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Remembering Ron Bauers

0 Robert Levine
in memoriam Editor's Abstract

Polyphonic’s tribute to Ron Bauers

Robert Levine

The sexy end of our business is what happens on stage – maestri with great hair emerging from the wings to lead legendary orchestras in gripping performances of works representing the very pinnacle of human creativity before cheering crowds in historic and acoustically perfect halls. At least, that’s what our business looks like on a really good day.

But, like most human endeavors, what’s visible is not the whole picture. Our industry has spawned an entire ecosystem of support ventures, ranging from orchestra managements to music schools to labor unions. And all of those ventures spawn additional support systems of their own.

One of the most unique contributions to our business, and one that was seemingly far removed from the cheering crowds and great masterworks, was made by a musician and accountant named Ron Bauers. Ron died on January 12, 2019 at the age of 60. He left behind a remarkable record of achievement, a great many friends and admirers, and a gaping hole in our ecosystem.

Ron began his career in our business as a musician, although not an orchestral musician. He was a working guitarist who moved into union activism as a member of the executive board of the Omaha local of the AFM. He went back to school and earned an MBA from Creighton University in Omaha, which led to his second career as an academic and the country’s leading expert on orchestral finances.

Ron’s contributions to our field began in the early 1990s, when he did a financial analysis of the Omaha Symphony, at the request of the Local and the orchestra’s musicians, in order to assist them in negotiating a new contract. The analysis he did was so remarkable that he was soon engaged by other orchestras (including mine in 1993) and subsequently the AFM.

His work was distinguished from previous financial analyses done for AFM orchestras by three key factors: its quality, its pedigree, and the fact that it was intended for public consumption. Ron only worked from audited financial reports and the IRS Form 990 reports that orchestras were required to file and make publicly available. It was thus hard for orchestra managements to argue with his figures – they were, at the end of the day, figures that management had sworn were accurate.

If they tried to argue with his conclusions, they came up against another obstacle – Ron simply knew more about finances, accounting, and what their numbers meant than they did. And, because he worked from data that was publicly available and verifiable, and because he was not only an accountant but taught accounting at a major academic institution, his reports had great credibility with the press and the public.

But none of this would have been possible without Ron’s rigorous intellectual honesty. He was not shy about telling musicians who had commissioned his analyses that their institutions were in trouble if that’s what the numbers showed him. While often his analyses showed that management could do much more for musicians than they thought or intended, the main impact Ron made on some negotiations was in convincing the musicians that management had real reasons for concern and that the musicians needed to take those concerns seriously.

I vividly remember a meeting several years ago in Chicago where Ron did a presentation to a group of orchestra activists on orchestra finances. At one point he talked about how to think about endowments; in particular, how much money managements should draw from endowments if they were to be sustainable sources of funding. Ron’s approach was extremely conservative, which did not surprise anyone who knew Ron. And of course he was well aware that musicians had proposed far more aggressive approaches to endowment draws in some negotiations. Nonetheless, his presentation was met with universal acclaim, as the musicians in the room were happy to draw the conclusion that managements were stupid to take any other approach than the one so cogently argued for by Ron. He was undoubtedly hoping that, when they went home and thought about the issue, they would realize that proposing unsustainable endowment draws was not in their long-term interests without him having to draw the conclusion for them.

But I have no doubt at all that Ron would have told them exactly what he thought of such proposals had anyone been impolitic enough to ask.

I had the pleasure of working extensively with Ron in my orchestra’s negotiations in 1993/94, as well as during my time as ICSOM chair. He not only did a wonderful analysis of our situation in Milwaukee, but talked at length to several local newspapers about that analysis, which resulted in some incredibly useful press for us. And he even came to Milwaukee, in the dead of a very cold winter, to present his findings at a “town hall” meeting and a negotiating session.

As time went on, he became known within the community of orchestra musicians as the person to go to for all things having to do with institutional finance. He educated an entire generation of activists about those issues with his many presentations at ICSOM and ROPA meetings, as well as with articles in union publications and on the Polyphonic site.

I wrote earlier that Ron’s work seemed far removed from the bright lights and the great performances. But, in many situations, it was his careful and indisputable analysis that was key to managements and musicians being able to reach agreements that managements could afford but that would also provide musicians with wage increases enabling their orchestras to retain and attract the talent needed to make great performances.

Ron’s financial analyses will never be mentioned in a review of a great concert. But his contribution to the quality of countless performances was just as real as that of the superstar soloists, world-famous conductors, and well-paid musicians.

(More information about, and tributes to, Ron Bauers can be found on the websites of the American Federation of Musicians and the University of Nebraska at Omaha.)

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