Mismanagement at Atlanta Goes Right to the Top

Well. As I look out at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) lockout, I can only shake my head in wonder at how it has degenerated into a farce in just a few days. If people’s lives weren’t being horribly impacted, you might wonder if the whole thing wasn’t lifted right from Comedy Central. It’s like an episode of The Office, only set within a non-profit.

A few days ago, I posted an article detailing how disastrously the ASO was managing the situation, and more importantly the optics of the situation.

Alas, the leadership’s bumbling continues. And what really worries me is that the leaders are supposed to be experts in the area of business management—that is their whole purpose within the organization. But a series of situations have happened that raise serious questions about the leaders’ basic competence to run… anything.

Allow me to look at a pattern of mismanagement that starts at the ground level of the organization and goes right up to the top.

* * *

The Facebook Debacle. My fellow blogger Emily Hogstad took this apart in exquisite detail over at Song of the Lark (please read it… but be careful not to be eating or drinking while you do, or you’ll mess up your screen). But let me add one point, that I think shows the ASO management’s level of dysfunctional thinking.

The entire point of social media—or having an online presence at all—is to better communicate with your constituents. And to communicate in a mutually beneficial way. Through these interactions, a savvy company or organization can inform the public about its programs, products, outlook, plans, and values. Its constituents or customers can receive “insider information” that gives them greater access and makes them feel more engaged. The business or organization, in turn, learns about the preferences, interests, connections and behaviors of its customers. This info—given free of charge—helps the business better respond, meet customers’ needs, and anticipate potential problems.

You may not always like the feedback you get, but it is honestly given. And that honesty is priceless.

That is why it is so bizarre that the ASO responded to criticism by shutting off public access. The ASO might not like the feedback it is receiving, but this feedback is honestly given and reflects the real thinking of its constituents and customers. That’s what they’re actually concerned about.

Moreover, those concerns are what should be addressed in the FAQ section of the ASO’s website—again, those are the questions people are actually asking. But instead of providing real answers to real questions, the ASO is dressing up its talking points in the form of questions it would like the public to ask. It’s like a twisted form of “Jeopardy!”

And it isn’t helping the situation. As of right now, constituents are still asking those same questions, but the ASO is simply not listening to them. Does the ASO think these questions (and the people asking them) will therefore just go away? Plugging your ears in the face of bad news doesn’t just make you look comically bad—it deprives you of vital information that can help you deal effectively with an ongoing, volatile situation.

How on earth is that going to help you?

* * *

Continuing up the org chart, let’s move to Karole Lloyd, the Board Chair of the ASO.

A memo written by Lloyd went viral over the last 24 hours. It appears that there was to be an ASO board meeting shortly after the lockout began, but before it could happen she sent this out to her fellow board members:

TO: Members, Board of Directors
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
FROM: Karole Lloyd

I wanted to let everyone know that we have decided to postpone next week’s regularly scheduled Board meeting. We will reschedule the meeting for a later date.

We’re postponing because we do not anticipate any updates on the Collective Bargaining Agreement process by Monday. If that does change, we will of course schedule a special telephone Board meeting to update you with any substantive news on the bargaining process.

In the meantime, if you have any questions you can call me at [...].

As a board member of an arts organization, this leaked memo stunned me on many levels.

For one, it is astonishing to me that facing a volatile labor dispute that has just boiled over… she cancelled the upcoming board meeting. Good heavens, why? When we in the Minnesota Chorale were caught up in the Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute, we had extra meetings to keep abreast of things—this was seen as critical to our organization’s survival.

Instead… Lloyd is cancelling meetings with a vague statement that they will be rescheduled at some later date?

Based on how fast things are developing, I can’t believe that the board is even considering not meeting. I mean, in the past few days, the ASO had to suspend its Facebook account. Bloggers uncovered shocking truths about the organization’s finances. Audience advocate groups have formed… just moments ago I was invited to join one. And Atlanta is attracting all kinds of hostile international attention.

All in less than a week.

What will conditions be on the ground next week? Or next month? How is the board going to control this rapidly-developing situation? Is it even trying to control it? What on earth could the board be thinking?

And is the board even unified at this point? I don’t have any inside information, but the preemptive shutting down of the board meeting—a meeting that any sane observer would say is desperately needed—suggests to me that Lloyd is trying to stifle debate, and make it impossible to anyone to voice dissent in an official capacity.

And the fact that this internal document was leaked out—with Lloyd’s office and cell phone numbers attached—only reinforces this idea. I have to wonder if someone was furious with how events are going and is refusing to let it slide.

Whatever the case, I am simply dumbfounded by this.

* * *

But there is one final person to include in this (too long) post: Virginia Hepner, president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center, the ASO’s parent organization.

In an interview on 90.1 WABE, Hepner shared her thoughts about the situation. And I was astonished.

Perhaps her most jaw-dropping statement came when the interviewer asked her to respond to fears that the cuts she envisioned would transform the ASO from a world-class orchestra to a regional one, and that by shrinking its size any further it would hardly warrant the name “orchestra” any longer. She stated: “It’s up to anyone to decide what’s world-class and what an orchestra should be.”

I suppose she was trying to be expansive and inclusive, and show that she isn’t trapped by the old-fashioned thinking of the past.

But this is bizarre. Ms. Hepner, can we do the same for you? Do we also get to decide what a board of directors should be, and whether it too is world-class?

There are so many problems with this quote. For one, if everyone is “right” about what makes a world-class orchestra, then no one is right. This thinking serves to short-circuit any real discussion of the issue—following this line of argument, anything anyone says can be dismissed as their own opinion.  Which I suspect is her reason for saying this.

Worse, Hepner is abdicating any responsibility for deciding what a world class orchestra should be. That is an astonishing position for a board chair to take—isn’t that the explicit job of the board? It’s almost as if she knows that her idea of a world-class orchestra is controversial and won’t be embraced by the community, so she’s afraid to articulate it until after she implements it and its too late to do anything about it.

Interestingly, the locked out musicians have addressed this point, and argued on their website that there is indeed a way to judge what a world-class orchestra is:

The head of the renowned Aspen Music Festival, Alan Fletcher, comments, “A world-class orchestra has real character.  It doesn’t sound like any other.  If knowledgeable people listened to recordings and then were asked to name the orchestra that was playing, they would most often get it right.  That kind of distinctive sound comes from musicians who trust and understand the conductor and each other.  There is no great orchestra without a feeling of community on stage.  It takes time for orchestras to develop a distinctive character and sound.  An orchestra is more than a collection of superbly trained musicians; it develops cohesion over time.” (http://www.orchestrateexcellence.org/world-class-orchestra/)

So it appears that defining what a world class orchestra is can be done.  Why can’t Hepner come up with a working definition of her own?

* * *

So there it is. I am flabbergasted that such an important, dynamic orchestra as the ASO is being run at all levels by people who seem to hold it in contempt.

I guess the question is… what to do about it?

One solution has presented itself this very evening. Following in the footsteps of Detroit and Minneapolis, an audience advocacy group has just been launched: Save Our Symphony Atlanta. In their own words: “Save Our Symphony Atlanta is a non-profit citizens advocacy group, dedicated to the preservation of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, in perpetuity. Our mission is to promote growth and expansion of the orchestra, and to maintain its status as one of Atlanta’s great cultural treasures, and one of the nation’s premier orchestras.”

If you want to protect this national treasure, if you want to stop the mismanagement, if you want to take back your orchestra… I suggest you sign up and learn what you can do.

It’s worked for us, and it will work for you. Good luck!




The new Minnesota Orchestra season is nearly upon us, and I couldn’t be more excited!

Well, Let me clarify.  Like many out there, it’s not just excitement that I’m feeling, but rather a huge range of emotions. There is absolute elation that after two galactically bad years of lockouts and struggle, we have Osmo and our orchestra back. There is humble gratitude for the collective effort that has gone into the rebuilding, and for the extraordinarily generosity of the anonymous donors who just gave more than $13 million to help the organization recover. And there is elation at being able to perform onstage with my friends again, in a work that will blow everyone’s collective socks off.

But these positive emotions are tempered with nervous relief that the Metropolitan Opera just barely dodged a similar bullet and will no doubt continue to face difficulties ahead.

And, there is a complex mixture of sorrow and rage that our musician friends in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra are experiencing a lockout of their own. Worse, they’ve been locked out by a management that seems to have learned the tactics of a lockout from what happened here, without having the wisdom to see how bad the results were when this same approach was attempted in Minneapolis.

So how to express this unwieldy explosion of contradictory emotions?

Well… through the music of Gustav Mahler, of course.

Mahler is a curious composer. His guiding philosophy was summed up in a famous conversation he had with Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. As Sibelius recounted later,

“When our conversation touched on the essence of symphony, I said that I admired its severity and style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motives. This was the experience I had come to in composing. Mahler’s opinion was just the reverse. “Nein, die Symphonie müss sein wie die Welt. Sie müss alles umfassen.” (No, the symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.)

That perfectly captures essence of Mahler’s music. It is a collision of thoughts, emotions, ideas and sensations that are constantly intersecting and interacting with each other. At times, it’s as if you were reading a story where each paragraph was written by a different author in a different style—such as Shakespeare followed by the Grimm Brothers, Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner, Herodotus and O. Henry.

In the end, the cumulative effect is stunning, touching on all parts of the human experience… and vividly recreating the totality of human experience.  It is no wonder why so many love his music.

Mahler’s music isn’t at all hard to listen to, but it is a wonderfully challenging to fully comprehend it. It rewards—if not requires—repeated listening and conversations to grasp its many layers.

The Second Symphony, Resurrection,  is a magnificent example of Mahler’s achievement… and one of the easiest to get your arms around. It is a work about loss and a plunge into darkness… before finding strength and hope, which allows you to rise to a new level of existence greater you had known before. It is about rebirth and new glory.

And it absolutely has to be experienced live.

Let me explain a bit about why you don’t want to miss Osmo, the Minnesota Orchestra, and the Minnesota Chorale’s performance of it.

* * *

The dramatic first movement begins with death, and the visceral, human response to this death.

It is a ferocious cry of grief in all its many forms. The music takes on the character of a march, but one that is broken and unsteady. Tempos and rhythms are disjointed, and grate across each other in fury. There is violence that sometimes appears to be focused back on oneself—or on the lost loved one. But there are also quieter moments of reflection and regret that seem to lament lost chances or roads not taken. Altogether these form a rich tapestry that forms not just a wail of raging grief, but represents a search to find some meaning out of the tragedy. Some hope for a resolution, even if we can’t envision a resolution at the moment.

As Mahler himself wrote of this movement:

“Now in this moment of gravity and of emotion which convulses our deepest being, our heart is gripped by a dreadfully serious voice which always passes us by in the deafening bustle of daily life: What now? What is this life — and this death? Do we have an existence beyond it? Is all this only a confused dream, or do life and this death have a meaning? — And we must answer this question if we are to live on.”

At the end of the movement, Mahler called for an extensive pause, which allows the performers and audience to reset, and work through this question through the following movements.

The second movement is subdued, a pull-back from the fierce emotions of its predecessor. In a moment of calm, the central character reflects on the lost loved one with a sense of affection, pride, and remembered joy. It is almost—almost—as if the departed loved one is still alive, untouched by tragedy, and is almost banal in his or her ordinariness. Mahler remarked that for him, this movement was “an image of a long-dead hour of Happiness.”

The third movement is a twisted, sardonic parody of the previous movement. It strikes me as being that moment in your grief where, after hours or days of tense, oppressive grief… you snap. Suddenly you burst out in a bout of totally inappropriate laughter or do something utterly ridiculous. In the movie Amadeus, there is a moment where Mozart, who has been obsessively working on his Requiem, looks up at a portrait of his stern, recently-departed father and hits his breaking point. He sticks out his tongue, sneers, and begins a mocking dance around the room to exorcise his demons of grief.  And that is the feeling Mahler conjures up.

But it is also a revolt against the meaningless of life. It’s reminiscent of asking yourself, How can people be going about their business at a time like this? Don’t they know what happened? Don’t they know it’s all futile anyway? Mahler wrote:

“When you awaken from the nostalgic daydream [of the preceding movement] and you return to the confusion of real life, it can happen that the ceaseless motion, the senseless bustle of daily activity may strike you with horror. Then life can seem meaningless, a gruesome, ghostly spectacle, from which you may recoil with a cry of disgust!”

These thoughts are quickly and decisively swept away by the fourth movement, which starts the long journey to healing and light. It also introduces the human voice in the tender song “Urlicht,” which provides a luminous call of hope. It is a moment out of time that gives me shivers every time I hear it. It is a glimpse, all too fleeting, of the infinite. You will scarcely be able to breathe.

This leads to the mighty fifth, and final movement. I’ve long thought that the emotional and musical range of this movement is so vast that it could stand alone as an entire self-contained symphony. The momentary vision of hope is swept away as the grief and horror of the first movement come crashing back in. If the first movement was a cry of grief, this is a cry of despair that believes healing is impossible. It is a thunderous cry to heaven for answers.

And then… the answer is given.

The movement is cut through by a remarkable moment—the so-called “Great Call.” This is a multi-layered fanfare beyond all definitions of a fanfare, with brass and other instruments calling out from all parts of the hall. It demands attention. It suppresses all sound. And once all has been stilled, it fades into nothingness.

What follows is perhaps one of the most riveting moment in all music.

With a sound that is felt more than it is actually heard, the chorus enters—softer than you can believe possible.

Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du,      Rise again, yes you will rise again,

mein Staub, nach kurzer Ruh:              my dust, after a short rest:

Unsterblich Leben                                  Immortal life

wird der dich rief dir geben.                   will He who called you grant to you.

From there, the chorus begins a celestial hymn of resurrection that calls on us to leave behind the past and to emerge far greater that we were before: uplifted, healed, and reborn to true greatness. Solo voices join the choir and soar in Mahler’s own words of affirmation: “O believe, you were not born in vain! Have not lived, suffered in vain!” With greater assurance and resolution, the chorus continues its song… building to a triumphant conclusion that will make the walls tremble. In the closing pages, Mahler brings us to his vision of the final triumph of the soul, with bells pealing and chorus calling out, “Sterben werd’ ich, um zu leben: I shall die, so as to live!

It is a transcendent moment that no recording or broadcast can ever match.  You will feel your soul soar.

* * *

Beyond the greatness of the music, this concert will be supremely meaningful to me for two other reasons.  The first I have already recounted when the season was first announced.  Forgive me if you’ve seen this, but it bears repeating.

October of 2013 was for me the lowest point of the whole ugly labor dispute; I suspect many others feel the same way, too. Behind the scenes, we in the Minnesota Chorale had been asked by the Orchestra’s management to hold the first weekend in October open—the goal was to perform in the grand re-opening of Orchestra Hall on those dates, should the labor dispute be resolved in time.

Two weeks before the performance, we got official notification that the concert had been cancelled.

Seeing how the dispute had gone up to that point, we had anticipated that might be the case. Thus, we launched a “plan B”—to perform a concert of our own that same weekend. Two weeks was not enough time to prepare full-length concert of our own, however. But to my ever-lasting gratitude, the other major choruses in town rushed into the breach, and we collectively agreed to perform a “season preview” concert which each chorus presenting 15 to 20 minutes of music from their upcoming performances.

Well and good… but something else happened at the same time.

Osmo Vänskä told the Orchestra’s management that if the dispute was not resolved by October 1, and his upcoming concerts at Carnegie Hall were cancelled, he would be forced to resign. As we all know, the dispute was not resolved, the Carnegie concerts were cancelled, and Osmo was forced to resign. An emotional week followed, capped by a series of concerts on the Friday and Saturday of that week where Osmo conducted the locked-out musicians in a gut-wrenching, farewell concert (my description of that legendary concert can be found here).

The next day, we presented our impromptu choral concert.  And that was… tough.

When it was our turn to perform, our Artistic Director Kathy Saltzman Romey stepped to the microphone and gave a few introductory remarks—thanking the wonderful choruses who had come together to make the concert possible, and thanking the community for its support of great music. She then broke down, and in tears introduced our performance piece: the choral finale of Mahler’s Second Symphony, Resurrection.  She dedicated it to Osmo and our friends and colleagues of the Minnesota Orchestra, in the hope that they, too, could rise up from this tragedy, and that one day we all might be able to perform together again.

And now this wish is coming true. And judging how emotional I have gotten just typing that out, I’m fairly sure I’m going to be a wreck on stage.

The second reason this concert is so meaningful to me because the symphony completely encapsulates the feelings that so many of us have had over the last few years, as the lockout threatened to destroy our orchestra. It is almost too predictable to read Mahler’s Second Symphony as a metaphor of the near-death and resurrection of the Minnesota Orchestra.

But I don’t care if it’s cliché. It’s true. The fact that we are able to have this concert is, for me, a powerful testimony of how our community stood together, fought for our Orchestra and saw it reborn.

And so, this performance will have extra resonance. There is no way we performers on stage will be able to disguise our emotions as we take this journey hand in hand with you, the audience. With every note you hear, you will experience those same emotions with us; and you will understand the value of having great artists bring great art to life. This is not a recording. This is not an unknown group giving you eight bars of generic “sadness.” It is great artists—your artists—living their art for you to experience.

And that is what will make this performance so remarkable.

Do not miss that opportunity. Make sure you order your tickets before they’re all gone.

One final thought. I understand that one of the musicians from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra will be a substitute player for these concerts—a move brought about by the lockout happening there.

Most of us will relate to the Second Symphony’s finale… the glorious music of resurrection and triumph. This musician, sadly, will probably relate more with the symphony’s opening, trapped in the first stages of loss and fear.

In my own way, I want to dedicate part of my performance to this visiting musician, to show that there is hope.

We rose again through the support of our many friends. And now, we will support you.

I want to carry a message of healing, and the assurance that we will work to ensure the light and healing Mahler describes will come again to Atlanta, too.

See you at the concert.



A Masterclass in Bad Optics

Something about the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) labor dispute has struck me… and not in a good way. In the last few days the organization has been at the center of relentlessly bad news. That much is pretty obvious. But what is intriguing to me is how relentlessly bad its handling of the news has been. The ASO management knew what was coming, and presumably had time to prepare for the fallout.  One could assume that it would have assembled a media plan to deal with the obvious negative publicity that would inevitably occur once the labor dispute boiled over.

Instead, the ASO management has given us a masterclass in how to foul your press coverage, and create new bad press to boot. It is a prime example of what we call “bad optics.”

Let me explain.

* * *

1.The Lockout. Yes, most observers could see a lockout was a distinct possibility, given how far apart both sides in the labor dispute were. But really, a lockout is a failed strategy. It is a nuclear strategy, and no one can predict where it will lead. Given how obviously inflammatory it is, one would suppose that there would be a concerted effort to avoid it… or at least to appear that you tried to avoid it. Good optics would call for a very visual, frantic effort of trying every possibility to keep a lockout from happening; but if one became completely and transparently unavoidable, the leaders would announce it with sadness and resignation, and make clear that there really was no other choice.

The ASO has done nothing of the kind.

It opted out of last minute bargaining sessions, refused contact with the musicians as the clock ran out, and imposed a lockout the minute it was legally allowed to.  With a cold letter announcing that all security cards to the building were deactivated and pay ended immediately.

Why? What reason was there for the unseemly haste? Why not make at least a show of trying to settle things?  Why not toy with the idea of play and talk… or at least appear to toy with the idea? Instead, the management made it clear to all observers that it was gleefully adopting this inherently dangerous, destructive strategy, which will severely impact the broader community.

In a sense, I suppose the ASO management does realize how bad this makes it look—it tied itself into impressive rhetorical knots trying to avoid using the word “lockout” in press releases and in statements to the public. This fooled no one, and further inflamed the optics of the situation.

2. Stanley Romanstein’s Bonuses. As Emily Hogstad wrote over at Song of the Lark, ASO President Stanley Romanstein received substantial bonuses in the years leading up to the lockout, as did his predecessor Alison Vulgamore. But the ASO is promulgating the lockout of the musicians because the last few years have been a financial disaster for the organization. The ASO press release reads:

“The ASO has had 12 consecutive years of deficit operations. In the recently completed 2013 – 2014 fiscal year, it had a $2 million deficit, even with a significant contribution from ASO Presents, the concert promotional arm of the ASO. Accumulated debt is approximately $5 million. The ASO endowment has declined to about $70 million today as the Orchestra has taken additional distributions of $18 million to cover its accumulated deficits.”

So, why the bonuses? Yes, the recent bonus of $45,000 alone would not save the organization. But still. It is outrageous to claim such dire poverty that the musicians have to take sacrificial pay cuts on two occasions, but the CEO gets cash bonuses. It is outrageous that budget cuts forced the organization to reduce the size of the staff from 61 to 48 people—a point that it touts frequently as a successful part of its cost-cutting strategy—but the CEO gets cash bonuses. Given the pay scale of arts administrator, I can say with confidence that his bonus would have covered the salary of at least one of the workers let go.

This looks terrible.  And reflects badly on all non-profits that are constantly scrambling to justify how they use donated money.

Even more shocking is the obliviousness of it all. This exact same thing happened during the Minnesota Orchestra dispute, and it was a disaster for President Michael Henson. It destroyed his credibility—not just from the general public, but also from members of the board of directors (many of whom had no idea that the bonuses were part of his compensation). Worse from a strategic perspective, “bonusgate” gave Henson’s critics a club to beat him with on every possible occasion.

Perhaps Mr. Romanstein should have asked Mr. Henson about this personally; the orchestral CEO world is small, and I can’t believe they are strangers.

3. Disastrous Online Strategy. The ASO’s online presence could not be more tone-deaf. As of right now, a look at its Facebook page reveals a desperate attempt to talk about anything but the lockout, posting stories of no consequence and providing no information about the lockout. Only when directly challenged does the moderator refer commenters to its lockout FAQ page.

By not seizing their message or controlling the conversation, the ASO leaders look lost and incompetent.

Which is all the more surprising because they willingly chose to engage the lockout strategy. Again, they chose this strategy.

So why didn’t they prepare for the obvious response? Given the national rise in audience advocates (which has been covered widely across the classical music industry) why didn’t they have a clear way of dealing with the inevitable negative comments on Facebook? Besides threatening commenters?

Instead, they chose to push a story focused on Joshua Bell… which is an odd choice.  Bell famously defied the threats of the Minnesota Orchestra management and agreed to play in a special concert with the locked out musicians (once the lockout ended, the Minnesota Orchestra management was desperate to keep that date on the calendar).  Does he stand with the ASO leadership?  Does he approve of his image being used in this way?

Plus, the ASO promotes its new album… that features the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’s name prominently barricaded behind barbwire.


Really?  Doesn’t this seem a tad ironic, given recent events?

Plus, the ASO website is currently promoting upcoming concerts selling tickets to its concerts and special events—with live links. Is it a good strategy to induce people to buy tickets that almost certainly won’t be honored? Shouldn’t there be a disclaimer? Or something? How do they plan to handle the cancellations… and the resulting chaos?

And again, the ASO not only knew this was coming, but actively sought to implement the lockout.  Why on earth is it so unprepared for the inevitable consequences?

* * *

All in all, I can’t imagine how the ASO could look worse. All these items, coupled with the fact that former Woodruff employee Ralph Clark is going to prison for embezzling $1.1 million, reveals an organization that is incapable of managing money, or spending it appropriately.

It reveals an organization that has no capacity to manage situations that it has actively created—and has actively sought out.

It reveals an organization that has no concept on how to interact with the public, and to engage ticket buyers and donors.

It reveals an organization that at a fundamental level does not understand what it is about.

And unfortunately, these revelations will haunt the ASO long after this dispute is over.  Even if the management “wins.”


[Edit:  It appears that due to the overwhelming number of negative comments showing up on the ASO's Facebook page, management will no longer post there or accept additional comments of any kind.  I struggle to think of a more ridiculous response... which only serves to strengthen the argument of this article.]



Lockout (Again) in Atlanta

In the aftermath of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) locking out its musicians, I fired up one of my favorite recordings of the group—an album dedicated to the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Vaughan Williams has long been among my favorite composers, whose music speaks directly to my heart. And this album has a place of honor in my collection, bringing together a stunning rendition of his Fifth Symphony (a work I could listen to every day of the week), the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (which always hits me like a sucker punch), and a gorgeous version of the Serenade to Music, which is one of my favorite works of music ever written.

The Serenade to Music’s text comes from Shakespeare—the final act of The Merchant of Venice. It is heady stuff. But with the start of the ASO lockout, one section in particular jumped out at me:

The man that hath no music in himself,

Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,

Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;

The motions of his spirit are dull as night

And his affections dark as Erebus:

Let no such man be trusted!

This sentiment was amplified when I read the press release from President Stanley Romanstein and the rest of the ASO management on why the lockout is necessary (the text can be found in this article).  Let me share a few thoughts on that document.

* * *

“Progress has been very slow, despite eight months of negotiations and ongoing transparency regarding the organization’s finances.”

Eight months? You’ve only been working on this for eight months? But two years ago, when you last locked out the musicians, the rationale was that a similar program of cuts was absolutely critical to get the organization’s finances in order. You argued that with that breathing room, you would be able to create a new business model that would allow the organization to flourish. Why, then, didn’t you engage the musicians and try to create a system of open dialogue to ensure that nothing like that ever happened again? Wasn’t that organizational overhaul part of your stated plan? Why are you only getting around to it eight months before the contract runs out?

This creates the appearance that despite lofty rhetoric about “saving the organization” and “creating new business models,” this situation really is nothing more than a garden-variety labor dispute where you’re trying to leverage concessions from the musicians.

“ ‘We are all extremely disappointed that we do not have a new contract,’ said Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) President Stanley E. Romanstein, Ph.D.”

I’ve lost all patience for this kind of anemic statement, which is apparently supposed to convey worried concern. Let me be clear—“all” are not “disappointed” or even “extremely disappointed.” Many are frantic as they start calculating how they will live. Many are terrified as they ponder how they will continue desperately-needed medical treatments without insurance. Some people, such as myself, are furious that that this event is happening, and that a person who will feel no personal hardship from the decision he’s making has the audacity to say he’s “disappointed.”

And it’s intriguing that Romanstein is disappointed that there isn’t a new contract. There are many things I find disappointing about this whole situation, but the lack of a punitive contract that blithely demands sacrificial cuts from musicians only two years after they previously accepted sacrificial cuts is not one of them.

“While we value the art and the artists of the ASO enormously, we believe we must develop a new model that will allow us to balance our artistic and financial needs. Clearly, that is not the model we have today.”

Oh good God. You had all sorts of time to prepare a statement… and that’s the best you could do?

Let me remind you. These were nearly exactly the same arguments that launched the last labor dispute and lockout two years ago. And two years ago, you got your preferred contract to make this new business model a reality. The musicians gave you the concessions you needed to have enough breathing room so you could figure out a long-range plan to stabilize the finances. Why didn’t you? Why didn’t you change the model that you yourselves acknowledged as being insufficient two years ago… when the musicians gave you the chance to do so? Why are you blaming the problems of the organization’s administration and finances on the musicians… when two years ago they gave you the tools you asked for so that you would be able to solve the crisis?

To put things into perspective, the Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute ended less than a year ago, without the musicians giving the management all the concessions it demanded. And the Minnesota Orchestra has already made huge organizational changes, launched new partnerships, and begun a massive campaign to turn things around. And it’s working.

Why haven’t you been able to do the same in two years when you got your preferred contract to make such changes possible? When do you admit your own failures and take real responsibility for them?

Another point. If you really were desperate to save the organization from imminent collapse, if you really were interested in creating a new business model… I have to believe you would have gone the route of the San Diego Opera, which truly was on the verge of dissolution. Like San Diego, you would have thrown ceremony aside, gathered everyone, engaged everyone, examined any idea, and made whatever changes were necessary. In your case, that would most likely have included a re-evaluation of the relationship with Woodruff, the size of the board, the size of the staff, the size of the orchestra, everyone’s salaries, community outreach, musical initiatives—everything would have been up for consideration.

The fact that you didn’t suggests to me that you are not at all serious about creating a new business model; your only concern seems to be securing concessions from the musicians. And your lack of seriousness in this area makes it hard to take you serious in any other area.

So where is your plan? Why haven’t you brought it forward, and made a convincing case that further concessions are a necessary part of it? Are we simply supposed to trust you that there’s a plan out there… or that this time you really will put one together?

“The ASO has had 12 consecutive years of deficit operations. In the recently completed 2013 – 2014 fiscal year, it had a $2 million deficit, even with a significant contribution from ASO Presents, the concert promotional arm of the ASO. Accumulated debt is approximately $5 million. The ASO endowment has declined to about $70 million today as the Orchestra has taken additional distributions of $18 million to cover its accumulated deficits.”

Yes. That is terrible. Perhaps if you had started to do something about it two years ago when you trotted out a similar scenario supported by similar statistics, you’d be in better financial shape today.

And, perhaps you should consider bringing in new leadership that has greater skill in financial management.

“The organization’s financial woes would be even more pronounced if it wasn’t a division of the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC).”

This is a curious point… and with respect, it feels like it’s a sop to your controlling organization. Many, many observers have wondered if the ASO’s unique relationship to the WAC is more of a burden than a blessing. Yes there are benefits from the relationship; but do they come at the cost of financial autonomy, with the ASO forced to adapt to financial and administrative demands that are not of their own choosing? Again, if the ASO were serious about finding a new business model, there would at least have to be an examination of this relationship, even if the status quo was upheld.

“ ‘The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s donor base has been very generous, especially considering the long-term financial trends of the ASO,’ said Woodruff Arts Center President and CEO Virginia Hepner. ‘But, these donors have told us that we must balance our budget in order to expect continued support. It’s really critical that we find a contemporary operating model for the ASO.’ ”

Yes, the diversification of the donor base is a problem that bedevils every single arts organization, and every non-profit generally. Many organizations, however, have enjoyed success in this realm. Have you reached out to them for advice? What efforts have you made in this area?

I’m also curious as to what this information is based on. Did the ASO actually do a capacity study that examined the fundraising potential for the organization within the broader Atlanta community? Many organizations do such a study, or a feasibility study to gauge support for an initiative. If the ASO is definitive that there is no more money to be had, at least without a new business plan, there should be some sort of documentation that lays this out. Lacking such a document or study, it feels like you just heard back from a few donors, and are using this highly selective feedback to create overarching organizational plans. That, or you’re creating a fundraising plan based solely on conventional wisdom.

“ASO Management offered to increase musician salaries by 4.5 percent over the life of a four-year contract plus a share (22%) of any budget surpluses. The proposal called for musicians to shoulder more of the costs for health care, in line with what ASO staff pays for its health care costs.”

It is curious that you are incredibly specific about the so-called perks you are dangling in front of the musicians (“4.5 percent over the life of a four year contract plus a share [22%] of budget surpluses”), but intentionally vague about the concessions the musicians will have to make in return (“more”).  That change in specificity suggests that the numbers on the two sides of the equation are not equal… a fact that you don’t want us to realize.

“Management has also proposed flexibility in determining how and when vacancies on the orchestra are filled in order to balance the artistic and financial needs of the orchestra.”

And here you simply use the positive-sounding word “flexibility” without giving any indication of what that means. This raises warning flags.

“Since the last contract was signed in 2012, expenses have declined but sales for the classical season have declined more dramatically as cost-conscious consumers favored single-ticket purchases over season subscriptions.”

Is it possible that marketing initiatives failed because you vilified the musicians repeatedly in the press? As many arts organizations have found, a key element in engaging the public is ensuring people feel a close, personal connection to the artists themselves. This humanizes the arts, and personalizes the experience for the attendee. If there was any doubts about that here with the Minnesota Orchestra, those doubts were dispelled in the series of focus groups we ran over the summer. Again and again, people commented that feeling connected to the musicians was incredibly important to them, and significantly impacted their decision as to whether or not to buy a ticket. People wanted to somehow experience backstage banter, listen to musicians talking about the music, and have chances to interact with musicians informally. That’s what persuaded them to buy tickets—the public wanted to see their friends in action.

The danger in adopting a hard-ball approach to win the labor dispute is that you are forced to shatter this relationship. And that will impact your ticket sales and donations, as the public loses that sense of connection.

And with respect, do you feel you are the first performing arts group to see season ticket sales decline in favor of single tickets? That’s been the industry trend for the last decade.

“We hope we can return music to the stage very soon.”

Well, since you have locked the musicians out, you’ll forgive me if I don’t take this statement too seriously.

* * *

A final word. Given the example of the Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute, and more recently the Metropolitan Opera, it is hard to believe the ASO management is so resolutely going down the same path. What is even harder to fathom is that given the ASO’s experience two years ago, that the management wants to try it again.

Again, the ASO leadership had their chance—two years ago, they got what they wanted and were free to put their utopian plans in place. But the plan failed. The golden age did not commence, and two years later the organization still has financial trouble.

So why on earth is the management trying to implement the same plan? What will be different? Why should we believe them? Why believe in their vision when it has so manifestly failed?

I am dumbfounded.

 [Edit: I believe this is the ASO's press release: 20140907 ASO Contract Expiration 930pm FINAL.ashx-1]



A Starry, Starry Night at Orchestra Hall

Something amazing happened lat night at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis.  Was it a kick-off to a new season? The start of a new era? A fundraiser? Party?


The Minnesota Orchestra’s “Starry, Starry Night” with Renée Fleming and Osmo Vänskä was all of these things… but most important, it was a concert. One hell of a concert.

Allow me to share the highlights of a memorable concert that showed the wonder and power of music.

* * *

Of course, like everyone else covering the event, I feel I have to comment on one of the most important highlights of the evening:  the star’s outfits.

Osmo chose to forgo a tuxedo with tails, wearing instead a dramatic, all-black ensemble that focused attention on his masculine lines. The close fit showed his powerful form at its best advantage, heightening the rugged athleticism of his dynamic conducting…

Oh… you wanted me to comment on Renée’s outfits? Sorry, I just assumed that enough reviewers chimed in on that front already.

Maybe we should just skip ahead to the music.

* * *

The program opened with a firecracker reading of the overture to Carl Nielsen’s opera, Maskarade. I was thrilled with the choice—the 20th century Danish composer is still widely unknown to American audiences, and I welcome any chance to hear his music live. Maskarade is a joyous opera… a riotous comedy of mistaken identities, pledges of undying love, and screwball plots. And the music, particularly in the madcap first act, is absolutely brilliant. It is no wonder Maskarade is regarded as a cultural treasure in Denmark.

And as an opener for the Orchestra’s gala, it was a sensational… the pop of a champagne cork to get things started. What fun!

From the moment Osmo and the musicians took the stage, smiles and collective joy were dancing between the audience and the performers—everyone was obviously thrilled to be together in that hall. And all this boisterous energy carried over to performance. The musicians weren’t just playing their part… it was like they were laughing their parts.

But a truly great joke requires great timing, and that is exactly what the Orchestra gave us. Every gesture was perfectly placed.  The lines were crisp without ever feeling overdetermined. The singing lines had exquisitely timed swell, and all the quicksilver temperament of the work was captured with panache. It was such a relief for me as an audience member to see that the fabled ensemble of the group has emerged from the last two years wonderfully intact.

This orchestra has greatness ahead.

And as an aside, can we get some more Nielsen into upcoming seasons? Beyond his remarkable symphonies and concertos, he has written some absolutely brilliant choral-orchestral works, such as the shockingly beautiful Hynmus Amoris, Sleep with its terrifying nightmare vision, and the most perfect musical embodiment of spring I’m aware of: Springtime in Funen.

* * *

It was at this point that Renée made her entrance, performing the brand-new work The Strand Settings by Anders Hillborg. And everything about that performance was absolutely magnificent.

Let me begin by saying how excited I was to see that Renée chose as her “big” piece of the night a work that has only been performed once before. I mean, that alone was a wonderful testament to her as an artist, and a show of respect for us as an audience. How easy it would have been to give us instead of giving us some watered down, bleeding-chunks-of-opera medley or some lightweight tribute to Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Instead, she went in a wonderful new direction. She gave us a work new to all of us—one that required as much from the performers as it did from the audience. And that was a good thing, and one that rewarded us amply.

Hillborg created a unique, fascinating sound world unlike any other.  He called for a huge orchestra, but used it lightly and sparingly.  Percussion was used in innovative ways… my God, that otherworldly siren call made simply by running a finger across a perfectly tuned wine glass…!  And under Osmo’s direction, the Orchestra threw themselves into these uncharted, otherworldly waters with confidence and conviction.

Renée herself was in wonderful voice, and captured the shifting moods of the piece brilliantly; at one moment she was almost conversational in tone, and a moment later she was soaring with passionate intensity. Emotion and words were fused as to be indistinguishable. Even though the work is almost as new to her as it was to us, she excelled.  She took hold of us and boldly led us on a journey together.

And that text! Mark Strand’s poetry was a marvel of complex feelings that said much… but paradoxically left much unsaid. In “The Black Sea” there is a palpable sense of anticipation, of looking out on the vast sea with desperate expectation… but we never fully know what the singer is waiting for. Over the gliding, shimmering orchestration those haunting words created a vast sense of loneliness.  It was breathtaking. And that same uneasy serenity pervaded the other three poems, which asked as many questions as they answered.

But the final poem was particularly memorable, given the events of the last two years. With bewitching intensity, Renée sang out:

A long time has passed and yet is seems

Like yesterday, in the midmost moment of summer,

When we felt the disappearance of sorrow,

And saw beyond the rough stone walls

The flesh of clouds, heavy with the scent

Of the desert, rise in a prodigal

Overflowing of mildness. It seems like yesterday

When we stood by the iron gate in the center

Of town while the pollen-filled breath

Of the wind drew the shadow of the clouds

Around us so that we could feel the force

Of our freedom while still captives of dark.

And later when the rain fell and flooded the streets

And we heard the dripping on the porch and the wind

Rustling the leaves like paper, how to explain

Our happiness then, the particular way our voices

Erased all signs of the sorrow that had been,

Its violence, its terrible omens of the end?

I don’t know exactly how the musicians responded to this, but I can think of no better description of the feelings I’ve gone through over the last few months, as the lockout ended and we collectively worked our way back towards healing… culminating in last night’s concert. Renée captured this emotions perfectly.

In a way, the piece vaguely reminded me of Maurice Ravel’s song cycle for soprano, Shéhérazade. This work, too, sets evocative poems that walk a fine line between illusion and reality, melding together images of life, love, and death.  That piece, too, delights in ambiguity and hidden meanings. Both Ravel and Hillborg adopted a conversational, arioso-style approach to the vocal line, and made use of unique orchestration to create a sound world unlike any other.  In light of this work, I’m going to have to re-listen to Renée’s rendition of the Ravel.

I understand The Strand Settings was an enormous hit at its premiere, and it certainly was again last night.  And trust me, it more than earned the enthusiastic reception it received.  I’m curious about its future, and would love to hear it again.  Soon.

* * *

The middle works on the program were wonderful. They showed off the talents of singer, conductor and ensemble alike, and contrasted with each other brilliantly. The famous Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana perfectly captured the conflicting sense of the serene countryside and the violent passions of the main characters. The overture to La forza del destino was darkly dramatic and bristling with menace.

Renée’s rendition of the glorious “O mio babbino caro” gave us a perfect opportunity to not only revel in her glorious tone, but to see her as the gifted dramatic actress she is. She nailed it… as many times as we’ve heard that familiar song, she had us in the palm of her hand.

Her West Side Story songs were a brilliant addition to the evening. “I Feel Pretty” gave her a chance to ham it up to the point of self-parody (“see that pretty dress!” indeed), but “Somewhere” again captured all the raw feelings lingering from the lockout, and pointed to a moment of healing ahead.

She was an incomparable artist at the height of her powers.

And her encore was remarkable.

Of all the pieces she could have possibly performed, she did a song from Leonard Bernstein’s 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, “Take Care of this House,” to honor all those who “took care of this orchestra.” The text:

Take care of this house,

keep it from harm.

If bandits break in sound the alarm.

Care for this house.

Shine it by hand

and keep it so clean

the glow can be seen all over the land.

Be careful at night,

check all the doors.

If someone makes off with a dream

the dream will be yours.

Take care of this house.

Be always on call

for this house is the home of us all.

I can’t imagine any better words for all of us who treasure this Orchestra—one we almost lost.

* * *

For the finale, Osmo chose a showstopper that never fails to engage audiences… but also gave a chance for the orchestra to show its stuff: The Pines of Rome by Ottorinio Respighi.  Respighi is not considered a particularly subtle composer; he does, however, have the distinction of being Italy’s most brilliant orchestrator. And he pulls out all the stops in The Pines of Rome. Wow. The piece depicts four places around Rome where pine trees famously grow: the great Villa Borghese gardens, a chapel near ancient catacombs, the Janiculum hill in moonlight, and along the Appian Way. The various places and times of day give Respighi endless possibilities for moods and sonic effects, and he makes the most of his opportunities.

For example, the stark Catacombs movement calls for a trumpet to play a solemn religious chant from off in the distance. Osmo worked with Manny Laureno to create just the ethereal, spooky effect that Respighi was after—by sending Manny into the upper rafters above the acoustical cubes in the ceiling. The resulting disembodied sound was altogether magical. (And left Manny panting for breath—he had to climb something like four flights of stairs and navigate his way across a catwalk to reach his perch, then set and play. Good God, that’s devotion to your art!)

Another fascinating effect was the use of actual an actual birdsong in the third movement. Respighi took the opportunity to have the sound of a nightingale recorded onto a phonograph and indicated that that recording be played at the movement’s ending (a digital version of this recording is used today). This novel effect created much discussion  at the time, and led to other composers adding real natural sounds into their scores—contemporary composer Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus is a direct descendant of this approach.

But there was much more to the performance than sonic effects—there was wonderful music-making, too. In the third movement, Respighi evokes the nocturnal serenity of the Janiculum, Rome’s beautiful hilltop park, with a haunting clarinet solo that was breathtakingly performed by Greg Williams. Absolutely perfect.

And kudos to the horn section, which also played with such delicate softness that I thought they, too, had run up to play from Manny’s perch above the cubes.

And the percussionists. My God, that had to have been a great concert for them—there was something of everything going on. Delicate effects, raw bouts of military power, and all kinds of sheer physicality. I have to believe that Brian Mount sweat off 20 lbs. pounding on the bass drum for the finale!

And that finale was over the top glorious. It was a cathartic thunderclap of everyone collectively letting loose, and we loved it.


* * *

Let me close with the thought that last night reminded me of how wonderful these concerts are to experience live. Altogether, the night was pervaded with wonderful touches and tiny moments that helped frame everything and add to the fun.

Before the concert began, the Orchestra had brought in resident artists from the Minnesota Opera to serenade us in the lobby. It was so much fun, and added immeasurably to the evening. I don’t know whose idea it was to have strolling musicians…  but my hat is off to you.

And the concert itself was filled with those moments, too. When Hillborg’s The Strand Settings was done, Osmo and Renée turned to each other with absolute joy. They knew they had given us an incredible performance of a challenging piece… and nailed it to wall. It was not just the glow of success, but the glow of having taken a risk and seen it pay off.

And there was the palpable warmth of the audience reaction. This wasn’t polite or correct applause; there was real love and gratitude being expressed. I think we were all honored to be there… and as odd as it may sound, I think that emotion carried through the clapping. I felt it, anyway, and hope the performers did as well.

Most notably, afterwards we dissolved a single, shared community. In the lobby there were glasses of champagne, toasts and a formal display of the new Grammy Award statue. But more important, there was shared laughter between the audience, musicians, staff, and board members. Conversations. Sharing. Hugs. Selfies. Joy. It was so thrillingly alive, and I am beyond happy I was there to savor it.

Who would have thought any of this was possible six months ago?

Come out yourself and see what I mean. This is an experience like no other.



Cost Cutting or Quality?

[In one of my very first blog posts, I mulled over the idea of danger of prioritizing cost cutting over product quality.  Given the developing situation in Atlanta, I thought I'd revisit the post, and see if it still had value today.]


One of the recurring refrains of the recent labor disputes plaguing the classical music world has been the need for organizations to cut costs. The imperative to cut costs is widely regarded as self-evident, obvious and somehow immune to challenge. So when an orchestra or opera company runs into financial trouble, there has been a natural reaction among many in the community, to instinctively reach for the budget scissors as the first and only solution.

But although that’s a natural reaction, it may not be the best reaction. Why so? Just look at the instructive example of Howard Johnson. Lewis Carbone, a respected business consultant who was on hand during the HoJo’s tumultuous last days, has documented the fall of this once-mighty company and the lessons it provides about the dangers of prioritizing cost savings over a customer’s experience and satisfaction.

I suspect that Howard Johnson is a name—and a brand—you have not thought about for some time. But back the Mad Men world of the 1960s, HoJo was a juggernaut of the corporate world. It was a forward-thinking company, a first-adopter of many innovations that have become standard in the food service and hospitality industries. It recognized the business opportunities provided by the new interstate highway system, and developed a plan to strategically link restaurants and easy-access hotels at key points across the new travel grid. Along the way, HoJo became a pioneering force in such concepts as franchise development, “motels,” theme restaurants and commissary food distribution. It also emerged as an industry leader in the area of customer service, with Howard Johnson personally insisting on legendary, unified standards of customer care that ensured guests felt at home in any orange-roofed HoJo around the country. It was phenomenally successful—in the mid 1960s the chain’s profits exceeded McDonald’s, Burger King, and Kentucky Fried Chicken combined.

So what happened? Why did such a successful company go by the wayside?

Well, there was a change in leadership. The eponymous founder, with his devotion to customer service, exceptional quality, and the highest standards, gave way to a new generation of leadership under his son Howard B. Johnson that adopted a new cost-savings strategy as the guiding principal of the company. The new management also embraced a new way of thinking that suggested the customer wouldn’t be able to discern the difference between a great product and a pretty good product.

At a talk I attended a few years back, Carbone (who worked briefly with HoJo in the 1970s) recalled what happened next. He suggested that one specific change the new regime instituted—the change from a signature 4-ply napkin to a much more modest 2-ply napkin—encapsulated both the thinking behind the new strategy and its unfortunate consequences.

The idea behind this change seemed fairly straightforward: since the napkins were hardly central to the customers’ experiences, they offered a harmless way to save money by cutting corners where no one would notice.

This change, unfortunately, represented the tip of the iceberg. Satisfied at the money saved, the management fully embraced this new culture of cost-cutting, hunting down savings wherever possible. The length of drinking straws was shortened. The number of ice cream flavors was reduced. Cheaper ingredients were used in the restaurants and smaller portion were mandated. Cleaning schedules were reduced, employee training reduced, and building maintenance was reduced.

In short, the company instituted a drive to cut costs in an attempt to improve the bottom line for investors at the expense of the customer.

It is important to note that all of these changes—at first—were slight, and on an individual basis might not have made much of a difference. But as these “minor” cuts continued and pervaded the organization, the customers did notice the overall change in quality and reacted badly. Not openly at first, or with specific calls to, say, bring back the thicker napkin. It was clear, however, that customer perceptions of HoJo began a fundamental shift downwards. Guests felt like they were no longer at a restaurant, per se, but at an increasingly dingy, inexpensive fast food joint… while still being asked to pay the higher prices associated with a restaurant. Eating at HoJo no longer felt “special,” which impacted long-term customer identification and brand identity.

For a while, brand loyalty held firm, but there came a tipping point where loyalty fell away and people took their business to a competitor. Once that tipping point happened, the company entered a death spiral it could not escape. As more and more people abandoned the chain with its dirty facilities, indifferent service and mediocre food, the company redoubled its cuts in order to maintain its bottom line.  By the 1970s the former industry leader was a sad, decrepit mess. Carbone, who witnessed the destruction first hand, writes:

In my observations there was seldom a mention of what was happening to the organization’s most valuable asset as a result of this whittling-away process. The trust Howard Johnson had build up in the minds of its loyal customer over so many years was still significant, even bankable. But as financial difficulties mounted and the organization turned defensive, it didn’t figure into management discussion in any meaningful way.

Lewis P. Carbone, Clued in: How to Keep Customers Coming Back Again and Again. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc., 2004.

Sound at all familiar?

Yes, obviously an orchestra is very different from Howard Johnson, and we now live in a different time than the 1970s. But there are many points of similarity—and orchestras are much closer to customer service organizations in the hospitality sector than they are to the manufacturing or financial sectors. Both an orchestra and a restaurant are selling an experience. Their “product” is a hard-to-describe, but very real feeling that is woven together from many different elements. And tampering with any one of these elements can lead to disruption of the whole. Much like music itself.

This is not to say that nothing can ever be cut, or that cost savings is inherently a bad idea, but it does serve as a cautionary tale that customers do notice, and do respond to changes in quality. And downgrading quality might buy short-term gains, but lead to long-term problems.  Just think of that the next time you pull into a Howard Johnson.

Oh.  Wait….



Personnel or Product?

One of the themes I’ve heard incessantly over the course of labor disputes involving the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and other ensembles has been that musicians are just too dang expensive, and they have to take huge pay cuts for their respective organizations to survive.

Essentially, leaders from these various organizations have adopted a perspective straight out of the for-profit business world. Swept up in this line of reasoning, managements have repeatedly described their organizations’ financial problems as personnel problems: payroll was just too high.

For example, the management of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) has bemoaned the fact that 24% of their operating costs go towards paying the musicians. Here in Minneapolis, board members decried that musicians’ salaries accounted for 40% of the Minnesota Orchestra’s expenses.

And because they were seeing their problem from a for-profit angle, the managements from each of these organizations tried to lower costs by using a well-established mechanism from the for-profit world—they decided to cut payroll.  The workers were going to have to make concessions… or get cut themselves.

This has been a standard operating procedure in manufacturing and other economic sectors; and if this is your frame of reference, it would seem perfectly logical to reduce the musicians’ pay as a way of reducing overall organizational costs.

But this framework is completely wrong here.  As I have said many times before, the arts groups in question aren’t for-profit businesses… they are non-profit organizations. The entire reason these organizations exist is to make music. As a result, the musicians are not simply personnel, they are also the product.

From this perspective, the fact that musicians only account for 24% for the ASO’s budget is astonishing.  Where on earth is the rest of the money going… administrative overhead?  What would we we think of the Red Cross if only 24% of its budget was going to disaster relief?

When I come to a concert, I am coming to hear a crack ensemble perform music in ways that excite, surprise, and astonish me.  I’m there for the end result, which is glorious music. Anything that interferes with that will lessen the likelihood that I’ll buy a ticket or contribute to the organization.  Reducing the number of performances, or replacing veteran players with younger, cheaper models will have a direct, and measurable effect on the product and, from my perspective, set off a chain reaction that will greatly harm the organization.

To explain what I mean, let’s look at this from a different perspective that may be more understandable—the notion of a restaurant.

Chicago is home to many distinguished eateries, but one of the most spectacular is Rick Bayless’s Topolobampo. Bayless has created a culinary empire by serving glorious, authentic Mexican food with astonishing care and attention to detail. Topolobampo is the crown jewel in this empire, a restaurant that raises Mexican cuisine to a rare art form…  I doubt the president of Mexico’s personal chef could do any better. Guests eating at Topolobampo expect the best, and expect the prices to match. While you don’t have to break the bank to eat there, you certainly can—when you factor appetizers, entrée and dessert, along with an astonishing bottle of amarone that magically brings all the assorted flavors together, a party of two can easily rack up a very large bill. (Let’s just say I know this from personal experience.)

But all restaurants live on painfully thin profit margins. Those highly trained chefs, the crack team of servers, and those rare ingredients come at a cost.  What if Bayless decided to improve his bottom line by adopting a business model closer to that of, say, Chipotle?

He could, for example, choose to move away from fresh, seasonal ingredients and buy bulk products that are canned or frozen. He could create an assembly line that would cook all the food in large batches ahead of time, and simply assemble and warm each plate when orders came in. He could get rid of the sommelier and the hand-selected wines that pair with the specific ingredients and go instead with a corporate partner that would supply bulk wines cheaply. Bayless could further reduce staff by eliminating servers altogether and adopt a “facilitated buffet” service.  He could also have patrons bus their own dishes to eliminate busboys, too. Add in a corporate sponsorship with Coke, and his new, cost-effective restaurant is ready to open, and he and his business manager could dream of all the wonderful profits they would make.

But he would have also eliminated any reason to actually eat there.

The changes he made would have fundamentally changed the product, and while the old expensive elements would have gone away, so would all the things that brought in a profit. In this new restaurant, I would never, ever, pay $200 for my food. That price is predicated on me having a culinary experience, not just grabbing a bite to eat.  I won’t care what kind of discount the restaurant got on its beef if my dish has the consistency of rawhide. I won’t care that the glass of “I-Can’t-Believe-it’s-Cabernet” on the menu is more profitable for the new restaurant to serve… if it makes my food taste like metal, I won’t want to drink it.

At the end of the day, why would I go to a restaurant that’s chasing Chipotle?  If I wanted to go to Chipotle, I’d just go there, instead of a knock-off.

Let me be perfectly clear that I like Chipotle just fine as a restaurant and I don’t want to disparage it or accuse it of unsavory business practices; I won’t, however, go there for a special occasion, buy a Chipotle cook book, sign up for their e-newsletter, or spend more than $10 for my food. I would, however, do all those things for Topolobampo.

The same holds true with an orchestra. Cheaper musicians and pops concerts might look more profitable on paper, but I certainly won’t spend $80 a ticket to hear them. I won’t buy this orchestra’s recordings since I can most likely find better ones performed by better ensembles. If I’m not inspired, I probably won’t contribute more than a small, token amount, and I certainly won’t give to a capital campaign. And since there are so many artistic and musical ensembles to support, this new “profitable” orchestra will most likely drop off my radar altogether.

Let me be clear.  I’m not going to a concert to help your bottom line… I’m going so I can have an experience.  If I can’t get this experience with the you, I’ll go somewhere else where I can.  And if I do walk away, how much time and effort will you have spend to break through my indifference to get me to support you again? To trust you again?  Your orchestra or opera house might have a profitable year in the short-term… but it will do so at the expense of long-term prospects and support.

Why go down that road?

So as the ASO is contemplating another lockout of its musicians, I say this:  No business thrives by diluting and diminishing their core product. And since the musicians are your core product, I would advise changing your frame of reference to reflect that.