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What's Detroit about?

1 Robert Levine

Anne Midgette writes (or, more fairly, implies) in the Washington Post that the Detroit negotiations center on

…a proposal that involves not only a hefty salary cut, but a formal redefinition of the job of an orchestral musician, making outreach, teaching, and chamber concerts a part of the deal. As Stryker points out, most musicians already do all these things; the difference here is that they’d become part of the job, rather than optional extras (done for extra pay).

In the first part of the 20th century, playing in an orchestra was a part-time job, and musicians supplemented their income with other, non-musical day jobs. The union evolved as a way to protect musicians and keep them from being exploited, but some of its contract stipulations have come to function as severe limitations (they all but killed orchestral recording for several years). Orchestras, even struggling ones, are multi-million dollar institutions with a civic, public role; finding ways to open them up to the community, and expand the roles of their members, is not a bad thing. In fact, nobody’s really arguing about that. The issue is about admitting such changes into the formal union contract. Like a lot of these union debates, it’s a little late…

In my view, she’s missing the point. The new “flexibility” that management has proposed is not really the core issue, although aspects of it are certainly troubling (according to the DSO musicians, the proposals would allow management to require musicians to do non-playing work as well as small ensemble performances).

The core issue, and the key difference between management’s proposal and that of the musicians, is not even deep cuts this season; both sides have proposed those. The real issue is what happens over the next few years.

Management has refused to budge on what the musicians call “recovery” - a return to wages during the term of the new agreement to something approaching what they’ve been historically. Management’s proposals lower the musicians’ wages dramatically (with draconian cuts in pay for new hires) and keep them there.

No doubt management is convinced that it’s necessary for the survival of the DSO to do that, although it’s hard to see what some of their other proposals (such as eliminating peer review and temperature clauses) do to make the DSO cheaper to run. It’s even harder to see how putting proposals like those on the table are going to convince the musicians to accept less money at the same time, which is why I suspect that the intent of “Proposal B” is really to get the musicians to strike.

I suspect that, if management were to accept the principle of recovery, the two sides could have a very productive discussion about expanding the kinds of work that DSO musicians might do for the institution, even though the benefits to the DSO of that are highly speculative.

I’ve been around this industry for long enough to have seen many ideas come and go for expanding what orchestras, and orchestra musicians, do. Most of them went because they didn’t work. I suspect that most of those fell victim to violations of what Jim Collins, in his influential bookGood to Great, called “the hedgehog concept,” which is

to attain piercing clarity about how to produce the best long-term results and then exercising the relentless discipline to say “No thank you” to opportunities that fail the hedgehog test… 1) what you are deeply passionate about; 2) what you can be the best in the world at, and 3) what best drives your economic engine.

It’s worth noting that one of the DSO’s biggest financial problems is paying for the Max M. Fischer Music Center, which itself could be viewed as representing the kind of community outreach and engagement that the management proposals appear to suggest should occupy more of the musicians’ workload.

There will always be blue-sky proposals to fix what’s “wrong” with orchestras. I suspect that, for any of them to work, they will require the kind of skill and discipline in execution that institutions which are already scrambling to survive have already demonstrated they don’t have.


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  1. Pingback by Detroit Symphony In Contract Disput - Page 21 - TrumpetMaster
    September 23, 2019 at 1:20 AM

    […] Of course, I say that because it echoes the points I tried to make early on in this thread. Polyphonic.org Blog What’s Detroit about? I even think - dare I say it - that the musicians could benefit from this sort of clarity in their […]