

      • Mr Daugherty, Thank you for your thoughtful and well-informed comment. Of course, I fully agree with you that Copland, Poulenc, Bernstein, Stravinsky, Britten, and Barber composed some great music. Absolutely. Perhaps I should have picked a different year – say 1955 or 1960. My point was that much (indeed, most) of the blame for the sorry state of classical music I lay at the feet of modern composers. Nothing can dissuade me from that opinion. I have been playing – for many many years – in studio and concert stage orchestras. Without a single exception, I have never heard a colleague (and, these are professional, conservatory players) utter a word of praise for any modern – post 1960 or so – work we have played. On the contrary, the noisy, disorganized, super complex, super calibrated works we have done have been solidly criticized by the very players entrusted with performing them. We play them because we get paid for our work. We are not paid to critique any works, but we do judge them nonetheless. I am not advocating that we erase the past. Bach, Brahms, Mozart, Bizet, Schubert, Verdi – whom can we compare to them? Indeed, I am advocating a return to the past. Oscar Wilde once said: “If we cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.” Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana has been performed over 44,000 times since it was composed in the late 1800s. John Adams’ opera, Nixon in China, has received pehaps 60 or 70 performances since he wrote it in 1987. Audiences are quite certainly – with extremely few exceptions – the very best judge of what’s good and what’s not. Without them, we are dead on arrival. Attract audiences and the money will follow.

      • @pronetoviolins: Funny you should mention “Nixon In China” — I just walked back into my house from seeing (and hearing) an amazing performance of that very opera tonight, at The San Francisco Opera.

        I am not sure that it is entirely fair to compare the number of lifetime performances of “Cavalleria Rusticana” with those of “Nixon In China.” For starters, “Cav” has had 122 years to amass those impressive statistics, compared to “Nixon’s” comparatively embryonic 25 years. Secondly, when “Cav” premiered in Rome in 1890, opera was a wildly popular/populist art form — that era’s most successful genre of mass entertainment. (Especially in Italy.) It was the equivalent, then, of what musical theater is now. (Or maybe even the movies.) 1890 Rome had four major opera houses (and many more minor ones) that ran opera rep for practically every night of the year. (I used to conduct in one of them, the Teatro Argentina, where Rossini premiered “The Barber of Seville” in 1816, although I was obviously not on the conducting staff then.)

        (The premiere of “Barbiere,” by the way, was not an immediate success when it debuted in 1816 — in fact, many of Rossini’s operas were flops in his lifetime. Audiences frequently found them too “busy.” And musicians hated playing all the runs, scales, and eighth notes. Rossini used to sit at a cafe right outside the Teatro Argentina stage door (the cafe is still there, btw), drinking wine and eating pasta, while audiences booed and occasionally threw eggs and tomatoes at the singers onstage, in response to his music. So even then, audiences — and musicians — were complaining about a lack of talented contemporary composers. And, of course, music history is full of stories of now-legendary composers who died impoverished, thinking they were abject failures. Like Tchaikovsky. But I digress . . .)

        But back to “Cavalleria” . . . given that the operatic world of 1890 was much more akin to today’s musical theater world than to today’s operatic world, and as politically incorrect as it might be, it would be much more culturally-accurate to compare performance statistics between “Cavalleria Rusticana” with “Phantom of The Opera” or “Les Miz” instead of with “Nixon In China” — and I am guessing “Phantom” or “Les Miz” would tally up way more than 44,000 performances, and in only 25 years, or whatever it has been since they premiered. So audiences are still, indeed, going to see theatrical musical works, and in great numbers. (Unfortunately, the definition of what is “opera,” has somewhat changed in the popular lexicon.)

        “Nixon In China” is also, by far, not the only contemporary opera out there. Since its premiere in 2000, Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” has had over 200 performances with at least 20 major international opera companies. I personally know scores of orchestral musicians who have reveled and rejoiced at playing his music. And Jake’s new opera “Moby-Dick” was a profoundly moving experience for the musicians who played that world premiere — a number of them are colleagues of mine, so I heard their reactions firsthand.

        And . . .the performance I saw tonight of “Nixon in China” was extraordinary. The audience was riveted to the performance and production; the cast and the SF Opera musicians were incredible and exceptional. The standing ovation from the sold-out audience at the end of this evening was long and loud. (So, naturally, I am struggling to figure out what the “negatives” are for this work.) Of course, Adams’ music does not swell with the soaring melodies and luxuriant orchestrations of Puccini or Verdi — nor the pure heavenly perfection of Mozart — but “Nixon In China” is nevertheless a fantastically relevant, mesmerizing, and moving theatrical experience. It is a totally different animal from 19th Century opera — but it is still opera. And what’s more, the entire run is so sold out that no amount of money or good connections would get you a ticket anywhere in the War Memorial Opera House for the rest of the opera’s performances. So . . . there’s no shortage of audience, enthusiasm, or support for “Nixon In China” in San Francisco this summer.

        And although I understand what you are saying . . . and you are totally entitled to your opinion . . . I still maintain that composers are not to blame for the economic ills that are impacting orchestras and musicians all over America . . . including the SPCO. Contemporary orchestral composers do not administer, program, develop, and market America’s symphony orchestras and chamber ensembles. They just write music. (And frequently on commission from, and at the direction of, symphony orchestras and music directors.)

        There are so many other larger problems which impact America’s orchestras — and our audiences — than composers. If we, as a community and as artists, want to truly look at why audiences are shrinking, we must address the fact that we (as an “industry” and art form) are allowing our audiences to age and (for lack of a better term) die-off while not replenishing and creating NEW audiences (including young concertgoers) through even minimally-adequate music education and exposure to the miraculous experience of hearing a live symphony orchestra. (I’m sure, as a classical musician yourself, that you fully realize that music education in America’s schools is virtually extinct. And even the most ambitious and successful symphony orchestra music education concerts/programs only reach a fraction of the kids in any given city or school district.)

        In many cases, we have also forgotten how (or failed) to make symphony orchestras and classical music seem relevant to contemporary audiences. (Which is another fantastic aspect of a “Nixon In China” or a “Dead Man Walking” — they are both stories that are relevant to contemporary audiences — in the first case, people are familiar with the real-life events, in the latter, they have seen the movie with Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon. It makes both these operas so much more accessible. And it opens people to being more accepting of an adventurous musical style that they might not otherwise embrace.)

        Anyway, we have so many endemic problems which are impacting . . . and in fact plaguing . . . the symphony orchestra world that we all love so passionately. Smart, balanced, adventurous, and inspiring programming is always key to filling the seats in our concert halls. But truly, with all the countless works of incredible repertoire we, as musicians, can draw on from the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, how can we blame contemporary composers for the state of our art today? Our problems go way deeper than that.

    • None of what you say is relevant to our situation.

      One of our problems is that our ticket prices are too low. Look at the SPCO website to understand.
      Our problem does not result as a lack of audience. On the contrary, our audience has grown 40% in the last five years, mostly by cutting ticket prices.
      Our financial problem is a result of a board with a small town mentality that excludes outside financial help, and chooses to do what is easiest, cut wages, over what is hardest, find wealthy sources of money. It is trying to finance the operation with contributions from the middle class, which has shrunk and gotten poorer.

      • Thanks for your thoughts here Tim, and for readers who may not know, Mr. Paradise is the SPCO principal clarinetist.

        Lower ticket prices is actually a good, and very necessary, move on the part of most orchestras, however, doing so without simultaneously finding replacement is a prescription for trouble in that the loss of earned income is typically greater than the vast majority of orchestras can absorb without resorting to long term budget cuts.

        This situation has been examined here at Adaptistration in a number of ticket price topic articles and it’s beginning to become clear that the SPCO may very well be the example that demonstrates this rule.

        What I’d hate to see is the otherwise very good idea of right-priced tickets fall victim to dynamic variables or lack of adequate revenue replacement efforts. That would be a real loss for the entire field.

      • Hello Drew,

        Thanks for your considered reply.

        As for finding replacement funds for any shortfall caused by lowered ticket prices, I have an observation to make.
        Our budget is about $10 million/year, which places us around 100th in size among the Twin Cities’ non profit organizations. It is not credible that this community cannot support the financial needs of a great orchestra like the SPCO.
        Another item meriting even more scrutiny is the fact that while management and the board claim to be unable to find $1.5 million for operations, they threw much energy toward helping to raise $57 million to be used for the construction of a new hall in the Ordway Center. Management and the board will argue that those funds would never have been given for operations, but the point is that management and board were motivated to seek such a large amount of money for bricks and mortar, and are not motivated to seek large amounts of money necessary to attract and maintain the talent level necessary to keep the artistic level of the SPCO at the top of the industry.
        The endowment is far too small, around $30 million, and we have been told by the temporary president that we indeed need to augment it… by one million dollars.
        Our Artistic Partners have communicated to management the disastrous artistic effects such radical cuts to our salary cuts will cause. Perhaps the management and board do not believe them, seeing us as easily replaceable, but there are many musically sophisticated listeners in our audience who will notice the decline in our presently subtle and sensitive playing standards when the best players leave the orchestra.

        Thanks for your time and energy,
        Tim Paradise

      • Thanks for the additional insight Tim and there’s little doubt that each of your points are worthy of examination but I’m not sure how I see that they are connected to the conclusion that ticket prices are too low.

        If I’m interpreting your recent remarks correctly, but correct me if I’m wrong, your view is that the SPCO has yet to maximize fundraising potential and is suffering from underfunded capital reserves as well as misdirecting current fundraising efforts. Although they seem applicable within the larger context of bargaining and stewardship they are mutually exclusive with regard to optimum ticket prices. Do you see my point?

        Nonetheless, I’m curious about the first sentence in your final paragraph. What source are you referencing when you wrote “Our Artistic Partners have communicated to management the disastrous artistic effects such radical cuts to our salary cuts will cause.”? I’m not aware of any statements from your Artistic Partners along those lines that have been made public so thanks in advance for posting a reference link. Otherwise, is this something you’re relaying second hand?

      • Dear Tim, I was not suggesting that shrinking audiences were the cause of the situation in which the SPCO currently finds itself. I was responding to a blanket condemnation, twice made by another poster, suggesting that contemporary composers are the root evil of all the ills of our industry (in general), that today’s orchestras offer “nothing,” that musicians hate playing contemporary works, and that audiences hate listening to them. Certainly not a true statement about the SPCO, nor of any other orchestra (or opera company) I know of. In regard to the need for orchestras to be more proactive in building and creating new audiences — again, a general response to the poster’s blanket assertion that contemporary music is the reason that (some) orchestras have a lot of empty seats in their concert halls. Again, it was not a specific observation about the SPCO.

  2. You mention the “enhanced musician involvement, increased flexibility in work rules, etc.” as part of SPCO’s new model that was hyped for much of the last decade. A major component of the new model was also community access. Under Sarah Lutman’s leadership, they dramatically lowered ticket prices to just three price points ($10, $25, $40) starting around 07/08 and have continued to experiment with initiatives like free tickets for first timers. The idea was audiences would increase, marketing costs would go down, and donors and foundations would make up any lost revenue. It looks like this worked the first few years, but I’m guessing the novelty has now worn off: cheap is what is expected, and patrons no longer feel as inspired to go above and beyond the ticket price. The article even mentions that musicians are calling for an increase in ticket prices – that strikes me as unique in orchestra labor negotiations.

    It will be interesting to see how this pans out. I greatly admire the SPCO’s committment to affordability and hope it can remain an example for the field, but I fear that the current situation may be in large part due to the revenue they’ve lost in the process.

    • thanks for bringing that topic up Brian as according to the Royce article, it’s part of what the musicians see as a problem in that they pushed for ticket price increases. We took a closer look at the SPCO reduced ticket price structure when it was relatively new back in 2007 but one of the points made in that post, and again in subsequent ticket price posts, is the need to bolster the lost earned income from these programs.

      I agree that they are entirely necessary but orchestras are only going to find hard times if they plan to subsidize the program through permanent budget cuts. Consequently, this is one part of the SPCO conflict that is particularly interesting to watch unfold.

  3. I find it fascinating, and quite ironic, that the SPCO was one of the first to implement the 21st century model, as initiated under the leadership of Bruce Coppock (who has been one of the most ardent proponents and put forward by the League of American Orchestras as the visionary of the 21 century model), is now struggling with the very issues that were supposedly finally laid to rest by the “solid and financially sound 21st century model” so that this point would not come to the SPCO and the many other orchestras around the country. How many times have musicians been told “Look! It’s working in Saint Paul! It works!” In fact, the 21st Century model has been touted over the past few years now as the only possible way to avoid this exact problem that the SPCO now finds itself confronting.

  4. Thanks for this post, Drew. First of all, I must clarify a few numbers that were not made clear in the Star-Trib. The management of the SPCO wants to cut $1.5 million from the musicians’ portion of the budget, which is approximately 35% of the contract. They have not budged from that number. Their proposal started at only 20 weeks of guaranteed work for 27 musicians, and 15 weeks for 7 musicians, with the possibility of being hired for “additional” weeks of work. They also wanted to take away tenure, and have the ability to dismiss whenever and whomever they wanted. There were also some ridiculous things in there, like a $500 fine for being late for a rehearsal, and possible discipline for not adhering to the dress code after 3 violations.
    Other facts not mentioned in this article were that we have taken concessions in 3 out of the 5 years of our current agreement. Over the past 10 years, we have given back over $2 million in salary to help them balance the budget, which has happened 17 out of the last 18 years. They have, in the past, bragged about their ability to balance the budget year after year, and have occasionally given the musicians some credit.
    As for the St Paul model, they also want make the musicians’ input on our committees for programming and personnel only advisory, and took out the indemnification language as well. Their mantra is “to keep the fixed costs in line with the sustainable revenue”.
    In the meantime, our ticket prices are down to the lowest of lows. Our neighborhood venues sell at $10, Ordway at $10, $25, and $40, and now they have started a new membership program. For $5 per month you can attend as many concerts as you want. They have cut marketing by $1 million to show net ticket revenue to be higher. Yes, we have excellent audiences now, but will there be an orchestra to be heard?

    • Thanks for the added details Leslie and readers should know that although it isn’t mentioned in your message, you are a violinist in the SPCO. Are you also an official musician spokesperson and/or a member of the negotiating committee?

      Could you also fill readers in on more details about the indemnification language you referenced?

      • I guess I should have explained myself before! I am a violinist in the SPCO, a member of the negotiating committee, and have been the ICSOM delegate since 2003.
        The indemnification language that I refered to is indemnification by the Society for all members of our joint labor/management committees from any and all liability, loss, costs, damage or expense arising from committee member’s discharge of their committee responsibilities. I guess the Society feels that if they make us only advisory, then this indemnification is no longer necessary.
        Also, I don’t believe it has been explained that our interim president, Dobby West, is also the Chair of our board.

      • Hi Drew,
        I’m not at liberty to discuss our proposal, but I can say that we proposed a freeze at our current level, which is already a concession from our current agreement. The cuts they are proposing would be about a 57%-67% cut, and would devastate this orchestra. It is not possible to live in the Twin Cities, buy and house and settle into our community with what was proposed.
        The SPCO management has been putting out negotiations updates to the board and musicians, not password protected. This was leaked to the Star-Trib, and that was their source for most of the information in that particular article. Naturally, it was leaked after our season ended and everyone has dispersed, making it difficult to respond properly.

      • That’s curious Leslie, do you mean the SPCO management was sending the same negotiation update to musicians as it did to board members? Likewise, what do you mean when you say everyone has dispersed, are you referring to the end of the season and some musicians and members of both negotiation teams are out for part of the summer?

      • Yes, the negotiations updates were sent to both the musicians and the board. We had not shared their exact proposal with the musicians, and sadly, everyone received the update during break time of a rehearsal with Thomas Zehetmair, who noticed everyone looking disturbed during the second half of the rehearsal. He responded by writing a passionate letter to our President, and later to the board expressing his distress over this mind boggling proposal.
        Yes, I mean that the musicians and negotiating committee are all over the place at festivals and vacations after the season has ended. People usually come and go throughout the summer.

  5. Much of the strategies being implemented by orchestra management and boards across the country stem from a specific set of presentations given at the 2010 League of American Orchestras annual conference in Atlanta. Russell Willis Taylor, president and CEO, National Arts Strategies, gave a major presentation at this conference that outlines the exact approach being taken by orchestra managers now. See the following Youtube video of her presentation.

    The mantra of “keep the fixed costs in line with the sustainable revenue” come directly from this presentation. This video should be must viewing for all negotiating committees regarding what they can and should expect for years to come. It has all of the talking points that were made towards the Detroit Symphony Musicians during their negotiations and which lead to the strike there.

    The League’s “Elephant” Task Force report at the 2009 Mid-Winter Managers Meeting had Bruce Coppock present key points that are now part of all orchestra’s negotiating approach. The irony contained within Mr. Coppock’s presentation in the context of SPCO is astounding.

    Lastly, Mr. Coppock’s presentation to the Board of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s annual general meeting in December of 2010 touting Ernest Fleischmann’s “the community of musicians” model as the best approach should leave no doubt as to where the current negotiating strategy is coming from.

    And Coppock’s article in Symphony Magazine (January – February 2008, pages 21 – 27) published by the League of American Orchestras essentially states that ticket prices are irrelevant, and therefore should be a low as possible, because people then donate and that is the real revenue for orchestras. In essence, give them a low priced concert, and get as many people in the door as possible, and then you get donations which pay the real bills. Under the Coppock philosophy you cannot raise ticket prices, because then the entire system would collapse. In fact he feels that this has been the real problem all along.

    At this point, anyone from the League of American Orchestras who says they have not fueled the flames of tension and distrust between musicians and their management and their boards on this is certainly not being honest with outsiders, but more importantly, they are not being honest with themselves.

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