Motown Maestros Maul Mayor, Stifle Symphony

Musicians from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra picketed Motor City Mayor Dave Bing's State of the City speech Tuesday, capping a strike that led to the cancellation of the orchestra's 2010-2011 season. In an AP story, a labor academic says that seeing classical musicians picketing is as surprising as seeing a wayward violin bow knock a man's toupée off his head:

"Musicians are not auto workers — they're not normally militant," [Clark University professor of industrial relations Gary] Chaison said. He saw the same dynamic running through Wisconsin and elsewhere affecting the Detroit Symphony.

"It's almost become a sign of good management to face down the unions," Chaison said. "At one time a good manager and good state administrators, governors and mayors would build their reputations on being able to get along with unions."

Contrary to Chaison's claim, symphony orchestra players strike pretty regularly. The players of Cleveland's world-class orchestra went on strike for less than a day in January. The Seattle Symphony Orchestra's union authorized a strike in December, but settled on a contract last month. (This was not the first instance of classical labor unrest in the Emerald City: In 2006, during a dispute between musicians and the Seattle Symphony's music director, principal horn John Cerminaro was subjected to a campaign of threats and vandalism.) In 2005, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra musicians walked out for two months, returning to play only after the National Labor Relations Board declared the action an illegal strike. In 1996, the San Francisco, Atlanta, Oregon and Philadelphia Orchestras all walked out. The Honolulu Symphony struck in 1986, 1990 and throughout what would have been the 1993-1994 season. (The Honolulu Symphony declared bankruptcy last year.) 

In fact, you might say performing arts organizations are particularly important in understanding labor relations, because their unions comprise highly skilled workers who can actually bring production to a halt without violence, sympathy strikes, intimidation, or regulatory capture.

Arts unions never want to admit that shutting down business is the purpose of a strike: During the 2007-2008 Writers Guild of America strike, I got yelled at by the screenwriter of Rugrats In Paris after I suggested the WGA should have been congratulating itself on the unquestionable public service of having shut down the Golden Globes. Why not do a victory dance when you get objective proof of your clout? 

But while Hollywood studios are private, profit-making entities, classical performance always runs at a loss, with a "performance gap" that needs to be covered even when the show sells out. You can read my long-ago Reason column on this, and if you have any interest in the crabbed economics of classical performance, you should check out Robert J. Flanagan's report [pdf] on the Baumol Effect and the evolution of orchestral business models.

It should be pretty clear that a business plan where you lose money on every unit needs to be changed, and one of the DSO's proposals involves getting the players to act a little more entrepreneurially, by doing more promotional outreach. That plan doesn't make sense to at least one union member quoted in this Detroit News editorial:

After the so-called final contract offer was rejected by musicians Saturday, Joe Goldman, a member of the bargaining committee, asked, "Why do they want to pick this time to reinvent the model?"

The first answer to that question is that this is Detroit, and few organizations here have survived without changing their operating models to reflect the city's diminished economic status.

Beyond that, the DSO is staring at insolvency. Its banks have called $54 million in loans. Its endowment has dropped to $19 million from $80 million in a decade. Its donor base has withered to 5,000 from 25,000, with many of its most generous individual and corporate contributors no longer in the picture.

The choice is to change the model now, or go out of business within a few years.

The Free Press says more or less the same, with more sympathy for the musicians:

Now an organization that has been bleeding its endowment to stay afloat will have to dig even deeper into its seed corn to satisfy subscribers demanding refunds, and a corps of talented musicians who balked at a 23% salary cut will earn no salary at all. If either side has struck a blow for some transcendent principle of economic justice here, we fail to discern it.

It is sad but perhaps inevitable that many classical music lovers will react by invoking a pox on both sides' houses. Sad, because neither management nor union negotiators have behaved villainously in the 21-week strike. Inevitable, because the negotiators' inability to bridge the modest gap that separated them in the end suggests a failure of emotional intelligence, not an irreconcilable clash of principle.

If neither management nor labor is acting villainously but they can’t come to agreement, that suggests there’s less money available than either side wants to admit. You solve that problem by cutting costs and/or bringing in more revenue. An orchestra may work at a higher level of technical skill, organization and potential audience than a wedding band, but they’re both in the same business. These days, classical performers love to pretend they’re non-snooty regular Joes who want a broader audience, don’t mind when bucktoothed yokels applaud between movements, and so on. But the economic model is still based on the idea that the product is a public good of such transcendent value that you don’t have to bother selling it.

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  • LarryA||

    You solve that problem by cutting costs and/or bringing in more revenue.

    Unfortunately music school doesn’t feature management classes teaching any concepts within a light year of this.

  • Cambion||

    Actually, the conservatory I went to stressed the entrepreneurial nature of the music industry. Everyone had to take at least one class dealing with the business side of things.
    We were also told to stay away from the AFM unless we got a symphony gig or need it to play for national advertisements. It's a union so weak it can't even get royalties for its members. Singers have it better as they're covered by AFTRA and AFTRA owns SAG so they've actually got some bargaining power. Even then, it was stressed that union dues are a rip-off until you're actually doing projects with decent royalties.

  • mr simple||

    You'd think that people in an entertainment industry that only survives by rent seeking would realize how bad a strike would be for them. If most orchestras in this country went away a majority of people would not even notice. Then again, I've worked with and known a lot of performing and visual artists and this kind if delusional self importance is just par for the course. The real world doesn't apply when you're creative.

  • NEA||

    really?

  • sevo||

    Really.

  • Morpheus||

    How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?

  • rather||

    How would you know the difference me and the fake blog whores?

  • Mr. FIFY||

    Stupid shits. One wonders if supposedly intelligent musicians... eh, skip it. I can't put together a sufficiently-disgusted sentence for this latest episode.

  • Hysterical Progressive||

    But, but, if we don't get high-speed rail, and lose our symphonies, then, we'll fall even further behind Europe, and they'll never respect us. Is this country TRYING to make me the laughing-stock when I go backpacking there? You don't understand, my self-esteem NEEDS this. I NEED to feel worthy of Europeans.

  • ||

    "Why do they want to pick this time to reinvent the model?"

    I suspect this comment wasn't meant the way it was taken.

    I read it more to mean, "Do you have any idea how many overpaid and underworked people there are working for this city?!"

    Why change the model now?! ...if the model is people getting overpaid for doing very little--why not go after somebody who doesn't actually bring in a paying audience?

    That's how I read it.

    Anybody who thinks unions are good for our nation's economy should first explain Detroit. ...imploding Detroit, where they don't bother sending the firemen to put out fires unless the fire is threatening an inhabited building.

  • Invisible Finger||

    why not go after somebody who doesn't actually bring in a paying audience?

    They are.

  • ||

    RoboCellist is the future of orchestral music in Old Detroit!

  • SIV||

    Animatronic bears don't strike!

  • Paulnut Allergy||

    Old Detroit has a cancer. That cancer is Eminem.

  • Kolohe||

    The ED (Entertainment Droid) Series 209 is the far superior machine

  • JoshINHB||

    Symphonies and Choo Choo trains.

    Lefties love the 1850s.

  • Hysterical Progressive||

    It's the future!! We'll be in the 1950s when Europe is in the 2050s. DO YOU WANT THAT?!

  • sevo||

    SF's orchestra stuck, oh, 10 years ago. The claim was the musicians should get the same compensation as (seriously; wife and I got this in phone solicitations) airline pilots and doctors.
    The orchestra has never gotten another penny from us. Toot your damn horn and shut up; it'll make you look more intelligent.

  • ||

    My performing arts .org is being sucked up by a larger one, because we operated in the red, intentionally, every single year. We would have gone under without the merger.

    I kid you not, the mgmt consistently submitted budgets every year with $6 million + holes in them, of fixed expenses over projected revenues, which our shit-headed board rubber stamped without fail. The assumption was that one or two of our wealthier patrons would fill the gap. They did, but got sick of doing so a couple years ago. D'oh.

    a corps of talented musicians who balked at a 23% salary cut will earn no salary at all.

    Karma's a bitch when it catches up with you.

  • rather||

    I heard the porn industry has experienced a downturn. Come on JW, that's the closest you've ever cum to performing arts.

  • ||

    Cleveland and "world-class" should never frequent the same sentence. Just sayin'!

  • rather||

    Duh, they saved Cleveland!

  • ¢||

    Workers unite to play music written to flatter absolute monarchs.

    And Stalin!

    (The version of Shostakovich's 5th I have is by the Cleveland World Class Symphony Workers.)

  • The Heresiarch||

    "Workers unite to play music written to flatter absolute monarchs."

    It's a funny line, but I think that only a very small part of the musical canon was written for "absolute monarchs." Minor nobility, sure (think Haydn with Esterhazy or Beethoven with Archduke Rudolph), but not absolute monarchs. Couperin le grand and Lully do not usually figure too prominently in modern programs.

  • Spoonman.||

    Well, Shostakovich wrote a lot of "fuck you" to Stalin, too.

  • johnl||

    This really is a golden age of the arts. KCRW, Youtube, The Current From Minnesota, sat radio, Myspace, and so many other devices give artists access to broad audiences. Any organization that's gone through tens of millions in endowment in a few years is just on the wrong side of history.

  • The Heresiarch||

    Well, I do not agree that we are in a golden age of arts. Merely because we have the media to record and transmit performances does not necessarily mean that the performances which are being transmitted possess any artistic merit. A million channels of shit on YouTube is still a pile of shit, any way you slice it.

    We are in a unique time in history, in which he have the technology to transmit and record written and performed works to an extent unparalleled in human existence. But our actual artistic production, in my opinion (and, I'm sure, contrary to the opinion of many reading this) is rather poor. The reasons for this are manifold: a compulsory educational system which discourages artistic specialization and the lack of learned, aristocratic patrons chief amongst them. But ironically, in respect to musical production, one of the reasons why moderns produce works so abysmal compared to those a century and a half ago can be, at least in part, attributed to that very technology which you praise. In 19th century Europe, anyone who wanted to listen to music had to play it himself or hear a live performance. The number of musicians (and composers) as a percentage of society necessarily had to be higher, and as a consequence, there was a much higher chance that a genius would be musically trained from a young age. Now, we may listen to music whenever we wish via recordings. There is no reason to train so many people musically from a young age. And thus, as a result, we have a huge corpus of recorded music of past masters without a real living tradition of great musicians composing great music as in the past.

  • ||

    It's a kinda counter intuitive argument you've got goin' there.

    Music wasn't better during the Baroque, when it was often composed by specialists for specialist audiences. And some of the best innovations in music--like in opera--were innovations tailored to appeal to general audiences.

    There are probably more people listening to classical now than there ever was before--and as far as children being taught to read and play music? I doubt there has ever been as many children taking music lessons around the world as there are right now.

    I agree that we're in a period of artistic stagnation, and the digitization of so much of the art world is probably a big part of that. But I...uh...don't think more middlebrow art is the answer--and that's what I'm hearing a lot of people cry for...

    In fact, I think part of what's making so much of the art world so stagnant right now is the middle of the road stuff. The underground is gone--everything that used to be underground is now available to every boring suburbanite with an internet connection. It's the move up to middlebrow that's the cause of that...

    So much of the artistic innovation of the past was innovations of what used to be low culture--and it's that raising of low culture into middlebrow that's really turning everything into the color blah.

    Show me something really interesting, authentic and vibrant in literature, music, theater, art, etc. since 1900 or so, and I'll show you something that came from the outcasts, the subcultures and the underclasses. If we're stuck in the blahs, it's because the underclass is all middlebrow now.

    I'm not about to cry because what was the underclass has all moved up in class a half step to be middlebrow, but if I'm calling it like I see it, the issue isn't that the fine art world has gone to the dogs; it's that the bottom of the barrel has climbed its way up to middlebrow now.

  • The Heresiarch||

    "Music wasn't better during the Baroque"

    Well, I beg to differ. Music in the Baroque, by my tastes, was much better. When I read of the improvisatory ability of Handel, Bach, and Scarlatti (in addition to many other less well-known musicians whom I may not discuss for lack of space), and compare their vast output with composers today, I conclude that both performers and composers were much more skilled then than they are now. A relatively lesser composer like Telemann dwarfs our Adams, Glass, and Boulez.

    "when it was often composed by specialists for specialist audiences."

    I suppose that this depends on what one considers a "specialist." It is true, I believe, that the audience had, on average, a much better musical education than today, and this is precisely one of the points I was trying to make.

    "There are probably more people listening to classical now than there ever was before"

    I've heard this before, and I find it hard to empirically verify. It is true that more people today hear classical music today, by virtue of the greatly increased population and means of propagation. But in order to determine what percentage of the population listens to the music (as in, devotes both significant time and attention to it), and with what understanding, one would have to examine the day-to-day habits of listeners and their education.

    "and as far as children being taught to read and play music? I doubt there has ever been as many children taking music lessons around the world as there are right now."

    Again, by sheer virtue of the increase in population, this may be true. But musical education is not fungible. Learning the rudiments of scales and fumbling through elementary pieces I do not consider to be a musical education on par with what, say Saint-Saens received (who, by the age of ten, had memorized all 32 of Beethoven's sonatas). This, as I said, is a result of our educational system. What Leopold Mozart of our day will train his son for hours every day in harmony and counterpoint?

    "Show me something really interesting, authentic and vibrant in literature, music, theater, art, etc. since 1900 or so, and I'll show you something that came from the outcasts, the subcultures and the underclasses."

    I completely disagree. I'll confine myself to music: How are the works of Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, and Scriabin the products of the underclass? They were all members of the musical establishment, and in demand worldwide. They are the products of an educated society with educated teachers giving many children a thorough musical training (as defined above). This is not the society we live in, hence our poor musical production.

  • ||

    Further to Heresiarch's point about the underclass -- Rachmaninov was a member of the Russian aristocracy (a fairly old one, going back four hundred years or so).

  • rr||

    My 6 year old can play "Old Macdonald" with two hands and I kid you not he is the school prodigy. "Mary had a little lamb" makes heads turn in the hall. This is at a fancy private school which admittedly is a little over-focused on the Bible. People have pretty low expectations these days.

  • Slap the Enlightened!||

    People have pretty low expectations these days.

    Not all of us.

    But I do have to wonder - what the hell does Detroit, of all places, need with a symphony orchestra?

  • Mr Whipple||

    The only good artist is a starving artist? I might be inclined to agree with that.

  • Invisible Finger||

    How much of the proletariat in the 1850's heard classical music? Hardly any of them. Large orchestras have always been for the rich and a minuscule number of people extremely interested in such music. It really wasn't until the age of recorded music that the lower classes got much exposure to orchestral music.

  • Upgrayyed||

    The current is state subsidized, so probably want to leave that one out of the mix, although I do enjoy it.

  • IceTrey||

    I hear New Orleans has openings for street performers.

  • Alan Vanneman||

    Symphony orchestras have rarely been money-makers. In Europe they are an integral part of the common culture and have almost always been subsidized in one manner or another, probably because Europe is such a top-down civilization, but in the U.S. they're pretty much the equivalent of a trophy wife. And Detroit is scarcely in shape to afford a trophy wife.

  • Invisible Finger||

    Sometimes Vanneman DOES make sense.

  • Paul||

    A trophy wife that no one notices?

    I do like the trophy wife analogy, but I would argue that's what professional sports teams are. They bring much more prestige to a city, and, well, if she's a particularly hot trophy wife, people will actually notice her.

  • Spoonman.||

    At least in Texas there are simply too many symphony orchestras. Dallas has an excellent one, so there's really no need for the cities of Fort Worth, Austin, and for some goddamn reason Plano to subsidize their own, but they insist on it, building fancy halls for them and all. So donors get spread out and you end up with empty seats at all of them.

  • ||

    Do French Horn players in St Louis and Fort Worth chew their nails anxiously when they know the guy from Detroit is going to hit thew Waiver Wire?

  • Paul||

    The Seattle Symphony Orchestra's union authorized a strike in December, but settled on a contract last month. (This was not the first instance of classical labor unrest in the Emerald City: In 2006, during a dispute between musicians and the Seattle Symphony's music director, principal horn John Cerminaro was subjected to a campaign of threats and vandalism.)

    We have a symphony in Seattle... and they went on strike?

  • MUSIC SUCKS!||

    Reason readers are disappointingly but unsurprisingly reactionary. Read a little more about the situation in Detroit. Who is more likely to blame for losing so much of the endowment? Management or musicians? Do you think the endowment shrank by over $60 million because the orchestra sounds 75% worse than it did 10 years ago? Why shouldn't the orchestra be pissed off? They've already agreed to a generous reduction in compensation, which the management refused. I guess those pansies should be glad to make any money for the useless garbage they do.

    "I hear New Orleans has openings for street performers." "The only good artist is a starving artist? I might be inclined to agree with that." "Stupid shits. One wonders if supposedly intelligent musicians... eh, skip it. I can't put together a sufficiently-disgusted sentence for this latest episode." "Symphonies and Choo Choo trains. Lefties love the 1850s."
    You guys just rock, plain and simple.

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