The Conductor Who Knew Too Much

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post examining the music director’s role in determining a musician’s overscale, a few readers reached out pushing about my “the stories I could tell” remark. After giving it some thought, there is one anecdote worth sharing.

In this instance, I’m comfortable sharing the experience because everyone else directly involved is either out of the business, long retired, or passed away.

Adaptistration People 211I was hired by a principal musician to help negotiate a change in his overscale amount. At the time, he was recently offered a one-year position at a peer orchestra that had designs to hire him away. These orchestras routinely competed for musicians and the musician knew he would be happy in either ensemble, so he decided to parlay that into some leverage to see about obtaining enough of an overscale bump to make him decline the other orchestra’s offer.

The musician was well liked by the music director, didn’t serve on committees, and wasn’t known for rocking the boat with colleagues.

Nonetheless, he was growing increasingly frustrated in his position because he was turned down out of hand during his two previous attempts at increasing his overscale.

Sure enough, the employer was pushing back against his current efforts, even with the added pressure of the one-year offer.

During his previous attempts, the musician left the music director out of the process, but I presented his options and highlighted the value of approaching the music director directly because at this point, he had nothing to lose and everything to gain in the ask.

He ended up scheduling a meeting with the music director that weekend.

After explaining the situation, he said the music director just looked at him silently with a puzzled, yet wary, look on his face.

Eventually, the music director explained his discomfort was because he already went to the CEO each year to tell him which musicians should receive bonuses and the he was always toward the top of his list.

Clearly, this was a surprise to the musician and the situation devolved into a bad sit-com from there.

I’ll spare you the development and jump right to the third act:

  • The music director did, in fact, give the CEO a list of musicians he felt deserved bonuses because…wait for it…that’s what the CEO told him was part of his duties and responsibilities.
  • It turns out the CEO stuck the list in his circular file each year but let the music director believe he was instrumental in determining musician “bonuses” (don’t even get me started on everything wrong with that concept inside a unionized environment).

Clearly, the music director was…displeased. A minor power struggle ensued with neither CEO nor music director ending up in different positions. The only real change was the music director ended up being removed from overscale process entirely.

The Moral Of The Story

I was friendly with the CEO and after his retirement asked him about the situation. He admitted the “bonus” list idea was his, but it was designed as what he described as “music director busy work.” Over time, he discovered it also made the music director think he had far more influence over musician overscale than existed.

This goes a long way toward illustrating the amount of control a CEO has on not only internal culture but framing stakeholder frame of reference.

Both the musician and the music director were certain their experiences provided an accurate representation of how the process worked at other orchestras. Once that reality was shattered, all that was left in the debris was apathy.

In the end, the musician took the one-year and received a job offer for a permanent position with the orchestra.

While the overscale negotiation with the new employer wasn’t easy, he ended up with an offer that exceeded his minimum threshold for leaving the old position.

To help reach that point, he made sure to curry the music director’s favor and secure his support before even engaging in negotiations.

All it takes to avoid this sort of nonsense is a for the field to pursue a policy of universally accepted compensation standards and practices that includes routine training for music directors.

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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