Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Picking sides in Detroit: Why the musicians are right even though they're wrong

By Barry Johnson

The strike by the musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is continuing into its third official week and management has canceled concerts through Nov. 7.  We can't predict the future, but a very long strike doesn't seem out of the question -- negotiations have ceased, passions are running deep, both sides are convinced they are right, the concession in wages alone that management is asking of the musicians is enormous, starting with a 30 percent salary reduction.

Sitting here in Portland, we might take the strike as a purely local matter as the Detroit symphony's president, Anne Parsons, has said. "This is a very local situation,"  she told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "The challenges are distinctive to the DSO ... and our solutions will be unique to us."

At the very least that is disingenuous. Detroit's financial condition, while acute, differs from many other orchestras only by degree. What happens in the labor negotiations at a Top Ten American orchestra will undoubtedly have ramifications throughout the country. And the solution that Parsons is pushing doesn't just cut wages drastically; it changes the rules that musicians work under at least as profoundly.

Perhaps perversely, I accept that deep changes are necessary in Detroit, many of them along the lines that management proposes, but at the same time,  I think the musicians are right to resist the imposition of cuts and work changes by fiat, by orders from the top, without negotiation, without consultation with the community of those who love classical music in Detroit, especially the musicians. By proceeding in this way, Parsons and her board are providing a model for how orchestras around the country can make the big changes I believe they must make and that model is unfortunate.

The primary argument the musicians are marshaling against the Detroit Symphony board is unfortunate, too: If musician salaries are cut, the orchestra will go into a tailspin that will damage the artistic quality of the orchestra over time. Here is the best articulation of that argument, which can be found on the musicians' strike website.

It has several problems.  For a decline to be large and noticeable, even in the mid-term, the symphony world would have to be a perfect, rational free-market economy. In fact, openings at orchestras occur infrequently, musicians often have something other than money in mind when they make decisions about where they want to play, the decisions made in auditions are not infallible (meaning that the best musician is often not chosen for openings), the musical development of an orchestra and its members is unpredictable, no true "scale" of artistic ability exists in any case that would measure the relative position, musically, of the Detroit Symphony against larger symphonies (Los Angeles, New York, Cleveland) or smaller ones (Portland, Seattle).  Comments by Oregon Symphony violist Charles Noble and others on an earlier Arts Dispatch post made these points clear.

Even if something like a one-to-one relationship between salary and something called musical quality existed, that wouldn't erase the necessity for the organization to cut its costs significantly to match its revenues. And it would mean that the symphony could rapidly improve its quality, once it reached a better financial footing, by simply raising wages again.

It may be easy to say from where I sit, but the real issue isn't money, anyway, and by focusing on that instead of the importance of more democratic governing principles (not voting, necessarily, but full and open discussions of all alternatives and the tests of the evidence supporting those alternatives), it sidetracks the discussion from more important issues than dollars and cents -- how power is shared within the organization and how the contemporary symphony can make itself more central to the culture of Michigan.

It's not an easy argument to make for the musicians, who aren't used to operating in a cooperative environment, after all, and who are distrustful of the symphony board. But I'd rather spend my time making that argument than follow the dubious quality line, especially after the musicians themselves proposed a 22 percent cut in their own salaries (and then a rather quick rise toward their "normal" salaries in the next few years).

One of the important effects of arguing for community involvement and community solutions might be that you might actually create a community in the process.   The "social contract" between the musicians and the board is broken. The reasons, we suspect, are complex, historical, even personal. At some point, though, the musicians stopped trusting the board of the symphony and started viewing it as an adversary -- maybe when it scrapped the results of a long collaborative process with the musicians to figure out a new future for the orchestra. 

At that point, the board, responding to worsening economic conditions, decided to ask for major wage concessions from the musicians, which is understandable. And it also sought to institute a set of changes to the work rules the musicians play under -- the "Memphis model" of community engagement. The much smaller Memphis symphony employs its musicians to do a variety of music-related tasks in Memphis -- playing outside the concert hall in smaller ensembles, teaching, even running an online radio stream, anything to reach more ears, engage more listeners, recruit more members into the classical music community.

Readers of Arts Dispatch (and before that Portland Arts Watch and my column in The Oregonian) know that I am in general agreement with this approach. The primary function of a professional  symphony is to play great music as well as it can. At the same time, in this particular culture, an orchestra must expand its range of activities to bring more attention generally to classical music. No one knows exactly what will work, and so a lot of experimenting will have to go on.  I think that the music itself has great power -- it's just a matter of bringing the music to ears unaccustomed to hearing it. And I don't think that "technical" solutions will be enough, marketing techniques that will somehow lure new audiences to the concert hall. The messaging of a symphony, even a big one, inevitably gets lost in the competing "noise" of commercial America.

As I've written, I don't believe this marginalization is the "fault" of the symphonies themselves. Powerful economic interests, using advanced mass-media techniques, drive the culture toward products (and candidates, for that matter) that they control.

Frankly, you can't control Beethoven, both for copyright reasons and because he leads you away from the empty spectacles, revenge dramas and charming little ditties that are at the financial heart of national "art." A performance of Beethoven as a revolutionary act?  That's a subject for another time, but it explains why many of us feel some urgency about the fate of symphonies or dance groups or regional theater -- or libraries for that matter.

A more local, grass-roots, door-to-door, school-to-mall strategy makes sense to me as a creative response to the problem. This is community building, and I think it just might work. But the Detroit Symphony board of directors, intent on building community support around the orchestra, has failed to create a successful community with its musicians.

I understand the musicians reluctance to sign up for a "Memphis Solution."  Maybe they know that some of their number are not cut out to be effective teachers, for example, and that sending them out on teaching assignments would be disastrous. Maybe they worry about the sound they will create in alternative venues, which will never be as fine as the concert hall. Maybe they understand what's involved in creating successful chamber groups. And maybe they figure they'll never be able to master the technical intricacies of podcasting, web management or social networking. So any program of this sort will have to be individual -- from each according to his/her abilities. Training and rehearsal time will have to be set aside along with time for conversation about goals and tactics.

But can a board that cancels the instrument insurance policies of its musicians -- even after the musicians have offered to pay for the policies themselves -- be trusted to work with its musicians individually to figure out their best deployment?

By calling for a restoration of the community, the musicians make the first concession to the board. How should the board respond? By proposing that the musicians sign a one-year contract at the 22 percent salary reduction that they proposed themselves. Then the board should suggest that the year revolve around the task of refashioning the orchestra. It should be a collaborative undertaking, with ideas coming from the musicians, the board and, maybe most importantly, the large community of audience members and donors that supports the orchestra now.  It's possible that the current board leadership is too compromised to lead this process; I'd suggest a small group of board members, musicians, donors and audience members, no more than seven or nine. Michigan must be filled with great consultants who could be enlisted to help.

And then? See what happens. I have confidence that everyone understands the gravity of the problem, that they will be willing to consider a wide array of alternatives and that they will be able to come up with creative solutions. But not until the community is restored.

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