Lockout (Again) in Atlanta

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

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

The man that hath no music in himself,

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

Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;

The motions of his spirit are dull as night

And his affections dark as Erebus:

Let no such man be trusted!

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

I am dumbfounded.

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



20 thoughts on “Lockout (Again) in Atlanta

  1. Cut, cut, cut, cut, bankruptcy…..that has been the inevitable storyline of all orchestras who delude themselves by thinking that cutting is the responsible thing to do, when all it really does is reduce the organization’s capacity to raise money, hastening the demise. Until ASO is willing to confront the real issue, an inspiration deficit, they will never right their ship.


    • The real issue? You mean symphony orchestras on their last dying legs of relevance to American culture? Maybe if you help fix that, the money would be less of a problem…


      • This is a classic red herring. Seeing how engaged the people of Minneapolis were in response to the Minnesota Orchestra’s lockout (and New York, and San Diego, and Detroit,) easily dispels such spurious statements.


  2. I think we have seen the ASO and Woodruff new business model in effect with these negotiations. Make a smaller orchestra with younger, less accomplished musicians, playing fewer concerts each year with a dramatic increase hall rentals which bring lots of cash. With this business model the ASO might even turn a profit. They are getting exactly what they want. All their language is designed to confuse the issue. This is exactly what they want.


    • Good that at least someone realizes that behind all the silly posturing and feel-goodism of the players union, and/or management desire to smooth it over as something else, fundamentally everyone is squabbling because the public symphony arts are dying.

      You can try to prop up musicians wages for a little bit longer. Or you can adapt and change the quality of the orchestra. But there is no denying that in the bigger picture — if you look back 25 years from now — this will have been recognized as the period when orchestras died, and it was a blame game as the water level went down.

      Smart people should debate over how to rescue the *industry*, not the share of musician healthcare contributions or management bonus.


      • Hello Christine and thank you for your comment. I apologize in advance if I seem impatient with this argument, but the fact is that I’ve been hearing this for two years as part of the Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute, as well as repeatedly over the last few months with the Metropolitan Opera lockout.

        No, classical music is not dying, nor in desperate need of rescue—at least in the sense that I think you’re implying, which seems to be wholesale transformation into something else that is presumably more “profitable.”

        In quick terms, if GM is having a bad year and looking at hard financial difficulties… do we say that the automobile industry as a whole is failing? Either nationally or globally? Do we believe that automotive culture in the United States is about to collapse, and every corner gas station, repair shop, and detailing center is in danger of imminent closure? No… we would most likely believe that GM’s problems are its own.

        Likewise classical music. Is the ASO having a rough time of it? Sure. Does that mean orchestras as a whole are dying, and classical music is nearing extinction? No.

        The “classical music is dying!” meme is a tired one, and has been bandied about for centuries. As I’ve pointed out many times, a whole number of classical music ensembles and organization are having tremendous years. Symphony orchestras in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Chicago, and Houston have had record years in terms of fundraising and ticket sales. Several orchestras that faced critical challenges in the wake of the Great Recession have bounced back. Opera companies in Chicago, St. Louis, and Houston also had record years. Classical radio is popular. The Met’s HD telecasts are sold-out affairs across the country. Read here for more stats and figures.

        And my own Minnesota Orchestra has come charging back, beating the predictions of its former management team that also believed classical music was dead and needed to be replaced by something else. That old management has now been forced out, and ticket sales are booming.

        So let us avoid generalizations about the imminent demise of classical music. Many ensembles are making it work, which puts the onus on those that are not (such as the ASO) to explain why they are not.

        Liked by 1 person

      • The arts have been “dying” since the second caveman reprised his dance depicting the hunt of the wooly mammoth and some of the members of his tribe decided not to come to the fire but stay back in the cave pounding skins to make leather instead. This is a tired, ridiculous argument.

        I am unsure what your real point is here, Christine, but it seems to me that you are buying into the Management narrative that the only way to save the village is to destroy it. You are right that the smart people should be debating how to “rescue the *industry*” and there actually are smart people having those discussions right now. They do not appear to be in Atlanta. Many of us having those discussions are focusing on the greater philosophical issue of our society today that holds that administrators are always right, that workers are greedy, and the best way to increase your bottom line is to take money away from the people who either are or produce the product being sold. It may well be that it’s the easiest way, but it is not the best way. And it certainly will not solve the underlying problems.

        Let’s just take a very quick look at the economics here. It is widely reported and seems to be acknowledged by both sides in this dispute that the cost of compensation for the musicians at ASO is about 25% of the total budget. Since the musicians are 100% of what the ASO sells, this seems to be a little low to me, but it’s certainly not too much. What we are not seeing in any of this discussion is what ASO Management intends to do to lower the other 75% of the budget or, at the very least, what they intend to do to make that 75% more productive.

        The musicians at ASO have already made a significant financial investment in the organization through their last concessionary contract. They are being extorted into making another financial investment through the proposed concessions in this contract. But they are not, as best anyone can see from the outside, at least, being offered any real return on that investment. I don’t know many people who continue to invest when there is no return. Which might explain the donor and ticket sales problem the company seems to be having.


  3. “President Stanley E. Romanstein, Ph.D.” – what? He’s so insecure and incompetent that he has to have those letters after his name? Piled Higher and Deeper, evidently.


  4. Pingback: Lockout (Again) in Atlanta | A student at Fundee

  5. Hey, Scott,

    Here we are again. I would bet that you had not imagined you’d be writing about another lockout again or so soon. I hope the good people of Atlanta rally to support their orchestra the way Twin Citians rallied to support the MO. I cannot imagine how the Atlanta musicians feel, but I know I’m simply exhausted by all the stupidity, PR spin, ridiculous and inaccurate statements, and the “blaming everyone else and not taking responsibility for one’s decisions and actions” syndrome that was to prevalent in Minnesota 2012-2014.

    Clearly, no one in Atlanta, except perhaps the musicians, were paying attention to Minnesota….



  6. For those who insist on singing the tired old song that Classical Orchestral Music is dying I give you this list which I have blatantly ripped off from Bruce Ridge’s address to the 2014 ICSOM conference:

    • The Chicago Symphony received the two largest gifts in its history, totaling $32 million

    • The Indianapolis Symphony saw a 19% surge in ticket sales with an increase of 30% in subscription sales.

    • The Cleveland Orchestra announced a balanced budget, growing audiences, increased endowment, and a record number of student attendees.

    • The Lyric Opera of Chicago, which has operated in the black for 26 of the past 27 seasons, saw significant increases in revenue and fundraising, and an increase of 8% in ticket sales

    • The city of New York City increased funding for arts in the public schools by $23 million, and is expected to hire 120 additional arts teachers

    • In Syracuse, where Symphoria works heroically to establish a great and permanent orchestral presence in the wake of the unnecessary Syracuse Symphony bankruptcy, the new orchestra is now receiving grants, including funding for its educational mission

    • The San Antonio Symphony celebrated its 75th anniversary as it prepares to move into its new home, the Tobin Center

    • The Florida Orchestra saw an increase in attendance of 30%

    • The Houston Symphony’s gala raised over $2.5 million in one evening for education programs on the heels of consecutive years of record breaking fundraising

    • The New York City Ballet’s Spring Gala Celebrated Fifty Years at Lincoln Center and raised over $3 Million

    • The Milwaukee Symphony reached a goal of $5 million dollars from new donors

    • The Cincinnati Symphony’s endowment has grown by 43% and the number of gifts has increased by 94%, leading to a double-digit increase in attendance

    • Our newest member, the Grand Rapids Symphony launched a $40 million endowment drive with a $20 million gift

    • The Detroit Symphony’s holiday concerts set a new box office record just one year after seeing a 43% increase in donations

    • The Buffalo Philharmonic saw an 11.9% surge in contributions, endowment growth of 7.7%, and an increase in ticket sales with records set for subscriptions

    The entire address can be read here: http://www.icsom.org/conferences/docs/2014_ChairmanRidge_ICSOM_Address.pdf


  7. sure, but what about all the symphonies that have *not* had increases in attendance or donations? All you’ve quoted are examples in the positive. Of course it sounds good!


    • Indeed… what about them? You have argued that the entire classical music industry is on its “last dying legs of relevance.” To which, I and other commenters have pointed out that many organizations from around the country are experiencing great success, knocking away the core of your argument. In response, you make vague references to “all the symphonies” that have failed… without mentioning them or why they failed. Curious. So, if a restaurant closes, does that mean the entire hospitality industry is on its last dying legs of relevance? Or is the problem with that particular restaurant?

      More to the point. Many blog sites have warned me that a person (or persons) has been stopping by sites like mine and posting argumentative messages simply for the sake of arguing. And they’ve been doing so by using aliases with patently false email addresses. In some cases, the situation has become ugly. I want to keep a respectful dialogue here, and will therefore be closely monitoring comments.


  8. I’m a ‘local” to this discussion about the ASO and want to offer some thoughts. The state of Georgia is at the bottom of the 50-state list in the amount of funding it provides to arts organizations. Yes, even below those two perennial pits of desperation and despair, Alabama and Mississippi. I would hope (and expect) that ASO management reaches out to the Georgia state government except for another sad fact: arts education in Georgia is practically nonexistent.

    I moved to Atlanta in 1980 with a degree in music education, after having taught music in Michigan and after having a 2-year fling as a professional singer (unless you are spectacularly wonderful, as I was not, it is merely an interesting way to starve to death). Few schools offered any kind of arts education, but I did find a part-time position. Due to staffing and budget problems, my half-time position was eliminated in 1981.

    My own children attended public schools in the Atlanta area in the 1980s and 90s, and were offered basic choral and instrumental music classes. My understanding is that such programs have not existed in rural Georgia for a generation.

    Children attending City of Atlanta public schools have had access to instrumental programs offered by members of the ASO. Children in the metro Atlanta area have had the opportunity to participate in the Atlanta Youth Symphony Orchestra. I am delighted that these programs existed, and wish similar programs were available to children across the state. But music is not football; like the rest of the arts it is perceived as a “frill” and is the first to be cut when money is tight.

    Where the arts are not an integral part of people’s lives, support for the arts is weak. My understanding is that support for the ASO and its sister arts organizations has rested on the shoulders of corporate donors and private donors, most of whom came here from other parts of the country. I believe at least a modest amount of support from the state of Georgia would be necessary to preserve the ASO and other arts organizations.


  9. Pingback: Here We Go Again… | Classical Conditioning

  10. Pingback: Here We Go Again… – Classical Conditioning

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