Valuing musicians, Valuing audience

The devaluing of symphony musicians in America has been a hot topic lately, as the orchestras of Atlanta, Chicago, Indianapolis, Minnesota, St. Paul, Richmond, Jacksonville, Spokane, and Seattle have all undergone major labor disputes this fall alone. In Atlanta, Indianapolis, Minnesota, and St. Paul, the musicians have been locked out as management denies them their salaries and health insurance as a leveraging tool in negotiations. The musicians in Atlanta settled the dispute by making huge concessions–a 17% pay cut, a shorter season, a cut to the number of musicians in the orchestra, and greater flexibility in their working conditions. Musicians in Indianapolis managed to hang on to their benefits and pension, but not without taking a 32% paycut and a reduced season. Musicians in St. Paul and Minneapolis remain locked out, ironically at the same time as Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis undergoes a $50 million renovation.

Musicians in these orchestras have been alarmed and offended by management’s apparent disregard for their hard work and artistic achievements. And, as we saw last year after the Detroit Symphony musicians’ 6-month strike, there is nothing holding back these talented musicians from seeking jobs elsewhere. After the organization’s reputation was severely affected by the strike, not only did many of the best musicians in Detroit leave for more stable work, but many young musicians, fresh out of the top music conservatories, didn’t bother auditioning for the DSO. In Atlanta and the twin cities, similar consequences are now taking place as musicians feel undervalued and expendable. Though it may be too soon to tell the long term consequences of so many musicians leaving these once top-tier organizations, it is no small possibility that we may begin to witness a major decline in the artistic quality of America’s symphony orchestras.

But there is another group of people besides the musicians that orchestra managements are underestimating and insulting, and this group is one that has the power to act as a game changer. It is the orchestras’ community: the audience. By literally forcing out their best musicians by bullying them in unfair negotiations, management is making the assumption that, once these musicians are gone, audiences won’t be able to tell the difference. In St. Paul, they’re trying to buy out the most experienced players in the ensemble so that they can hire new, young musicians to take their place at a far lower pay scale. In Louisville last year, management attempted to replace the entire orchestra through Craigslist ads. They are counting on the audience to stay on their side, no matter who’s playing the music, and no matter how “well” they’re playing it.

Though management may be able to take away the musicians’ salaries and benefits during these lockouts, the one thing they do not have the power to take away is the community’s support for the musicians. Their biggest mistake is in their belief that audiences are not educated enough to know the difference between a first-tier orchestra and a third-tier orchestra, and this huge piece of misjudgement could lose them this battle.

When the Minnesota Orchestra Musicians recently self-organized to play a Gala concert to a sold out crowd, the community support was tremendous. All accounts of the concert, from the Minneapolis Star Tribune to various audience members’ blogs, mention a feeling of solidarity between the community and the musicians. Even on Facebook, it is clear who their community supports. Go to the Minnesota Orchestra’s page (which, by the way, has removed its picture of the musicians from its profile), and you’ll see comment after comment in support of the musicians and in critique of the administration. On the other hand, the page dedicated solely to the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra has gained almost 5,000 fans since it was created last May, over half that of the organization that has rejected them (and whose page has been around since 2009).

Minnesota is just one example of many that demonstrates how loyal audiences are to their musicians. And this audience loyalty is the one ray of hope that keeps me optimistic despite the current apocalypse that seems to be hitting so many symphonies across the country. While managements of orchestras across the country seem to think that audiences just won’t notice if the artistic integrity of their organization is sacrificed for profit, their own obliviousness is becoming more and more apparent as it becomes clear that the public’s loyalty lies with those that make the music they come to hear, NOT with the administrators above them.

Despite what we hear about all the recent strikes and lockouts, many orchestras right now are doing well. The St. Louis Symphony is having its best year in a decade. The Cleveland Orchestra recently ratified a new three-year labor contract that included both sacrifices and benefits for both sides, and was reached quickly and without contention. The Louisiana Philharmonic is doing extremely well in its most recent reincarnation as a musician owned and operated organization, and has been thriving even after Hurricane Katrina. These organizations flourish in large part because they value and respect both the musicians and the audience, and recognize that one cannot exist without the other.

When it comes to a symphony orchestra organization, the only direct link that the audience has to the music is the musicians. What managements across the country seem to be forgetting is that the musicians are actually their greatest asset when it comes to engaging, educating, and fostering their orchestra’s relationship with its community. And the support of the community is the most important force that will keep these organizations alive and relevant. We all know the famous question, “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Well, if a symphony plays and no one cares enough to listen, it won’t be making any sound for much longer. Instead of bullying musicians, instead of taking away their benefits and hard-earned salaries, instead of assuming that audiences won’t notice when the entire orchestra is replaced with cheaper labor, what if these organizations focused on committing themselves to strengthening their relationship to their communities? Because the moment the audience begins to feel unappreciated, misjudged, and neglected, the orchestra has no chance of surviving. And that audience, with its power to keep an orchestra in business and in demand, is the whole reason a symphony orchestra exists at all.