Things Are Getting Tense In Baltimore

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s (BSO) collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with its musicians expired September 9, 2018 and it appears things are headed in a dark direction as negotiations have official gone public in the form of two musician press releases from 10/29/18 and 11/01/18*.

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The latter press release contained the musicians’ summary of the employer’s current offer:

  • Reduction in weeks from 52 to 40.
  • 17 percent deduction in salary.
  • An undefined reduction in non-salary financial items.

I’m not one to get hung up on the 52-week status symbol. Simply put, is an orchestra musician who earns $65,000/year in a 50-week orchestra somehow less valuable than one earning the same amount in a 52-week ensemble? It’s certainly a slippery slope.

Having said that, a cut from 52 down to 40 weeks is a substantial concession and one that undoubtedly moves an ensemble into a lower tier. There are no two ways about it, a 12-week reduction is a profound cut.

The musician press release contains one more fuzzy item in the form of orchestra complement.

No other major US orchestra has as few as 75, or 77, or 83 full-time members. Not one.

First, it would help to know exactly how they define major vs. non-major orchestra status (see the slippery slope discussion above). Is it only the 52-week threshold? Regardless, we don’t have to wallow about in nebulous status symbol definitions when the firm foothold of empirical analysis is available for musician complements (both CBA required and actual employed).

For the 2017/18 season, the following orchestras had minimum musician complements within that 75-83 range:

  • San Diego Symphony: 82 musicians required by CBA, 42-week season
  • Indianapolis Symphony: 76 musicians required by CBA, 42-week season
  • Dallas Symphony: 82 musicians required by CBA (82 employed), 52-week season

Groups just outside of that complement threshold include:

  • Houston Symphony: 84 musicians required by CBA (88 employed), 52-week season
  • Detroit Symphony: 85 musicians required by CBA (79 employed), 42-week season
  • Milwaukee Symphony: 81 musicians required by CBA (68 employed), 40-week season

I’m not even going to think of wading into the waters of comparing those groups based on artistic excellence to determine major vs. non-major status. Wiser professionals than I have made attempts only to never be heard from again.

Consequently, I’m not entirely certain the musicians are leading with their best foot forward when making that claim about musician complements without some quantifiable parameters to define major orchestra status.

At the same time, their press statement does an excellent job at focusing on what we’ve found at the heart of numerous contemporary labor disputes: a lack of financial transparency.

For those with long memories, you probably recall the BSO’s dubious decision in 2004 to sell its largest asset, Meyerhoff Hall, to what at the time was a shadowy nonprofit subsidiary to the tune of $30mm.The deal also included transferring control over the BSO’s endowment to the same nonprofit subsidiary.

At the very least, it seems clear that the BSO, its stakeholders, and supporters would benefit from a comprehensive and independent examination of financial records along the lines of what transpired at the Metropolitan Opera in 2014 more details).

Regardless how things develop, that would go a long way toward understanding motivations and arriving at the best possible outcomes.

*Sorry, at the time this article was published, the musicians haven’t made a version of the press release available online.

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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