by Meredith Snow, ICSOM Chairperson and Member of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA)
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, our International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) orchestras are all in uncharted waters. With our seasons abruptly canceled, fundraising and ticket sales slowed to a near halt, and no idea how long we will be sheltering-in-place, it is impossible to anticipate when we will be able to return to making music or how our audiences can safely return to our concert halls. The differing financial stability and resilience within each of our 52 orchestras is going to create solutions unique to each situation. But as we navigate the physical and economic uncertainties of both our immediate and long-term viability, it is important to remember that where there is collaboration and transparency, we meet with the greatest success.
In some instances—notoriously the MET Orchestra and National Symphony Orchestra—the musicians were furloughed almost immediately with little or no consultation. Soon after, other casualties included Phoenix, Utah, Oregon, and Indianapolis. NSO has successfully grieved a violated contract and is back on reduced salary for at least the near future. In Phoenix, Utah, Indianapolis, and Oregon, musicians have been “hired” back thanks to taxpayer money made available through the federal CARES legislation, though not at full salary in each case.
But in many, if not most, of our ICSOM orchestras, we have succeeded in maintaining an environment of trust and cooperation in this unprecedented situation. Musicians and managers, along with the goodwill of their boards and donors, are finding solutions to the problems that beset our paralyzed industry. Kansas City Symphony, Dallas Symphony, and New York City Ballet have all negotiated one-year extensions at 100% of current salary. Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra was paid the remainder of their season—a canceled Ring Cycle—and the regular musicians donated 10% of that salary to their extras and stage band players. As of this writing, Baltimore Symphony and Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra are still paying musicians at 100%, despite significant labor disputes in recent years, as are several other orchestras, including Charlotte, Grand Rapids, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and Rochester.
This is not to diminish the financial sacrifices that musicians are making in many places. Orchestras including Los Angeles, St. Louis, and New York took deep cuts. Others, including Boston, Houston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Cleveland negotiated cuts between 10% and 30%. But these cuts were not imposed. They were negotiated, and often managers and music directors took cuts as well, and staff were laid off. Thanks to the unceasing effort of Rochelle Skolnick and Debbie Newmark in the AFM Symphonic Services Division (SSD), many of our orchestras have been able to craft individual side letters to our Integrated Media Agreement (IMA) that allow for greater freedom in streaming content to our audiences during this crisis.
There is a very difficult and uncertain road ahead for our orchestras. In the coming months, as the country comes back to life and the economy gears up, we may be among the last back to work. It is frightening not to know how long these constraints will last. Our endowments will have taken a financial beating and we don’t know when our audiences will feel confident returning to our performance spaces. We must take heed and remember that we—musicians, board members, donors, management, staff, stagehands, parking attendants, catering, and cleaning staff—are mutually dependent on one another. We are all indispensable to our way of life and to the music we are privileged to play, as are—above all—our audiences, without whom our performances would be pointless. If we look out for each other and work together to keep the ship afloat, we will survive this crisis and come out stronger than we came into it.