Tag Archives: Meredith Snow

ICSOM Update: How Coronavirus is Affecting Our Orchestras

Meredith Snow

by Meredith Snow, ICSOM Chair and Member of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA)

As of this writing, COVID-19 has just been declared a worldwide pandemic. More extreme measures to contain the spread—social distancing to “flatten the curve” of infection, the shutting down of all unnecessary gatherings, cancellation of the NBA season—are just beginning. We are watching our International Conference of Symphony and Orchestra Musicians (ICSOM) orchestras close down in rapid succession across the country—for two weeks to a month—to potentially aid in slowing the spread of the virus. This is the right and prudent action to take.

We have a small window of opportunity to contain the virus to whatever degree is still possible. An abundance of caution is wise. So far, the majority of our ICSOM orchestras have honored their obligation to pay their musicians and maintain benefits. However, depending on how long these closures need to remain in place, this will most certainly become an economic strain for all parties.

AFM Symphonic Services Division (SSD), ICSOM, Organization of Canadian Symphony Musicians (OCSM), and Regional Orchestra Players’ Association (ROPA) immediately jumped into action. Rochelle Skolnick and Debbie Newmark led the charge to negotiate a side-letter to our Integrated Media Agreement (IMA) that would allow ticketholders, donors, and subscribers access to livestreamed concerts, in addition to archival material. Only a few orchestras, the Jacksonville Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Buffalo Philharmonic among them, have taken advantage of the livestream—without an audience—before also closing down. Other orchestras will take full advantage of the opportunity to stream archival product during the hiatus.

SSD has created a link in the SSD Resource Center on the AFM website, titled “Coronavirus Resources” (https://members.afm.org/member/page/id/10633). It includes a legal analysis by ICSOM Counsel, Kevin Case, of the force majeure or “Act of God” clause. Whether an outbreak of a disease like what we are seeing with COVID-19 could trigger a force majeure clause would require an individual analysis of each Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), the language of which may differ significantly from contract to contract. Some of our CBAs will have no force majeure clauses at all. Depending on how long our doors will have to remain closed, and when managements may decide they can’t or won’t continue to pay musicians, we will need to have a detailed understanding of what is stated in our own CBA. As always, it will be crucial for each orchestra to work in close coordination with their local, and where possible, with their local’s attorney.

In contrast to our own federal government, the German government has already announced immediate financial support for the arts sector and for freelancers due to the COVID-19 crisis. The German government is in close touch and collaborates with the 16 federal culture ministers of the German states to find pragmatic solutions. Gerald Mertens, CEO of the German Orchestra Association (DOV) and Editor-in Chief of das Orchester, contacted ICSOM President Paul Austin with this good news. Within 48 hours of posting on our Twitter account, @ICSOM, this message had been liked by 20,000 people and shared 6,000 times.

Our orchestras are vital contributors to the non-profit sector and an important economic engine for the communities they serve. The League of American Orchestras (LAO) has launched an email campaign in support of legislation that would provide federal economic assistance to non-profits throughout the country (www.votervoice.net/mobile/LAO/campaigns/72338/respond). We must demand that our own government recognize and support the integral role that our artists and musicians play in the economy of the United States.

We ICSOM musicians must count ourselves fortunate in that we have probably the most comprehensive economic protections in our contracts that exist within the AFM. Many of our colleagues, not least of which our own substitute and extra musicians, do not have the same guarantees that we are afforded. Some of our ICSOM musicians in San Francisco and Cincinnati have assisted in setting up GoFundMe campaigns to help their local freelance players. The musicians of Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra negotiated a 10% reduction in their own compensation in order to keep their extra musicians on the payroll.

Not knowing how long this shutdown may last, nor how severe our economy will be impacted in its aftermath, it behooves us to remember their precarious position and to demand that our employers fulfill their obligation to our subs and extras as well as to us. Together, as a union, we will weather this storm. Stay safe out there.

Internal Organizing in Our ICSOM Orchestras

by Meredith Snow, Chair, International Conference of Symphony  and Opera Musicians (ICSOM)

The cohesive internal organization of an orchestra is the foundation of a strong bargaining unit. The more our musicians know about the structure of their collective bargaining agreements (CBA) and how committees function, and the more they are willing to participate in the civic life of their orchestra, the greater will be their success in negotiations, and the greater will be the success of the institution as a whole.

The orchestra, as a social construct, has a centuries-old history of hierarchal rank and deportment, from conductor to concertmaster to last stand violas. The mannerisms remain, but our unionization has revolutionized the status quo behind the scenes. The power to negotiate pay and working conditions that are fair and beneficial to all and the protection of tenure has created a more equal and just workplace.

All of our International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) orchestras have both a CBA (negotiated by musicians and locals) and bylaws, which carefully outline the duties of committees, and the relationships of members to each other and to management. While each orchestra may divide responsibilities differently, an orchestra committee (OC) generally oversees the implementation of the CBA; some form of Auditions Committee will manage auditions and tenure review in conjunction with the music director; and an artistic liaison committee may address programing, conductor review, and possibly workload issues that can occur within the bounds of the CBA.

Many orchestras now have a separate negotiating committee. In recent years, orchestras have formed social media committees and community outreach committees to foster connection with their current and potential audiences. And I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the coffee makers—the unsung heroes who come in early to rehearsal and start the coffee brewing. A fresh cup of coffee is, in and of itself, an internal organizing tool. We tend to concentrate our attention on the grand gestures and positions of power, but it is small considerations that foster good relationships.

The configuration and number of members of these committees, makeup of the audition panel, and other details are specified in each orchestra’s bylaws. The various duties have become increasingly complex over the years to the extent that many orchestras now have a crossover system where OC members also serve on the other committees to be sure that the contract and bylaws are not overlooked or undermined.

As with any civil service, working on a committee can be challenging and rewarding in equal measure. But having strong committees is absolutely vital to the health of an orchestra. They are the connective tissue that binds our members together, as well as the central nervous system in our interaction with management. A clear understanding of our relationships creates a strong bond, especially needed in times of adversity, and makes it possible to build a culture of mutual respect and responsiveness, not only between musicians, but with management as well.

Serving on committees is a voluntary activity. Our members donate their time for the good of all. While many members volunteer, others need encouragement. In many orchestras, the ICSOM delegate and a committee member will invite newly hired musicians to lunch to explain the organizational structure of their new job. Some orchestras have created a handbook to simplify understanding of the densely-written CBA and bylaws. We are always recruiting. Asking musicians to volunteer for activities that benefit other organizations, such as soup kitchens or disaster relief groups, is a doubly beneficial organizing tool. You are solidifying your own relationships while helping others.

Open and respectful communication is key. Committee members can and should be available to speak with other orchestra members, but there is no substitute for general meetings, which help draw together all the musicians in an orchestra. Aspirations, irritations, complications, what’s working, what’s not—all need an open forum to be addressed. The better we understand one another, the stronger we are as a unit. Considering we all play in the same orchestra, it is surprising how different the pressures and expectations of each instrument group are. Understanding our different perspectives helps unify our membership. The stronger we are as a union, the greater our success in negotiations.

Diversity and Inclusion in Our Orchestras

by Meredith Snow, ICSOM Chair and Member of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA)

A flourishing cultural life, to which people of every race, ethnicity, gender, and class are invited and can see themselves reflected, is essential to our democracy. The creative expression of our differing stories enables us to better understand our commonality. If our orchestras are to remain relevant in a changing society, we must begin to reflect that diversity both on stage and behind the scenes.

While the gender gap has closed significantly since the 1990s, with women holding 46% to 49% of orchestra positions, the proportion of African Americans (1.8%) and Hispanic/Latinos (2.5%), has remained extremely low and largely unchanged since 1978, according to data collected by the League of American Orchestras. In contrast, there has been a large proportional increase in Asian/Pacific Islander musicians from 5.3% in 2002 to 9.1% in 2014.

It is worth noting that ethnic diversity in smaller budget orchestras is nearly twice that of the larger orchestras ($2.1 million and up). Conversely, large budget orchestras are twice as likely to hire African American or Hispanic/Latino conductors than small budget orchestras. Despite a few recent high profile appointments of women conductors, the gender ratio has remained unchanged since 2006 (10 men to one woman). Additionally, women are twice as likely to be found in conducting positions of lesser status and salary than the higher visibility position of music director.

Backstage, diversity on orchestra boards has remained virtually unchanged from 2010 to 2014, with nonwhite members at just under 8%. In contrast, a national survey by BoardSource found that nonwhite members of nonprofit boards across the US had increased from 16% in 2010 to 20% in 2014. On a positive note, orchestra boards are moving toward gender parity. Currently, around 58% of orchestra board members are male and 42% are female.

We can and must do better at diversifying our orchestras on stage, in the boardroom, and within staff, management, donors, and audience. I recently attended the League of American Orchestras (LAO) conference in Detroit with ICSOM council Kevin Case of Local 10-208 (Chicago, IL), Secretary Laura Ross of Local 257 (Nashville, TN), Members-at-Large Paul Austin of Local 56 (Grand Rapids, MI) and Dan Sweeley of Local 92 (Buffalo, NY), and AFM SSD Director
Rochelle Skolnick.

Since 2011, LAO has begun to reprioritize diversity and inclusion, beginning with a self-assessment of how our industry has fared since the first fellowship programs in the early 1970s. While some 40% of fellows have won positions in other orchestras through the audition process, the programs themselves have had a difficult history within our orchestras. Additionally, the fellowship programs’ focus on access and opportunity for just a few individuals does not change the systemic problems of racial discrimination within our organizations. For an in-depth look at the history of orchestra fellowships read the LAO publication Forty Years of Fellowships: A Study of Orchestras Efforts to Include African American and Latino Musicians, by Nick Rabkin and Monica Hairston O’Connell.

In conjunction with numerous arts organizations, including Sphinx, Gateways Music Festival, New World Symphony, and Detroit Symphony Orchestra, LAO has identified a number of additional strategies to promote racial equity: board and staff diversity, community and family resources that provide support for young musicians, the music education “pipeline” from childhood education through college and graduate studies, developing a national network of mentors, and financial support for minority musicians on the audition circuit. There are a number of programs already up and running in our ICSOM orchestras, from El Sistema style education programs to in-house fellowships.

The final hurdle to orchestral citizenship is still the audition process. Since the early 1990s we have used screened auditions to prevent bias from influencing the outcome—musical excellence is the single and only criteria. But have we then, through this narrow process, also hired the very best advocates and artist citizens for our industry? Do our orchestral musicians also need to be effective communicators who can engage with our communities both on and off stage? How might we expand our thinking about the audition process to reflect these qualities and the changing demographics of our society?

Transformation does not come easily to bureaucracies. The same structures that protect against risk, constrain change. While musical excellence will always be the definitive standard of our audition process, is that enough for this 21st century paradigm? There are no easy answers but we need to begin addressing the questions. The discussion starts with us.