We Have Met The Enemy…. and they include musicians among us. Urgent need to collaborate, coordinate, contribute.

Several blog posts and articles in recent days about the crisis among the performing arts have spurred me to a little processing. And a little ranting.

All recent news and opinions point to the sea changes necessary within orchestral bodies to ensure the survival of local live orchestras as a species. Yet some opinions within orchestral communities, including my own, seem to cling rather foolishly to old union practices, despite all indications of severe consequences for inaction.

To be clear, the musicians' leadership of the Columbus Symphony has performed admirably the past two years, setting the stage for the first real long term stability and cooperation in our organization since I came here in 1989. However, I am still fearful of naysayer factions which could spark damaging consequences. As they say, a few rotten apples can spoil the whole crop.

I wish to express my deep concern to my fellow orchestral musicians, both in Columbus and around the entire country, that our orchestral "boats" are balanced precariously on the edge of a raging waterfall, and that we don't have the luxury of gratuitous rocking!

In fact, the very opposite behavior is necessary to secure any ongoing stability. We musicians, and our unions, need to collaborate, coordinate and contribute, big time and now, to ensure our already precarious livelihoods.

I reiterate what I have said before: Music unions will maintain, and grow, their strength through flexibility, not intransigence.

To paint a broad picture of the state of the orchestral world, I present three articles/posts, all of which indicate the potential damages of stubbornly intractable actions within musician groups, and one about an orchestra which decided long ago to become more rather than less involved, to give back more rather than less; and how they could become a model for the rest of us.

stubborn intransigence

Stubborn Intransigence

Excerpted from the full post We Have Met The Enemy…. | by Bill Eddins | Sticks and Drones, Eddins not so gently points out some logical contradictions of standard (if perhaps a bit stereotyped) opinions of many musicians (including myself at one time or another!). Sometimes simplicity is the best messenger. Then comes the real bombshell, which I highlight in the quote.

Eddins states-

A few hard realities for all orchestral musicians to keep in mind–

1) No. Your orchestra would not be in tremendously better shape if you were running it. You went to school for music. Knowing how to play your instrument does not give you an understanding of how to run a business;

2) Any rule you have put into your orchestra’s contract that limits access to media in any way is seriously detrimental to your continued livelihood;

3) The orchestra in your town is not there for your benefit. It is there for the benefit of the audience. The audience is paramount and any consideration about anything that does not put the audience first is seriously detrimental to your continued livelihood.

An orchestra is a very personnel-intensive organization. It’s expensive, and if you start adding benefits and everything else the cost/benefit ratio is fairly scary.

Any Board Chair, Executive Director, or Musician (Union) Representative who advocates, presents, or otherwise condones any contract that squeezes every last penny out of the organization in salaries and benefits without an honest and practical fiscal plan that admits that we are in the non-profit business is doing irreparable damage to whatever institution they claim to serve.


Image Credit

musicians damage selves with spite

Are musicians cutting off our own noses?

In other words, musicians must band together (orchestra together?) to discourage reactionary and emotional actions in favor of engaging more collaboratively with boards and management, and moving toward updating and strengthening union rules to allow for more creative and competitive policies for performances, recordings, broadcasts, outreach, education and volunteering, among other changes required if orchestras are to survive, let alone thrive.

Here's the Rant-

I have been accused of "union slamming" in response to earlier posts on this subject. How would I benefit from "slamming" the very organization responsible for professional security throughout my career? Instead, I am angry with my more radical colleagues for potentially threatening, by their antagonistic behavior, the very union job I seek to keep! Grudging and resentful acceptance of a few tiny changes, along with footdragging and badmouthing, does not show collaborative, coordinated and contributing spirit.

If I were rich and wanting to support the arts, I would not give a cent to grumbling sticks in the mud, mules who go the opposite direction of anything I might suggest to improve the organization, who offer horse and buggy solutions to jet engine problems.

Dismissive, haughty, demanding, uncooperative people do not inspire generosity.

On the other hand, if musicians show willingness to consider and support even a few fresh ideas, and who demonstrate a genuine desire to contribute personally, not just musically, then I would be much more likely to go out on a financial limb and take a chance.

End of Rant.

If anyone still believes the arts can simply demand unlimited money and unlimited job security without compromise, he or she needs to read the news more often. Look at this recent article written by Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal, where you'll see the following statement:

High-culture unions that fight to hang on to an untenable status quo are shooting themselves in the head. Labor leaders invariably respond to managerial cries of disaster-around-the-corner by arguing that their members should not be made to suffer today for the managerial mistakes of the past. But in the end, it doesn't matter who made the first blunder. Everybody in the culture business, union leaders included, has been guilty of chronic myopia when it comes to outmoded business models. The point is that there is no longer any alternative to root-and-branch fiscal reform.

Ouch. That hurts. So what are orchestral musicians going to do about it?

One example of an orchestra committed to staying relevant in their own community, literally volunteering much of their free time to social outreach far beyond any music making. You may think that kind of orchestra is one of many struggling "community" orchestras which have little choice but to reach out. But you would be wrong.

The idealistic orchestra described above is the Berlin Philharmonic, one of the oldest and most established in the world. (Details about Berlin Phil's model can be found in this post from Tony Woodcock's Blog.)

The players of the Berlin Phil ALL contribute numerous hours beyond their contracted duties, to form chamber groups and perform (unpaid), to volunteer for non-musical social programs, to constantly re-evaluate their policies and adjust them as necessary. THAT kind of orchestra will survive the avalanche the orchestra world is experiencing as we speak. The musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic are taking it upon themselves to MAKE sure they survive.

I see the musician unions in the U.S. thriving, that is, IF enough of us performers can urge them to collaborate, coordinate and contribute way more than we were obliged to do the past 50 years.

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16 comments for “We Have Met The Enemy…. and they include musicians among us. Urgent need to collaborate, coordinate, contribute.

  1. Bob Nichols
    May 16, 2011 at

    David, it has been awhile, for some reason, since I last visited these issues/blogs – they have been greatly reduced. I really appreciated this particular thread. It was like a welcomed and fresh scent of Spring, not all that common on this chilly, damp, day (May 16, 46 degrees). Your posts, David, are always pertinent and well thought out. I am glad you have not stopped, and are still such an important part of this orchestra!

    • May 20, 2011 at

      Hello Bob, I apologize for the huge delay in responding. It is so good to hear from you. I hope you and Pat are well.

      Thank you for your comment about the union article. It’s a razor’s edge of a topic! Let’s hope the more sensible of us musicians prevail.

  2. Lee
    May 2, 2011 at

    Well done you speak the truth.

  3. April 30, 2011 at

    ¡Bravo! You honesty is refreshing and your courage to be applauded.

    I have noticed over the last few months that the US is catching up fast with the EU and South America when it comes to innovative classical music initiatives which is really exciting. Scratch below the surface however and it seems that the vast majority of these are lead by the freelance community.

    The bottom line is without a huge change in attitude from competition to collaboration and leaving oversized individual egos on the part of players and unions in the trash can, there will be more orchestra fatalities.

    Successful businesses have continued to adapt and grow over the years. Why should orchestras be any different?

    • May 20, 2011 at

      Marion, as I wrote to my previous commenter, Keith, I am so sorry to half “lost” these comments until now. Thank you for your thought. You are certainly a leader in these ideas, and have certainly influenced me! Let me know if you would like to Skype sometime and charge each other’s spirits. D

  4. April 29, 2011 at

    The Musicians Union is all but dead here in the north bay. Really there are almost no Union jobs and bar jobs now pay less than what they did 30 years ago. Part of this problem is Ascap who go around and badger bars if they play live music. Like a dime will get back to the original writer.
    I was a teamster for 20 years and all they did for us was collect our money and then “negotiate” the next contract which was a heck of alot like the old contract. Unfortunately we as a culture are going back to the 30s and 40s work climate that created the unions in the first place.
    As far as music goes I’m glad there are secure jobs for people that have dedicated so much of their time and life to music. Without a union you are only as employable as your last gig.

    • May 20, 2011 at

      Keith, I am so sorry for not noticing your comment, along with those of other readers, this past month. I used to get email notices, and have not been getting them.

      Your comment is very insightful, with your history and all. I may be bugging you for more of your opinions on the subject! Thanks again for your thoughts, valuable as always.

  5. April 29, 2011 at

    Thanks for a fantastic post! The thing that I think is innovative about the Berlin Philharmonic model is that much of their outreach goes toward teaching children music… All over the world. I think to a certain extent the idea that we, as teachers, are training the audiences of the future is a bit of a cop out because we should be preparing children for a life time of participation. On the other hand, I can see that for many musically interested children, a workshop with an elite orchestra could well be the catalyst to keep that child giving back to the orchestra in adulthood.

    • April 29, 2011 at

      Thanks for your comment. It’s nice to know that others agree with the logical changes we need to see in the attitudes of orchestral performers.

  6. April 29, 2011 at

    The quote did not work: “Instead, I am angry with my more radical colleagues for potentially threatening, by their antagonistic behavior, the very union job I seek to keep!”

    • April 29, 2011 at

      Hi Robin, what do you mean by “The quote did not work”?

      • May 1, 2011 at

        Too easy, I tried to use the “lesser-than” and “greater-than” signs twice for a French-style quote, but the browser interprets that as an HTML tag, and so you only see the diamond in my comment.

      • May 20, 2011 at

        Ahh. I understand. Do you speak French as well?

    • May 20, 2011 at

      Thanks for all your comments Robin. I apologize for the delay in responding. I am experiencing “technical difficulties” with comment notifications. Please stay tuned for more radical articles. D

  7. April 29, 2011 at

    The way you wrote this is FABULOUS!
    In my experience as a teacher and graduate student, I have found unions to be self-serving power-hungry politicians. ALL my experience with them tells me that they avoid addressing anything serious and avoid actually representing those who elected them. All they want is conflict for the sake of gaining some unfathomable type of influence.

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