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 Reason.com 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.