It’s Not A Hobby.
28 Sep 2011
Inside the Classics

Here in Minneapolis, we started up rehearsals for the first classical concerts of our 2011-12 season today, and in what’s become an annual tradition, the morning began with our wonderful personnel manager, Julie Haight, coming to the front of the stage and doing what she says is her very favorite part of her job: introducing the newest musicians of the orchestra. Today, of course, those introductions included a concertmaster…

So our new season started off on a decidedly happy note. Unfortunately, our orchestral colleagues in several other cities haven’t been so lucky. In upstate New York, what had been looking like a partial salvation for the unemployed musicians of the now-defunct Syracuse Symphony (including my friend Wendy, who I wrote about last season) is now looking a lot less hopeful. The folks behind the new Syracuse Philharmonic Society, which had previously announced plans to form an orchestra to replace the SSO, have apparently realized that running a non-profit company employing dozens of musicians (not to mention support staff) is sort of expensive, and they now seem more likely in the short term to offer a handful of musicians the chance to play in small ensembles a few times a year for very little money and no benefits. (The article I linked to implies that the pay could be as low as $100 per concert, but since it also mentions union scale, I’m guessing that number isn’t exactly right. Still, union scale is pretty small cheese.)

Meanwhile, in Denver, the Colorado Symphony is suddenly in the throes of an all-out crisis, after half of that orchestra’s board resigned abruptly, apparently because they were outraged that the CSO’s musicians (disclosure: I’m friends with a few of them) wanted a few more days to think about whether they would accept an immediate 14% pay cut on top of the 24% cut they agreed to two years ago. (The musicians, who didn’t make all that much to begin with, later voted to accept the new cuts, and some of the outraged board members apparently plan to return.)

Times are very, very tough all over right now, of course, and it’s not surprising that a lot of orchestras are struggling to make ends meet. It’s also not surprising that musicians are having to agree to a lot of contract revisions and pay cuts. That’s the kind of thing that happens when the global economy decides to jump into the abyss for a few years. But I’ve started to notice a shift in attitude on the part of some of those who help pay an orchestra’s bills. Check out this quote from the Denver story, from one of the CSO board members who didn’t resign last week:

“Board members were really so mad,” he said, “because, unfortunately, our musicians are sometimes so stubborn… Board members are sick and tired of the musicians’ complaining.”

Now, on the one hand, if I step back from my role as an orchestra musician, I can understand where that guy might be coming from. Board members are volunteers, after all, and most of them give very generously of their time and money because they believe a symphony orchestra is a valuable thing to have in their community. To be told, directly or indirectly, that your generosity is inadequate to the needs of the orchestra’s musicians can feel quite hurtful when you’re just trying to look out for the needs of your community.

But here’s the thing about that quote. Let’s be generous and set aside the absurdity of the claim that musicians weighing a 14% salary cut on top of a previous 24% cut are “stubborn” for wanting a few days to think about it. That quote (and others like it that I’ve been reading this year) suggests a generalized frustration that the musicians a) are legally allowed to collectively bargain their contract at all, and b) believe that they somehow deserve the salaries they earn for playing music.

That’s a disconnect I’m starting to see more and more, and it worries me. Musicians in other orchestras have told me stories of new board members who are shocked to find out that the musicians are paid at all. Even in Minnesota, where the general public seems to have a far higher regard for arts and culture than does much of the US, I’ve had plenty of people tell me how great it is that I play in the orchestra, and then ask what I do “for a living.” I’m always nice about it – why should they know if no one’s told them? But when that innocent ignorance blends with the current anti-labor sentiment that seems to be sweeping the nation, well… you can perhaps understand why hardworking musicians get prickly, especially when everyone keeps telling them they’re overpaid and stubborn.

An economic slump like the one we’re mired in can have all sorts of nasty side effects, and one of the worst is that good people with good intentions start to turn on each other. And one of the biggest problems in this industry during the current slump is turning out to be well-meaning people with good hearts who have been led to believe that operating a professional orchestra is like operating a neighborhood book club, and who quickly become disillusioned and angry when they find out that it isn’t.

Really, it’s more like operating a public library: it costs more money than most people will ever realize; most of the people who use it tend to take its existence for granted; it’s one of the first things that politicians look to cut when times get tough; and there’s only so much cutting you can do before it ceases to be of any real value to the community you’re ostensibly serving.

In the end, an orchestra is a business, subject to the same market forces as any other company. But it’s also a vital linchpin in any city’s cultural infrastructure, and when the people in charge of maintaining it forget that, it usually isn’t long before everything goes bad.

<February 2020>

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