Lessons Learned

The lockout of the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra has finally drawn to an end, and the longest, ugliest labor dispute in the world of classical music is now behind us.

Thank God.

As we all collectively gather our wits—and all the shattered pieces around us—many have begun to analyze the dispute and determine what lessons we can learn from it.

Yesterday Michael Kaiser, one of the nation’s most influential arts managers, weighed in with some thoughts of his own.  Given his credentials, his opinions carry considerable weight, and by and large I agree with his conclusions.  I would challenge him somewhat on his point of management and musicians each demonizing the other during the labor dispute.  While he doesn’t come out and say it, he seems to imply that both sides engaged in this equally.  To my mind, the musicians were remarkably restrained in their public comments about the board—my sense is they realized their best hope for a positive resolution to the labor dispute was for it to emerge from within the board itself, as it ultimately did. Therefore, they refrained from attacking their potential allies.

That criticism aside, I enjoyed the article quite a bit.  But for all his insights, Michael was observing the dispute from afar.  I, on the other hand, had an up-close-and-personal view of the whole debacle, and I thought it would be useful for me to amplify his list with a few lessons I learned along the way.  Here are three of the biggest lessons as a starting point; I’d be curious to learn what others took away from the dispute, too.

1. Audience Advocates Have a Role to Play.

For me one of the most astonishing things about the dispute was the rise of a new, highly energized group of supporters—people who were advocating for the rights and responsibilities of the audience.  Early on, the dispute was portrayed as a garden-variety labor dispute where management and musicians would battle it out.  I think most people assumed that the final resolution would be determined solely by these two groups, and that the public’s role would be reduced to that of a spectator.

Those people, however, were mistaken.

Early on, pioneering groups came together to pointedly remind both sides that there was another constituent that had to be involved—the audience.  Groups like Orchestrate Excellence, Save our Symphony MN, Young Minnesota Musicians, and SOS OSMO gathered members from the greater community of music lovers.   They didn’t just sit back and hope things would work out, but rather took an active role in making proposals, serving as watchdogs, seeking outside advisors, conducting research, and advocating for a fair resolution.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, these people changed the “he-said-she-said” dynamic to a broader discussion of what kind of orchestra—and what kind of organization—the community truly wanted.  While this trend is hardly unique (SOS MN took inspiration from a similar organization in Detroit that formed during that city’s ugly orchestra dispute), it was fairly new to the Twin Cities.  These groups collectively became a clear and articulate voice for the community at large.

I’m curious as to what these groups will do now that the dispute is over, but I hope they are here to stay—they represent a new level of interest and participation in the world of music, which I find inspiring.   They also represent a huge disruption to the status quo and put the board, and to a smaller degree, the musicians, in a delicate position.  It is hard for either the board or the musicians to definitively state what is best for the organization, or to unilaterally determine its direction, when the audience is speaking loudly and clearly about what it wants on its own terms.  Going forward, the real need of the MOA to engage audiences and donors means there is an increasing chance that audience groups will have a chance to ratify, so to speak, all major decisions.  Speaking with a unified voice, audience advocacy groups can make their hopes, dreams, and wishes clearly known… and the other leaders will have to consider accommodating them.  I look forward to see what these groups will do in the future, and hope their model can be applied elsewhere.

 2. Bloggers Can Make a Difference.

From the start, I think it’s clear that the MOA believed that they would be able to dictate the flow of information about the labor dispute.  Besides having a large marketing staff and a large advertising budget, several board members had direct ties to the media.  The musicians, however, were in a tight spot—they didn’t have access to the Orchestra’s huge database, had no resources for a public relations campaign, and didn’t have established ties to media outlets.  Moreover, they were constrained by what they could say in public for fear of interfering in negotiations, burning potential negotiation partners or coming off as self-serving and entitled.

Outside bloggers such as myself, however, were not.

One distinct feature of this labor dispute was the rise of a small cadre of independent writers who were able to analyze positions, challenge assumptions, critique the media, fact-check statements and dabble in investigative reporting.  Among the many blogs covering the ordeal were Adaptistration (Drew McManus), Eyes on Life (Gina Hunter), Polyphonic Blog (Robert Levine), and Sticks & Drones (Bill Eddins), and of course Song of the Lark (Emily Hogstad).  These and other blogs were able to cover important topics that others could not, and to keep the public both informed and engaged.  It was bloggers that broke some of the biggest news stories of the dispute, including the huge bonuses given to President Michael Henson and the buying up of Internet domain names.  Moreover, bloggers helped create a virtual community of interested people, leading to the creation of several Facebook groups and audience advocacy organizations.  Plus, we also made it difficult for management to marginalize the musicians or the musicians’ messages from the public at large.

The administration had no answer to this.  Indeed, early on in the dispute, it casually suggested that bloggers were entirely irrelevant and unworthy of attention.  This small-minded thinking ultimately caused considerable problems for the MOA.  When “domaingate” first broke, the MOA was left to flounder helplessly.  Its spokespeople were reduced to expressing bewilderment that anyone would care about such a trivial issue, and were taken by surprise that the issue led directly to the creation of SOS MN.  The MOA did follow the tried-and-true path of placing full-page ads and op-ed pieces in the Star Tribune, but bloggers such as myself shredded these arguments with well-reasoned commentary and analysis.  And in doing so we changed public perception.

Moreover, we were able to communicate outside the “traditional” channels, allowing another point of view about the dispute to reach the public.  Blog entries were passed along via Facebook, emails, and online chat boards, literally reaching people around the world.  Interestingly, the fact that most of the information on the blogs was shared between friends and colleagues gave it a greater sense of authenticity.  Plus, the act of sharing served to strengthen personal bonds between the sharers, forging a greater sense of overall community.  By contrast, the “official” news coming from Orchestra Hall and the traditional media felt distant, artificial and out of touch.

I cringe to write this because I am one of the bloggers in question, and I don’t want to come off as self-congratulatory or self-satisfied.  But the fact remains we were critical in shaping public opinion—a role that had previously been reserved for the traditional media.  I doubt anyone will treat blogs and the social media so cavalierly again.

 3. Musicians Can Do More than Play.

During the course of the dispute, the musicians “went rogue” and self-produced an entire concert season of their own.  For Pamela Espeland at MinnPost, this was the biggest lesson at all—and I concur that it was a major development that could have all sorts of implications for the future of classical music in the country.  Right from the beginning of the lockout, the musicians showed a dedication to presenting great music on their own… a marvelous example of “the show must go on!” mentality.  They presented their very own “Opening Night” concert on the date the season should have started, which set the stage for additional concerts at the Convention Center, Ted Mann Theater, and The O’Shaughnessy over the next few months.  In doing so, they made it harder for the MOA administration to make the case that they were overpaid lazybones who only worked a few days a week.  Instead, the musicians stayed in front of the public in a positive way, demonstrating a dedication to performing music even without a contract.  In doing so, they earned the respect of the community for their efforts.

Reflecting on this rogue season, I’d also argue the musicians were also astonishingly successful, creating a string of exciting, high-quality events.  Few have had any training in arts management, concert preparation, marketing, or fundraising, but BAM!  They did it!  It’s like building a bike while you’re trying to ride it.  Consider the reverse—it would be like the administration and board members picking up an instrument for the first time and performing onstage at Orchestra Hall six weeks later.

To a large degree, theses concerts were successful because the musicians were passionate about them, and that passion was gloriously evident for all to see.  They chose music that resonated with them, their guest artists, and the audience.  There was never a sense of programming or performing by rote; the concerts spoke to the time, place, and the situation in ways that made them not just fun to listen to, but also relevant.  The Egmont Overture, Shostakovitch’s Fifth Symphony, Finlandia, and Valse Triste perfectly embodied our thoughts and emotions… and I doubt we’ll ever hear them the same way again.

I’m very curious to see what this will mean for the future.  The musicians have proven they have an understanding of what it takes to run an arts organization, and skills that can be valuable to do so.  Will they take more active roles in the administration of the Orchestra?  By showing they have a fairly good understanding of the economics of running an orchestra, have they earned more responsibilities, too?  Will other musicians follow this lead and take a more active role in their respective concert seasons?

 * * *

There are many other lessons learned along the way, some big and some small.  I think all of us who have been following the situation will need time to digest what the larger implications are, and to see how the rebuilding goes.  With the benefit of further reflection, maybe we can come with an ever more extensive list of lessons learned.

For the moment, however, this is enough.  Bring on the music—we’ve earned it!




10 thoughts on “Lessons Learned

  1. I think the biggest lesson learned is that when musicians in a labor dispute carry out the mission of the organization on their own, it makes the organization less relevant, especially management. From the beginning I knew the musicians collectively had the talent to carry out a public relations campaign, develop and maintain a Website, plan concerts, raise money, etc. They are amazing people with great character and many management skills. They were able to raise interest in concerts with creative names and themes, and I am sorry we won’t hear those concerts and the scheduled artists.

    They understood the importance of the audience, understood how to construct interesting, meaningful concerts (I didn’t think the MOA was good at that.), and were willing to give, give, give. At the first concert I could feel the hunger of the audience for the music.

    When the MOA was caught between musicians who didn’t need them and the city ready to pull Orchestra Hall out from under them, it had no choice, but to settle.

    Another lesson is that the musicians truly cared about each other. The $20,000 bonus wasn’t accepted because it only applied to the musicians who were in town by the deadline. Those playing elsewhere didn’t get it. I don’t think that was ever reported in the mainline press.

    Finally, they weren’t just saving their own jobs, but the jobs of every other orchestra musician facing future contract negotiations. They had to prevent a new model of negotiating within the industry. There was a lot more at stake than just the Minnesota Orchestra.

    And last, the law firm the MOA used learned their model for breaking unions was imperfect.


    • Yes, the issue of the “$20,000 signing bonus” has long troubled me, and I hope that some time when it is “safe” to do so, the inner players can come forward about what that bonus really was about. At the time I was stunned at how it was characterized in the press—I had a hard time believing the region’s big foundations would give money as an incentive to sign a labor contract. That’s a pretty overt political move. And tellingly, no foundation came forward to discuss it. Warning bells also went off when the board casually mentioned that this deal included money raised by SOS OSMO to keep the maestro in town, as I was stunned that the organizers would ever agree to it being used this way (in his December letter to the City of Minneapolis, Lee Henderson confirmed that he had never approved the money to be used for such a deal). But many in the media uncritically accepted the idea of a “signing bonus” and referred to the deal as such in all subsequent news stories. I’ve love to know what was really going on.


      • I heard that the MOA was able to choose what to do with the last-ditch fundraised money, and for whatever reason they chose to give these bonuses.


  2. Pingback: My Thoughts for the Future | Mask of the Flower Prince

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