It Looks Like A Deal, Smells Like A Deal, But…

It appears that the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) is going to pick up the shards of what’s left from the 2012/13 season. On 4/29/2013, the musicians ratified a new collective bargaining agreement but there continues to be very little love between stakeholders.

ITA-GUY-074The musicians came out swinging by paring the ratification announcement with a demand that the SPCO board to replace current president Dobson West and begin growing revenue.

[the musicians] called for the immediate commencement of a search for a new SPCO leader…to substantially increase revenues. […] If revenues are not significantly increased in the next three years, the artistic quality of this Orchestra will not be preserved.

The SPCO statement did not acknowledge any plans for leadership changes and focused on affirming austerity measures as the new operational normal for an undetermined period of time.

We believe this agreement will allow for the preservation of artistic quality while ensuring financial sustainability…The Musicians have agreed to take significant financial concessions as part of our organization-wide effort to align our expenses with our sustainable revenues. As an organization we are now well-positioned to be able to eliminate our accumulated deficit and balance our budget going forward.

Consequently, even though the group appears to have reached a deal, stakeholders are far from rallying behind a unified vision. In the meantime, concert activity resumes on 5/9/2013.

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 “It Looks Like A Deal, Smells Like A Deal, But…”

  1. It’s amazing to me how the outcomes of these strikes/lockouts are always the same:

    1)Management for the most part gets what it wants in the first place. After all, lockouts and strikes save huge amounts of money, sometimes even more than what was asked for originally.

    2)The orchestra members return to work hating management and each other.

    3)The musicians somehow think there is a “greater purpose” at taking a stand. That’s a nice story and tugs at the heartstrings, but it is and always will be about the dollars. The musician’s idealism and artistry destroys them in these situations. Management has no such idealism, nor will it ever.

    Look, all I’m saying is that this is a dying industry, in a dying culture. Squeeze out what little there is left and get on with your lives.

    Best of luck to all.

    • These are very bleak words, Jean-Paul. I’ve got to say, I’m guilty of feeling the same once in a while…but I don’t know that I would share the darkest and most grim outlook I can possibly come up with. Not when it comes to music. (Oh! Didn’t mean to tug at the ol’ heartstrings…)

    • 1) If the SPCO had accepted management’s first offer, or even the offer of a few months ago, pay cuts would have been more extreme, and would have included a two-tier salary for new and old players. There were a myriad of other issues, as well, that were modified over the course of the conflict.

      2) By all accounts there has been a culture of dysfunction behind the scenes at the SPCO for a long while, lockout or no lockout. (Same with the Minnesota Orchestra.) The lockout was a symptom, not necessarily a cause. (Although of course the lockout didn’t help.)

      3) See Number One. If the SPCO hadn’t fought, they would have been been in an even worse position than they are now. Their idealism and artistry hasn’t destroyed them. On the contrary. It has rallied an entire indignant arts community (Save Our SPCO is doing audience advocacy work). It saved the musicians’ morale from taking an even sharper nosedive. Hopefully it convinced others to stay in St. Paul instead of immediately seeking work elsewhere. And it also demonstrated to other orchestra managements in America that if they’re feeling itchy to provoke a strike or lockout this fall, they do so at their organization’s peril.

      • Thank you for this response. As someone that was on the negotiating committee, we tried very hard to maintain a decent salary level that would pass a vote, as well as stay clear of some of the managements’ draconian ideas regarding artistic control and work rules. I think we succeeded, for the most part.
        Your #2 is right on the mark. In 2004, there was a lot of press touting our new model of collaboration. This new model has not succeeded, and in fact, the atmosphere has never been more toxic. Even in 1993, when our board was ready to declare bankruptcy if we didn’t agree to become the pit orchestra for the Ordway, there was a sense of building things back up together. Now, there seems to be an effort by our management and board to maintain that things will never get better, period.
        It is up to the musicians, along side our audience, to hold out hope and work for a better future.

      • So the board has been “orchestrating” things for so much longer than I thought . . . . isn’t 1993 when MPR had a “radiothon” to raise lots of money for the SPCO in 24 hours (and succeeded)? That sort of audience involvement – and mgmt admission that help was needed – wasn’t permitted this time around.

      • MinnFiddler, what about the SPCO plan to maintain low ticket prices and perform in more neighborhood venues? Did that work out, or did it cut into operating revenue too much? What are the chances of that project continuing in some form?

      • MWnyc, We will always play in neighborhood venues, and always have since we do not own our own hall. We expanded this series to many areas in recent years. As far as the ticket prices go, the management maintains that this has helped increase our audience. They have also cut the marketing budget by $1million to achieve better net ticket revenue numbers. I don’t see this changing in the future. I only wish they had the foresight to obtain funding for such a program, as The Cleveland Orchestra has done. It doesn’t make sense to reduce ticket prices to this degree without some sort of sponsorship.

      • Hm. I had thought that, from what I (not all that clearly) remember, when SPCO management announced the new ticket pricing policy, they said that they had already funded it (at least initially). Am I misremembering, or did they say that?


    “Alongside that approval, musicians demanded that the SPCO immediately launch a search for a new leader, someone who has proven experience managing orchestras and more importantly, raising revenues. Dobson West said he has no objections to that.

    “This has always been an interim position for me, and I share the musicians’ goal of quickly finding a permanent president for the organization,” said West.

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