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The Autumn of Our Discontent:
Orchestral Musicians and the Crisis in Arts Management
Bruce Ridge, Chairman
International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM)

On September 24 in Seattle, inexperienced replacement workers finally seemed to capture America's attention. With the referees of the National Football League locked out by a League of millionaire owners, a series of nationally televised blunders came to a head when the replacement officials essentially handed a victory to the Seattle Seahawks over the Green Bay Packers in what many observers consider a blown call of epic proportions.

Twitter was flooded with outrage. The NFL players cursed the unskilled, non-union officials, and even anti-union political figures expressed their outrage at the situation, in effect supporting the locked out referees of the NFL Referee Association. With such pressure in support of the excellence of the locked-out officials, it came as no surprise that within 48 hours a deal to end the lockout was reached, with the referees holding on to their pension for the term of the agreement.

If Americans are outraged to see inexperienced, non-union workers damage their spectator sporting events, you think they might care more about how the future of the country would be affected by having an unskilled, non-union labor force teaching our children or serving our communities through public and private sector jobs.

It is wonderful that politicians are Green Bay Packers fans, but one can only imagine the influence they could have for American families if they were also greater fans of teachers, public and private workers, artists, and musicians.

Lockouts and Silence
For the American worker, it is the autumn of our discontent. The musicians of America's symphony orchestras are facing the same difficulties of other workers in a climate that mirrors the greater socio-economic environment of the country. America's orchestras are non-profit organizations, but just as in the for-profit world, executive compensation rises as worker pay decreases.

Managements of symphony orchestras are also following the pattern of the for-profit world, becoming more aggressive in negotiations and resorting more frequently to lockouts. Just this fall, the musicians of the Atlanta Symphony, the Indianapolis Symphony, and the Minnesota Orchestra have been locked out by their managements, and their communities have been deprived of music. Even more orchestra lockouts potentially await. As the New York Times reported this year "America's unionized workers, buffeted by layoffs and stagnating wages, face another phenomenon that is increasingly throwing them on the defensive: lockouts."

We live in a time when labor is under attack. As Robert Reich has written, the median male worker earns less today (when adjusted for inflation) than 30 years ago, and as a result the working class that made America great struggles. In the 1970's, the wealthiest 1% of Americans took in about 9% of the nation's income. Today, that same 1% absorbs over 23% of the nation's income.

The economics for symphony orchestras are even more complex, as orchestras depend on the philanthropic nature of America's citizens, and as wealth becomes more centralized, organizations need to have a message that inspires those with wealth to donate to, and invest in, artistic institutions. The reasons to be articulated for the continued support of our orchestras are compelling.

The Arts and the Economy
Purely from an economic standpoint, the arts are good business. According to Americans for the Arts, the non-profit arts and culture industry accounts for over $135 billion in economic activity every year, and leads to over 4 million full-time jobs for Americans. In many of our cities, symphony orchestras (along with opera and ballet) are the most prominent performing arts organization, and the most visible ambassadors for the community.

City governments and business leaders are quick to invest in performing arts centers, recognizing that when symphony concerts take place, business occurs downtown. Restaurants have waiting lists, cab drivers work, parking lots are full, and post-concert cafes and bars are filled with arts attendees. Everyone benefits, even if they might never attend a concert themselves.

But it makes no sense to invest in buildings without preserving the institutions that live there. In Minneapolis, the management of the Minnesota Orchestra is proposing a $40,000 pay cut per musician even as they spend over $50 million in renovating the lobby of their concert hall.

The impact of music on education has never been disputed, even by those who have no desire to fund such programs. The musicians of America's orchestras spend countless hours each day with the next generation of Americans, giving them tools that multiple studies demonstrate will enhance their cognitive ability and even their health well into their seventies.

While the recession has had an impact on all Americans, and certainly on philanthropic giving, the story to be told is not that some orchestras have suffered, but rather that so many have done so well. Numerous orchestras are seeing increases in donations, ticket sales, and attendance. An article about the St. Louis Symphony recently proclaimed that it had just experienced its best year in a decade.

The Resiliency of Orchestras
In fact, arts giving is recovering from the depths of the recession at twice the rate of other charitable giving, and according to Giving USA, arts giving in America increased last year by 4.1%, to a total of $13.12 billion. The presence of orchestras in our communities is financially beneficial. A recent report demonstrated that the Buffalo Philharmonic has an economic impact of $25 million annually in the city of Buffalo, while a 2008 study showed that the Boston Symphony alone has an impact of $166 million in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

But these are not the facts being told in the press, where the media seeks to portray a handful of orchestra bankruptcies as evidence of spreading failure for the art form. It just isn't true. Many of the challenges to the progress made by America's orchestral musicians are born of ideology and not economy.

The fact is that there is no crisis in classical music…the crisis is in arts management.

Non-profit symphony orchestras are governed by boards, most of whom are wonderful people who truly love music, their orchestras, and their communities. But, most of them now come from the for-profit world, and they hire "industry professionals" to manage their non-profit organizations. The board members tend to take their education for running a non-profit from the "industry professionals."

If that industry professional can present evidence that orchestras everywhere are failing, then they can increase their salary simply by somehow managing to keep the doors open, which usually means reducing the cost of the work force and eliminating concerts, which in turn reduces revenue generating opportunities.

This is a short sighted approach of course, as orchestras depend on the ability to attract and retain the finest musicians in order to fulfill their mission; a mission which, by the way, is not measured in financial terms.

Non-profits arts organizations and orchestras do not exist to balance their budgets; they exist to serve the community for the greater good. They should seek to be fiscally responsible as a way of achieving their mission, which is always community service and the performance of great music at the highest level. While financial stability is needed, it is not the measure of success for a non-profit arts institution. And clearly, locking out musicians does not serve the mission of a performing arts organization.

The "New" Apocalypticism
The tendency of orchestra managers to present a negative view of the future is not unprecedented, but it is bewildering, and it is a poor fund raising message. People will donate to organizations that inspire them and that serve their communities, but they will not invest in organizations that question their own sustainability.

The good news to be told about the orchestral field's negativity is that all of this destructiveness is nothing new, and the proponents of this negativity are no more accurate today than they were decades ago. As mind-boggling as it seems, the field seems to have been dedicated to promoting its own demise for quite some time now. Every few years a new report comes out that suggests that orchestras are not sustainable and that a new model must be discovered. It is always called something slightly different, such as "The New Paradigm" or "The New Economic Reality", or simply "The New Model" but it is always the same. I've taken to calling it "The New Apocalypticism."

We can trace this phenomenon back quite a long way.

An article from United Press International was titled 25 Orchestras Doomed to Die, and it forecast the demise of 25 symphony orchestras throughout America. This would be terrible news, except this article was published in 1970, and the predictions have been proven wrong for forty years.

It went on to say (remember, in 1970) that "orchestras have one alternative to going out of business." They must "reshape—either by reducing the size of orchestras from 100 to 90 musicians or by shortening seasons."

Does any of this sound familiar?

An article from June of 1969, published in Time Magazine, quoted "an expert in orchestral finances" as saying "Between 1971 and 1973, we stand a very good chance of losing at least one-third, if not half of our major symphony orchestras."

Time has proven Time Magazine wrong.

We have a document from the president of the board of the Chicago Symphony, who wrote:

"The (Chicago Symphony) now must solve a problem which has arisen from economic conditions beyond its control. A deficit has been incurred, and undoubtedly there will be annual deficits for some years to come. This affects the future of the orchestra."

And he continued:

"Our problem does not differ in kind from the financial problem that faces each of the major orchestras in the United States."

This is especially alarming, isn't it?...that an orchestra as great as the Chicago Symphony could face this predicament. I would be more concerned had this not been written on April 1, 1940.

There is one great sentence in this 1940 document though. In a message that all managers should heed, especially today, the board chair states:

"We cannot reduce our expenses below our present level without seriously endangering our standard of symphony music, which would soon result in endangering our principal source of income."

And therein lies the predicament: orchestra managers, and their board members, with the assistance of negative rhetoric provided for them by skewed and flawed studies, disproven over decades, are now once again articulating the need for a new business model, while failing to recognize a basic tenet of industry: no business ever solved a financial problem by offering an inferior product to its public.

The Birth of ICSOM
Fifty years ago, in Chicago in 1962, orchestra musicians created a revolution with the founding of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM).

1962 was a time of great difficulty for orchestra musicians. There was almost no job security, and annual income hovered around $5000. Symphonic players were treated terribly, and the dean of the Indiana University School of Music, Wilfred Bain, said "people who push brooms are treated better than symphony players." Musicians were excluded from participating in the ratification of their contracts, and benefits such as health care and pensions were non-existent.

The past 50 years since the creation of ICSOM, it could be argued, have been a golden age for classical music in America. With the ability of musicians to earn a living, care for their families, and truly put down roots in their communities, America's orchestras of all budgets sizes have become recognized as the very best in the world. The musicians of our orchestras have elevated their communities, taught countless children, and enhanced the business environment for their towns.

Through the short sighted attempts at diminishing the workplaces for musicians that our managements are currently aggressively pursuing, all of that is at risk now.

The Demonization of the American Worker
There was a time when the demonization of the American worker was a losing proposition for any political or public leader. After all, the Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932 proclaimed "the individual unorganized worker is genuinely helpless to exercise actually liberty…"

It seems wistfully poetic now to see the words "liberty" and "worker" stated as part of an American law. Companies once considered well-treated employees as conducive to a productive work force. But now, too often companies see workers as replaceable parts.

Even though the artists of America's orchestras are considered among the best in the world, it appears as if boards and managements view musicians as entirely replaceable as well, in a phenomenon that Chicago area attorney Kevin Case recently referred to as "the commoditization of symphony orchestra musicians."

Solidarity and Hope
There is always good news to be found, and musicians will continue to serve their communities and future generations. While union membership has decreased in our country, that isn't true for orchestral performers. The musicians of ICSOM perform for our audiences in a spirit of solidarity and support for each other through a united network of friends. Orchestral musicians are overwhelmingly members of the American Federation of Musicians, even in Right-to-Work states. Classical music is everywhere, and attendance for our concerts is rebounding from the depths of the recession. Indeed, it is a testament to the viability of America's orchestras that so many have withstood the barrage of negativity unleashed upon us by our managements.

In this climate of unnecessarily aggressive negotiating tactics, anti-union leaders use "kids first, unions last" as a slogan. How can they not realize that by putting unions last they are inevitably putting their children, and their nation, last as well?

There is much more than a touchdown at stake. Currently at stake is the question of what kind of country we want to be, and what kind of children we want to rear. American orchestras have grown to be considered among the very best in the world, and once that is lost our cities will never be able to develop such valuable assets again.

When the United States ended the Space Shuttle program recently, I couldn't help but think back fifty years to one of the greatest American speeches ever delivered. On May 25, 1961, John F. Kennedy challenged America to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth by the end of the decade. On that day he said "While we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure on our part to make these efforts shall make us last." In that speech he said that Americans strive to achieve great things not because they are easy, but because they are hard. He told an Irish folk tale where two young boys on a journey confront a stone wall, too high to mount but too long to circumvent. Facing the prospect of a retreat that would end their adventure, one boy threw the hat of the other over the wall, leaving them no choice to but find some way to overcome this obstacle.

Kennedy spoke in a time when America dreamt of what could be achieved, what could be built, and what could be created. He spoke without any assumption that there was anything that we could not achieve for our children.

At a time that could appear bleak for all American workers, we must see every crisis as an opportunity. Those who seek to undermine the rights of teachers, policemen, firefighters, and musicians will find a stronger, more dedicated and more unified spirit among us. And for the musical artists of America, at a time when there are many who doubt America's orchestras, we will not doubt ourselves.

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Indianapolis Symphony - locked out