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A substitute orchestra in Detroit?

0 Robert Levine

In a front-page article in the Detroit News, Michael H. Hodges is pessimistic about the future of the DSO:

…outsiders warn that suspending the season involves a leap into the unknown, one that not only threatens the orchestra’s current hold on audiences and donors, but could put the 2011-2012 season and the orchestra’s entire future at risk.

“It plunges them into the black hole of a negative-revenue spiral,” said Chicago-based orchestra consultant Drew McManus, who has followed the Detroit strike closely.

“The big question now is whether they’ve stopped planning for the next season,” he added. “This one is a wash. But if they don’t have all the season planning activity in place for next season, which would include artist reservations and advance ticket sales, they enter that negative spiral. Once you’ve crossed that event threshold, there’s no pulling out of it.”

Hodges also raises the question of whether management might field a replacement orchestra, and is skeptical:

Hiring an entirely new orchestra isn’t much of an option either. In the highly unionized world of top orchestras, McManus said, any musician taking a replacement job risks career suicide.

“They’d get blacklisted and probably fined by the American Federation of Musicians,” he said, “and wouldn’t be able to perform with other orchestras. It’d hurt their audition chances, too.”

I agree with Hodges and Drew that a replacement orchestra is not a realistic option, but not for the same reasons. Certainly there would be risks for musicians signing up to replace the DSO; any who were AFM members would likely face crushing fines from the union and certainly there’s the potential for blowback in future career endeavors.

But the AFM doesn’t maintain a blacklist, and such a list wouldn’t be effective if it did. No American union has the legal power to bar an employer from hiring or employing someone based on anything other than their paying that portion of union dues devoted to contract negotiation and administration, and even that is only the case in non-right-to-work states.

I think the real obstacles are these:

  • a replacement orchestra would be picketed continuously, making it unattractive to patrons who don’t want to cross picket lines to enjoy a night out
  • most symphony patrons want to see their orchestra, not a generic symphonic performance;
  • Slatkin would be committing career suicide by conducting a replacement orchestra;
  • Ann Parsons would be committing career suicide by hiring a replacement orchestra;
  • Soloists would be committing SarahChangürung by playing with a replacement orchestra;
  • other unions (IATSE in particular) would be unlikely to cross a picket line thrown up around a replacement orchestra - or, if they did, would likely make life unpleasant at work for the replacement orchestra;
  • any replacement orchestra would quickly unionize itself and want what the DSO musicians are trying to maintain now.

It’s not an accident that the tactic of replacing an orchestra has never been tried. I’d be shocked (and not in the Casablanca sense) if it was tried in Detroit.

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