Classical Musicians Take to the Barricades (Again)

Longhair labor disputes are the inevitable product of an impossible business model.


Leopold! Leopold!

The future of longhair music is, yet again, threatened by a rising crescendo of labor disputes with musicians. Ensembles all over the midwest and as far off as Florida and Texas are locked in bitter standoffs over managers' efforts rein in, and in some cases reduce, salary and benefits for players. NPR's Korva Coleman listens in

Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra are locked out in Minneapolis, an action that's wiped out the first two months of the performance season. Not far away, there's a labor dispute churning between the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and its players, although they're still performing. Then there's the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, which is having trouble agreeing with its musicians' union and canceled the first part of its season, notes the Washington Post.

As always, the most difficult issue is money.

The labor unhappiness is spreading. Last month, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians went on strike for three days, missing a Saturday night performance. They returned after accepting "modest salary increases and hefty health-care premium jumps," according to the Chicago Tribune.

Nonprofit Quarterly's Ruth McCambridge reports that "the current rash of walkouts, lockouts and cancellations of seasons or parts of seasons is truly overwhelming." But it's not unprecedented. Detroit, Cleveland, Seattle, San Francisco, St. Louis, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Portland, Honolulu, and other towns have all seen orchestra walkouts in recent years.

I did an interview with Minnesota Public Radio last night on this issue, and it's a favorite topic because musical performance raises some fundamental questions about labor economics. In one sense, classical musicians are a model of legitimate organizing power: They are superhumanly skilled and can actually shut down production just by not showing up. Chambermaids, Teamsters, NFL referees, and even, for one infamous season, NFL players can't do that—though I hear the Teamsters know other ways to get what they want. 

At the same time, even superb skills are only as valuable as the demand for them, and classical players face a growing problem: Their performances cost more than they earn, and not just a little bit more. Robert Flagagan's great 2008 study "Economic Environment of American Symphony Orchestras" [pdf] found that the average "performance gap"—the difference between what orchestras earn in ticket sales and what it costs to put on performances—was climbing north of 45 percent. "[P]erformance income earned by individual symphonies in the sample covered from 77 to 23 percent of their performance expenses in 2000," Flanagan wrote. "None of the 32 symphonies incurred even one year in which performance income exceeded performance expenses." 

Those numbers seem to have gotten worse, if the Minnesota Orchestra's annual report [pdf] is any indication. The ensemble brings in only 33 percent of its budget from ticket sales. That's a performance gap of 67 percent. Even the old joke about losing money on every deal but making it up in volume can't cover that shortfall. 

It also steals some of the emotional thunder from the musicians' argument. There are no greedy fatcats hoarding all the profits, because there are no profits. And the losses are not covered entirely by willing parties. Both the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra get money from the Minnesota Arts Board and from the National Endowment for the Arts. As declining attendance numbers suggest, not everybody in the Gopher State or in the U.S.A. is a classical music fan, but they all have to pay for it. 

Nor are the musicians poorly paid. Minnesota Orchestra's proposed contract [pdf], which musicians consider insufficiently generous, would put the average salaries start at $89,000 a year, with base pay of $78,000. The St. Paul Chamber players pull in an average [pdf] of $90,000 a year. Both packages include good benefits and more vacation and sick time than most Americans would recognize as standard. Again, this is skilled labor that not everybody can do, but many of us would consider being well compensated for playing music a pretty nice existence.

Also, there is competition for these jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which only counts full-timers, lists more than 42,000 professional musicians nationwide. The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists has more than 90,000 recording-artist members, and every year a fresh crop of music majors graduates. Last year The New York Times got its dickey in a flap over something most of us would not consider scandalous: low-cost foreign orchestras touring the United States with musicians of uncertain nationality. 

Thus, the attempts to get costs under control, which have spurred so much labor agitation in the orchestra pit, need to be seen in a context of economic change. This backgrounder [pdf] from St. Paul lays out how donations have been shrinking in recent years, but it would be false to claim the economic crisis is strictly the result of the recession. In his "Economic Environment" study, Flanagan describes something unusual (though sadly not unique) about orchestra collective bargain agreements: They not only set the terms of compensation but usually establish minimum numbers of players who have to be employed. It's not hard to see how that model, combined with declining attendance and less philanthropic funding, becomes unsustainable. 

It's also an open question whether so many musicians, including the inevitable guy who sits around all night waiting to hit the triangle once, are necessary. Many works of the High Romantic repertoire (for which the term "long-hair music" was coined) are written that way, but that's not true of much of music from before or after that period. Everybody I know who writes music for a living is mindful of the need to do as much as possible with the fewest players, and those economics have a long pedigree. You can play most of J.S. Bach with a dozen musicians or fewer. Here is the fifth Brandenburg Concerto, a work nobody ever accused of lacking color, variety, and musical ideas, being played by just seven people: 

The most interesting question MPR put to me is whether orchestras need to be changing the way they engage their audiences as well as their labor models. This seems clearly to be true. If ticket sales are not covering costs and donors are less willing to give, that's not because of disinterest in the product. Classical is one of the few genres that has been gaining sales in both traditional and download, and that's not even counting the booming market for the 50 Shades of Grey tie-in CD, which is currently number 54 in Amazon music sales. How can a business model be so rigid that it can't take any advantage of that demand? 

In a fine piece on arts funding long ago, Jim Henley explained that the best reason to get rid of public funding for the arts isn't to save the public funding, but to save the arts: 

Years ago, tragedy struck the Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland when the Clinton-era NEA declined to renew the Center's grant because it was not doing enough "outreach." In his lament in the organization's newsletter, Director Allan Lefcowitz explained why the loss was such a problem: an NEA grant has a multiplier effect. The major foundations view it as a Seal of Approval. NEA money attracts anxious private money.

If the NEA's outsized influence on private giving struck Lefcowitz as a problem, he was too tactful to say so. But it strikes me as one. The NEA has been an excuse for private donors to abdicate the responsibilities of connoisseurship. Not only did we have plenty of Shakespeare before the NEA, we had real patronage. John Quinn paid for modernism out of his own pocket, bankrolling Yeats, Eliot and Joyce at various times. He didn't look for official sanction before doing so. Get rid of the Official 1 percent, and perhaps the Unofficial 99 percent might recover a modicum of Quinn's courage—maybe find the next Young Dana Gioia out on the road, or he them.

Something similar seems to be at work in the way orchestras engage audiences. The funding source have been so unchanging for so long that nobody seems willing to think about the music business as a business. Classical musicians take great pains these days to show that they're not a bunch of stuffed shirts, that they don't mind when buck-toothed yokels applaud between movements, and so on. But very little of that attitude has leaked into the way they put on shows and get paid for it. 

NEXT: Good Morning America Weatherman Comes Out, Announces Engagement

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  1. FIGARO!

  2. At the labor rallies, they play “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”

  3. It seems like the music unions suffer somewhat from the high school band mentality — no matter how much they suck, you must let every interested player in the band. My high school’s band was about 25% percussionists due to this.

    1. Really? My high school band put all the no-talent tards on a random woodwind instrument, and told them to just play softly until they had satisfied their fine arts requirement.

  4. This is always a problem with public funding for “the arts”; is the money going to “arts” that the public actually like? If not, why not? Why not subsidize tickets for The Rolling Stones? Why not spend NEA money on exhibits of the work of Frank Frazetta? And, conversely, why spend money on hip in-jokes like Piss Christ? The people it amuses are not, by and large, poor. Why can’t they pay for their own amusements?

    1. “Because we’re also spending public money on spectator sports.”

      1. End all the subsidies!

      2. I won’t argue with you on that one. Every time I hear of a mayor of governor falling for the “Build me a new stadium at taxpayer expense or I move the franchise”, I get the powerful urge to start slitting throats.

        1. “Twice the smile, for half the effort!”

        2. Jesse Ventura vetoed funding for the new Guthrie Center (I’ve was at the Guthrie in the 1960s and it’s a fine place) in Minneapolis saying “what, we should subsidize stock car racing too?” (unfortunately NASCAR gets huge taxpayer gifts in many other states).

          He also vetoed funding IIANM for the
          Twins and the Vikings. And then he was out of office and guess what?

          He might be birther/truther level crazy and appeared in the excrescence Predator, but I’ll take him over the “intelekshual giant” “top men” we have in charge now.

  5. This wasn’t such a big problem when we had a lot of growth.

    When we had a lot of growth, donations were coming in like mad. Facilities were expanding…

    Chalk this up as yet another reason to abandon Obama’s static economy and to support low tax, pro-growth economic polices: mo’ better arts.

    1. Except for the complete lack of correlation between tax rates and economic growth, you are right.

      1. Well, obviously, if you say so, Tony, then it must be true.

        I think it’s great that you still come here and make these bold pronouncements.

        Like a level 85 Orc Assassination Rogue, you just keep on comin’!

      2. Maybe you should explain the complete lack of correlation between tax rates and tax revenues while we’re at it.

  6. How do orchestras get out of a rigid structure based on generous compensation, minimum staffing levels and a business model that runs at a loss even when it is successful?

    Have the government subsidies end, and then they can all go out of business unless they can attract enough donors or paying customers.

  7. Perhaps the traditional sizeable orchestra is simply not a sustainable business model. The types of music that require such large ensembles to perform are largely victims of fashion and popularity. In the marketplace of music, the trnd has been toward certain types of more popular music, smaller ensembles (think big bands, jazz trios, quartets, quintets, etc., and rock bands). The innovation of new music styles has led to efficiency in staffing and maximization of benefit both to the listening audiences and the the performers who provide them with a desirable product.

    I love classical orchestral and choral music, but either a price increase is in order, or conductors and producers may want to consider making do with lighter, more efficient arrangements.

    1. I’m for whatever lets me see a Mahler symphony on a somewhat regular basis.

      1. Of course you are, you pretentious little taint.

      2. It’s all about you. Forever and ever.

      3. So, you would like someone to provide all the resources it takes to run an outfit like that so you can attend whenever you want, even though the only time you have ever gone is for free through some company giveaway type of deal?

        1. I pay and support, thank you.

          Is there any aspect of civilization that isn’t a more-or-less arbitrary expression of preferences?

  8. They are superhumanly skilled and can actually shut down production just by not showing up.

    Oh please. Just call up any of a dozen local high schools and book the band. Do you know how genuinely entertaining a night of “Louie Louie” and “Theme to Dallas” can be? The marching can be optioned.

    1. You watch too much glee. The big problem with that show is that the musicians are pretty good. Real high school students are not that good.

      1. Glee is about high school marching bands? No wonder it’s such a hit.

  9. It’s interesting I’ve felt for some time that some of the best orchestral music being played today in actually in movie scores.

    1. I suppose that is true in a way. That is where you get new orchestral music with easy popular appeal. But a lot depends on what you mean by “best”.

    2. Change that from “being played” to “being composed” and you have my agreement. I have yet to hear a film score that could match Beethoven. But the Arts took a number of conscious steps away from any connection to popular taste about a century ago, and haven’t been back. Which is why modern ‘highbrow’ music tends to sink without as trace.

    3. Interesting. I always figured you were more of an Edgar Winter fan.

  10. So, who comes up with all those crazy ideas? Wow.

  11. There will, unfortunately, be a certain amount of *violins* at the picket lines. The scabs will be *drummed out* of the union. Any profits by management during the strike are strictly a *flute.* Management shouldn’t think it can *string* people along, because delaying tactics *would wind* up in the trash. They better not have the *brass* to refuse negotiations.

    Thank you, thank you, don’t forget to tip your waitressess…I’ll let myself out.

    1. Enough with this tympanistic rhetoric! You are violating people’s bassic human rights with your dangerous cymbalism. What’s next? A send-up of the marimbidly oboese?

      1. Isn’t it aerophonic? It’s like ten thousand trombones when all you need is a fife.

  12. How many musicians are in an orchestra? How many performers does TSO use on a given night?

    1. Ah yes, the famous melodic calculation debate.

    2. Some ensembles, such as the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, based in New York City, have had more success, although decisions are likely to be deferred to some sense of leadership within the ensemble (for example, the principal wind and string players).

      In other words, republican governance. More on the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra:

      Central to its distinctive personality is its unique practice of sharing and rotating leadership roles. For every work, the members of the orchestra select the concertmaster and the principal players for each section. These players constitute the core group, whose role is to form the initial concept of the piece and to shape the rehearsal process. In the final rehearsals, all members of the orchestra participate in refining the interpretation and execution, with members taking turns listening from the hall for balance, blend, articulation, dynamic range and clarity of expression.

  13. If they would just feature more of Julia Fischer, I’m sure they’d sell a few more seats.

  14. Does this mean Stomp is on strike?!

  15. There are no greedy fatcats hoarding all the profits, because there
    are no profits.

    Profits are paid out as salaries. Check out the SF symphony. From http://www.charitynavigator.or…..orgid=4435 here are two salaries:

    $435,597 0.60% Brent Assink Executive Director
    Other Salaries of Note
    $466,090 0.65% Alexander Barantschik Concertmaster

    I suppose everyone gets a pension as well.

    1. You make some good points here and below. “Non-profit” organizations are hotbeds of wealth concentration for socially approved segments.

  16. If classical music got shut down for a year, I don’t think as many people would notice. Besides, we could just keep on buying the CD’s already out there. Sure, live music is good, but CD players are good too. Thus I think that classical musicians ought not to have clout. Why the fuck are they unionized?

  17. I think that classical musicians ought not to have clout. Why the fuck are they unionized?

    To have clout.

    1. Well screw it. We’ll just buy CD’s and watch you tube videos for one year. Shut them down for a year. Classical music will still be around long after we’re gone.

  18. Classical is one of the few genres that has been gaining sales in both traditional and download, and that’s not even counting the booming market for the 50 Shades of Grey tie-in CD, which is currently number 54 in Amazon music sales. How can a business model be so rigid that it can’t take any advantage of that demand?

    Because people who buy classical are mostly looking for background music at parties or events, or something to listen to in the car, etc. It’s a very different use case from classical concerts and the associated dressing up nicely, fighting traffic and getting ass-raped paying for parking, so you can sit in an uncomfortable chair you’re not supposed to get up from unless the ushers permit you to. Plus you can buy about 15 classical music CDs for the cost of one ticket to a concert.

    The biggest problem? I should know better than to say it to this crowd, but the biggest problem is that none of the classical music is subject to IP, so those CD sales are mostly helping a few famous orchestras rather than all the little local people.

  19. I know that they get paid, but it seemed like a likely thing to me that symphony/orchestra musicians were doing it as a hobby and mostly had hoity toity day jobs like executive positions or were retired. Other than whatever few distinguished composers and solo performers there are, why is classical performing even a primary career that people expect to make a living on or earn benefits from?

  20. For every one “supernaturally skilled” union orchestra musician there are 100 Julliard graduates with 99.5% of the same skill who would be thrilled to take the job at half the pay. It’s precisely like NFL players and Teamsters. These union musicians keep the ticket prices for orchestra concerts so high that classical music fans like me can’t attend many concerts. Screw the unions.

    1. Sorry when the NFL used replacement players (or even when the MLB tried for spring training in ’95), nobody bought them as just as good as the regulars.

  21. Can’t those one-man-band guys save them like millions of dollars?

  22. American Conductor John Axelrod has written a book, “Wie Gor?artige Musik Ensteht..Oder Auch Nicht” (Making Beautiful Music Together…Or Not!), released in Germany, that not only discusses this very issue, but offers ideas to help sustain the orchestra and proposes new paradigms and business models. At the heart of his discussion is how to protect musicians salaries and better integrate the middle class to be more supportive of classical music performance. After all, downloads may help classical music appreciation, but the true goal is to develop the audience who comes to hear the instrument that plays classical music: the orchestra.
    The original English version is not yet available (attention publishers!), but the German edition from B?renreiter/Henschel can be purchased online. Try Amazon!

  23. “Last year The New York Times got its dickey in a flap over something most of us would not consider scandalous: low-cost foreign orchestras”

    Now this! Damn Poles aren’t satisfied taking the plumbing jobs from the French.

  24. I think they are not playing what people will pay for.

    Last year I went to two concerts in Houston, where they played The Matrix and Lord of the Rings scores to the movies, and they were both packed. ~$100 per ticket and you had the usual well-dressed classical fans down to college aged people in t-shirts, jeans, and piercings. I assumed that the orchestra made money on those.

    1. There might be something to that. I will say Los Angeles, in addition to its well-established pedigree of having been the home of Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, Erich Korngold and so on, is the only U.S. city I know where classical-ish music is still a live concern. That includes New York.

      Hollywood types, who don’t fully realize how much more talent it takes to entertain an audience than to be an intellectual or a pundit or a politician, have a lot of inferiority complexes about a lot of things. But they have more or less made peace with the idea that Bernard Herrmann and Jerry Goldsmith and the gang should be taken seriously as composers. LaLa Land boasts America’s best classical station, is the only city where you routinely meet people who are gainfully employed as composers and musicians, and has the venue that Bugs Bunny himself infiltrated in the film from which I took the picture above.

      There are still purists who say this music shouldn’t count because it’s functional rather than objective ? a complaint you’ll notice you don’t hear about all the incidental music Handel, Gluck and Mendelssohn wrote for the theater. Schubert’s Rosamunde music was written for a play for which the text has been lost.

  25. Isaac Bartram| 10.5.12 @ 11:38PM |#
    “Jesse Ventura […]
    He might be birther/truther level crazy and appeared in the excrescence Predator, but I’ll take him over the “intelekshual giant” “top men” we have in charge now.”

    Isaac, I’d say there’s more to that comment than meets the eye.
    Here we have a birther/truther level crazy-whacko, wouldn’t-be-associated-with-him-at-a-biker-bar, but he understood the role of the government and did no harm.
    Is Oromney more likeable than Robama? Is one more intelligent than the other? I don’t care; both of them think they are smart enough to run my life.
    Johnson (or Paul, if he were running) could favor aliens playing center field while reciting greeny mantras, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference. Neither of them think they are smart enough to tell me what to do.
    *THAT* is all I ask of a politico.

  26. Oh, and…
    The SF Symphony musicians went on strike 12(?) years ago. In an LTE in the deadtree news, a player made the claim that all of them ‘deserved’ the income of a doctor or an airline pilot, since they had to study and practice as they do.
    Disregarding the presumption that an income is ‘deserved’ rather than rewarded by market action, the further claim is that horn-tootlers should be rewarded equally with those whose decisions can well be life-or-death issues.
    Pretty sure this encapsulates the Prog viewpoint; Input trumps output; intent trumps result; what I desire must be delivered. If not by suasion, then at gun point.
    Suffice to say, the Sevo household ended “membership” in the symphony association instantly.

  27. Correction: The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Employment Statistics program (whence the employment stats) counts both full- and part-time workers, as long as they are covered under Unemployment Insurance tax. Wages reported are hourly only, because this occupation does not work a typical 2080-hour year.

  28. Longhair labor disputes are the inevitable product of an impossible business model.

  29. If you begin with the assumption that money is everyone’s first priority, then you get these tortuous chains of illogic by applying economic theory to things where money isn’t the first priority. I heard a similar story mention a book in which this claim was made: it takes just as many people now as it did in Haydn’s time to play one of his symphonies, therefore the classical music “business” hasn’t improved its productivity. That’s like claiming that it now ought to take three minutes to play Beethoven’s ninth symphony, when, as written, it takes about an hour.

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