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Is There a 'Limit' To Classical Music?

Some people who manage the orchestra industry argue that the business has reached its financial limit.

by Drew McManus
January 17, 2005

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2004 went into the history books as the year of the orchestra labor negotiation; with over half of all professional American orchestras conducting contract negotiations (these contracts govern everything from musician compensation through working conditions) there was a great deal of attention directed on some very contentious talks.
 
Nearly all of the big budget orchestras went beyond their contract expirations into extended negotiation sessions and several of those required neutral, third party mediators to reach an agreement.
 
Throughout all of the media coverage about proposed salary cuts and rising costs of health care, there was a quiet conversation happening in the background.  This discussion between managers and musicians focused on a philosophical debate over whether or not any given community has a “limit” for how much it can support an orchestra.
 
Many managers claimed that their musicians needed to accept cuts in artistic expenditures, which is how much an orchestra spends to create an artistic product; such as musician salaries. They claimed that there are limits to how much a community can support an orchestra and they’ve reached those limits. 
 
Sagging attendance, declining contributions, skyrocketing budget deficits, and a general malaise toward cultural activity among the population were all factors they pointed to as signs that this line has been crossed.
 
As a result, managers pushed hard for musicians to take pay cuts (or at the very least, pay freezes), reductions in benefits, cut back the length of their seasons, and even reduce the number of musicians on stage.
 
Musicians countered that predetermined limits on how much a community can support an orchestra were a work a fiction and pushed for cost of living increases in their pay, continued benefits, and expanded programming. The players countered management’s claims by stating that the level of artistic accomplishment has never been higher and more people will become interested in attending concerts and supporting the orchestra if they do larger, more exciting performances.
 
All but two orchestras have concluded their negations with both sides making concessions and coming to an understanding.  Many orchestra musicians agreed to either reduced pay or wage freezes for the beginning term of their contract and a large increase in compensation toward the end (known as “backending” a contract).
 
This is a typical solution for when an organization is in financial trouble and the musicians decide it’s best to give their management and board some financial flexibility in order to get things back on track.
 
However, this solution is usually applied to organizations that have endured some sort of cataclysmic negative financial “event” such as prolonged mismanagement of the organization, a sudden loss of a large donor, etc. But it has never been used as a solution to a philosophical debate before.
 
For the majority of orchestras, both sides seem to have agreed to “borrow” some time to see if their fortunes improve enough and they can avoid the need to resume the conversation at a later date.  However, one orchestra has made been forced to make this philosophical debate the keystone to their negotiations, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
 
Out of all the orchestra to conduct negotiations this past year, only the St. Louis negotiations have resulted in a work stoppage (one other orchestra, the New Mexico Symphony is still conducting negotiations while also performing). 
 
Technically, the musicians of the SLSO aren’t on strike, they’re being locked out.  But the heart of the matter is whether or not the St. Louis community can continue to support an orchestra the size and scope it has historically sustained.
 
St. Louis is unique in the American orchestra industry in that it was among the first organization to encounter some serious financial trouble. Back in 2000 the musicians agreed to a whopping cut in pay and a large reduction in the length of their season. Seemingly overnight, they went from being a world class orchestra to a big budget ensemble scraping to get by.
 
Since then, the organization has enjoyed a tremendously successful fundraising campaign spearheaded by a new executive manager which resulted in raising hundreds of millions of dollars and returning the institution to firmer financial footing.  As a result, the musicians decided that their four years of sacrifice deserved some reward; after all the organization was no longer facing bankruptcy and they managed to attract a stupendous new music director in David Robertson.
 
Now the musicians wanted to see a return to something closer to their old salaries, but the SLSO management saw a different picture. The managers claim that although the community has done a wonderful job at helping the orchestra avoid financial disaster it was now tapped out, there simply wasn’t anything else they could do. And what’s worse, if they gave the musicians what they are asking for then it would jeopardize many of the donations they had worked to secure over the past four years and return the organization into economic peril.
 
The musicians argued that what they are asking for is only a small fraction of what has been raised to date, surely the management could redirect some of the new funds or go out and raise a little more. Unfortunately, management doesn’t see it that way and they believe strongly enough that they’ve reached their fundraising ceiling and, as a result, are putting their foot down.
 
On January 3rd, 2005 the musicians had to vote on management’s final offer, which did not include their requests for increased compensation. They voted down the contract and decided it was best if they could continue to negotiate with management while simultaneously continuing performing. 
 
The basis for their vote was that if they accepted continued reductions in pay they could no longer attract and retain the world class level of talent necessary to create their historically high level of artistic achievement.
 
The SLSO management continued to disagree with their conclusions and, in turn, locked them out and had their health insurance canceled. To date, the management has not retracted their last offer and is insisting that the community can not support what the musicians are asking for.
 
And that’s were things stand right now, no conclusion in sight, only more arguing and digging in of heels.  St. Louis may very well be foreshadowing things to come in the next three to four years; if the industry doesn’t find a way to fix its collective economic troubles while simultaneously drawing in a new wave of enthusiastic supporters there may be more orchestras finding the solution to their problems on a picket line.
 
To learn more about the SLSO contract negotiations, visit the St. Louis Contract Negotiation archive at Adaptistration.

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Is There a 'Limit' To Classical Music?
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