Still Standing Tall

Over the last two days, Minneapolis has been hit with two rough storms.  We were driving through the second of the two, and it was a pretty sobering affair.  Even on residential streets, the rain was coming down hard enough that there was almost no visibility. A power line blew and came down as we passed underneath it, and the final few blocks to our house we had to do elaborate switchbacks to avoid all the felled trees (many, unfortunately, that had landed on cars).  We got home to find the tree in our front yard uprooted—it was blown down and now residing on my front porch as a fairly intimidating ornamental plant.  Sizable branches from my neighbors’ trees lay like shrapnel everywhere… but one of them made me smile.  It had blown down from a big walnut tree next door, and juuuuuuuust missed my yard sign supporting the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra.

So, here’s my yard sign after it’s close brush with death:


I like to think the musicians will similarly weather the ongoing storm, and come out of it bruised but still standing tall.

And now, to find a chain saw.


Fighting a Good Fight?

Some years back, an article appeared in the Harvard Business Review that looked into how management teams could manage conflict within their companies.  “How Management Teams Can Have a Good Fight,” by Kathleen M. Eisenhardt, Jean L. Kahwajy and L. J. Bourgeois III,  made a powerful case that healthy conflict was necessary in an organization, and that its absence was not harmony… it was apathy.  The authors argue:

[T]eams whose members challenge one another’s thinking develop a more complete understanding of the choices, create a richer range of options, and ultimately make the kinds of effective decisions necessary in today’s competitive environments.

Sounds good, but this leads to an obvious follow-up question: what constitutes healthy conflict?

For the authors, the answer is clear:  good conflict is honest, direct, impersonal and issue-focused, while unhealthy conflict tends to be manipulative, driven by politics and directed towards individuals.  In an unhealthy system, discussions fragment into cliques where team members battle like characters in Game of Thrones for position rather than work toward resolving an issue.  Anger and frustration are out in the open.  On the other hand, in a good team, members are able to argue without destroying their ability to work together.  The ability to juggle differing viewpoints, agendas and goals allows successful management teams to make high-stakes decisions in the face of considerable uncertainty, while under pressure to move quickly.

In the end, the authors find several points that show whether or not an organization manages conflict effectively, including a willingness to work with more facts rather than less, develop multiple alternatives to enrich the level of debate, share commonly agreed-upon goals, and maintain a balanced power structure.  They conclude that these elements must be present for a group to manage stressful moments of transition.

This framework gives much food for thought about the Orchestra’s ongoing labor dispute, and how the long-foreseen contract negotiations could lead to an interminable lockout and the cancellation of an entire season.  For this analysis, it’s helpful to take a step back and not just focus on the inner workings of the leadership team, but to see a broader “team” made up of all the Orchestra’s principal shareholders.  This allows us to look more closely at how the MOA leadership has managed the conflict with the other major players in the dispute—particularly the musicians.

More Facts, Please

One of the most important points the authors make is that limiting access to data doesn’t reduce conflict… it inflames it.  Over the course of their study, the authors found that some managers believe that having too much data at hand, shared by too many people, will increase conflict by expanding the range of issues for debate.  This isn’t borne out in the real world, however.  Successful organizations feel that the more information is shared, the better—it encourages people to focus on issues and data, instead of personalities.  Without good data, groups waste time in pointless debates over opinions that by their nature can never be resolved.   Lacking good data invites some individuals to resort to self-aggrandizement and their own “gut feelings.”   As a result, disagreements begin to focus on the person making a decision—and his or her style of making them—rather than the data itself.

Sadly, I think the MOA management has engaged in a clear pattern of limiting access to data over the course of the Orchestra dispute.  Board documents going back to 2009 show the board has willfully engaged in a pattern of withholding data from key constituents, including the musicians, donors and the state legislature.  The board authorized excessive draws from the endowment to give the illusion that finances were in order, and President Henson gave several media interviews proclaiming the Orchestra was thriving with balanced budgets in a difficult economic environment.  The truth was quite different; the Orchestra was certainly not thriving, and management planned to use the excessive draws to force a business reset.  But this wasn’t the only instance of withholding information.  Repeatedly, outside observers including the musicians and the state government have demanded a through financial analysis… but the leadership refused.  When external pressure forced the board to agree to an independent analysis, it hand-picked its own firm, dictated the issues to be covered, and made vague promises to “share” findings with the musicians.  Certainly a Kafka-esque definition of “independent analysis.”

A far better solution, from my perspective, would have been to be brutally honest with the musicians upfront—tell them that the organization was nearing a tipping point and needed a new business model.  Then, prove it to them by showing elaborate projections, forecasts, analyses, multi-year trends and comparable data from peer orchestras.  At that point, start making the case to donors, the community, and the state government about the need for a business reset.  If leadership had an air-tight case that the lobby renovation was the only way the Orchestra could move toward profitability (as they currently list on their website)… why not make that case to the legislature, rather than the case it made, which was based on how financially stable and fiscally responsible the organization was?

Multiply the Alternatives

Another key argument from the Harvard article is that some managers believe they can reduce conflict by focusing on only one or two alternatives.  It’s a lot easier to convince people to chose A when the only alternative is its polar opposite, Z.  Research shows, however, that teams that manage conflict successfully often develop multiple alternatives, often considering four or five options at once.  Great managers also introduce choices they do not necessarily support, simply to spur discussion and tease out creative solutions.  Generating a range of options tends to concentrate energy on solving problems and increases the likelihood of integrative solutions.  It also diffuses conflict by allowing for multiple points of agreement, making it possible for team members to shift positions without losing face. Finally, it ensures buy-in from across the organization.

Unfortunately, they way the MOA leadership has managed the dispute, the number of options has been reduced, leading to higher levels of conflict and personal animosity.  The Orchestra’s leadership team bluntly stated that although they welcomed dialog with the musicians, their proposal was, in fact, their final offer:  the musicians had to accept $5 million in pay cuts along with hundreds of changes to the contract.  Obviously, all sides in a labor dispute have to make hard-nosed demands upfront so they have room to negotiate; but the non-negotiable demands, repeated frequently, have not engaged the musicians in the process.  The musicians weren’t approached to help solve the problem—they were treated as if they were the problem that needed to be solved.  Some might argue that the musicians followed the same pattern by not submitting a counterproposal, but this is a false equivalency.  I believe the musicians are right to point out that without solid financial data (see previous point) they can’t offer viable alternatives or understand the management’s long-range plans.  They are not even being given a choice between A or Z… they are being told to accept A on trust alone.

Again, if the intention had been to find a holistic solution and create buy-in among all constituents, a wiser move would have been to explore many options, to offset cuts in one area with new benefits elsewhere.  Instead, it feels like this entire situation was engineered as a win-lose situation from the beginning.

Creating Common Goals

Another effective tool for minimizing harmful conflict is to frame choices as collaborative instead of competitive.  This means that effective, successful groups frame their decisions as a true partnership in which it is in everyone’s interest to achieve the best possible solution for the entire team.  The Harvard Business Review article notes that such a solution does not imply homogenous thinking, but it does require a shared vision.  Steve Jobs famously stated, “It’s okay to spend a lot of time arguing about which route to take to San Francisco when everyone wants to end up there, but a lot of time gets wasted in such arguments if one person wants to go to San Francisco and another secretly wants to go to San Diego.”

The failure to follow this line of reasoning is clear in the battle over the Orchestra’s mission statement.    Musicians were infuriated when the leadership simply announced a new mission statement that removed mention of orchestral music altogether, and instead included language about financial sustainability.  This was a double blow.  For one, it removed what should be the core function of an orchestra—presenting orchestral music—and replaced it with a subjective metric.  What is “financially sustainable” and who gets to decide?  Is it hiring high school musicians because they’re cheap?  Performing popular works ad nauseum? Plus, this whole notion is redundant… is there an organization that aspires to financially unsustainable, thereby spending itself into bankruptcy?  The ultimate aspiration of the organization can’t be simply to be profitable, as that doesn’t say anything about what the organization does, who it does it for or how it’s different from competitors.  But what really stung for the musicians is the fact that they weren’t consulted on this critical matter.  They were told, essentially, that their top concern was no longer making music, it was making money.  This was, for many, a significant departure from their existing job description.

Balancing the Power Structure

The Harvard article demonstrates again and again that successful leaders have to balance a fine line between being too strong and too weak.  Autocratic leaders who mange though highly centralized power structures create waves of interpersonal friction, but so do weak leaders who allow team members to ruthlessly vie for power.  A successful team should have a clear leader and a clear power structure; that said, individual members should still wield substantial power, especially within clearly-defined areas of responsibility.   Multiple studies have shown that autocratic leadership tends to spawn aggression, hostility, and scapegoating.  Balanced power structures, on the other hand, tend to lead toward collaboration, praise, and mutual respect.

Part of the problem with this labor dispute has been the tremendously imbalanced power structure of the organization.  Without strong representation on the board, particularly on the executive committee, the musicians don’t have a strong voice in how the organization runs; nor have they been able to play an effective role in shaping the organization’s values and objectives.  Obviously, many musicians don’t have the formal training to engage in the day-to-day operations of the Orchestra, but they certainly have expertise in the area of the art itself.  Could they be given more power over artistic planning or the shaping of the artistic priorities of the organization?  Are there other areas they could take a leadership role?  Areas where perhaps the management has less expertise?  Can a balance be found?

* * *

Well, it is probably clear by now that I’m not a fan of how this situation has been handled.  In my own bit of editorializing, it seems that so many fundamental areas conflict resolution have been mismanaged that I can’t shake the notion that the whole labor dispute came about not from a quest to find a solution to the Orchestra’s financial situation, but simply from a desire to impose a pre-determined business model onto the organization.  Obviously, I could be wrong—I’m just an outsider making observations on what I see going on.  And if I am wrong, and if the leadership is indeed serious about resolving this situation, I would suggest that what truly needs a reset is not the Orchestra’s business model, but management’s conflict resolution model.  It’s not too late to revisit the dispute and attempt to resolve it utilizing the points I listed above.  I think that would go a long way toward achieving a fair, productive resolution that all sides can live with.



Selling Beer, Selling an Orchestra

A many years ago, I got wrapped up in a discussion about how to market “elite” products like classical music in a “regular joe” kind of society.  Should you appeal to the snobs and insiders?  Go for the everyman?  And in either case do you lose something by making it either more and more esoteric and unattainable so that only the chosen few can enjoy it (like, say, Abercrombie and Fitch clothing), or by dumbing it down beyond recognition?

One answer came from beer.

Not in a “drunken-ramblings-that-solve-all-of-life’s-questions” way, but in a discussion of how beer companies have grappled with a very similar problem in their own industry.  Let me explain.

Here in the US, beer is a billion dollar industry.  But it is dominated by a few big brands that have established a huge market share over the last 50 years.  Despite increasing challenges from competitors, “beer” in the US is still widely understood—and experienced—as pale industrial pilsner as sold by Budweiser or Miller.  But against this domination by mass-produced labels, there has emerged a countervailing trend—specially crafted, artisan beers that have sprung up either domestically from microbreweries or have been imported from abroad.

It is curious to note that there is plenty of room for both approaches in the market.  While smaller breweries might never approach the total revenue of the giants, they do quite well for themselves, provide good jobs for dedicated workers, and have a rabidly loyal clientele.

What does this mean for an orchestra?  Can an artisan brew master really provide business lessons to a group of overworked arts administrators, besides the obvious way of providing the means for them to drown their collective sorrows?

Philip Van Munching, scion of the family that imported Heineken beer into the US shows how it can be done.  His 1998 book, Beer Blast, is a colorful tale of the inner workings of the world of American breweries.  He explores in particular the near demise of the beer industry between 1970 and 1990, when brewery after brewery chose to cut costs by buying cheaper ingredients and letting the beer age for less time before shipping it out to market.  The result?  Financial disaster—it seems people really can tell the difference in quality.  Van Munching ends with a series of basic laws of beer marketing, emphasizing in particular how a small, quality product can stand out in a sea of mass produced competitors; he goes on to boldly state that these laws apply to other areas, too.

I think it will be clear that they can, if nothing else, inform a discussion on how to market an orchestra.

1)   Start with a good product.  More important, you need to believe it is good to market it, or you are wasting your time. 

Van Munching is brutally clear that it is absolutely necessary for a company to believe in the excellence of its product—and this belief has to pervade the entire organization.  This is true not just for a brewery, but for an orchestra as well.  Just as it does a brewery no good to have master brewers, accountants, and executives who are not passionately committed to its product, it does an orchestra no good to employ ticket sellers, ushers, or other front-line staff who are disinterested in the art form.  And it certainly does no good for an orchestra’s top leaders to be indifferent to its core product.  How can you be an advocate, and ultimately sell your product to the public, if you aren’t an advocate yourself?

2)  Beware “small” changes that affect overall quality, as they can add up and destroy both your product and your reputation.

The world is littered with defunct, empty breweries that tried to cut their way to higher profits.  One local example is the once-proud Grain Belt.  People do notice changes; again and again, breweries that decided to cut corners netted a few short-term gains, but over the long term began losing customers to their competitors.  It is very hard to stop the bleeding once it starts.  Similarly, an orchestra that sets out to save money by dropping from “great” to “pretty good” will slowly begin to die.  An orchestra that loses its passion for excellence can hardly expect its audience members to maintain their own level of passion.  And as public apathy sets in, ticket sales will start to drop and fewer large-scale donations will roll in.  There is just too much competition for this kind of complacency.

3)  You have to know who your customers are and speak to them in your advertising.

There is a lurking danger in the world of marketing to allow yourself to be seduced by your own clever ideas and snappy phrases, with a result that you come up with advertising that looks great to you but has no meaning for your intended audience.  The goal—for both beer and orchestral music—has to be about connecting customers to your brand, convincing them to take that critical step of making a purchase, or at least taking the time to talk you up to their friends.  What will convince them to take that step?  Figure that out, and make that the core of your ad.  It seems basic enough, but this simple truth is often lost in a rush to simply make something “memorable,” “exciting,” or even “artistic.”  Similarly, don’t create an ad simply with the aim that it will “go viral.”  This almost never works the way you want it to, and certainly not on the timetable you need it to.  Again, the aim of the ad isn’t to delight their senses or bring about a laugh—it’s to get them to buy a ticket.

4)  Protect your flagship product. 

Van Munching notes that he quickly learned Heineken’s overall brand would suffer if the company put forth a light beer—all of their marketing had been build around creating an image of Heineken as a high-quality, high-status product and a “light” version would  negate all their hard work.   So when they released a new product to capitalize on the growing light beer market, they released it as “Amstel Light.”  Similarly, there is no sense diluting the Orchestra’s brand.  This is not to say that an orchestra can only perform “stuffy” art music in the most formal of settings, or that popular performers can never take the stage at Orchestra Hall.  No, casual concerts and more popular music are great, and fulfill an important role in the mission of the Orchestra.  There is ample room for series like Casual Classics and Pops.  But these programs can be branded separately, and should never overwhelm to core mission of the Orchestra to present orchestral music at the highest level.

5)  Don’t chase someone else’s market just because you see dollar signs.

Every company, every organization has a specific niche in the marketplace.  Within this niche you have a competitive advantage, something that makes you unique and distinct from others in the same category.  Embrace that.  Go after your niche and take advantage of it.  No one can be all things to all people, so decide who your market audience is and go after it.  Sure, you can always spread out to other areas, but realize that when you do, you are running into someone else’s competitive advantage, and you’ll be at a disadvantage… be strategic when you do so, and wise.  The Orchestra can try to be a presenting house for popular music, but there are already organizations that do that better, and it will be very hard to compete with, say, Mystic Lake Casino on its own terms.

6)  Beware sacrificing existing customers for new ones.

Again, it is not a bad idea to develop new customers—it is, in fact, critical that you do so for long-term growth. That said, studies show again and again that it is expensive, inefficient, and labor-intensive to bring new customers on into your fold, so you need to be very strategic about doing so.  Especially if you have limited resources.  Remember it takes work to keep your customers loyal, but doing so pays dividends—loyal followers are far more likely than recent converts to be invested in your success.

7) Protect your pricing, and let your image justify it.

At the end of the day, price is always an important factor, but it is hardly the only factor.  Obviously you don’t want to price yourself out of the market, but people will buy your product if they perceive that it has value commensurate with its price.  People still buy a premium beer even if it isn’t the cheapest, most readily available beer on hand; they do so because they want the quality, the taste, and the street cred it gives them.  Yes, you can lower your price… but that often lowers the perceived value, too.  Why not work instead to raise the perceived value of your product?  The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra provides an obvious case study that speaks to this point.  Several years ago, the SPCO radically dropped its ticket prices with the hope that lost revenue would be made up by scores of new concertgoers  snapping up all the newly-cheap tickets.  It was an interesting idea, but the plan does not seem to have worked as planned.  Many have argued that the SPCO’s artificially low prices serve to diminish the value of the music, and ultimately serve as an insidious disincentive towards attending a performance.

8)  Use research sparingly.

This might be controversial, and I’m not sure I fully buy Van Munching’s rationale.  His point is that research deadens creativity, and too often it is used to “prove” someone’s pet theory.  This certainly has a ring of truth to it.  That said, the majority of his points depend on a business knowing its target audience, knowing what makes it respond, and knowing their values.  For that, you need to do research.

9)  Image counts.

Although Van Munching wrote before this term really caught on, his work is a virtual celebration of the idea of branding. He noted in the 1990s that people who drank Heineken were a distinct group that wanted to proclaim their refined taste and cosmopolitanism by “showing off” their high-status bottles.  Therefore, it made no sense to sell it on tap—draft beer all looks alike in the glass.  The company adjusted its sales techniques to match the demands and desires of its consumers, and was hugely successful.  While that specific example doesn’t necessarily have a musical equivalent, it does show how a savvy company based its plans on a thorough understanding of its customers, and then using that understanding to take appropriate actions.    How can an Orchestra build and maintain a brand creates street cred and status?  How can it integrate its activities to create a through-line that constantly reinforces it’s high status brand?

Just food (or… er, drink) for thought as we head out to the weekend.   Cheers!



A FAQ that Raises More Questions than it Answers

As the labor dispute between the Minnesota Orchestra’s management and musicians has unfolded over the last few months, I’ve been baffled by many of the management’s stated positions. And I say this not in a Minnesota-passive-aggressive kind of way—I’m genuinely baffled. Yes, I fully believe that Orchestra’s finances were hit hard after the market crash in 2008, and the last few years have been a struggle.  This has been true for almost every person, business and non-profit in the nation. I am also fully prepared to believe that things have sunk so low for the Orchestra that a new business model is needed to stave off financial disaster.  So from my perspective, an argument for a cuts and/or a business reset should be easy to make and easy to substantiate.  I may not agree with all the particulars, but I should be able to understand them.

But this is not the case. Again and again, I’ve found the management’s arguments to be weak, counter-intuitive, sloppily made, easily disproved and inconsistent. It’s as if management considers its position so self-evident that feels no obligation to explain or defend it to the broader public.

The FAQ section on the Orchestra’s website is a prime example of this  ( ). Yes, in a bitter labor dispute there is always good chance that either side’s talking points play hard and fast with the truth.  But these talking points go beyond spin, and I’d like to respond.  Questions in bold refer back to the headings on the FAQ page, while phrases in italics are the specific points I’m addressing.



 “our musician expenses have never been higher.”

This is the kind of lazy, unsubstantiated claim one expects in media talking points. That said, it is still dreary to read. Yes, the expenses have never been higher… because the cost of living in general has never been higher. Every meaningful analysis that compares costs from two different eras adjusts for inflation as a standard operating procedure. This argument would be the equivalent of saying that the 1962 movie Cleopatra was small-budget sleeper because it only cost $31 million to make… and pivoting immediately to say it also goes to show how expensive it is to make a movie nowadays. But really. The sum of $31 million in 1962 roughly equals $230 million today, making it clear why Cleopatra is regarded as a bloated, big-budget behemoth that almost bankrupted the movie studio.   It is for identical reasons that “musician expenses have never been higher.”

Then of course there are the follow up questions:  higher relative to what?  Higher relative to whom?  Is your income higher than ever? What happens over the length of the contract?  And other relevant details.


“Musicians account for 48 percent of the Orchestra’s total costs.”

This number gets tossed out frequently, but needs to be unpacked. This is, after all, an orchestra—a group of musicians coming together to perform music. Why shouldn’t the musician costs be the lion’s share of the budget? I’d be curious to learn what you’d suggest should consume a larger percentage of the budget… administrative overhead? An important question to ask is, what is the industry standard?  What is the ideal percentage of an orchestra’s budget that should go toward musician salaries? More importantly, what is your ideal percentage?

“Our musicians must play their part in the organization’s financial recovery.”

Absolutely… I wholeheartedly agree. Moreover, I’m fairly sure that many of them feel this way and want to be part of the solution. I’d argue that you never asked them to be part of the solution. I’m hardly unbiased, but to me it feels like you’ve structured this whole lockout as a punitive action with an eye toward unilaterally recasting the relationship between you and the musicians. You’ve locked them out, only grudgingly allowed them a chance to speak to the board, and engaged in a whole host of heavy-handed actions that have been documented elsewhere. For me it appears that everything you’ve done to this point has been to simply win a labor dispute.  This is very different from wanting them to be partners in the organization’s financial recovery.



 “Musicians can leverage the reputation of the Minnesota Orchestra brand and supplement their incomes by teaching and playing in music festivals during the regular season and during their weeks of vacation. The Orchestra is supportive of this additional employment.”

This is… astonishing. With respect, consider what you are publicly advocating. You are suggesting that musicians can always fill in here and there with outside gigs—and because you assume this to be true you are going to preemptively lower their base salary. For perspective, you’re essentially saying that Derek Jeter could take a big pay cut, because he could make up the difference by trading on the Yankee’s name for outside income.  He could choose, for example, to coach little league or be a ringer on Bank of America’s corporate softball team. Also, it’s great that you “support” someone else paying your musicians’ salary, but do you find them these gigs or coordinate with outside groups to make them happen? Or do you expect the musicians to job hunt on their own time as well?

Let’s flip this. Using this same argument, you could have the board cut Pres. Henson’s salary by 40% with the understanding that he will supplement his income with paid speaking engagements around town, or by serving as a consultant for other non-profits.

“The proposal also requests that musicians play chamber music in community locations and participate in outreach events in our state’s schools as part of their contract, which is good for our communities and good for the future of the Orchestra.”

I fully agree that these activities are good for the Orchestra and good for the community. But they come at a cost. Who picks up travel expenses? Will these outside activities disrupt practice time or otherwise interfere in musicians’ schedules? Can musicians refuse? Think about this from a broader business perspective—how many times can you send an employee out to represent your company at trade meetings, career fairs, conferences and such before that employee’s core job duties begin to suffer?




“From April through September, that is precisely what we did.”

This talking point is, in honesty, bizarre. First, you make an un-clever riff of the well-known, broadly used term “play and talk” that makes it sound like you’re a grumpy father fuming that your kid bought expensive clothes on your credit card. More to the point, it is wholly inaccurate—you were paying them because they were still under contract to play. The labor contract didn’t expire until September. They were fulfilling their job duties, and you were obviously legally required to pay them for services they were rendering. “Play and talk” would only come about after the contract expired.



“Since the lockout began in October, the Orchestra has received one resignation and notification from four musicians that they wish to take a year’s leave of absence in order to pursue other opportunities.”

This is a delicate topic. Many outside observers think the phrase “they’ve taken a year’s leave of absence in order to pursue other opportunities” means, in plain English, “they’ve quit.”  It is the standard operating procedure across the industry for musicians to take a year-long leave if they receive another job offer. Does that mean they view their absence as a temporary sabbatical?  Or are they keeping to the letter of the contract but counting the days until they can officially resign? You seem to assume the former, but I believe they wouldn’t have left if they were a contented employee.

Another obvious point.  Even before the musicians received the management’s proposal in April, it was clear what direction it was going to go. Did a couple of retirements happen because individuals didn’t want to get caught up in the coming storm? Did musicians take jobs elsewhere because it was easier than sitting through an emotionally draining labor dispute? Did they leave directly because of the labor dispute, or was it an indirect factor… one of many considered?  Only they know for sure.  But, coincidentally, we do have statements from some of the musicians themselves: Burt Hara, Gina DiBello, Thomas Turner, Matthew Young, Sarah Kwak, Vali Phillips, and Peter McGuire seem to have given some indication—at least to their former colleagues—that they left due to the lockout and the proposed changes to the Orchestra. Do you dispute their claims? How do you reconcile this with your statement of “one” resignation?

“On average, approximately three musicians leave the Orchestra each season to accept other positions.”

This may be true but it is irrelevant. Well, I take that back. It is a useful perspective to offer as background information, but you’re making it seem more important than it is. And it doesn’t change the fact that the individuals mentioned above have indicated the specific reason they’re leaving is the contract you are trying to implement, plus an overall bad work environment. It seems like you’re implying that the first three musicians that leave under these circumstances don’t count somehow because something else would have caused them to resign anyway.




“In 1983, Minnesota Orchestra musicians earned $33,000 a year, and health care and pension costs were more modest, manageable expenses.”

While this statement is technically true, my feeling is that making such a claim actually undermines your overall credibility. Yes, the musicians made $33,000 in 1983, but the cost of living was far lower back then. Adjusting for inflation, which is a standard procedure when comparing costs from two very different eras, reveals that the musicians’ salary would equal about $77,000 in today’s job market (remember my Cleopatra analogy above?).  This is essentially the point the musicians have made, and is to my mind an accurate assessment.  Likewise, a comparison with health plans is also false because of the massive transformation in healthcare delivery systems and options between then and now.

Again I would reverse this and ask if you would have the CEO make the same inflation-adjusted income as his 1983 predecessor?



“Since January, the board has done everything it can to remove the barriers musicians have said stand in the way of them issuing a counterproposal.”

I’m sorry, but this statement, along with the accompanying list of bullet points, is not exactly true. Faced with repeated demands for an independent financial analysis from the musicians, donors and the state legislature, you chose instead to hire your own firm to produce a narrowly-focused “independent” analysis that deliberately sidestepped several questions the musicians wanted answered before they felt they had the necessary information to make a counterproposal. Yes, you did invite the musicians to speak to the board, but only for a 15-minute time slot; this feels inadequate for the amount of issues to be resolved. You did offer additional meeting dates, but for weeks into the future, which made it seem like you were simply stalling for time. Your efforts to rework the mission statement were greatly appreciated, and I thank you.



“To say that one party can’t make an offer in a negotiation runs contrary to the very notion of collective bargaining.”

This comment about the musicians not offering a counterproposal is made frequently by people inside and outside the organization. Other writers and outside commentators have covered this… a good analysis is presented by industry writer Drew McManus here: .

My own point to add to this discussion is that the demand for a counterproposal prioritizes an internal benchmark over an overall goal. Instead of trying again and again to specifically elicit a counterproposal from the musicians, why don’t you work toward resolving the dispute as a whole? You don’t need a notarized counterproposal on official letterhead signed by multiple witnesses. Hash it out over the phone. Break it into parts written up on note cards. Argue face to face. Again, a formal counterproposal is not actually necessary to resolve the dispute—but real negotiations are.



“The Board agreed to proceed with a joint financial review on January 2. It offered terms for the review by the end of January and suggested an independent financial analyst by February 11. On April 16, citing frustration over Union delays, the Board announced it would proceed on its own with the review. “

Again, this is such an odd statement to make publicly. For several months, the management flat-out refused to entertain the notion of an independent financial review. After legislative hearings and damaging revelations about the board minutes, the management backtracked and begrudging agreed to an analysis. However, it continued to push back against a review of key topics the musicians wanted to explore.  And, last month the management suddenly and unilaterally withdrew from negotiations… and declared they would conduct their own analysis and share the findings with the union. The story is detailed here: .

So.  The timeline and version of events is you have in your FAQ is factually correct, but blithely ignores the fact that management fought tooth and nail against having any of financial analysis done in the first place, and sidesteps the repeated efforts to limit its scope. For what it’s worth, I think it is nearly impossible to positively spin the fact that you are conducting an “independent” analysis on your own terms, by firm you have chosen, with selected results being given to a chosen few—but are still referring to it as “independent.”



“Over the last five years, Board members have donated $46.76 million to the Minnesota Orchestra.”

In the midst of my grumbling, let me take an opportunity to sincerely thank the board members for their generous support of the Orchestra. This support has made all kinds of wonderful programs possible. No “buts” or “howevers” from me… just a genuine thank you.



“Yes, it already has.”

Again, this section is not entirely untrue, but bypasses some critical details. Yes the staff was reduced 20%, but as noted in the press coverage at the time, that number included staff members whose jobs were specifically tied to the building, such as the facilities crew or the stage door guard. Once Orchestra Hall reopens, will some of these positions reappear? There is also much talk about staff salaries and how they’ve been flat or reduced. Interestingly, the CEO’s salary is reported in the Orchestra’s 990 forms for the IRS, and it doesn’t seem that he took a pay cut. On the contrary, he received salary increases comparable to the musicians over the same amount of time.  The same documents show he makes significantly more than the musicians (more than four times the musicians’ base salary), and it would seem that this salary package would be a good area for cuts—particularly if he’s asking for a sacrificial, 40% cut from the musicians.



“A renovated Orchestra Hall is part of the solution to the Orchestra’s financial issues.”

This is a novel explanation—that the $50 million renovation of Orchestra Hall will in and of itself help the Orchestra’s bottom line.  This is an idea that seduces art organizations all the time, but it is, unfortunately, difficult to substantiate this claim.  But there is, however, plenty of data to suggest that this plan won’t work.  It’s also important to note that many key figures following this dispute have persuasively argued the reverse of your argument, saying that spending large sums on renovations to Orchestra Hall in the midst of a financial crisis was fiscally irresponsible. It would be the equivalent of securing a home improvement loan to build an addition to your house, but losing your job just before ground breaking. Should you go through with the project? Yes, the new addition might add value to your house down the road when you’re ready to sell, and yes all the contractors are lined up and ready to go, but can your budget afford such a thing in the here and now?

Michael Kaiser, head of the Kennedy Center in Washington, has written an interesting article on this theme, and been forced to ask, “How many more arts institutions must face financial woes, labor unrest, reduced performing schedules and even closure because they commit to capital projects that are beyond their means?” (



“For example, we’d like to be able to schedule concerts on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day—occasions when our audiences enjoy hearing music. We’d like to be able to schedule concerts up to 2 1/2 hours in length to allow for more programming flexibility and longer intermissions for audiences.”

I’m somewhat surprised to learn that there has been a groundswell of support for concerts on New Year’s Eve or Day, knowing the Hall’s spotty record with attempts to schedule them in the past.

More to the point—in your own words, you want to call in your musicians on major holidays and extend their work day with no extra benefit or compensation.  But wait… it’s not just that they won’t see any extra compensation.  You’re making this request of them as part of a contract that is simultaneously demanding a 40% pay cut.  So to recap:  work through holidays, work longer days, half the pay.  Is there any employee that would think this is a good idea?



“Every community must find its own solution to the challenges that its orchestra faces, based on what its community can afford.”

The rest of this bullet point—which model is, in fact, the best one for us here—is debatable.  But there’s this point is important to address.  As you say, we need to let the community find the solution.  With respect, the solution you have approved and decided to implement has not, to my knowledge, been vetted by the community.  In fact, the community has in many ways reacted strongly against it.  It is clear from your own board minutes that you were reluctant to let key members of the community, including the state legislature and donors, know that there was even a problem that needed a solution.  Several donors have come forward publicly to state they would not have donated to the capital campaign if they knew the organization was truly in such dire financial straits… they would have instead earmarked their gift to keep salaries strong.  My own opinion is your proposed solution feels like something that a small, select group crafted and decided to force on the community whether they like it or not, and any resistance from the community was to be ignored.  Nothing in this feels like a community finding a solution.



“Our current contract limits the amount of outreach the Orchestra can do in the community because we must pay musicians approximately $100 per hour (on top of their regular salaries) to go into schools, to talk with students and engage in outreach.”

I’m at the end, and I’m sure most rational people have left their computer and found something more enjoyable to do.  So let me say this.  Outreach is great.  But are you proposing that musicians learn a totally different repertoire on their own, rehearse it with their colleagues on their own, get to an off-site location on their own, and spend a few hours of their own time performing and mentoring kids… without any compensation whatsoever?

And something else that seems “off” in your talking point.  Over the last few years, the date of the first concert of the season has been moved later and later.  Since the number of weeks covered by the contract hasn’t changed, aren’t you essentially paying your musicians to stay home when you could be having them perform in a community setting during the month of September?  Maybe have them play at the Lake Harriet Bandshell, or Como Park Pavilion or in Plymouth?   Or if the transportation is prohibitively expensive, have them perform at Orchestra Hall or simply send them out as speakers.  It is not a rigid union contract that is blocking these things from happening, it is a rigid way of thinking… there are creative solutions available.  Why waste those weeks if you’re paying the salaries anyway?

And finally, this point seems to imply that the musicians aren’t involved in community outreach, or at least not unless they are paid handsomely.  I have to say that they do take part in outreach.  All over and in all kinds of ways.  Could they do more?  Sure—the community loves these interactions and is always hungry for more.  But they absolutely are involved in outreach now.  Absolutely.


Again, I’m outside this whole dispute and I readily concede that I don’t have all the information.  As a result, I could be taking a simplistic approach to many of your arguments.  But these are your words in your FAQ section, and from my perspective your arguments have some serious holes in them.



Musicians and the Value of Personal Connections

Jon Eisenberg has a fantastic commentary in MinnPost that is very much worth a read (find it here:  He makes his point eloquently, but I’d like to add something as well.

Jon does an excellent job explaining how that in the wake of the two local orchestra lockouts, about half of Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s musicians have left, as have several key musicians from the Minnesota Orchestra. Sadly, we’ve seen many individuals—including some from the leadership at both orchestras—argue that since finances are in such bad shape, it’s just not possible to keep expensive, veteran players around.  Can’t they just be replaced by younger, unknown musicians at a substantial savings?

My response is: no, cheap replacements actually come at an unexpectedly high price for the organization.

The impact of a general exodus on an ensemble’s artistic quality has been broadly discussed, but I don’t think enough attention has been given to the ramifications of what can happen to an ensemble’s marketing and fundraising prospects as well.  It is a truth universally acknowledged that donors don’t give money to an organization simply because said organization needs money—all things being equal, people donate because an organization has touched them personally.  In today’s hyper-competitive climate, personal connections are critical to a non-profit’s survival; let me explain about just how deeply the musicians factor into this process.

I’ve had a long association with the Minnesota Orchestra that began professionally in 1992.  In that time I had many roles within the organization, but the longest run was being part of the front of house staff (starting as a usher and working my way up through the ranks). In this capacity I came into close contact with the public on a front-line basis, so I’d like to think I know a bit about how patrons view the Orchestra as a whole, and the musicians in particular.

When the public leaves at intermission or at the end of a concert, the very first thing they will say is something to the effect of, “Wasn’t that amazing?” (Or, in honesty, the occasional “Wasn’t that piece awful?”), along with comments is about the soloists if any were there, and the conductor whoever it was.

But immediately thereafter they discuss the musicians. Soloists and conductors are flashy and all, but they come and go; the public knows that the musicians the real face of the performance. Figuratively and literally—they are the ones facing the audience, and the musicians have the audience’s attention. Week in, week out, through all genres, musical style and so forth, the musicians are there. The musicians shape how the audience perceives the music, and even whether or not a piece is worthy of attention. When the performance is done, the lobby buzzes with comments along are on the lines of “Did you see her? I thought she was going to saw that violin in half!” Or, “Did you see him, I thought he was going to chuck the clarinet and just start dancing!”

While this is true for attendees generally, it is particularly the case for our regulars.  Whenever a rotation in the strings occurs, the ushers get asked why their favorite has been moved back—has something happened?! Audience members look for their favorites, and are disappointed if for whatever reason so-and-so is gone that week. For the musicians who do fundraising events, talk backs, hosting, teaching or community outreach, that bond with the public is greater still. There is a sense of ownership, trust, and a connection in the way that is just as important in communicating the meaning of the music as is their virtuoso playing.

Plus, there’s always a discussion about the quality of the performance, which is, of course, directly about the musicians as well. No one ever treats that soaring oboe line, that chilling violin counterpoint as a disembodied sound, the way international critics do in a standard CD review. Audience members know exactly which one of their favorites created that sound. Knowledgeable patrons go further and familiarize themselves with the musicians’ training, and talents—and if they don’t know something, they march right up to the ushers afterwards and ask for details.

Whatever cost savings the management hopes to achieve through the ongoing attrition and departure of musicians, I think the management is incredibly short-sighted to interfere with this connection. The best way to get potential donors to a reception?  Tell them they’ll have exclusive, face-to-face time with a musician.  Want to engage students?  Have a musician start talking.  If you lose these musicians, the loss of these connections will color all subsequent fundraising and marketing projects, and the institutional effort required to build similar, equally strong relationships with their replacements will be Herculean.

Therefore, I don’t think driving away known players and putting in cheap replacements is going to make anyone more likely to buy a ticket, or more open to a making a donation. As I mentioned above, the long-standing mantra about fundraising is that people give you money not because you need it, but because you inspire them.

There are so many other ways to interface with great music already, from simulcasts of the Met at our theaters to downloading a recording from iTunes. And almost all of them are impersonal. What the musicians provide is a way for the community to personally connect with the power of music.  This is of incalculable, long-term value, and I hope the management comes to realize this.


Living Music: Impressions of the Locked-Out Musicians’ May Concert

Before memory fades and things get too busy for me, I wanted to take a few minutes and revisit the Orchestra musicians’ most recent concert that took place at The O’Shaughnessy in St. Paul, featuring Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and Bruckner’s 4th Symphony. It’s hard now to look back on the concert without feelings of loss; a few days later, the Orchestra’s beloved Principal Clarinet Burt Hara announced he had accepted a new job in Los Angeles. But it was more than just a swan song for one player—it was a powerful event that touched us all in a variety of ways. With that in mind, I didn’t want to write a traditional review, such as the one that appeared in the Star Tribune (listed here: I’ll cover the music, of course, but I wanted to provide a set of impressions to give a better sense of what it was like to be there, because a truly great music concert should include all those rich, personal and living moments of human interaction to be complete.  Whether they be between audience-artist, artist-artist, audience-audience, crew-artist, or any other combination, these connections are a vital part of the experience. Without them, you might as well just throw in a CD.

* * *

Burt Hara is a rockstar. Or better, a classicalstar. There are great performances and great performances… but then there are some like this one where a brilliant artist not only brings to life the artistic vision of a composer from centuries past, but also infuses his playing with all the complex emotions of the here and now. Burt, standing alone before his peers, perfectly captured all the musicians’ aspirations, deep sadness, hope, and profound love for their artform. And he did it with joy. It was astonishing that with all the craziness the guy is going through, he found such a bright, exuberant tone. My God, in the midst of an endless Minnesota winter the man just gave us spring.

Stan Skrowaczewski’s conducting. The Mozart was great, but the Bruckner was astonishing. And I’m a guy who usually is only politely interested in Bruckner. All the more amazing for a conductor turning 90 this fall! But this wasn’t some clichéd “elder elegy” approach of music-making—an overly portentous interpretation by a conductor trying to wrench a few too many life lessons out of it. It wasn’t that contrived, artificial, or overly ripe. Or, for that matter, egotistical. It was profound, but spoke exactly to the moment. Right now, today. It effortlessly wove the musical lines into a compelling narrative of sadness, hope, defiance, acceptance, loss, and dare I say, triumph. It was an astonishingly generous interpretation. And all the more astonishing in the details—at one point he brought the brass in for a Grand Statement… that was apparently too grand for him, and so with the tiniest of waves (which strangely for me, felt somehow French in Stan’s delivery), he told them to pull back a bit… that it was bordering on being too gauche and obvious. And, at age 89 he conducted the whole score of the hour-long work by memory. Holy Juniper—I can’t even count on myself to remember to pick up cat food on the way home.

To gauge how deeply it affected the audience, after the work finished, there was like 5 – 8 seconds of absolute dead silence. That may not seem like much, but seriously, count it out. A room full of almost 2,000 people witnessing a powerful, grand piece of music in such an emotional setting… and sitting in silence while the echoing reverb completely dies and you can almost hear the gentle murmur of the ventilation.


Then and only then did everyone leap to their feet in a roar of an ovation that lasted through the repeated—and repeated—bows until a clearly tired maestro had to begin physically ushering the musicians off the stage just to shut us up.

Other random things that stuck with me.

Before, after and especially during the performance, it was deeply moving to see the onstage interactions between the musicians. Sometimes it was a joy to watch, as you saw the shared smiles at what I can only assume were inside jokes, or maybe the joy of doing favorite sections one last time together. It was also haunting because for some… it was their last time doing a favorite section together. Even if these interactions were simply made in the joking acknowledgement that someone let a musical passage get away from them, they quietly reinforced the idea that this glorious music wasn’t coming from some lifeless CD—it was being made by people. People who at that particular moment were living that music.

Sam Bergman’s speech (posted in its entirety here: The transcription doesn’t do justice to it, or to its effect on the audience. I don’t remember the last time I heard an audience un-ironically hiss at something or someone, the way they did at his description of the management’s actions. I think Sam putting the situation into those stark terms was a shock, even for people in the know. Whatever the result, and whatever your position on this dispute, I think we can agree that there’s going to need to be a lot of healing when it’s done. A lot.

Brian Mount’s cymbal playing. There are only like 3 cymbal crashes in the Bruckner, but Brian’s face, body position and overall playing can only be described as: “Musical climax, motherf—-r.” That had to be therapeutic.

During the intermission, my mom commented on how sad she was that Sarah Kwak was no longer with the Orchestra. “I loved watching her. Whenever I saw her, I thought that’s how an angel must look when playing.”

Thank you to the brass section. You were everything, and I mean everything, a Brucknerian brass section requires.

Chris Kluwe, punter for the Vikings was there. You’re great, and a true gentleman!

And finally, the collegiality of the whole thing. Again and again I was reminded that the people here feel profound connections to each other and everyone on stage (and although they are less visible, the support staff working behind the scenes). The gigantic flower arrangement sent along by a fan from Japan. The silent, attentive listening. Everything. The post-concert experience felt like social hour after a church service. The interactions with the musicians are so different from the formality of Orchestra Hall concerts and, for me, meltingly heartwarming. These are the connections that make it so rewarding to be a performer myself. I like to think this whole ugly nightmare has served to remind us why we love music, and has reinforced for us the idea of community.


I’m Not Sure the Orchestra’s Full-Page Ad Helps Their Case

[Note: this is an expanded version of a post I wrote on 5/10/13, when the ad in question first appeared.]

Recently the Orchestra management placed a full-page ad in the Star Tribune to show, apparently, how the musicians have it so good compared to other workers, and how management’s offer is exceptionally fair-minded—even generous. I understand that in the midst of a labor dispute, both sides can strain truth to further their argument, but I have to say there are so many basic, readily-apparent problems with this ad that I suspect it  actually serves to undermine the management’s case.  Let’s take a look.


1)  You’re comparing a median income with an average income? These are wildly different things… the average of 1, 2, and 10 is 4.3. The median is 2.

2)  It’s unclear what you mean by “Professionals with a Ph.D.” or why that metric is germane to this discussion.  For example, there are vast differences between the expected salaries of, say, a geophysicist working for an oil company and someone with a doctorate in divinity, or a professional with a Ph.D. in occupational therapy with one in history.  The term covers as wide a range of careers as the similarly generic term, “college graduates.” Does the median salary for such a wide-ranging group really tell us anything?

3) Related to that, why did you choose to make a comparison with Ph.D. professionals, who may or may not approximate the level of training and working conditions of the musicians?  I’m quite certain that my doctoral program in history looked nothing like the training program of Curtis or Juilliard.  Why not compare, say, a professional sports player? Or if you didn’t want to go to that level, how about anyone else with a specialized set of skills… like a plumber?  Just out of curiosity, I’d love to see what it costs to bring a group of 97 plumbers to your house for three hours on a Saturday night.  But I digress.

4)  I also note you’ve included benefits in the musicians’ salaries to get a big scary number. Why don’t you do that with the “control group?”

5)  The next category down, you change the point of comparison.  While the salary comparison was between the musicians and Ph.D. professionals, the other points of comparison are between musicians and U.S. workers generally.  Why the shift?  One thing that immediately springs to mind—Ph.D. professionals often work at universities, where they might get several months off during the summer, which would further skew your numbers.

6)  The musicians only work 21 hours a week? So, the Vikings players only work a few hours one day a week on Sunday? What is surprising is you yourselves point out the musicians also practice several hours a day every day, and have to have already learned their music prior to the first rehearsal—i.e. on their own time. But although you acknowledge this, you don’t assign a number.  Let’s fill that in, and conservatively add 21 hours (3 hours per day).  This raises the total to 42 hours a week, which tends to nullify your argument.

7)  You also raise the issue that this schedule provides opportunities for musicians to teach on their own time.  This is correct, but it hardly qualifies as a benefit that you offer them… it has nothing to do with you at all.  So why do you bring it up?  If I was moonlighting on my off hours, my main employer would never publicly state that my second job was somehow a benefit of my first one.  And my employers certainly wouldn’t argue that the fact that they allowed me to take a second job at all constituted a generously-offered “perk.”

8)  If you add up the maximum allowed sick days, paid leave, and half paid leave, the musicians apparently get 53.5 weeks off a year.

9)  Perhaps I’m missing something, but both insurance plans are paid by the employer. Doesn’t each organization negotiate that figure with its respective providers? The employees don’t have any say in that. Aren’t you essentially blaming the musicians because you’ve negotiated a bad deal on insurance?

I think you were trying a little too hard to push your argument here.  Again, I understand that in a bitter dispute like this that all kinds of rhetoric can fly, but I think you’d make your case more powerfully if you didn’t resort to some of this hyperbole.