The Cost Of Excessive Workloads

In March, 2021 the field was starting to emerge from the pandemic to live performing and I launched a poll asking musicians about their concerns over physical, emotional, and psychological risks related to returning to work.

At the time, musicians were concerned about both at nearly equal rates. While the exercise was somewhat academic then, we have nearly a year of quantitative data pointing to the conclusion that these were more than just concerns. It’s grown to such a level that it caught the attention of the San Francisco Classical Voice, which published an article on 8/8/2022 by Jim Farber that takes a deep dive into the topic.

The article frames the discussion with input from LA Phil violist Meredith Snow, who has also been the chairperson for the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) for that past six years. Snow talks about the workload at the LA Phil since returning from the pandemic and the impact it has on musicians.

“The performance schedule over the last few months of the season was crazy. I don’t necessarily think they [management] have an understanding of the effort that goes into performing that much.”

Snow goes on to confirm that the musicians are seeking clarity in contract language that protects their health by limiting the amount of work that pushes musicians past the point of reasonable safety.

“The contract clause that Snow (and players in other orchestras) are lobbying for would codify the number of weeks over the course of a season when the orchestra can be required to play multiple programs and would mandate that those weeks not be consecutive.”

Interestingly enough, the article notes that these musician concerns failed to garner much attention at last June’s League of American Orchestras conference in Los Angeles

“The major themes that recurred throughout the conference (and at the bar), [League president and CEO Simon] Woods observed, concerned equity, diversity, and inclusion; the challenge of plotting a course through an uncertain future; the role of analytics in marketing strategies; and the financial reality of a 15–25 percent drop in tickets sales and subscriptions. Addressing the needs of musicians was not an agenda item.”

I am grateful for the opportunity to offer my input for the article and regular readers will see many of the same points we examine here on a regular basis. I was especially happy to see the article examine the way current work loads are impacting musicians, but staff and administrators as well. Here’s what I contributed to that subject:

“‘Don’t forget that cutbacks in staff during the pandemic left staff members that remained being asked to work much harder and accomplish more tasks than they ever have before. Unlike musicians, organizations that laid off staff are discovering they may not be able to hire those people back because they found better, higher-paying jobs and they’re happier. Organizations are finding themselves trying to hire unicorns on a goat budget.’

Staffing cuts anticipate musicians’ contract negotiations, McManus said, ‘like the canaries in the coal mine. It lets you know how labor relations are going to go. The harder a board and the executive leadership pushes the musicians, the more tired and angry, the more hurt they’re going to feel. That is not going to create a terribly receptive environment for negotiations. Everything becomes adversarial, as opposed to interest-based bargaining.'”

Read the full article:

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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