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The reason why

5 Robert Levine

It seems inherent in human nature to look for someone to blame when bad things happen. Bad things have been happening in our field of late (or at least to a higher-than-usual number of orchestras), so those on the receiving end - who are mostly, although not exclusively, musicians - look for an enemy who has set out to hurt them. A good example of this is a recent post by my brother-in-bratsche-blogging Charles Noble, who wrote:

These are what the Chinese would call ‘interesting’ times – as in the curse ‘may you live in interesting times’ – for orchestras and their musicians. As if coordinated by an invisible hand – cough, wink, nudge – a series of boards and their managements have made the decision that their problems are solely due to the unnecessarily high cost of their labor force – the musicians…
For years, behind the great ensembles, there stood great boards and managers. They loved the symphonic tradition so much that they sought to bring it to their communities and make the orchestras the best they could be. The love came first, along with passion, and those two virtues, along with fundraising savvy, enabled orchestras to thrive in the US. There have always been hard times for the arts, some harder than others, and some major strikes and lockouts have coincided with those tough times as well. In some cases the musicians overreached, in others, the board and management. But in recent years, there has been an insidious infiltration of symphony boards with business people who come to their board position not out of a passion for and a love of the ensemble and the music it exists to perform, but out of a zeal to reform the institution and to make it conform to their ideals of for-profit economic models. The first item of business in such a agenda is to cut costs. Why? Because it’s the way the rest of the business world operates. Employees too expensive? Outsource their jobs and lay them off. Too many employees? Build some robots and have them replace ten humans each. Revenues falling off? Cut wages.

I quote Charles not because he’s uniquely wrong, but because he very eloquently makes a case that a lot of musicians believe and some others have expressed in various online fora. But he is wrong, and in ways that are worth looking at in depth.

The first error is one that musicians have been making for a long time (and one I used to make as well): that behind the wave of concessionary demands stands a shadowy and highly suspect cabal. Charles doesn’t name it, but he doesn’t have to - any orchestra musician reading his post will understand he’s referring to the League of American Orchestras.

As a member of the League board, I find these accusations bothersome strictly on a personal level, as they assume a level either of malevolence or gullibility on my part that I don’t think my record merits. But more important than my hurt feelings is just how implausible those accusations are by assuming that orchestra boards and managements are not much more than mindless pawns.

The boards and managements I’ve known over the years could accurately have been called many things (and I’ve called them a few, both publicly and privately) but “pawns doing the dark bidding of a small non-profit service organization chartered by the Congress of the United States” is not one of them. I’ve seen no evidence, over a long period watching this field, that boards and managements pay any more attention to their supposed New York overlords than do orchestra musicians to whatever our supposed “union bosses” at 1501 Broadway might want us to do. (Any orchestras out there willing to go on strike because someone at 1501 might think they should? Didn’t think so). The concept of “local autonomy” is, in fact, something of a fetish on both sides of the table in our business. Whether or not that’s a good thing, it’s a fact.

To add insult to injury, the “League equals SMERSH” equation wrongs some very good and well-intentioned people involved with the League. I understand that not many musicians know the staff and board of the League, and I understand that my own involvement renders my judgement suspect in some eyes, but I can assure Charles and everyone else that it is not the League’s mission, or intention, or purpose to downsize orchestras. Nor is it possible to point to League actions that were intended to further such downsizing. Yes, you’ll have to take my word for it. Go have the experiences I’ve had over a long career as an advocate for musicians, and I’ll concede you might have enough knowledge to credibly contradict me.

But the more problematic mistake that Charles, and many other musicians, make is assuming that, once upon a time, we had great boards and managers who loved us, but that now, apparently, our boards have been subject to “insidious infiltration… with business people who come to their board position not out of a passion for and a love of the ensemble and the music it exists to perform, but out of a zeal to reform the institution and to make it conform to their ideals of for-profit economic models.”

Perhaps the fact that I’ve been working for orchestra boards and managements since 1974 colors my view, or maybe it’s that I read every issue of Senza Sordino from cover to cover in the course of scanning them all for the first CD-ROM of data this field had ever seen back in 1995, but I can assure everyone that our boards have always been full of “business people” with a “zeal…to make [orchestras] conform to their ideals of for-profit economic models.” (Some of them, in fact, are the same people who Charles correctly writes “loved the symphonic tradition so much that they sought to bring it to their communities and make the orchestras the best they could be.”) The problems caused by that for-profit mindset were as omnipresent then as they are now. There are, I believe, precious few people in the orchestra business (and even fewer on boards) who have ever really understood what our economic model really is - largely because it so closely resembles for-profit enterprises. The mistakes that follow from such lack of understanding have been legion.

Orchestras sell a product to consumers, just like businesses. They market that product, just like businesses. They make production decisions (like who to hire as soloists) on the basis of marginal income vs marginal costs - just like businesses. They negotiate with labor and other providers of services, just like businesses. They have multiple product lines, they rent offices, they pay payroll taxes (and, in a few cases, sales taxes), borrow from banks, manage their cash flows, deal with insurance companies - all just like businesses.

But they aren’t businesses; they’re non-profits. They could survive without selling a single ticket or a single CD or a single anything else. But without large and continuing contributions - whether in the form of current contributions or past donations to their endowments - they would last about as long as a snowball in Hell.

Boards don’t get this; they generally seem to believe that orchestras are in the business of selling tickets to concerts, but do it so ineptly that they always lose lots of money in the process. Lots of managers don’t really get it either. Nor, often, do musicians. A recent example, although only one of a few thousand I’ve seen in my time, came from the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, where one recent suggestion from the musicians to get more revenue was to raise the price of tickets. That’s what a business might do, and perhaps ought to do, in that situation. But it’s the absolute wrong thing for a non-profit to do, especially when said non-profit has seen a substantial increase in its attendance (and apparently its net income after marketing expenses as well) by lowering prices. What counts for a non-profit is how many people love it, want it to be a part of their lives, and, ideally, will donate to it. That’s why artistic excellence matters. That’s what will keep it alive, not increasing its gross income from ticket sales.

Lastly, I see very little recognition in Charles’ post - or in the way our field talks about itself, on either side of the table - that what’s happened over the past few years is mostly a result of an industry that grew to maturity during a period that experienced the greatest growth in wealth seen in human history finally being hit by an economic tsunami that most economists believe could never again occur.

What happened in 2008-2009 was devastating to any institution dependent to a significant extent on income from investments, because the value of that investment fell off a cliff and the returns on what was left were at historical lows. What happened in 2008-2009 was devastating to any institution dependent on discretionary spending (ie donations) of high-net-worth individuals, because their collective net worth fell off a cliff too. What happened in 2008-09 was devastating to any institution with a large pension obligation, because the valuation of the underlying assets fell off the same cliff while the interest rate assumptions made by actuaries dropped to historic lows, leading to immediate demands for huge cash infusions from the pension companies. A large drop in income and unforeseen increases in legally unavoidable pension funding expenses was going to be devastating to any institution assuming a break-even financial result years in advance that was also locked into legally-binding long-term contracts with most of the people and institutions who provide it with core services - including, but not limited to, orchestra musicians.

There’s not a full-time orchestra in the US that didn’t get hit by at least three of these devastating happenings, and many got hit by them all. What’s really amazing is that most of us are still employed and that most orchestras are still working, not that some managements and boards have been asking for cuts and that a few of those situations got nasty.

But, instead of confronting that economic reality head-on, musicians talk about how they shouldn’t take cuts because they are the product, or because the staffs are too large, or because their employers are union-busting. And, in lots of places, they shouldn’t take cuts. Certainly there’s no justification for the depth of cuts proposed in Minnesota and Indianapolis and Atlanta and some other places. But the idea that orchestral institutions shouldn’t ever look to musicians for concessions when the fundamental economic underpinnings of the organization are being washed away is simply not realistic. Sometimes concessions are required to keep the institution afloat - and, lest we forget, job security is every bit as fundamental a goal of unions as are wage increases.

Meanwhile, managements and boards do their credibility with musicians no good at all by talking about “new models” and “community engagement” and the NEA audience study and” structural deficits” when their concessionary proposals fix none of those problems and their proposals to relax or eliminate work rules are invariably without any real commitment to institutional change on anyone else’s part. Orchestra musicians know when their managements and boards are prepared to walk the walk on change - which is not often at the best of times. Sadly, many of us have been through this before and have become cynical about anything fundamental actually changing except the bottom line on our paychecks.

Having said all that, there is a kernel of truth in what Charles writes about boards. There is no question that how employers think, and talk, about labor issues in the US has taken on a much harder edge over the years. This is not a new trend - I would argue that it goes back to the passage of the Wagner Act in the 1930s, and that labor’s power and prestige has been on the wane at least since the passage of Taft-Hartley in the late 1940s - but it has become more acceptable than ever before to go after worker’s salaries and benefits. At the same time, symphony musicians who actually make a living wage or better are a much easier target than our predecessors in the orchestras in the 1950s and 1960s who played for lousy pay, few if any benefits, and with barely any job security.

So let’s not pretend that our problems lie in the machinations of the the orchestral equivalent of SMERSH or the infiltration of our boards by sinister ideologues dedicated to the destruction of all we hold dear. Reality would be easier to cope with if it looked like a James Bond novel or something from the pen of John Grisham, and the bad guys could be eaten by sharks or sent to the Big House for conspiracy against artistic excellence. The real world is far more complex than that.

But I’m still suspicious about what’s actually driving the board in Minnesota.

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5 comments feed top ↑

  1. Pingback by Time To Stir The Pot | Adaptistration
    October 23, 2019 at 3:00 AM

    […] get Robert Levine a fainting couch, […]

  2. Pingback by Polyphonic.org - My kingdom for a decent news article
    October 15, 2019 at 12:35 AM

    […] of thinking at least, he makes a similar mistake to the one my friend and colleague Charles Noble made last week, which is to see something radically new in what’s happening in our field: …In fact, arts […]

  3. Robert Levine Comment by Robert Levine
    October 12, 2019 at 3:45 PM

    Charles Noble wrote:

    71.237.228.95
    Submitted on 2019/10/12 at 12:51 AM

    Good post. I would respond that there is, in fact, if not a Tammany Hall system of back room deals being made by the LOA and the AFofM, respectively, there is at the very least information being shared, as well as general sentiment. This is far from a conspiracy, that is true. But I hear our negotiating team saying things that other negotiating teams say – how do they get to this common line? Perhaps independently, but more likely, they are in the same echo chambers of orchestra-l and the ICSOM conference, where the general sentiments of what the state of the union, so to speak, are talked about and a general consensus is reached.

    There is certainly exchange of information and views, although I suspect it’s not always as formal as you suggest. But it’s not surprising that orchestras in financial trouble tend to sound the same at the table; there are simply not many things that can be said, and generally American orchestras are all exposed to the same economic gales.

    What is most troubling to me is the fact that one size fits all is increasingly becoming the norm – in fact, it might have been born in the notion that as many orchestras as possible should try to emulate the business models of the original Big Five orchestras – 52 week seasons, etc. I think we are seeing the fallout of the short-sighted strategy in what is happening to our upper-mid-level budget sized orchestras today. Even the super-majors haven’t been spared – Philadelphia declaring bankruptcy, and Chicago facing significant deficits. I think the shakeup has just started, and has a long way to go. Perhaps what results might be an even healthier environment for musicians, but I’m fearful that it will be just the opposite.

    It is true that what works for the largest orchestras doesn’t always work for the tier below them, especially when it comes to marketing, programming, and community engagement If Chicago has success marketing Lang Lang, it doesn’t follow that Milwaukee will have the same success with whoever the half-price version of Lang Lang is. And Chicago, because of its history and stature, likely doesn’t have to concern itself with constantly demonstrating its value to the community in the same way Milwaukee does.

    Where it all ends up depends a fair amount on how musicians approach the prospect of change and whether or not they focus on the right issues and don’t fixate on the wrong ones in discussions with their boards and managements.

  4. Pingback by eloquent, but wrong | NobleViola
    October 12, 2019 at 1:01 AM

    […] post (concerning the contentious negotiations and work stoppages in recent weeks) over at the Polyphonic.org blog. It’s good reading, and Robert has good points, and I make a weak rebuttal attempt in the […]

  5. Comment by
    October 12, 2019 at 12:51 AM

    Good post. I would respond that there is, in fact, if not a Tammany Hall system of back room deals being made by the LOA and the AFofM, respectively, there is at the very least information being shared, as well as general sentiment. This is far from a conspiracy, that is true. But I hear our negotiating team saying things that other negotiating teams say - how do they get to this common line? Perhaps independently, but more likely, they are in the same echo chambers of orchestra-l and the ICSOM conference, where the general sentiments of what the state of the union, so to speak, are talked about and a general consensus is reached. The point is, both ‘sides’ take regional arguments and conditions (with some notable exceptions) and extrapolate them into issues that concern the industry as a whole. What is most troubling to me is the fact that one size fits all is increasingly becoming the norm - in fact, it might have been born in the notion that as many orchestras as possible should try to emulate the business models of the original Big Five orchestras - 52 week seasons, etc. I think we are seeing the fallout of the short-sighted strategy in what is happening to our upper-mid-level budget sized orchestras today. Even the super-majors haven’t been spared - Philadelphia declaring bankruptcy, and Chicago facing significant deficits. I think the shakeup has just started, and has a long way to go. Perhaps what results might be an even healthier environment for musicians, but I’m fearful that it will be just the opposite.