The “Soylent Green” Model for Running an Orchestra

Oh boy. In a jaw-dropping press statement, the locked out musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) have laid some heavy charges against the management of the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC)—the umbrella organization that manages the ASO along with three other Atlanta arts institutions.

They allege that the WAC is seeking, for all intents and purposes, to create a “Soylent Green” approach to managing personnel, whereby veteran players are summarily dispatched, and young music students are brought in as interns to fill the vacated slots.

Well, to complete the analogy, allow me to channel Charlton Heston and scream, “No! The musicians are people!”

* * *

The musicians’ full press statement, as posted on their Facebook account makes for some very disturbing reading. It is long, but I urge you to read it in its entirety (given that not everyone has or wishes to use Facebook, I’m appending it to the bottom of this post.)

To summarize, it appears that the the WAC and its Governing Board Chair Douglas Hertz are attempting to move the ASO in a new direction. The statement lists three core ideas:

1) Radical reduction of the number of musicians. Earlier statements from the ASO and WAC at the start of the lockout suggested that management wanted “flexibility” to reduce the size of the ensemble. But many observers were concerned that this term was never defined. The WAC had good reason to be coy—based on the information presented here, the goal seems to be to drop the size as much as possible.

2) Replace musicians with younger models. The above approach will make it difficult for the ASO to play anything but chamber works. As a remedy, the WAC seeks to fill the resulting holes in the ensemble with young music students that would be “paid” at rates appropriate to interns. The approach is to build something like the New World Symphony, which consists of fresh graduates in what is probably their first paid orchestral position.

3) A two-tiered approach to compensation. The ASO would adopt a system where any permanent players that were brought in would be hired for a probationary period, and not receive full pay or benefits. While this might make sense in a position where the new employee was being trained and not yet given a full range of responsibilities, this is quite odd for orchestral musicians.  Musicians are hired based on their ability to fit into the ensemble immediately and are fully expected to perform at the standards of the rest of the orchestra members the moment they arrive.

The musicians also point out that Douglas Hertz has a history of implementing these sorts of actions and business models; he attempted to eliminate tenure at Tulane University and replace the professors with a new cohort of nontenured faculty (reminiscent of the system of adjunct professorship).

* * *

Let me be clear… these changes would be an unmitigated disaster for the ASO and Atlanta as a whole, and I am very much interested to hear how the WAC responds to these charges.

What makes the musicians’ case so compelling is that the scenario they lay out is far more logical, coherent, and understandable in explaining the actions of the WAC over the last few months than anything offered up by the WAC itself.

Again and again, I’ve tried to understand why the WAC has acted the way it has. The only rational reason why it would move so swiftly to lock out the musicians, cancel two months’ worth of concerts and say there was no negotiating from its final offer would be if there was a clear, imminent catastrophe looming. In nearly every other scenario, it would make more sense to engage in play-and-talk or otherwise continue negotiations.

But the organization has done nothing to indicate that this is the situation. There has been no mention of imminent foreclosure, a coming default on loans, or an inability to make payroll. Maybe it’s thinking it doesn’t want to publicly spook donors and sponsors; but if collapse really was imminent, pride would have to go out the window and the organization would need to rally everyone.

How do I know? Because this is exactly what happened with the San Diego Opera. It was only days from closing. So it swallowed its pride… and made sure everyone knew the seriousness of the situation, and the extreme peril it was in as an institution. Then, without any formality, it asked everyone to be part of the solution. Every facet of the organization was looked at, and every sector was asked to be part of the solution. That’s how it was able to survive its very real crisis.

The WAC and ASO leadership have done nothing of the kind.

They dragged their heels over negotiations for months. They refused to meet at all with musicians during the final days before the existing contract expired. They cancelled board meetings where they could discuss options. They engaged in a negative marketing campaign against the musicians who are central to the ASO’s mission.

Again, none of these actions make any sense of there is an urgent crisis that truly needed to be resolved.

They do, however, make sense if they are part of a comprehensive plan to get rid of the musicians, as the musicians’ press statement suggests. Consider that the actions of the WAC and ASO leadership serve to:

  • Create a toxic work environment.
  • Reduce salaries, encouraging top talent to avoid the ASO.
  • Create bad feelings toward the musicians from the community at large, to make it less likely that the community will care whether the musicians stay or go.

As a result, the WAC and ASO would make things so uncomfortable that musicians would leave voluntarily, which would allow management to implement its plan without a highly visible and controversial round of firings. The WAC leaders could, in effect, shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, they left of their own accord, right?” And afterwards suggest that any negative statements from the musicians were nothing but the mutterings of disgruntled employees, and not to be trusted.

And in all cases, the musicians most likely to leave are those who have the most options elsewhere… and frequently command the highest salaries. We saw this play out in Minneapolis during the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, where key players such as Burt Hara and Sarah Kwak left, with then-President Michael Henson publicly implying that the vacating musicians were being “disloyal.”

Again, the situation the ASO musicians describe sounds quite plausible, and is perfectly in line with the actions of the WAC and ASO leadership to date.

* * *

Allow me to editorialize a moment and point out that the business model that the WAC seems to envision isn’t just morally wrong, it is profoundly stupid… and stupid from a business sense.

What company has ever prospered by seriously degrading its core product?

Who is going to support this new organization? Will it do so at the same level in terms of donations, ticket sales, and sponsorships?

And people can tell the difference.  Remember when the NFL brought in cheaper, inexperienced referees to replace its expensive veterans?  Remember how fast the NFL had to backtrack?

But there’s more to it than that. What the WAC is apparently advocating goes beyond a new strategic direction or roadmap for the future… it fundamentally changes the character of organization, its product, and its relationship with its many and varied stakeholders—particularly the key relationships with the musicians who are the product. Such a thorough reset is not something that can be achieved top down. Or communicated weakly. A transformation of this scale need significant buy-in and lots of ground work laid publicly.

What we have here feels like the meltdown two years ago at Netflix, where a leader with a small base of support made sweeping changes that radically changed the nature of his product and how users used it. On paper, and surrounded by like-minded supporters, this new model made perfect business sense. But nevertheless it nearly crashed the company.

* * *

The WAC leadership seems to be attempting a massive reorganization on the sly, and in direct contraction to its vague assurances that they really do want a world-class orchestra (although WAC President and CEO Virginia Hepner helpfully tells us that we are all free to define “world-class” in our own ways).

So in the end, I invite the WAC to respond to these very serious allegations from the musicians. Is this what you want for the ASO? And if not, why has every action you’ve taken to date seemed to show that it is?

 

 

* * *

 The musicians’ full statement follows:

During the many months of negotiations that preceded the present lockout of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Musicians by the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC), numerous sources within the WAC shared with the Musicians several long-term strategic plan ideas for the ASO that were being quietly discussed among WAC Governing Board members. If implemented, these plans would permanently downsize the Grammy award-winning Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, destroying the prestigious reputation it has earned through decades of professional excellence.

During the summer of 2013, it was suggested multiple times both by Stanley Romanstein, the recently departed President and CEO of the ASO, and Virginia Hepner, the WAC’s current President and CEO, that the number of full-time tenured musicians of the ASO should be permanently reduced, and resulting vacancies could be filled with alumni from the ASO’s Talent Development Program (TDP), who would perform in an “internship” capacity. This suggestion was meant to replicate the design of the New World Symphony – a program dedicated to preparing highly gifted graduates of distinguished music programs for leadership roles in professional orchestras and ensembles around the world. In addition to elevating the TDP – and capitalizing on the funding that educational programs such as the New World Symphony and TDP sometimes enjoy – this proposal was designed to reduce musician expenses; the WAC/ASO expected to give these “interns” a small stipend for their efforts, instead of salary and benefits at all commensurate with that of full-time ASO Musicians.

In March of 2014, ASO Board Chair Karole Lloyd suggested to the ASOPA committee a two-tiered salary system, relegating all new members of the ASO to a severely reduced compensation package for the duration of their “probationary” periods with the Orchestra. Unlike in other professions, orchestra musicians are not hired with the expectation that they will grow into their jobs; a musician unable to consistently perform at the highest artistic level will likely not even win an audition, let alone achieve tenure. To demand that one musician be paid substantially less than his or her colleagues, all while performing the same work under the same intense pressure, exposes a profound deficit of understanding of professional musicianship on the part of the ASO’s Board Chair, Karole Lloyd.

Numerous ASO staff and Board members have told us that these ideas seem to have originated with the leadership of the Woodruff Arts Center Governing Board, including Board Chair Douglas Hertz. Mr. Hertz, who has a fine record of philanthropic work, also has an unfortunate history of trying to eliminate tenured positions within a workforce to reduce expenses.

Douglas Hertz was serving on the Tulane University Board of Administrators when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005. In response to the financial problems the hurricane caused, Tulane then-President Scott Cowan proposed to eliminate tenured faculty at the university, and replace existing faculty members with less expensive, non-tenured new hires. This action was supported by the Tulane Board of Administrators, including Douglas Hertz, and the despite numerous lawsuits that ensued, notifications of release were issued to approximately 200 faculty members in December 2005. This action led to the immediate censure of Tulane University by the American Association of University Professors. (http://www.aaup.org/article/developments-relating-censure-association#.VC7hzMmypRo)

Mr. Hertz’s Tulane University scenario is strikingly similar not only to the two strategic plan ideas described earlier for the ASO, but it also foreshadows one of the conditions of the “Last, Best, and Final Offer” that the WAC/ASO emailed to ASO Musicians on September 5, 2014. In this offer, the WAC proposed a “voluntary retirement incentive” in the amount of $150,000 to any Musician who had given over 30 years of service to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. This offer, in conjunction with the WAC’s refusal to stipulate any minimum number of players – or complement size – required by the ASO, is a thinly veiled attempt to reduce the size of the orchestra, and reduce the costs associated with more established, longer-serving Musicians. This element of the WAC’s proposal also paves the way for the creation of the “internship” orchestra that was suggested earlier; by steadfastly adhering to the need for a “flexible complement,” as the WAC has done in every one of its proposals, it is entirely possible that the WAC Governing Board Leadership is laying the foundation to replace seasoned Musicians with less experienced, less expensive “interns,” similar to what Mr. Hertz helped to do with the professors at Tulane University. Lastly, if every eligible Musician were to accept this buy-out, it would cost the WAC $3.75 million, which well exceeds the amount necessary over the expired agreement to fund the Musicians’ proposal of September 6th in its entirety.

Additionally, Douglas Hertz has taken pains to remind the community that the ASO has been posting deficits for twelve consecutive years, and that the ASO “cannot have what it cannot pay for.” However, those deficits cannot be attributed to the Musicians, whose compensation has historically come in UNDER budget. It is the job of the ASO & WAC Boards and their staffs to raise the funds to support the ASO. Have the fundraising goals been raised to meet the needs of the ASO? The Musicians’ job is always to perform at the highest level of artistry, which has been demonstrated year after year. Furthermore, the Musicians have made tremendous sacrifices over the years in efforts to mitigate the institution’s financial problems. In 2004, the Musicians negotiated six months early to relinquish a contractual raise, which resulted in the extension of the then-current wage for an additional year and a half. In 2009, the Musicians volunteered a 5% cut in compensation. In 2012, the Musicians agreed to a 15% reduction in annual salaries, a reduction of full-time Musicians, and a reduction in the length of our season.

If the WAC and its Governing Board Chair Douglas Hertz are truly only interested in achieving a balanced budget, the Musicians have demonstrated through their previous actions a willingness to be a part of the solution. In contrast, Douglas Hertz’s previous actions demonstrate a willingness to break the backs of employees to achieve further financial concessions. The past and present actions of Douglas Hertz suggest that he is more interested in reducing the number of professional musicians in the ASO than he is either in securing financial stability or in preserving the high artistic standards of the institution he has a duty as a steward to serve and protect.

 

Xochipilli

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14 thoughts on “The “Soylent Green” Model for Running an Orchestra

  1. “resulting vacancies could be filled with alumni from the ASO’s Talent Development Program (TDP), who would perform in an “internship” capacity. This suggestion was meant to replicate the design of the New World Symphony” – That they would think this shows how little they know NWS. NWS does not discriminate based on color or ethnicity, or hometown, and it’s fellows are well-educated, cream of the crop, from all over the world. Although they may indeed be in their first full-time orchestra position, they generally have multiple years of high level experience from conservatories, various gigs, and through summer programs, such as Tanglewood, Verbier, MAW, Aspen…. Fellows are provided with opportunities to play, to learn, to grow. They are not brought in to be place holders. The end product is an innovative, exciting orchestra with talented, refined musicians. This is not a “sub job”.

    What the WAC seems to want is “Woodruff Arts Leftover Musicians And Rookie Temps.” They could call it the WALMART orchestra. You get what you pay for.

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    • Jumping off what you write, let me say something that I find so disturbing about this vision. The New World players are, as you say, excellent. Freelancers are also excellent. They bring strengths and benefits to ensembles they work for. But the model the WAC seems to be proposing doesn’t want these musicians for their particular strengths, and it certainly isn’t built off those strengths. The WAC only wants them because it perceives them as being cheap. All their talent, all their gifts reduced to a simple dollar sign. I find that insulting.

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  2. It’s all about the Benjamins. More money for the people at the top, and they get it by reducing what the little guys (e.g. ASO musicians) get.

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  3. Do they have any idea how long it takes a conductor and new (and not necessarily proven, experienced orchestra members) musicians (if all are new to each other) to become a cohesive, organization? This is not to denigrate new, musicians who might be interested and willing to play for peanuts. But what you get is what you pay for.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Unfortunately, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra management and board have managed to steer their organization in this direction, although perhaps not quite so abysmally. Divide and conquer; have a core of “golden boys (and girls)” and the rest can take it or leave it. The CEO practically couldn’t contain his glee when a dozen long-term, excellent players decided to take “voluntarily” retirement. A sad, sad outcome.

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    • I am also aware of the similarities between WAC and the SPCO. There are several issues that come to mind. The payoffs of the dozen or so musicians who were told that the payments were a thank you for their years of service. Far from being a thank you it was in my opinion a well thought out process to eliminate the elders who were somehow getting in the way of the ‘new’ artistic model.
      Also the implementation of hiring subs to control costs and to further empower the few. There was a fervent belief that subs would play better than the people they were replacing.
      The entire negotiations were preceded by major funders telling the musicians that not one more dime would be spent on the ‘old’ model. The WAC seems to be taking the same line, drawing a line in the sand, wanting to create a multi tiered, union busting strategy with management taking on more and more of the artistic decision making process.
      I loved the term “golden boys (and girls)” representing the few at the SPCO left with all the power. I only hope that the musicians in Atlanta do not divide and become conquered by their differences as happened in Saint Paul. I hope they remain courageous and united.

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      • I believe there was a $3m donation of land which was deposited in a separate charitable entity; the land was sold and used for the retirement fund. This was in the planning stage for years. And yes, major funders were quite vocal and one threatened to withdraw his funding if the musicians didn’t cave (I am watching a certain TV station which before the current program had a fervent thank-you to that man and his wife for their generous contributions).

        To their credit, one of the few things which the musicians (who were quite divided, I later found out) did was to absolutely refuse to consider a two-tier pay system (I heard rumors of a $25K starting salary – but then, someone was convinced that Julliard graduates would be lined up for the privilege).

        The SPCO musicians, unfortunately, were divided before the lockout. The MN Orchestra musicians were not, and ultimately managed to prevail. Only a few left the MN Orch; too many (50%) have left the SPCO. It is no longer the same organization; in fact, in the words of Bruce Coppock in an interview in MINNPOST, it is no longer an orchestra, but a bunch of musicians playing chamber music.

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    • It is nice to converse with an educated person about the SPCO and its parallels with WAC. You are right about how much time the SPCO leaders prepared for the ‘changing of the guard’ (or debacle) that occurred. Coppack and a few of the musicians remaining always thought that chamber musicians were simply better than orchestral musicians and THAT was evidenced by the way they treated or rather ignored those who would not support what some called the ‘string quartet mentality’ that was ever so prevalent during rehearsals.The differences in the way people were treated between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ was in my opinion appalling. It does seem that a common theme running here with WAC is that the managements that now consider themselves artists are wanting to thin the ranks of the core group and hoping the remaining can better ‘control’ the newbies/subs/non vested players. The powerful, it seems, wants more power.

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  5. Pingback: A Horrifying Interview with Douglas Henze | Mask of the Flower Prince

  6. They also seem to have no idea what a “new world” model actually entails… The NWS provides “benefits” of the kind that are of interest to young musicians to its fellows… housing, a travel grant and instrument loans, among many other advantages. This does not seem to be what they ASO is attempting to provide young musicians with.

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  7. It looks to me like the ASO management wants to get rid of the union so that they can have total control over the musicians. This was also a goal in Minnesota. I’m not a huge fan of unions, but this is the second case in which it’s quite clear that the union is needed for the workers to defend and protect them from management. My heart breaks for the ASO musicians. I hope they continue to stand united, as the MN musicians did, and continue to communicate with their community about what is truly going on. Thanks for your insights, Scott.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. What I find even more disturbing is from two different ASO board members who say they were not given all the information. One board member who raised over 800K to help try and get the musicians back to work and talks started. So now we find that this was Never what the board wanted – even more to the point not what the Woodruff Arts Center Board wants. When did the Symphony’s Board become a non-counting board. So no one speaks for the Symphony? The chairperson of the ASO Board obviously is now really a WAC board member and has nothing to say for her Symphony. The Musicians, Conductors have no voice. They have been working on this for how long? I’ve read over and over how previous donors haven’t received calls or information asking for donations – why? I’ve read about people calling and writing to buy tickets and their requests go unanswered. There is MUCH more going on and Atlanta needs to take notice. Oh wait, they can’t somehow they have pretty much squashed Atlanta media unless it is to promote their wild accusations. What are we to do but look outside of our city for help!

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  9. “The bitterness of poor quality is remembered long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten”. Benjamin Franklin
    It will be a sad day if the patrons settle for less. It says something about our culture, or lack of it, if this insulting idea is dropped on the city of Atlanta. It’s as if the community has no say in the matter? The customer will always decide on what they want. Transient nuckleheads with grand, short term thinking, always screw things up for the benefit of all. They’ll always be fodder for the wiser to laugh at.
    Perhaps recordings would be less expensive. They wouldn’t require any of those musician’s who spent thousands of hours practicing all their lives. They could just hire a DJ to play the the classics from the stage. Profits would sky rocket on that ticket. Maybe they’ll sell more than one ticket, maybe two tickets per performance. Imagine the return on that investment. Benjamin Franklin is laughing at us.

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