Last week, an editorial came out in the Baltimore Sun that weighed in on the burgeoning labor dispute between the management of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) and its musicians.
And I feel a response is necessary.
Let me say off the bat that I do not pretend to have any insider information into this dispute, and I have no direct ties with any of the parties involved. And I hardly want to start a fight with the Sun’s editorial staff—I readily concede that the editorial goes out of its way to point fingers and keep a measured tone. Curiously for an editorial, it doesn’t… well, editorialize.
And for me, that’s a bit of a problem. Maybe this reticence is due to the fact that they don’t want to call out anyone unless there are clear indications of misbehavior. Maybe they want to give everyone the benefit of a doubt. This is a noble sentiment. But one of the key frustrations with the Minnesota Orchestra dispute (which was happily resolved years ago, thank goodness) was that again and again, reporters and other observers relentlessly tried to push some form of “well on one hand, but on the other hand” balance in their descriptions about what was happening. There was such a dedication to the principle of “balance” that they ended up creating hugely inappropriate false equivalencies.
In my own mind this is artificial… and ultimately dangerous. There is a massive imbalance in a situation where one side of dispute has the power to make unilateral decisions to weaken the other side. There is a massive imbalance in a situation where one side is arguing in bad faith. There is a massive imbalance in a situation where one side is acting out of bounds, and engaging in destructive activities as a negation strategy. So, the editorial’s attempt to smooth everything over into a “he said/she said” kind of piece feels… off.
Let me explain.
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“Plenty of people share some blame for the way these latest developments went down…”
“Plenty of people?” Who? In the sentence before this, the editorial states the cancelation of the summer season “was shocking to symphony patrons, musicians.” And presumably, to the lawmakers who approved a $3.2 million grant to the BSO, which was announced only five days before. So if the BSO management took a unilateral step that was “shocking” to everyone else involved… who else is there to blame? Why are we trying to find someone else to blame?
“[We] can’t let the anger of the moment distract us from the big picture reality that the BSO, like orchestras all across the country, faces tremendous financial pressures and must adapt if it is to survive.”
Two points. No… I do think anger is warranted here. This disaster didn’t come about due to an Act of God. There are clear indications that a person or group of people took a deliberate action to cancel the summer season, in what looks to be part of a labor negotiation strategy. They did so under highly questionable, ill-advised circumstances that torched good-faith negotiations and burned the negotiators. It is not enough to just say, “Oh well. Next.” and direct our attention to some “bigger issue.” It seems clear that the BSO musicians and their allies do not have a reliable negotiation partner. What they do have is an opponent who through incompetence or malicious intent is willing to blow things up to score points. That has to be addressed and guarded against, or there is no use trying to resolve some “bigger issue.”
And please, please can we stop with the lazy assumptions that “the arts” or “classical music” or “performing arts organizations” are all on the financial ropes, if not dying? Of course there are financial pressures. As a former Board President I am intimately aware of them. But the notion that all orchestras and/or opera companies are on the verge of financial ruin is wildly overblown. In October 2018, for example, ICSOM reported that:
- The Florida Orchestra signed a contract reflecting both impressive financial gains and artistic growth.
- So did the Milwaukee Symphony, with added weeks to their season as they plan to move into their renovated location in the year 2020. In fact, Milwaukee’s $89 million renovation project of the Warner Grand Theatre, in their downtown’s west side, has been noted as not just “the rebirth of a neighborhood” but “the rebirth of the symphony.”
- The Utah Symphony signed a 4-year, progressive contract.
- Nashville Symphony completed negotiations with a 4-year contract that includes salary increases plus filling open positions.
- The New York City Ballet Orchestra settled a 3-year agreement, also with salary increases, retroactive to September 1st, 2017.
- The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra ratified a 3-year extension to their contract six months before expiration, with salary increases plus improvements in work rules they have been striving to attain for some time.
- The San Francisco Opera Orchestra successfully settled with a 5-year agreement, with wage increases.
- The Columbus Symphony Orchestra ratified a new 3-year Master Agreement, the first progressive agreement for Columbus in more than 10 years.
- The Oregon Symphony finished their negotiations with a 4-year agreement that reflects artistic and financial improvements. This includes the addition of two Classical series weeks for the 2019-20 season, increasing the number of Classical subscription weeks from 16 to 18. This will move the orchestra to a 40-week season. The substantial wage increase in this new agreement marks the first time in recent history for them.
And the Philadelphia Orchestra just announced it received the largest gift in its entire history: $55 million.
So again, of course there are struggles. Can we also note that lots of classical music organizations are doing well?
“BSO management, led by CEO Peter Kjome, deserves some blame for failing, amid the months of discussion about additional state support for the symphony during this year’s legislative session, to make clear just how close to the fiscal edge the orchestra is.”
“Some blame?” And… the failure is simply that he wasn’t more forthcoming? With respect, this is more than just some failing. Mr. Kjome was actively engaged in negotiations with several key groups about the financial stability of the organization. Those key groups were engaged in those negotiations in order to financially stabilize the organization. And yet Mr. Kjome apparently didn’t bring up this critical bit of financial information… that would have wide-reaching implications for everyone involved. This isn’t a passive-voice failure, some hard-to-understand tangent, or a “whoopsie” kind of lapse. At a glance, it looks like a jaw-dropping case of incompetence, or a jaw-dropping case of acting in bad faith.
“It’s no secret that the BSO has been losing money for years — $16 million over the last decade — but the fact that even with the extra funding Del. Maggie McIntosh wrangled the symphony will struggle to meet payroll this summer was not widely understood.”
I have several issues with this unfortunate sentence.
For one, why is it that when the management puts out numbers, it is simply assumed that they are “the truth,” while when musicians (or any other actor) puts out numbers, that’s assumed to be “their opinion.” Management is also involved in a PR campaign to win a contentious labor dispute, so why are their numbers accepted uncritically?
We need to break this automatic assumption. Why? Well, the situation in Minneapolis dramatically illustrated the potential problem. Similarly, the former leadership of the Minnesota Orchestra came forward to the public and proclaimed they had absorbed catastrophic financial declines. To make their point, as the lockout drew near it laid off several staff members because of severe financial duress. But, as the dispute drew out, it came to light that those dire numbers they had been waving around were not entirely true. For one, at that exact same time, CEO Michael Henson had been drawing cash bonuses worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. His bonus would have, for instance, paid for the salaries of all the staff that he had summarily laid off due to “financial duress.” It was also clear from the Board minutes that the leadership had engaged in significant financial shuffling to make the financial picture look bleaker than it was. Along with that, it hired a PR firm specifically to determine a deficit number that they could post, that would look serious enough to justify massive cuts, without scaring potential donors too much.
And this was hardly an isolated case. During the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s lockout, CEO Stanley Romanstein similarly took large cash bonuses while claiming the ASO was teetering on financial ruin. During the MET Opera dispute, General Manager Peter Gelb specifically warned that without massive concessions from its unions, the MET would “face bankruptcy in two years” (curiously enough, two years later the MET faced a $1 million surplus, even though it had not secured the “critically urgent” union concessions).
So before we uncritically believe Peter Kjome’s financial picture, let’s dig a bit deeper, shall we?
“Given those circumstances, the announcement in April of an ambitious summer schedule seems foolish.”
So, of all the things going on, it was the announcement of the summer season that was foolish?
Another point. There’s a “common sense” tendency to look at this situation and say, “Well, we have to make cuts!” But the reality is much more complicated. Yes, concerts are expensive to put on, and axing concerts will reduce expenditures. But it’s critical to remember that concerts are the primary force that generates revenue. First and most obviously, they bring in earned income through ticket sales. During the Minnesota Orchestra Lockout, the audience advocacy group Save Our Symphony Minnesota (SOS MN) did a deep dive into the Orchestra’s finances. They showed that in the years leading up to the lockout, the administration had systematically reduced the number of concerts, and started the season later and later each year. This saved production and marketing costs, but SOS MN pulled the quantitative data to show that despite these savings, the Orchestra suffered a huge decline in revenue—and the loss in revenue coincided directly with the reduction in the number of concerts. By cutting concerts, the Orchestra had starved itself of a key source income. And related to my point above, it was hard not to conclude this was a deliberate strategy to make the Orchestra’s position look weaker, to justify the imposition of dramatic cuts later on. Even if it wasn’t a deliberate strategy, these cuts functioned as a circular, self-fulfilling prophecy.
But along with that, another trend became clear. As the Orchestra retreated its public presence, it suffered a rise in donor and audience apathy. It was no longer out in front of the community, and the community drifted away. Consequently, it was harder to jump-start marketing and fundraising initiatives when the Orchestra was performing again.
“(In fairness to Mr. Kjome, these problems began long before he arrived in Baltimore. At least he’s trying to fix them rather than hoping they’ll miraculously go away.)”
Is it certain he is trying to fix them, rather than simply trying to impose a new business model on the BSO that’s more to his liking? What are the fundamental problems/stressors the BSO is trying to solve? Are these actual problems? Or as was the case in other orchestral disputes, does management simply have ideological issues with a unionized workforce? If the BSO’s problems are real, will Mr. Kjome’s proposed solutions seriously address and ultimately solve them?
And “miraculously?” Can we please drop the lazy assumptions that arts administrators all sit around unrealistically waiting for Apollo himself to descend from Olympus, bringing Orpheus, St. Cecilia, and all the Muses to bestow their bounty upon their ensembles and save them from destruction? Sure, some administrators can be overly optimistic. Some can be too eager to chase long shots. But most of the ones I know take their financial responsibilities very seriously… and are often successful in their jobs.
“[The musicians] have been jerked around on the summer season this year, and they have every right to be upset at the prospect of losing a fifth of their pay. Who wouldn’t be? They are world-class artists, and the orchestra’s financial problems can’t be blamed on the quality of their musicianship.”
Yes. This is worth repeating. So often in these disputes, the musicians are treated as if they are nothing more than paid staff performing at a kids birthday party. It is terrible to cut a person’s wages by 20%. This isn’t some small bit of nips and tucks—this is a huge blow to people’s livelihoods.
“Much of the players’ argument has been that the management’s proposal to control costs amounts to shifting the BSO to a part-time orchestra, but the truth is that it would have little impact on the number of concerts each year. The main season, running from September to June, is about 150 concerts now, and it would still be if the management proposal is enacted. The summer season (with the exception of the Oregon Ridge concert on the 4th of July, which Mr. Kjome says he hopes to restore after this year) has never been a core part of the orchestra’s schedule.”
This brings up so many red flags, I doubt I can catch them all. Again, this reads like an outsider’s, “common-sensical” understanding of a complicated situation. But as I mentioned above, there are real world implications of cutting concerts. And again, the strategy of cancelling concerts and then later saying that “no one comes to concerts anymore, so we need more cuts!” has been used before.
Let me also say that this isn’t just some sort of administrative shuffle going, on or the clearing out of unused filler. Cuts like these directly impact not just base pay, but also rates, formulas, and all kinds of contractually-guaranteed details that are tied to those rates and formulas. I haven’t looked at the BSO contract specifically, but in so many of the past labor disputes, this strategy of cutting weeks out of the contract was a seemingly innocent, but actually insidious way of forcing ripples of cuts across the organization.
“The difference is that musicians now get nine weeks of paid vacation per year, and management is proposing four.”
Let me reiterate, because this has come up repeatedly in every orchestral labor dispute I’ve seen, that “vacation” in this context means something very different from what most people expect. Musicians rarely take actual time off away from their instruments… if they do, they get out of shape fast. Jascha Heifetz famously said, “If I don’t practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it.” I’ve written about this before—those “vacations” are little more than low-ebb cycles when musicians can do light practice, review music, and build endurance back up again.
And musicians, like pro athletes or dancers, are involved in a career that takes an immense toll on the body. Those fingerings, the need to hold an instrument in a certain way for hours at a time, and the physical demands of all that constant practice… they all lead to huge numbers of repetitive stress injuries. And if these injuries are not dealt with, they can end a musician’s career.
While it seems like an easy way to save money for the organization, these easy-breezy vacation cuts can bring long-term problems for an organization.
“Some musicians who can get jobs with bigger, better paying orchestras might do so under those circumstances, but the idea that the BSO’s quality would inexorably decline is belied by the experience of orchestras in other cities — Atlanta, St. Louis and Detroit, for example — that have gone through similar financial retrenchments and maintained their artistry and reputations.”
First of all, I just wrote at length about how short-sighted it is to let musicians drift away from an organization. It can undermine ensemble, and be an administrative drag on the organization as the management has to endlessly engage in expensive, time-consuming auditions to replace musicians. Ask any company that struggles to retain talent what a drain this problem is.
But I’m more than a little surprised to see that the examples pulled out to show that everything can work out in the end. Groups like the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Minnesota Orchestra, MET Opera, and San Diego Opera didn’t “retrench” and get on their feet again. They all fought hard against, and in the end actively rejected the “cut your way to prosperity” approach that their respective managements demanded. And in all those places except for the MET, the organizations threw out the leaders that so disastrously tried to impose those draconian cuts, and did so as a necessary step toward rebuilding.
Again, they didn’t “retrench,” they actively blocked the proposed retrenchments, and got rid of those who had tried to force those proposed retrenchments down their throats.
“But more state funding isn’t the long-term answer. The BSO is already, by far, the largest recipient of state grants to arts institutions.”
What a curious thing to say. This may be true, but are these other Maryland arts institutions in imminent danger of having their management’s shut them down? This is like saying “Putting more money into fixing the roof isn’t the long-term answer. Roof repairs are already, by far, the largest recipients of our home maintenance spending.” Okay… but isn’t your roof still going to leak if you don’t?
“And finally, Baltimore’s patrons of the arts need to commit to a major capital campaign for the BSO.”
Yes, but a work of caution: please be careful. Endowments can be great things, but they are not miracle cure-alls. Please do the due diligence to make sure what it is the BSO needs, and how it would benefit from an endowment. And please make sure you set up the specific contours of such an endowment in a way that the money can be used most effectively to meet the BSO’s needs. The money in an endowment is essentially locked away. So, you could go through the time and trouble of raising $10 million, maxing out your donors along the way… but if you are taking, say, a very generous 9% draw, all that effort will leave you with a mere $900,000. I have known organizations that look flush with cash on paper, but struggle because they are unable to access any of those funds to address critical needs. And endowments are not good for solving unexpected problems that inevitably bubble up—they are anything but a nimble funding source.
Again, endowments are good, and in cases a necessary part of an organization’s funding strategy. But don’t treat an endowment as a panacea. Be strategic with it, be clear to how it will help, and make sure it is set up appropriately so that it will bring a good return on investment.
“One more thing: Many of the other U.S. symphonies that have gone through a financial crisis like this have only emerged after a lengthy lockout of musicians. For the sake of the BSO’s tradition, of Baltimore’s music lovers and of all the children who benefit from the symphony’s educational programs, we hope that won’t happen here.
This is my hope as well. The BSO is one of the country’s great ensembles, and is too important to lose.
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Again, I don’t want to pick a fight with the Baltimore Sun. Clearly, they love the BSO and want to keep it healthy… and performing.
But the kind of forced, false equivalence displayed in this editorial makes me bristle. I’ve seen this kind of thinking before, and it was not pretty.
I hate to keep harping on the Minnesota example, in part because the problems have been resolved and a new spirit of cooperation has wonderfully taken hold of the organization. But my experience with false equivalences and both-siderisms make me want to shout a warning to my friends in Baltimore. As a reminder, over the course of the Minnesota Orchestra’s 16-month lockout, many intelligent, well-meaning people started off thinking that way, too. They argued that the dispute was a straightforward negotiation involving rational people who could meet in the middle if they just put their minds to it. The two sides just needed to put in a good faith effort.
And time and again, they were burned for thinking this.
Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak and legendary Orchestra supporter Judy Dayton offered to host a celebration concert where the Orchestra could celebrate its Grammy nomination and lower tensions. The management refused their invitation. Orchestrate Excellence, a group founded to bring the sides together, created a report comparing the Minnesota Orchestra with the Cleveland Orchestra to help facilitate dialog and present a useful model for future compromise. Management dismissed it out of hand. Respected arts leader Alan Fletcher came to town with tough talk for both sides, and offered his views about surviving difficult negotiations. Management rebuffed him. Senator George Mitchell, who famously brought peace to Northern Ireland, was formally brought in by management to mediate a solution to the crisis. Management negotiated around him, and ultimately rejected his recommendations because to accept them would cause management to “lose leverage” in the dispute. Outside observers called for an independent financial analysis of the Orchestra. Management instead hired its own firm to do a targeted analysis based only on information it provided. Concerned community members launched an “SOS Osmo campaign” to raise money specifically so that the Orchestra’s Music Director Osmo Vänskä could stay. Management blithely suggested it would roll any such funds into its own general fundraising operations, and made callous statements that Osmo was free to move on. And so forth.
As a result of all this, the community came to the understanding that both sides were not equal, and both sides were not equally interested in a resolution.
Let us make sure we’re looking at the situation in Baltimore with clear eyes.