Strike Two!

I’m in France. Again.  Conducting Porgy.  Again! It’s Tuesday, and we’re supposed to have our dress rehearsal today.  But we’re not doing that.  Why?Because we’re in France, that’s why!  Instead of our dress rehearsal we’re on STRIKE!!!  Yes, it’s that time again, and the French were out in force on a rainy day.  Ask any Frenchman what the national sport is and they’ll probably reply “Le Strike!”  Hey, they need some sport to be good at.  Football? Les Bleus were the joke of the World Cup.  Tennis?  They’ve got Gael Monfils but I have him going out in the next round to The Djoker.  Straight sets, I might add.  Keep going down the list and you’re not liable to find the Tri-Colours on top of the podium.  So they rely on the Strike, where they are the undisputed champions.

This particular strike was about ……….. something ………. pensions, I think.  Doesn’t matter, really.  It’s always about something in France.  They were really into it, with the thousands streaming to Place Bellecour here in Lyon with their banners and their bullhorns and their general disruption of things.  The French fundamentally know how to Strike and they put it to good use.  The Charles de Gaulle and the Paris-Orly airports both got hit, as did the SNCF and TGV train systems.  What this all has to do with an opera house I don’t really know, but I’m Not French!!  So instead of doing our dress rehearsal today we are doing it Wednesday afternoon, with performances Thursday and Friday night.

This is the second time Porgy has been hit by Le Strike.  During our initial run in 2008 there was a general strike in the middle of the run of performances which caused us to move a show into the next day.  This put us in the position of having shows on back-toback days, something that our soloists weren’t too happy about.  But c’est la vie, eh?

It does give me pause however, because I’m predicting a third strike on the horizon.  Not here in France, however, but back in the good old USA.  More specifically, in Detroit.  I’ve have no direct knowledge of what is happening with the contract dispute concerning the Detroit Symphony, but like any other musician I have an indirect “horse in the race.”  None of us want to see any orchestra go into a death spiral.  It’s not good for music, our business, or the community, let alone those musicians directly affected.  There have been plenty of orchestras at or over the brink lately – think Honolulu, Charleston, etc. – and perhaps it’s time, again, to rethink how we do business.

First – the whole Non-Profit concept.  Is this truly viable anymore?  Compare a possible Detroit Symphony strike with what is going on today in France.  Or perhaps, what happens at a company like Caterpillar would be a much better analogy.  With Caterpillar there are the workers, management, consumers, and stockholders.  If the workers go on strike then all the other entities are impacted immediately exactly where it hurts the most – the wallet.  That’s the essence of the For-Profit world.  But in our world there are the musicians (workers?), management (management?), audience (consumers?), and the Board/Donors (……?).  Here’s where the problem lies – in the For-Profit world a strike effects the stockholders as immediately as any of the other principals involved.  The stock takes a dive, you’ve immediately lost some of your investment.  But in the Non-Profit world how does a strike effect the Board/Donors?  Certainly not in their wallets!  It’s their money, after all, that they are donating, and like the proverbial spoiled child at the playground they can just pick up their marbles and move on.  Nothing is forcing them to donate money to any Non-Profit, and if they don’t like what they’re seeing they’ll just leave.

There is another problem with this system – although musicians like the ones in Detroit have a collective bargaining agreement which sets pay, benefits, and the like, there is no direct link between that contract and the day-to-day fiscal health of the organization.  A few weeks ago I sent a scathing email to Apple about a transaction I had with them.  I’ve been using Apple products for almost 20 years and I’ve been a stockholder for over a decade.  A few days after that email I received a phone call from someone at the Apple headquarters about said transaction.  This young man didn’t just work there, but he was pouring every last cent he could into Apple stock.  His interest in how Apple was doing was immediate and long-term, not tied to a contract that comes up every four years or so.

Second – the Community effect.  I remember a conversation I had years ago when the Minnesota Orchestra was on the verge of a strike.  The exact details of the converse are lost to me, but the gist of what my acquaintance said was “how dare those overpaid, whining pansies complain about getting paid twice the yearly wage of an average American just for playing music?”  This from someone who regularly attended Minnesota Orchestra concerts and was (and remains) a committed lover of music.  My arguments about quality, difficulty, work load, whatever, were completely lost on him.

Unfortunately, the numbers probably back him up.  Most of the people who attend orchestra concerts are regulars, and those who aren’t usually are occasional attendees. Getting new butts in seats is a major issue for every orchestra.  In major cities such as Detroit, Chicago, Boston, wherever, no matter what the turnstiles say a good 95% of the greater metro population rarely if ever walk into a concert hall.  Of the remaining 5% the vast majority support said orchestras by purchasing tickets.  There is a very, very small percentage who put their money where their mouths are by donating significant money to those organizations.  But my point is that the local symphony orchestra does not have the social importance or impact that it did 75 years ago.  We have cable TV now.  There are hundreds of other arts organizations in business.  There are organized sports, extreme eating contests, etc., that now vie for our attention.  The canary in the coal mine is Arts Education – 75 years ago you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone who could play an instrument, or had some musical training.  Today, most kids get their musical education from GuitarHero.  If the DSO ends up on strike there would be all sorts of problems, admittedly, but the long term problem might be the collective shrug of the vast majority of the greater Detroit area.  In the great tradition of the average U.S. citizen – “if it doesn’t effect me why should I care?”  Convincing Joe Citizen that it does effect him these days may be a very hard row to hoe.

As to the Community effect, nothing but a long term intensive return to direct music education is going to change that outlook.  I’m talking a 25 year multi-generational movement by everyone in the business to put music in the forefront of education.  The Finns did it and they’re bloody happy with the result.  They decided that access to good music education is a fundamental right, and this is now considered by them one of the basic building blocks of the new, modern Finnish society.  Funny enough, putting a effort like this into motion might be the easy part.

Now for the hard part – a fundamental change in the way we do business.  We need some sort of hybrid between the Non-Profit and the For-Profit business models which brings all the stakeholders together to forge a continuing interest in the financial and community health of the organization.  How about Non-Profit stock?  For the musicians – sure, let there be a base salary and benefits, but make 50% of the salary dependent on the yearly fiscal health of the organization payable in monthly bonuses based on the stock performance.  Essentially, dividends.  The musicians would have the right to use their dividends exactly as in the For-Profit world – either take them in cash or re-invest them in the orchestra.  Same goes for management.  For the audience there could be the option of purchasing tickets as we do now or purchasing stock.  The stock would give you the right to purchase discount tickets, receive music lessons (free or at a discount?), digital downloads of their favorite concerts, backstage perks, etc.  For major donors I propose allowing allowing the stock to be tax deductible at twice its face value.  You donate/purchase $100K in Symphony Stock and you can claim $200k in tax deductions as long as you hold the stock for, say, 5 years.

Now, I’m no Warren Buffett, and if I was I wouldn’t be writing this blog.  There are hundreds of details that I haven’t even begun to dream of in a plan like this that would need to be worked, starting with a complete redesign of the U.S. tax code.  And I just can’t wait to hear what the hard-core faction at the AFM would have to say about proposal.  YIKES!!!  But we need to come up with a better way of ensuring that communities actually invest in their major Non-Profit entities, a way which also forces everyone else to, yes, be a direct stockholder in the day-to-day financial health of these organizations.

If anyone out there has a better idea I’m all for listening.  Right now, I don’t have a lot of confidence in our current system.  And I really, really, really hope that the situation at the DSO doesn’t lead to a business-wide meltdown.  When we start talking about “orchestras that are to big to fail” we are going to be in some serious trouble.

4 thoughts on “Strike Two!”

  1. Excellent post. However it works out, the final answer is for everyone to be, and to realize they are, stakeholders in their local symphony orchestra. Support your local baton slinger!

  2. Good thoughts! Think they’re stiking because the proposed raising of the retirement age to 62. My heart bleeds!

    I think about the Green Bay Packers. The only team in franchise history that survives in a micro market because they have (even if really in name only) stock holders!

  3. The “business model” of a nonprofit symphony orchestra has ALWAYS been impossible to sustain. This was true fifty years ago but, back then, nobody noticed, nobody cared. (Someone posted a link in one of Bill’s earlier blogs, to an article about orchestras published in Time Magazine in 1969.)

    Why? Because back then there were: (1) fewer orchestras; (2) fewer of all other types of arts organizations; (3) orchestras were smaller and played fewer concerts; (4) there were still a number of individuals and families who had close personal ties to specific orchestras and orchestra managers could ask them to take out their check books to cover the annual deficit.

    If anyone here read the NEA report which came out about a year ago then you know that attendance is down for EVERYTHING. Music, dance, theatre, jazz. They even surveyed Latin American music concerts and they were down, too.(With so many Latinos living in the USA these days, you’d think differently, wouldn’t you?)

    If you follow the entertainment industry at all, you know that attendance is down for rock concerts, too. Except for the occassional block buster like “Avatar,” attendance has been down at the movies for decades.

    So the “audience problem” of classical music has little to do with classical music. (I definitely agree with Bill’s thoughts about music education but the problems of today’s orchestras go way beyond that.)

    There was a major disconnect in the laws of supply and demand in this country, starting in the 1970s. At the same time that audiences for all live entertainment started to decline — that is, the ’70s — America had an explosion in the number of arts organizations being created. We now have a situation in this country where there are 3, 4 or more professional orchestras within 20 or 30 miles of one another. I’m not talking about New York or L.A., — I’m talking about Northern Virginia, the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex area and other communities. It seems like every single town in New Jersey has an orchestra!

    When you combine these (and other) external factors — ie., the lousy economy in general, the city of Detroit collapsing economically, the city of Cleveland collapsing economically, etc., etc., etc., I believe it is correct to say that there is no longer any city in America which can support a 52-week orchestra, playing 250+ concerts, operating on a $40 or $50 million budget. Those days are gone…forever. I’m sorry. It’s true. Accept it.

    I’ll post some possible ideas about “solutions” to all of this tomorrow. None of them are pretty. (Notice that I use “solutions” in quotes.)

    Thanks, Bill, for raising these important points.

    Xylo Guy

  4. After much consideration I feel that it is necessary for me to lay out some ground rules for comments on this blog. I have recently become concerned about the tone of some of the comments left here, as well as the manner in which these comments are posted. The purpose of this blog is to create dialogue, discuss ideas, and constructively comment on the shape of the Classical Music scene today. Anything else is (probably) not welcome.

    Therefore, the following ground rules now apply:

    1. There will be no anonymous comments approved.
    2. Comments of a personal nature will not be approved. If you have a beef with someone take it outside.
    3. Comments that stray way off the original topic of that particular blog post will not be approved.
    4. Last but not least, I will NOT become the vehicle for anyone’s personal beef about this industry. Frankly, I have enough problems already.

    If anyone has a problem with any of this you know where to find me.



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