Problems Abound as Gelb Prepares for Lockout

Well, it appears that Peter Gelb over at the Met has written up his Articles of War, and announced that hostilities will begin as the clock strikes midnight on July 31. I suppose at this point it is statistically possible that some sort of accommodation can still be reached, as I understand that a few last minute negotiations are planned. Likewise, it is possible that Gelb’s recent threat is simply a bit of theatrics—a last-minute bit of posturing to indicate strength.

But based on everything that has happened to date, I have to believe Gelb’s threat is serious, and he fully intends to carry it out.

That would be a monumental mistake.

Right now, Gelb and his backers have made a series of four critical missteps that make it hard to take them seriously. Allow me to share how, over the last few weeks, they have systematically undermined their position.

* * *

1. Horrible PR. From my vantage point, the public relations strategy leading up to the lockout has been a disaster. Even worse than that of the Minnesota Orchestral Association (MOA) in the lead up to its lockout of its musicians, which is saying a lot. It isn’t that Gelb has drifted off message—the issue is the message he’s actually delivered. Again and again he has hit the point that opera itself is passé, dying, and financially unstable as an art form. Many observers have been appalled at these remarks, and wondered if he was he was the right man to be running a major opera house. Thus, Gelb is starting from a position of relative weakness.

Worse, these doom-and-gloom assertions have been completely undermined by real-world evidence. Over the past two months, a number of American opera companies have reported record-breaking ticket revenue and donations, including those of St. Louis, Chicago, and Houston. Also, the people of San Diego were horrified by the imminent collapse of their beloved opera company this spring; they rallied together and successfully pulled the San Diego Opera from the brink. And after reading Gelb’s comments, a number of international companies openly derided them.

His main points, in other words, have been completely undermined in the press, making him appear foolish and tone-deaf. At this point, it’s hard to credit anything else he has to say, and the media doesn’t seem to be in any mood to give his comments the benefit of the doubt. Exactly not the position one would want to be going into a controversial lockout.

2. Complete inability to identify—and correct—what’s really wrong. Related to the above, I think it is important, if not slightly disconcerting, to point out that Mr. Gelb and his supporters seem to truly, fundamentally believe the fairy tale they’re telling… that opera is somehow dying. In their analysis of what has gone wrong at the Met, they have avoided mentioning any specific problems, particularly problems that involve them or their own actions. So while most outside observers are focusing on such concrete issues as cost overruns, bad marketing, the CEO’s aloofness to the public, artistically questionable productions, and similar issues, Gelb has all but shrugged his shoulders and named the impersonal “decline of opera” as the root of all the Met’s problems. This brings to mind one of the most memorable quotes from Star Trek: The Next Generation, made by Dr. Beverly Crusher: “If there’s nothing wrong with me, maybe there’s something wrong with the universe!”

The disturbing thing here is that without a real analysis of the problems facing the Met, without a true understanding that there are a number of problems facing the Met, there can never be an effective solution. Look at the issue of how poorly ticket sales have done in Gelb’s revivals. The Met’s pricy, critically panned and artistically questionable revivals are playing to houses at 50% capacity… is that because opera is dying? Or the shows are duds? Gelb’s analysis suggests he has no understanding of the real problems the Met is facing.

And that lack of critical thinking makes me doubt his ability to manage the organization long-term.  Or, for that matter, to even manage the current dispute.

3. Obsessive union bashing. When Gelb and his supporters do finger a specific cause for the Met’s problems, they invariably choose to scapegoat unions with their “extravagant salaries.” In his interview with Paula Zahn, for example, he repeatedly deflected any blame off of him personally, and placed it squarely on the shoulders of the unions. And when Zahn challenged some of his answers with publicly-available information, he waved his hand and accused her of falling for union propaganda. Unions, unions… unions! (My commentary on the interview as a whole can be found here.)

This tactic might have worked in 2009 when the economy was in freefall, and people were scared about their financial future. It might have worked in 2010 when the Tea Party movement was at its full strength, and politicians all over the country were trying to establish their credentials by trying to rein in union “excesses.” It might still have worked in 2012—the start of the Minnesota Orchestra lockout—when the high-water mark of these currents had begun to subside, but the rhetoric still had some punch.

I find it harder to believe it will still be as effective in 2014. Unions are much less likely to be seen as a dangerous threat right now. Union-busting politicians such as Scott Walker are running into problems around the country. New York just elected a progressive mayor. Moreover, out of touch plutocrats are increasingly being seen as a problem, and Gelb’s huge salary, and hefty pay increases have started raising questions. While we are hardly in a pro-labor utopia, I think the current climate is much less receptive to Gelb’s claim that unions and unions alone are crushing the poor desperate Met.

And ultimately, this obsession with unions makes the whole lockout look like an ideological choice, instead of an economic necessity.  That’s not a good way to build support.

4. Race to lockout. Gelb seems to want to present himself as a reluctant hero here—he is forced to take this extreme action unwillingly, because events have forced his hand.

I don’t buy it.

Based on the actions over the last two months, it is hard to escape the clear implication that the lockout is exactly what Gelb was working towards, and his fingers are itching to pull the trigger. Indeed, there has been no effort to engage in negotiations, or to respond to the unions’ requests for more information. There has been no campaign to find solutions. There has been no attempt at formulating a talk-and-play mechanism to continue what negotiations were scheduled but to let the season continue as scheduled. Just a note to prepare for a lockout starting next week… along with a reaffirmation that opera is in a death spiral, and union concessions are the only force on the planet that can hold back the final darkness.

Worse, it’s clear that the lockout is the only plan. I’ve seen no evidence of a “plan B.” The Met management hasn’t released a holistic plan to get all costs under control, to mandate production cuts, launch new fundraising or marketing initiatives, or try any other solutions. Union cuts are it. So, apparently the fact that Gelb’s opera revivals are playing to half-empty houses will be solved by… cutting singers’ overtime pay.

And to continue this point—I was intrigued by the fact that in the Paula Zahn interview, Gelb made reference to the fact that if the union workers took sacrificial cuts, the board would respond by looking into a capital campaign to double the size of the endowment. This is… bizarre. Are they going to or not? Why isn’t the board taking this critical step anyway, regardless of what happens with the negotiations?

Surely the board knows all the basics of the campaign already, including what it can realistically raise, and by what date.

A basic step of any capital campaign is that before anything else occurs, you complete a feasibility study to determine if the campaign will work and how much it will raise. Then, you embark on the “quiet phase” where you line up key gifts. Only when you’ve locked in about half of what hope to raise do you make a public announcement for the campaign, telling people your plans—that way you can be sure you will succeed and avoid an embarrassing failure.

But the background research, feasibility study and quiet phase take years of work.

So, either Gelb has a good sense right now whether a campaign is about to launch, or it’s going to be years before one is launched. And if one is already lined up, and he’s waiting for union concessions to formally launch it… well, that means Gelb is not taking a necessary step that is crucial for the organization’s long-term survival simply so he can threaten the unions right now.

Either way, Gelb comes off as a bit too comfortable with launching the lockout—which is a case of horrible optics.  A lockout is a dangerous move that deliberately seeks to inflict economic harm on his employees, and has not been particularly successful elsewhere.

* * *

Peter Gelb has repeatedly stated that his goal is to save the Met—that is his only concern. But based on the points I’ve outlined, it’s hard to see that as a credible statement. I’ve seen no evidence of a larger plan to rein in costs or cut expenditures. There is no talk of other initiatives, other people being brought in to help, or any other moves being done to save the Met. As I mentioned before, it looks like Gelb’s only concern is… forcing union concessions.

And the lockout is a central part of that plan.

The problem is that he’s set it up quite badly; as a result, he doesn’t look resigned or  resolute, but foolhardy.

Based on my four points listed here, I suspect that it will be impossible for him to reach beyond his core supporters and convince undecided observers that he’s taking this action for the good of the organization. He’s already lost a great deal of public support, credibility, and momentum, and that gives me even less confidence that he’ll be able to handle the coming storm.

If I were him, I’d start making a serious effort to stop the lockout from ever happening. There is still time.

 

Xochipilli

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21 thoughts on “Problems Abound as Gelb Prepares for Lockout

  1. I heard the MPR report this AM and it sounded so much like the MN Orchestra going up to the lockout. Some of the issues are a little different, but the tone of the dispute, the union bashing, the singular focus on slashing salaries and seemingly blaming the musicians without considering increased expensive programming were parallel to the MN situation. Sounds like Gelb has his mind made up and that makes negotiations next to impossible.

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  2. I hope the Met gets the equivalent of SOS and Orchestrate Excellence to help. While Gelb isn’t learning from the MNO, perhaps the union and audience can.

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    • Oh no… edits made. Thanks for helping me keep things “tidy.” 🙂 (And just as a heads up, I’m pulling the comments from the comments section… not that I disapprove, but once the edits are made, these messages are less clear and take up space.)

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  3. Thank you for your salient points. This situation with the Met is way too familiar for those of us who worked to keep the MN Orchestra going. I hope that Gelb will somehow realize what a bad idea is this lockout strategy.

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    • No way to start another one. With one recently dead opera company in NYC, and the huge expenses of establishing, let alone running, another, it just ain’t-a-gonna happen before the next ice-age. When the Met was established (1880), the millionaire founders paid virtually NO income tax, and there were NO unions to deal with. Someone might ask any of the (non-union) star singers to take a pay cut. The answer would likely be “No, thanks. I get paid more in (London, Berlin, Munich, Paris – you name it).” My answer may be too simplistic, but opera is the most expensive performance art there is, especially in a unionized city.

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      • In broad terms, starting up a large arts organization from scratch is tough. I know the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra briefly looked into breaking away and starting their own ensemble, and figured it was much, much easier to continue fighting for the one they already had. And a new Met, like a new Minnesota Orchestra, wouldn’t have the resources or the cachet of the original organization. That said, a fascinating article revealed that there have been 203 new opera companies formed in the US since 2000. So it can be done… even in NYC.

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      • Are you really ignorant of the fact that everyone in the opera house except management is a union member? Yes, the leading Diva also pays her share of union dues, whether she lives here or flies in from over-seas.

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  4. A lockout has been Gelb’s plan from the start, the first indication being that Joe Volpe was not part of the negotiations this year…for the simple reason that Gelb had no intention of negotiating. The Met Board are totally behind Gelb so there is no voice of reason from inside the House. He is now the most hated man in the classical music industry. The Met, already losing its in-House audience, will have a very hard time recovering from a lockout. Subscribers and single-ticket buyers will find other things to do with their time and money. And the atmosphere for working at The Met after the lockout ends will be toxic. Yet incredibly, just at this point in time, the Board have reportedly extended his contract for ten years. A losing proposition all round. The Tea Party may have passed its zenith but its tactics are very much at work here, in the heart of NYC.

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    • Indeed, the tactics persist because people seem to believe in them (and their ideological underpinnings) with the fervor of True Believers. The question of whether or not they will be successful, however, is an open one.

      The way this is playing out at the Met exactly parallels what happened here in Minnesota with the Minnesota Orchestra and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and has obvious similarities to the situation in Atlanta. The similarities are so pronounced, it’s hard to believe they are coincidental. But because the situations are so similar, the Minnesota Orchestra dispute provides a good model for how the Met’s labor dispute will unfold. My goal is to post something on this topic over the weekend.

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    • Agreed. After a year of no MNO or SPCO, there isn’t room in my cultural calendar to renew those subscriptions. I found other performances to attend during the time of lockouts.

      Regarding new opera companies, here in the Twin Cities there are two new companies within the past 4 years – Mill City Summer Opera and Twin Cities Fringe Opera. They aren’t playing in big houses, but they are playing. Pretty good for a dying art form.

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      • In two months this past season I saw well-attended professional performances of Nabucco, Tosca, Thaïs, Jérusalem, Flying Dutchman, Barber of Seville, Tales of Hoffman, Macbeth, Roméo et Juliet and Norma in four different opera companies located in Florida. If that is a dying art-form. then that’s the way I’d like to go.

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  5. Show us the books Met management! The market has gone up 10,000 points since President Obama has been in office. Time to ask the Board to account for the crappy job in marketing and fundraising. The board has been entrusted with a public treasure and they seem hellbent on destroying not only the artists’ and craftspeople livelihoods, but blowing a hole in the businesses who benefit from this cultural gem. This is shortsighted and heartless, but hedge fund managers and oligarchs don’t seem to care. Gelb had a questionable marketing strategy at Sony Classical and it looks like he hasn’t learned from his mistakes and is in fact being rewarded by the board for them. His father was the main reason for Mr. Gelb being hired by the Met after being fired after the Sony/BMG merger. His only experience with the arts was being a press office lackey for the Boston Symphony and an usher at the Met when he was a youth. I can’t think of anyone more representative of the Peter Principle than Peter Gelb.

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  6. We, who had to lose our jobs at New York City Opera, know all too well about this MO. Same strategy: same law firm, same timing for dealing with every union in the house simultaneously, same Lock-out threat. The difference for the Met may be that they are the only game in town now for grand opera, and I don’t believe that, in all of New York, there is not still a vibrant audience willing to support this institution. Hang tough, Met union members!

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  7. I believe this story appeared in a book by Norman Lebrecht, but I don’t know which or where to find it. This happened during a Tanglewood season while Peter Gelb was serving the Boston Symphony as young “press office lackey.” A phone call was received in the front office that a highly zealous photographer was distracting a master class. An official went to the studio in question where indeed a class was being held by none other than Mstislav Rostropovich, who along with his students was doing his best to do what he did best, with a paparazzo flitting around – taking FLASH pictures no less. The official confronted the photographer “what the hell do you think you’re doing?!” and slapped his face. The photographer was Peter Gelb.

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  8. You had me at Dr. Beverly Crusher.

    Have been reading and loving your posts. You hit all the nails right on their tiny little heads. Bravo.
    I’m a former Met employee and now an historian of 19th century labor. Feel like my worlds are colliding, so I wrote this post to add some historical perspective (hopefully) to the whole fiasco: http://cowanmb.wix.com/classwithmimi#!savethemet/coxr

    Looking forward to reading more of your stuff. Thanks!

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  9. Mr. Gelb it is not about YOU or about YOUR productions. It is about OPERA and the continuance of the art form. The MET is the leader for the rest of the USA. Please figure out a peaceful solution that is REASONABLE. PLEASE! YOU DONT REALIZE HOW MANY OPERA COMPANIES ARE AFFECTED BY THIS. The country USA is watching and so is the world. Get a grip on this!

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  10. This lockout will be a prominent battleground for artists and other craftsmen/women who fight for a predictable and sustainable livelihood in the US, and for all normal humans who do not have a net worth equal to that of a third world country. What is coming to a head on the UWS in New York is what has been happening around the USA and in other parts of the world. This is one of the final battlegrounds for fair wages for a day’s or year’s work after years upon years of training for it. Why do only shareholders or board members get to reap the profits for a non-profit? Does this not go against the very definition of a non-profit organization? What about the rest of us who actually produce things? Or those of us who perform or create things on a daily basis? Or those of us who pay to get our hair cut or have our kids at day care nearby? Why is there so much vitriol towards those of us who are professionals in whatever field we have chosen to excel in? I guess if we do not work for a multi-national corporation we are not a legitimate corporate entity. Well what about that then? What does it take to recognize that a lot of us are the despised 47%:? Alot of us fall into the percentile of citizens who are paying off student loans, or loans for the instruments we are curators for during our careers. If you look at what it takes to pay the rent and pay other bills before one can even think about something recreational like buying a pack of smokes, a bottle of wine, or even consider having 2.3 kids (or an kids at all)…would you even consider yourselves something else besides the working poor? Or the lower middle class? The moochers? The 47% who don’t even make enough to file a 1040? Guess what? We have paid in over the years, our pension is deferred negotiated income, and now the vulture capitalists are swooping in to pick our endowment clean. Not this year, but Mr. Gelb has dropped the “B” word when threatening the demise of the Met within tthree years. We the middle class are the job creators or the job sustainers. The middle class in NYC is pretty much a family of four who makes $200K. Any of you who do not live in NYC, take a look at a cost of living index for your region. For those of us who live in NYC though, we need to acknowledge our fellow Americans in talent and highlight their diplomatic skills in negotiating with cultural adversaries posing as board members previously unknown and potentially a threat to relations between the League of American Orchestras and the International Conference of Symphony Orchestra Musicians (ICSOM).

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  11. Pingback: Mr. Gelb’s Disastrous Interview | Mask of the Flower Prince

  12. Pingback: New Opera Companies | Mae Mai

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