Three Things To Watch In Nashville

Over the weekend, news reports from Nashville indicate a deal between the Nashville Symphony Orchestra (NSO) and Bank of America (BoA) may be announced as early as today. Multiple sources claim long time NSO supporter Martha Ingram maybe the new variable in the equation, nonetheless, here are three things crucial to the NSO’s potential success you need to keep an eye on.

1) Managing Debt

ADAPTISTRATION-GUY-126Making the decision to address financial problems by focusing on settling bank debt before engaging in labor negotiations is a bold strategic move that distinguishes the NSO from peers such as Atlanta, Detroit, Indianapolis, Minnesota, Philadelphia, and St. Paul.

The latter groups all made national headlines by engaging in public and bitter disputes with musician employees over instituting severe austerity measures. One key theme among many of those employers was the need to achieve a sharply concessionary agreement as a prerequisite for settling outstanding debt.

The result for most of these orchestras was a prolonged work stoppage, degraded artistic accomplishment, and embittered work environments. The NSO board is bucking national trends by playing a firm public hand with banks rather than using that debt as negotiation leverage.

Update 2:34pm ET: NSO reaches deal with BoA for a new mortgage from more than $80 million down to $20 million. details

2) Reaching A Labor Deal

On 6/20/2013 the NSO and its musicians issued press statements indicating both sides have agreed to a media blackout while negotiations are under way. This is likely the best decision as it allows both sides to engage in bargaining without undue influence from outside sources.

At the same time, this negotiation is just as crucial to the organization’s immediate future as settling the bank debt. If either employer or employees lose sight of using the negotiations to develop a unified institutional vision and instead engage in traditional brinkmanship, any bank deal could be for naught.

3) Make Everything Work

If the NSO managed to accomplish #1 and #2 then the final step is making everything work; meaning, the administration will have more pressure than ever to reach earned revenue and attendance goals, the board will need to step up accomplishments in contributed revenue, and artistic employees will need to amplify commitment and effectiveness.

The NSO will need to bring all of these efforts together using fewer resources while simultaneously remaining relevant to their community all without sacrificing hard fought artistic gains since the Schermerhorn Symphony Center opened. Unsurprisingly, it won’t be an easy path, but it is far from impossible for any institution unified behind a vision with shared risk and mutual goals.


The NSO is in a very unique position right now in that they could emerge from these trials as a representative example that poisoned labor relations and artistic decline hidden behind press statements that project faux accomplishments aren’t the predetermined outcomes of financial distress.

Ultimately, the NSO board and musicians will need to be particularly mindful to keep antagonistic, fringe elements from becoming the dominant voices in the upcoming discussions. Tact, transparency, and yes, even mutual deference are necessary qualities in order to emerge as the field’s leading example for how to manage great recession era challenges without simultaneously hobbling the institution.

For more on my views on the NSO situation as related to the issues above, check out an article by John Pitcher in the 6/20/2013 of the Nashville Scene, this article by Jamie McGee in the 6/10/13 edition of the Nashville Business Journal, and this article by Travis Loller in the 3/29/2013 Associated Press.

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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