Negotiating Yourself Into A Corner

The recent Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) strike is an excellent example of something that demonstrates how much the work stoppage PR landscape has shifted over the past decade. For example, one of the strongest musician talking points is the deleterious impact concessions have on an orchestra’s ability to attract and retain the very best artistic talent.

Adaptistration People 100This was a cornerstone of the CSO musician position:

  • If the employer does away with the defined benefit pension plan, the CSO will no longer be competitive enough to attract musicians of equal or greater artistic standards.
  • If the employer does not maintain parity with base musician pay at the Los Angeles Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony, the CSO will no longer be competitive enough to attract musicians of equal or greater artistic standards.

These are very straightforward positions that tend to ring true across corporate and nonprofit fields alike: if a competing organization provides better pay, benefits, and working conditions, they’re more likely to hire the very best talent.

Having said that, that position only works as leverage if the either stakeholder has the will to follow through on quantifying the results.

Sucker Punched By Ego

This is where musicians have yet to step up to the challenge. In situations like the CSO settlement where the musicians accepted nearly all the employer’s concessions, they are now able to verify whether those warnings were a bluff or rooted in practical concern.

Unfortunately for the musicians, the only way to confirm or refute is to quantify the results.

That means making serious attempts to measure the artistic quality of incoming musicians and compare with existing benchmarks.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the problem is musicians are loath to acknowledge they are somehow less than before (what professional is?).

Since the economic downturn, there are multiple instances where musicians were ultimately maneuvered into concessions but warned doing so would have a negative impact on artistic quality. But how many instances can you think of where those same musicians measured the outcome and shared those results publicly?

Atlanta, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh are among some of the larger budget orchestras since the downturn that absorbed concessionary agreements. But I’m unaware of efforts by musicians at any of those orchestras to quantify the impact (if anyone has evidence to the contrary, I’d love to hear about it).

Granted, these are enormously sensitive issues and it wouldn’t be fair to anyone involved if this wasn’t acknowledged.

No professional musician relishes the opportunity to quantify reduced artistic quality under the scrutiny of public transparency.

At the same time, failing to do exactly that makes it easier for an employer to brush aside concerns that concessions produce degraded artistic excellence and therefore degraded revenue and community support.

Nothing Ahead But The Path You Choose

I remember a mentor from my high school days who had a reputation of being very frank with students. When faced with the reality of an unpleasant task, he was fond of saying “the only way to eat a sh*t sandwich is one bite at a time.”

Granted, not the most appetizing of culinary metaphors, but it sure does get the point across.

Musicians on the business end of concessions are now staring at that same dish. Either begin measuring artistic quality of incoming musicians along with getting existing key musicians poached by peers with better conditions or lose one of the strongest moral high grounds you can occupy.

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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