Baseball and Beethoven: The Minnesota Orchestra, the Marlins and the Perils of Market Correction

The Minnesota Orchestra has been one of the world’s finest classical music ensembles for a very long time. Originally known as the Minneapolis Symphony, the orchestra performed its premiere concert on November 5, 1903, just weeks after the first World’s Series when the Boston Americans beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 5 games to 3. But after more than 110 years of great music and service to the community, the Minnesota Orchestra is in trouble.

The Minnesota Orchestra Association (MOA) is nearly $8,500,000 short in operating expenses , and has been drawing money from its endowment over the past few years at an alarming rate, despite raising over $50,000,000 for a newly renovated Orchestra Hall. The State of Minnesota has requested the return of a $962,000 grant, and the GRAMMY nominated recording cycle of the symphonies of Jean Sibelius has been cancelled. Music Director Osmo Vänskä indicated that he will resign if an agreement is not reached by September 15, 2013.

In the meantime, the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra and the MOA management are in the middle of a protracted, very public and very nasty labor battle. The musicians have been locked out by the MOA since September 30, 2012—receiving neither pay nor benefits—and have been asked to accept a permanent cut of over 1/3 in salary and benefits.

The MOA has made no secret of the fact that they would like to reset the Orchestra’s business model. From their publicly released Strategic Plan, the MOA seeks to, among other things:

  • [Restructure] all expenses within the MOA business model…including [the] contract with musicians
  • Use the renovation of Orchestra Hall to attract new audiences and broaden revenue streams
  • Achieve “glow effect” of $200,000 additional earned revenue from excitement surrounding the Hall renovation

There is pretty good evidence that the current lockout is a planned strategy to force players into a lower pay bracket, replacing those who resign with less-experienced, younger players who would be willing to accept a lower wage. These players would pass through the Minnesota Orchestra, and stay for a couple of years on their way to higher paying orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic or Chicago Symphony.

If this is the case, the MOA is setting a dangerous precedent that other organizations are sure to follow. But has this style of management been tried before, and how has it worked out?

The answer lies 1,798 miles due southeast—home of the Miami Marlins baseball team.

Market Correction

The Miami Marlins last won the World Series in 2003, trouncing the New York Yankees 4-2 in 6 games. After a disappointing 2004 and 2005, the Marlins began a controversial practice that the Marlin’s President dubbed “Market Correction.”

Market Correction meant dumping experienced, but high-priced players for less experienced but talented prospects—those just out of college, or who have had successful careers in the minor leagues—with the assumption that the Marlins could assemble a winning team on the cheap. When these players’ contracts were up, they would be traded to other teams in exchange for a new crop of less expensive prospects.

Market Correction has been an ongoing practice with the Marlins. The list of top players who were traded by the Marlins organization just as their careers developed is staggering—Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Derrick Lee, Juan Pierre, Carlos Delgado, Paul Lo Duca, Moises Alou—the list goes on and on. Despite having a future All-Star roster, the Marlins have not reached post-season play since their 2003 World Series victory, and currently have the lowest payroll in baseball.

Instead of leaning the team’s budget toward player salaries, the Marlins put $125 million toward a new $525 million top-notch ballpark, designed to greatly improve the customer experience over their previous venue, Sun Life Stadium. In 2011, the team began playing in its brand new Marlins Stadium.

Except for the fact that the Marlins were dead last with a 72-90 record, 2011 seemed to be going as planned with greatly increased attendance. In 2012, the Marlins finished with an even worse 69-93 record. This year they are dead last again with a 49-82 average (as of August 29, 2013).

This season’s attendance at the new stadium is down—way down. According to the Miami Herald, 2013 attendance at Marlins Stadium, which seats 36,000, averages only 100 more fans per game than their old ballpark. Attendance is less than half of Marlins Stadium’s capacity. The lesson here is that no one wants to see badly played baseball, no matter how nice the stadium is.

So how does this relate to the Minnesota Orchestra?

The MOA seems to be following the Marlins’ Market Correction policy by thinning out the orchestra through attrition—those who can afford the 1/3 pay cut will stay, the rest will leave—filling the orchestra with younger players who are willing to accept a lower pay scale. Like the Marlins, the MOA also seems to be putting a large emphasis on the newly renovated Orchestra Hall.

While the comparison with the Miami Marlins gets a bit sticky at this point—World Series wins are difficult to equate to symphony concerts—it is still clear that if the MOA adopts a Market Correction policy, the quality of the Minnesota Orchestra will suffer.

Now comes the big question: If there is a drop in quality, will anybody really notice the difference? To answer this question, it helps to compare the Minnesota Orchestra with the major ensemble in another, larger city.

Since we have been talking about the Marlins, let’s take a look at Miami.

Prospect Players

Miami is larger than Minneapolis and proudly boasts the New World Symphony, one of the best training orchestras in the world, and arguably the best symphony orchestra in the Miami area. The New World Symphony, led by the legendary conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, pays a modest salary to its young professional musicians—prospects, really—to play great music while they prepare for careers with top-notch ensembles such as the Minnesota Orchestra.

The New World Symphony will never reach the level of the Minnesota Orchestra.

Don’t get me wrong—the musicians of the New World Symphony are some of the best on the planet—but they lack experience. It is the very same reason that the Miami Marlins have been unable to advance to post-season play since implementing Market Correction. No matter how well you play—whether it is baseball or Beethoven—it is impossible to reach a top level of performance without spending years playing side-by-side with seasoned professionals. The quality of play simply cannot compare.

Back to the question at hand: Would audiences notice the drop in quality in the Minnesota Orchestra if Market Correction is implemented? I say yes, absolutely. The lack of experience of the players means that the Minnesota Orchestra would lose its sparkle.

It would be the same as comparing Aunt Bertha’s painting of sunflowers with Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. While Aunt Bertha’s painting may be nice, Van Gogh’s is breathtaking. The sunflowers are the same, but Van Gogh’s experience in knowing just where to place individual brushstrokes is perfect, creating an aggregate effect of power that cannot be denied.

Similarly, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 performed by a lesser orchestra is a great piece, but in the hands of Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra, Beethoven’s masterpiece can be shattering. In my experience as a symphony musician, I have learned that audiences can tell the difference between good and great performances. Just like Marlins fans, audiences stay away in droves when the music loses its special edge.

Players as Product

As a nonprofit consultant, grantwriter and symphony musician, I have heard various versions of Market Correction threatened during contract talks. Usually this takes the form of, “Why should we pay our musicians when we can just get students from the Fill-In-The-Blank-University’s Music Conservatory to do the same job for free?” This appears so commonly that I knew it was only a matter of time before someone actually tried it.

On the surface, the argument for Market Correction seems very logical, but by digging deeper, the idea becomes corrupt. Player quality and experience is what creates the excitement in the concert hall and wins baseball games. The best, most experienced players command the highest salaries—that is simple economics.

If the Minnesota Orchestra and the Miami Marlins are seen as businesses, the players have to be seen not as employees, but as the actual product. As every successful business owner knows, if you cut the product quality you will lose customers.

There is no doubt that the situation in Minneapolis is something that neither the MOA nor the musicians want, but it exists nonetheless and must be addressed head-on by those onstage and those in the front office. It is my hope that the MOA management understands that the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra have the same goals as they do, and that 90 musician allies will go much further toward solving the Minnesota Orchestra’s crisis than 90 adversaries.

So long as there is silence at Orchestra Hall, nobody wins.

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The Minnesota Orchestra cross-blog event is a collection of more than a dozen bloggers, musicians, patrons, and administrators writing about the orchestra’s devastating work stoppage. You can find all of the contributions in the following list and the authors encourage everyone to participate by sharing, commenting, or publishing something at your own culture blog.