Upcoming Stress Tests For Musician Governance

“Never let a good crisis go to waste” is one of those quotes that comes as a razor-sharp double-edged sword. It’s been crossing my mind as of late with regard to some of the larger challenges orchestra musicians are likely to face in Covid era negotiations.

First off, there are going to be no shortage of legitimate reasons why budgets will be stressed but history is full of examples where executive leaders were willing to use a crisis to settle old scores.

The next few years will see the initial round of scenarios that test union solidarity in the face of austerity driven bargaining.

To that end, here are a few that come to mind:

Equal Pay For Equal Work

  • Impacts salaried and per-service orchestras equally.
  • Low peer accountability.
  • Already exists in some form at most professional orchestras.

The issue of equal pay for equal work is one of the most frequently examined musician topics here at Adaptistration. The most common point of contact is substitute/extra musician pay and whether or not an orchestra pays those musicians the same rate as contracted musicians on a 1:1 service ratio.

If recent history is any indication, don’t be surprised to see some outcomes where contracted musicians assign greater pain to their substitute colleagues in the form of greater financial sacrifice.

Veteran Vs. Incoming Musician Disparities

  • More common at salaried musician orchestras.
  • Low degree of transparency makes it easy to mask inequity.
  • Can be applied to everything from pensions to seniority pay benefits.

This is an area where inequity can appear across a wide cross-section of contractual clauses. In 2019, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians accepted this inequity by forcing new-hires into a retirement program that provides markedly lower financial benefits.

But this can work its way through a collective bargaining agreement into lower dollar items such as seniority pay, which is where musicians receive an increase in weekly salary based on the number of years they’ve been with the orchestra. Inequity occurs when contracted musicians accept a system where existing musicians are paid a higher increase schedule than incoming musicians.

There are no requirements to inform incoming musicians about disparities so you can imagine how infrequently it happens in orchestras where inequities exist.

In the end, existing musicians must decide whether it is fair to ask incoming colleagues to have the same responsibilities but ultimately, earn less.

Are Music Librarians Musicians?

  • Becomes more relevant as budget sizes increase.
  • Decades of history as a bargaining flash point.

This is perhaps one of the longest running tug-of-war items in today’s list. You’ll find several articles here examining specific instances and the related positions musicians and employers take to justify their perspective.

What’s even more interesting is this is one of the few issues that employers routinely attempt to overturn, regardless how long the librarian may have been included as a musician in the collective bargaining agreement.

If you’re curious to learn more about this issue, don’t miss this guest author post from D. Wilson Ochoa, Boston Symphony Orchestra Principal Librarian.

Core Vs. Guaranteed Service Musician Status

  • More common at middle to higher budget per-service orchestras.
  • Existing pay disparity makes push-back even harder.
  • Negotiating committee composition impacts on outcome.

In order to understand this challenge, you’ll need to take a semi-deep dive into the nature of per-service musician employment structure. In this context a “service” constitutes a rehearsal or a performance and it isn’t uncommon for per-service orchestras to have tiers of musician employment classifications.

For example, a small group of musicians occupying principal seats in the strings and winds will typically comprise what is colloquially known as the “core.” These musicians are offered the highest number of guaranteed services each season and in some orchestras, may receive health care and other financial benefits. It’s not uncommon to see these musicians receive a higher number of guaranteed services. Less common, but still exists, are situations where these musicians have a higher per-service pay scale.

Past that, per-service orchestras can have any number of additional tiers, each with increasingly lower minimum service guarantees and/or per-service rates.

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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