I can hear the ice beginning to break apart on our frozen pandemic year. As the Biden administration streamlines vaccine distribution and our economy slowly begins to thaw under the economic stimulus of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), we will start to see the re-opening of our orchestras and a loosening of audience restrictions. Safety is still paramount, but spring is here and, beneath the evanescing frost, our industry is returning to life.
Following many years of AFM lobbying for legislative reform regarding multiemployer pension plans, the Butch Lewis Emergency Pension Plan Relief Act of 2021 has finally passed through Congress and been signed into law by President Biden as part of the ARPA. Under the guiding strategy of AFM Legislative Director Alfonso Pollard, and with the indispensable legwork of Michael Manley (director of organizing and education), Alex Tindal Wiesendanger (lead organizer), Antoinette Follett (director of communications), and the Player Conferences Council (myself, Marc Sazer of the Recording Musicians Association, John Michael Smith of the Regional Orchestra Players Association, and Anthony D’Amico of the Theater Musicians Association, but without Robert Fraser of the Organization of Canadian Symphony Musicians, as Canada has its own pension) we created a three-point plan of action to make certain our voices were heard on Capitol Hill.
In the belief that Republicans would not vote in favor of the American Rescue Plan, we concentrated our efforts on stiffening the spines of Democrats in Congress to make certain they voted in line with their razor-thin majority. AFM members generated thousands of email letters, local officers and musicians of every genre held legislative Zoom meetings in key districts, and over 100 volunteer musicians made thousands of calls to AFM members who then made thousands of targeted calls to Democratic legislators. In addition, the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians’ (ICSOM) Phone2Action email campaign generated several thousand emails nationwide. Every musician who contacted Congress helped to move this campaign closer to success, demonstrating our union solidarity and the power of collective action. Thank you for your activism!
After a years-long fight, we have achieved multiemployer pension reform.
In other legislative news, orchestras are still unpacking the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which was passed in December 2020. This $900 billion in additional COVID-19 relief funding includes $15 billion to the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) program and more than $280 billion in new Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds. Both programs are overseen by the Small Business Administration (SBA).
Many of our ICSOM orchestras (not all were eligible) participated in the first round of PPP, which played a vital role in keeping our musicians afloat. The application process got off to a rocky start as the SBA figured out how to coordinate the program, which is a forgivable loan and not a grant. Many orchestras’ loans have already been forgiven, while others await a decision. But thus far we are aware of no orchestra that has been denied forgiveness.
The SVOG program provides for grants of up to $10 million to orchestras, theaters, and other arts organizations. Previously, organizations could not apply for both a PPP loan and an SVOG. But now they can, and if they obtain both, then the value of the PPP2 loan—which is capped at $2 million—is deducted from the (presumably larger) SVOG. This could result in significant additional funds for our orchestras.
The majority of our orchestras have been able to take advantage of these federal relief programs, and most have negotiated temporary compromises on wages and benefits in order to stay solvent. We have been incredibly fortunate throughout this crisis to receive the continued support of our patrons and donors and are truly grateful for their unwavering generosity to our orchestral institutions. For the handful of ICSOM orchestras who have suffered unnecessary and destructive furloughs, I hope the ability to resume concerts will bring greater pressure to bear on those institutions that failed their responsibility to maintain their orchestras, and just as critically, the individual musicians who comprise them.
As we embark on the return to live performance, we face uncertain waters ahead. How will we be affected by the currents of change we have witnessed throughout this pandemic year? Will our audiences return? To what degree will the now omnipresent audio/visual streaming of performances change our working landscape? How will we address the issues of social justice and equity that have become so starkly apparent? The way we choose to navigate these questions will have far reaching consequences for our orchestras and our country. We are ready to meet the challenge and eager to set sail.