Time To Stir The Pot

Today may only be Tuesday but it’s already been an eventful week. We had a second lockout in one city, an imposed contract, and <gasp> a three year agreement that contains nothing but (albeit) mild increases. Oh, and an official contract extension through January 2013 (it’s like a super sized play and talk).

Apparently, It’s Orchestra Season In Minneapolis

Apparently, It's Orchestra Season In MinneapolisAlthough the field has seen it coming for weeks, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) officially locked out their musicians making them the second major orchestra in the same metropolitan area to initiate a lockout. The other group is the Minnesota Orchestra, which has been locked out since 10/1/2012.

A statement from Carole Mason Smith, Chair of the Musicians of the St Paul Chamber Orchestra Negotiating Committee and SPCO bassoonist, dated 10/21/12 asserts that the musicians have refused to vote on management’s latest offer because of the association’s unwillingness to provide requested financial records.

Similarly, the SPCO published an undated statement confirming that concerts through 11/4/2012 have been cancelled. The association asserts that the decision to suspend operations after 10 months of negotiating is the result of continuing to pay musicians at the rate of their expired contract was ” exacerbating what is already a very serious financial situation.” There was no mention about the organization’s current cash flow.

Washington State’s Swing And A Miss

Washington State's Swing And A MissIn Spokane, WA the Spokane Symphony Orchestra (SSO) imposed its last, best, and final offer following the musicians’ rejection during an official ratification meeting. There is still no local traditional press coverage so current information is made available from association and musician sources.

As a result, and perhaps unsurprisingly, details are murky; nonetheless, the SSO published a letter from Peter Moye, Spokane Symphony Society Board of Trustees President, laying out the association’s position. Interestingly enough, Mr. Moye includes a personal invitation for concerned parties to get in touch at 509-624-2100, his business telephone number.

The musicians released a statement on 10/18/2012 but nothing official since the association decided to impose the current contract. In response to having the agreement imposed, a wall post at their Facebook page states they “intend to challenge it, but the appeals process is involved and cumbersome.” Beyond that, they intend to continue reporting for work under the imposed terms.

Zombieland 2: Tell Us How You Really Feel

Zombieland 2: Tell Us How You Really FeelThe Huffington Post published a scathing opinion piece written by David Beam that accuses the League of American Orchestras with being what is perhaps best described as an accessory to a series of very long term orchestra murders.

These are heady times for the League of American Orchestras (LAO) and their ilk. True, their suits have grown a tad more maggot-ridden since their early ASOL days. But churning out full-throated, industry-consuming zombie administrators has proven decidedly lucrative. Plus, it provides for quality time with the family at supper, namely because supper is the family.


Detroit is a notable beneficiary, for instance. Its Executive Director Anne Parsons was among the League’s first class of fellows, and we’ve all seen how much that organization has benefited under her steady, decaying hand.

Beam concludes by echoing sentiments expressed recently by International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) chair Brue Ridge in that if there indeed is an orchestra crisis, it is one of management.

Quick, get Robert Levine a fainting couch, stat!

And The Rest

Let’s leave things on a positive note with one “good news” and one from the “not as bad as it could be” category. The Sarasota Orchestra announced it reached a three year agreement (plus one additional retroactive year) with musicians that provides for very modest increases in each year; a one and a half percent increase in base compensation in year one and one percent each additional year. Both stakeholders offered up sunny language for the 10/22/12 edition of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in an article by Susan Rife.

In Seattle, the musicians’ recent strike authorization vote apparently garnered some attention as shortly thereafter, stakeholders announced an official extension of the current agreement through 1/31/2012.

Oh, and I almost forgot: Oregon Symphony announced it decided to drop out of May’s Spring for Music festival.

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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11 thoughts on “Time To Stir The Pot”

  1. Drew, it should be noted that the Musicians’ committee offered to play and talk at whatever rate would be affordable to the Society if they allowed our current agreement to stay in effect instead of implementing their 2nd proposal, as they had suggested for conditions to play and talk. When they refused our offer, it made it clear to us that this is not just about the money, but about taking protections and control entirely away from the musicians.

    Leslie Shank, St Paul Chamber Orchestra violinist and negotiating committee member

    • This point by Ms. Shank hits the nail on the head as to what is behind the rampant strife in the orchestra world. Detroit musicians made a counteroffer that was very close to what their management was demanding, and it was flatly rejected. 20 Board members in Denver walked away after their musicians AGREED to give up more money after having just signed a three-year deal. The money is just the periphery issue. The real issue, as seen with recent tactics in Atlanta and now in the Twin Cities, is to beat the musicians into submission. If this isn’t the real issue, then why have/are so many orchestras (and many yet to come) going through the same thing? Apparently the LAO Kool-Aid alters the mind to think “negotiate” erroneously means “impose.”

  2. Thanks for that info Leslie. I was wondering if some type of offer was made and rejected because, from the outside looking in, it seemed to jump from negotiations to lockout pretty directly. As for the SPCO not voting due to not having requested financials, boards/owners don’t usually supply the union workers (musicians or otherwise) with company financials for negotiations. If they do it’s a courtesy and often because management wishes to show things are a SEVERE mess and management hopes, by supplying them, advisors to the workers will help convince them things are as dire as management thinks they are. So if they supply them it can be a red flag that things are really in trouble, or at least the current board is out of answers. Best of luck as things move forward.

    • Hi Chad, The information we requested was simply how much savings they project with their current proposal. This will inform the musicians as to the validity of their proposal and it’s effect on our bottom line. We also didn’t vote on October 21st due to the fact that the previous week was a dark week, and most of the orchestra was out of town getting work elsewhere. Our management was fully aware of this, but does not have the patience for our bylaws that require a quorum and no proxies to allow for discussion.

      Leslie Shank, St Paul Chamber Orchestra

      • Hi Leslie, Thanks for the added information/clarification on this. Again all best to you and the SPCO as it works through this and hopefully finds a workable scenario that’s amenable to all involved.

  3. Drew,

    Thanks for your chronicling of these events, Drew. Sadly, another for you: Orchestra Nova (formerly San Diego Chamber Orchestra), after months of negotiations, has cancelled the first concerts, had the MD resign, and face a very uncertain future. Two articles of the most recent days:



    Sorry to add to the list. I was a founding member of this orchestra and performed for the first 12 years. An important facet of the local music scene, now an (apparent) victim of short-sighted management and conductorial hubris. Sad.

    Have long enjoyed your writing, pointed out to me back in the early days by Kyle Gann. Thanks again!

    Jon Szanto

  4. As a member of the world of orchestra management, I have such a hard time reading stories like this and comments by so many wonderful musicians that lay blame solely in the management hands. I would say the same of management that lays blame solely in the hands of the musicians. How long will it take everyone in our industry to realize that, in fact, we are all on the same side.

    Musicians and management alike work very hard to keep the art form vibrant and relevant in today’s society, and many wonderful things are happening in the industry. As with any industry, some organizations are going to close – are going to fail. Some are managed poorly, some are trying to maintain an artistic standard that is simply not demanded by the audience base, and may therefor be unsupportable by the market. Organizations must adjust to survive – and that adjustment comes on all sides.

    It is just so sad, and so difficult, to watch us come to each others throats. It certainly doesn’t help our communities want to support us. Many of these disputes, and many of the comments that I have read on various blogs and news outlets make me want to leave the industry all together. If we can’t agree that something must be done – and that we are going to all have to work together to get it done – our organizations do not deserve to survive.

    Musicians are not equipped (generally speaking, and yes, I know that there are exceptions) to run a business. And, certainly, if they want to maintain their quality of life and practice time, they do not have time to run a business. And likewise, management has nothing to run if we don’t have a great orchestra offering a worthwhile artistic product. Most of us in this line chose not to pursue being a professional musician, and so are not going to take up our instruments and do it.

    Thus – let’s be friends, or at least partners, and work together to find way for orchestral music to thrive in our society – where news is about incredible and exciting new projects, and not about strikes and lockouts, and bitter cutting statements about one another.

    • Your words raise great points in a difficult time; thank you. If only “work[ing] together to find [a] way for orchestral music to thrive in our society” was feasible in today’s bitter climate. If you look at every orchestra that has experienced strife in the past two years, you will see imposition of management/Board demands, not true negotiation in the spirit of “working together,” at the core. In addition, “working together” means management will have to put its proverbial money where its mouth is and accept the same big cuts it wants from musicians. If the situation is that dire, then everyone needs to be feeling the pain, not just “the product.”

      • I agree with Eric, that top management should be taking the same types of pay cuts that it is asking the musicians to take. That only makes sense. As a small business owner, that has always been my philosophy.

        However, I see a problem in middle management or staff being not paid enough to retain good talent. As a donor, the people that I deal with in orchestra management are hard working and committed, and seriously underpaid. Additionally, the only way for them to move up is by moving on.

        In my view it would be better for the organization if these people stayed and built solid ties to the donor base and the community.

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