Measuring Artistic Quality In The Wake Of Contentious Labor Disputes

The 7/13/2019 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published an article by Jeremy Reynolds that examines what I consider to be one of the most pressing topics of our time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it also happens to be one of the rare third rail topics shared by executive leadership and musicians: measuring artistic quality in the wake of contentious labor disputes that end in concessions.

Here’s how those situations unfold:

  • Employer proposes dramatic concessions.
  • Musicians warn said concessions will have a negative impact on artistic excellence and impair the orchestra’s ability to attract and retain talent.
  • Musicians cave and most, if not all, concessions become the new normal.
  • Both sides continue as though nothing happened and pretend the orchestra’s artistic standing is unchanged.

It’s Time To Talk About The Orchestra Caste System

Among the more damaging characteristics among both musician and executive stakeholders is what I like to call the orchestra caste system. It’s exactly what it sounds like: those who earn less and work in organizations with smaller budgets must defer to those who earn more or work at larger budget groups because the latter are “better” than the former.

The caste system is practically palpable at something like a League conference where executives congregate with colleagues in their peer budget groups.

For musicians, it isn’t quite as overt, but it is every bit as rigid and tends to emerge during work stoppages. For example, if musicians from an orchestra like Minnesota are on strike or locked out, it is assumed they have carte blanche when it comes to offers of substitute work at a smaller budget orchestra, like Grand Rapids. They won’t be expected to go through any formal substitute hiring process and existing subs will get booted in order to make room.

But if the situation were reversed, you’re far less likely to see a group at the level of Minnesota extending the same degree of latitude. Instead, you’ll see positive thoughts and well-wishes and by the way, we have this substitute hiring policy and you’ll to go through that before we can offer you any work.

While there’s no clear budget threshold where this double standard engages, it’s important to point out that it is certainly not applicable to every individual musician. At the same time, it’s impossible to miss the group patterns.

Dynamic Consequences

Ultimately, it’s the orchestra case system syndrome that works against musicians who find themselves at the end of accepting concessions they warned would degrade artistic quality.

Ego is a bitch. It’s tough to let go of status and as a result, musicians at destination orchestras find it difficult to resist the temptation of turning a blind eye to their own warnings.

Simply put, pride and ego stand in the way of engaging a meaningful process to measure the impact concessions have on artistic output. You can begin to catch glimpses of this inside Reynolds’ article.

“There have definitely been some auditions post-strike which noticeably fewer candidates attended than in the past,” said Steve Kostyniak, PSO horn player and current chair of the orchestra committee. “But there have only been about a half dozen auditions in the past three years and with such a small sample I can’t necessarily translate correlation into causation.”

When asked for more updated, specific information, the PSO said that it does not calculate audition averages due to the multitude of qualities and factors that attract musicians. Such factors that might influence audition turnout range from which position is open, as different instruments and types of jobs (i.e., a principal job vs. a section job) attract different numbers of applications; when the audition is scheduled; what repertoire the applicants are required to prepare; whether other orchestras have auditions scheduled for the same weekend; perceptions of the stability of the orchestra and relationships between the musicians and music director and the administration and board.

Certainly, there are a multitude of factors that influence an audition candidate’s decision to apply. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible, or even difficult, to measure them.

I have yet to encounter a professional orchestra that conducts a post-audition survey to measure these factors. It wouldn’t be terribly difficult to cross tabulate that with other quantifiable data-points such as the number who attend along with the number of overall applications, ratio of those accepted to audition, number of those who decided to attend, etc.

Given that this has always been one of the musicians’ stronger talking points during labor disputes, it seems reasonable to assume they would be most keen to measure the impact.

Unfortunately, that has yet to transpire.

Consequently, this failure to quantify their position in favor of asserting no change to their position in the orchestra caste system means they simultaneously undermine one of their most valuable of points.

Look at it from the employer’s perspective:

  • Musicians complain artistic standards will fall if they accept concessions.
  • Musicians ultimately accept concessions.
  • There is no change in how they perceive their position or artistic standing.
  • Conclusion: the musicians are full of it so we can go ahead and ignore their warnings knowing they’ll do the same thing whenever we need to shove more concessions down their gullet.

Based on my interaction with musicians at orchestras that have absorbed concessions, most do recognize artistic degradation. At their core, most musicians know when they underperform, and they beat themselves up over it. They also tend to be very articulate when putting their finger on quantifiable reasons why they feel artistic standards and output have started to slip.

But they do so in private. I have yet to encounter a musician, who is not retired, willing to go on record with their unvarnished observations.

From the executive leadership’s perspective, it should come as no surprise that there’s absolutely no interest in quantifying these concerns. Doing so would only serve to potentially undermine their position that concessions will have no impact on artistic excellence.

You can see this attitude on display from Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s (PSO) CEO, Melia Tourangeau, who took issue with the very concept that concessions may impact the orchestra’s artistic standing.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Tourangeau confirmed the PSO isn’t doing anything to confirm or disprove the question. Instead, she was more interested in attempting to spin any decrease in audition candidates as though the PSO’s high artistic standards were scaring otherwise unsuitable candidates away.

When asked for more updated, specific information, the PSO said that it does not calculate audition averages due to the multitude of qualities and factors that attract musicians…”Maybe people aren’t coming because Pittsburgh has really high standards and they want to go for where they’re going to have the best shot,” Ms. Tourangeau said. “I don’t know how you can draw a conclusion.”

Fortunately, you can draw those conclusions with relatively little effort. All it takes is a willingness to engage in a straightforward survey process of audition candidates and invitees like the one outlined above.

You can bolster that data with comparing it with ticket and unearned revenue. While Tourangeau was quick to mention the PSO was meeting or exceeding their post work stoppage revenue goals, there was no mention about how those goals compared to pre work stoppage levels. You can see where this makes it that much more difficult to draw the sorts of conclusions Tourangeau suggests.

In the end, this is exactly the sort of conundrum data nerds love to solve. But it’s only possible is both stakeholder groups are willing to participate. As of now, that has yet to transpire but I do hold out hope that change is in the wind.

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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