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Home » Articles » Organizing » Corporatizing the American Symphony


Corporatizing the American Symphony

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by Christopher Durham, AFM Symphonic Services Division Chief Field Negotiator

As we review the past five or six seasons we begin to assess the results of the worst concessionary bargaining the symphonic industry has experienced. It’s difficult to deny, and easier to suspect, that such behavior was calculated by our industry rather than being a mere coincidence.

Symphonic bargaining walked into a perfect storm of the worst economic downturn since the great depression and a negative attitude towards, not just union workers, but all workers. Big business, utilizing offshore manufacturing, has enjoyed cheap labor rates. With a move to return manufacturing (thus jobs) to the US, it seems as if big business expects lower wages as a prerequisite, and is glad to help accomplish that goal.

Common threads through our negotiations have been slashing wages and benefits, sustainability, community engagement and education, unused services, and efficiency. In business terms, this means lower labor costs. In union terms, the result means gains over the past three decades are systematically being taken away.

I view these changes as corporatizing the American symphony. Gone are the days when boards were headed by a few “local” business people or their spouses and philanthropists, who appreciated and supported symphonic music. Women’s associations and volunteers were instrumental in fundraising and provided support to a relatively small (in some cases skeletal) staff. These were hard-working and dedicated volunteers. The mission of the orchestra was to perform. Forty percent to 50% of the organization’s budget covered musicians’ (excluding conductors and guest artists) wages and benefits.

Today, orchestras are governed by large boards filled with corporate executives and corporate mindsets. Without question, a symphony orchestra must be managed professionally and responsibly, but there are far too many for profit thinkers trying to assert their philosophy of business management on a not for profit creative institution. It seems the corporate goal of lowering labor costs correlates to cutting musicians salaries, performances, and the size of the orchestra. 

Our managements have been corporately structured with larger staffs and a layer of mid-level vice presidents (at double or more of musician salaries) who oversee a department and spend hours sitting in front of a computer screen modeling and analyzing results, rather than actually performing a job traditionally accomplished successfully with an assistant or volunteer. Add exorbitant wages and fees to executive staff, conductors, and guest artists and the results are fewer dollars for the product and the product subsidizing a larger staff. When goals are not met and a challenge exists, too often our organizations turn to costly consultants. As musicians we see a different standard applied to our job performance. We don’t have the luxury of staff and consultants to practice the volume of repertoire, make reeds, and maintain our chops. Musicians who don’t perform well suffer drastic consequences.

Musicians are both artists and workers. Musicians are the product, and just as athletes, we are hired, not by the hour, nor the amount of work we do, but for our skill and the sound we produce. Too frequently we are being reviewed for efficiency rather than quality. Our schedule limitations are for the purpose of preventing fatigue and injury. Service counts and unused services must stop being used to determine if we are putting in our time. Employers create division by attempting to play staff and musician against each other by insisting that all workers are equal and all type of work loads must be equitable. Staff and management jobs are, in and of themselves, different. Musicians should not be compared to five-day, 40-hour per week staff people.

As the dust settles, we are ignoring the many situations where we are losing support and attendance. There are several reasons for this, including the negative public relations our own managements release, the changing nature of our world, and competing interests of concertgoers. Not everybody likes to attend public events, make commitments for annual subscriptions, and frankly a lot of people don’t appreciate symphonic music. This does not mean we throw in the towel. Our organizations must create demand and performances must be more inviting and accepting of the tastes of concert attendees and their diversity. There are several good examples of success. Musicians must learn to think out of the box as well.

We must take back our losses the same way we made these gains 30 years ago. We must challenge employers to restore and grow. Labor laws exist to address how we bargain and interact with our members and our employers. We must educate ourselves and our members about these options. Too often we want to stray away from these options and tactics because we think it not befitting an artist or we want to get creative. When we are at the bargaining table we are viewed as workers demanding more money. We must re-educate our membership and retool to take back what we have lost to the corporatizing of the symphony orchestra.







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