San Francisco Symphony Cancels Carnegie Hall Concerts
Ear Heart Music: Ensemble Sospeso

The Modern Orchestra's Business Model: A Plea for Sanity from Both Sides

by Michael Cirigliano II

San Francisco Symphony Strike, Susana Bates, Feast of Music Feature

Photo credit: Susana Bates, San Francisco Chronicle

Another day, another orchestra that makes the headlines—not for innovative programming or artistic excellence, sadly, but for labor-related disputes. The San Francisco Symphony, whose musicians called a comprehensive work stoppage last Wednesday, leave an East Coast tour of some of the area’s premier venues cut to pieces on the proverbial chopping block. What should have been a blockbuster week of performances comprising the works of Mahler, Brahms, Beethoven, and the son of John Adams at Carnegie Hall, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, and The Kennedy Center became a critical bargaining chip in the musicians’ collective statement against their management: Let’s cut a beneficial deal or there is no music.

Unfortunately for arts patrons across the Northeast (myself included), the musicians and management—who have not been able to ratify the terms of a new collective-bargaining agreement since the expiration of their three-year contract in November—failed to come to a mutual compromise, and the likelihood of the organization repeating its lengthy 1996–97 strike (one that canceled 48 performances and cost the symphony millions of dollars) seems incredibly likely to repeat itself.

The reality of the situation is that both parties are failing to budge in their list of demands, which is never a good sign of future business stabilization, let alone long-term development. The musicians are citing management’s claims of $800,000 deficits for each of the past four years as ridiculous financial mismanagement, given the additional $500 million plan to build an extension onto their home venue, the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall. Meanwhile, management is trying to push a two-year wage freeze on the orchestra’s musicians, in addition to introducing employee contributions on one of four health premiums within their benefit package.

Where the arguments start to run thin comes within the ensemble’s claims that without a five percent salary increase, the orchestra no longer remains competitive in the national landscape, and will likely lose players to other members of the Big Five: Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, and New York. As reported in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, however (based on publically available financial reports), the San Francisco musicians are currently the third-highest paid musicians in the country, with base salaries set at $141,700, and a mere $2,500 difference in annual salary separating them from taking over the top ranking, held by the Chicago Symphony players. (A figure made negligible by the fact that the Chicago musicians are responsible for a percentage of their insurance premiums.)

Yes, there are plenty of arguments that these musicians—who represent the top of their profession—make a fraction of what doctors, lawyers, corporate executives, and financiers make at the top of their game, and deserve substantial increases. However, one must recognize the brutal fact that music-making—across the board—is no longer the business powerhouse that it once was. While indie bands struggle to get their music heard, household names fight to keep their music from being pirated, and bloodthirsty machines like Ticketmaster and Clear Channel suck every dollar they can from eager concertgoers, classical-music enterprises must realize that they are not exempt from the financial difficulties facing the industry on a global scale.

Launching a strike in order to ensure that your salary is not frozen, and to keep from paying insurance premiums that have, until recently, been 100 percent subsidized by management reeks as a hollow gesture, as evidenced by the musicians of the Chicago Symphony, who implemented a similar strike last fall—announced hours before a sold-out weekend concert and resolved quicker than a Kardashian wedding.

This isn’t to say that the musicians are not deserving of the salaries they make, as countless hours of practice, decades of expensive training, and multimillion-dollar instruments needed to make the polished sounds fill the best halls of America is truly a commitment beyond words or dollar amounts. But for as much as the arts are an important entity and should be preserved as a showcase for what the best of humanity has to offer, the professionals of these top-tier organizations needs to look at the larger unionized-labor landscape, and realize how truly fortunate they are to not have their collective-bargaining agreements ripped to shreds in front of them, their pensions threatened, or their organization closed altogether—occurrences that have plagued many orchestras, big and small, over the past several years.

Similarly, the managerial bodies that run the country’s premier arts organizations need to wake up and realize that there are sacrifices to be made on their end as well. For the San Francisco Symphony musician that is making $141,700, there is an Executive Director making over $500,000, and an international star of a conductor making $2.4 million per season (one who makes similar figures annually by leading other global orchestras in the same capacity). The salary disparity is even greater in smaller per-service orchestras, where section musicians will make $6,000 over nine months, while their conductor takes home a six-figure salary.

Add the large-scale plans that many struggling orchestras have to build the most dynamic of concert halls, and you have a crisis of infrastructure on your hands. The Gilded Age is long over, and the sooner executives realize that half-billion-dollar concert hall renovations are not a top priority for their groups, the sooner musicians can stop being strangled over cost-of-living increases.

Sadly, the public’s inundation of news pieces citing the problems facing today’s orchestras reads more as a requiem of a heyday gone by, rather than a concerted effort to effect positive change on the future of the arts. Gone are the days when Theodore Thomas and Anton Seidl could lead their orchestras in sold-out, cross-country tours that filled ten-thousand-seat concert halls. Gone are the days of orchestras releasing new Beethoven or Mahler cycles on compact disc to expand the library of canonic orchestral performances. Gone are the days when an orchestra dominantly fueled its urban environment and propelled the economy forward.

The artistic vision and corporate infrastructure of the modern orchestra needs to be altered, rebuilt on the foundational concept that any arts organization needs to be a robust business first and a humanistic pursuit second. Only then will orchestras across the country be able to enact proactive approaches to their long-term sustainability, rather than just pointing the finger and living in constant survival mode. Until then, there will simply be too many concert halls going dark.