Why The “If You Aren’t Playing, We Aren’t Paying” Rationale Just Doesn’t Work

As coronavirus shutdowns continue, we’re seeing some genuinely positive interaction between employers and musician employees working toward mutually agreeable solutions to the sensitive issue of payroll.

Outside of those scenarios, I’m seeing one of the most derogatory old-school stereotypes emerge as justification for cancelling musician pay entirely: musicians only work 20 hours per week.

This twisted notion assumes that musicians are only paid for the time they are on stage rehearsing or performing and all the time spent maintaining skills and practicing doesn’t factor into the equation.

Even though this has been debunked for decades, we’re starting to see the same harmful perspective creep into reasons provided for cutting off musician employee pay during shut downs while other options exist.

One of the more notable instances came from Kennedy Center president, Deborah Rutter, when defending her decision to shut down pay with one week notice. That was coupled with announcing that health insurance coverage would be cancelled a month later, during what is expected to be around the outbreak’s peak.

“Without concerts and the corresponding ticket revenue, it is an unsustainable strategy to pay musicians to stay at home during this forced and still undefined quarantine period.”

The message is clear: if you aren’t playing revenue generating concerts, you have no value; endowment, debt restructuring, and government bail-out resources be damned. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the National Symphony Orchestra musicians are filing a grievance and an already stressful situation will go from bad to worse without the employer changing direction.

What’s really disappointing here is the lost opportunity to be genuinely creative with solutions.

If there were ever a time to ask for and receive flexibility to engage in activity that would otherwise run afoul of collective bargaining agreement restrictions, it’s now.

Yes, stakeholders need to share the pain equally during this period of extreme hardship. But to say there is no value to be found in finding ways to get musicians and administrators working remotely to engage patrons and fulfill mission driven objectives is remarkably shortsighted.

Make no mistake, times are dire. To be blunt, money will run out for groups the longer coronavirus closures continue. When it does, difficult choices are made. But shuttering an institution and tossing stakeholders out without even finding a way to extend health care benefits during a pandemic is a stunning display of myopic leadership.

We’ll be taking a closer look at the Kennedy Center’s situation soon. In the meantime, let’s take a step back from ugly rationale rooted in the very worst stereotypes.

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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