Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Detroit Symphony: What we saw during the strike and what lies ahead

Leonard Slatkin will return to the Detroit Symphony podium soon.
By Barry Johnson

The news yesterday that management and the striking Detroit Symphony musicians have reached a tentative contract agreement, with the musicians absorbing a 23 percent pay cut, somewhat less than management had proposed, wasn't exactly happy news. That's a big pay cut, but an accurate measurement of the orchestra's financial state, which is perilous.

The proposed work rule changes likely will change the lives of musicians at orchestras around the country, which is a good or bad thing depending on your viewpoint. We'll get to that in a moment.

Arts Dispatch has followed developments since September, when it became clear that a strike was inevitable. Here's what we think we saw, in the form of a series of bullet points:

  • Against a backdrop of gradually declining attendance and donations of various kinds, the Detroit Symphony was hit by the recession of 2008 and large debt payments on its new music hall. 
  • That debt, around $54 million, is the symphony's Sword of Damocles -- it places the survival of the symphony in the hands of the lenders.
  • The symphony's endowment plunged from nearly $60 million in 2008 to $23 million today.
  • The symphony's "community" -- not the entire Detroit metropolitan area, but the people in that area "activated" to one degree or another by classical symphonic music -- was not organized well enough to play a role in the lead-up to the strike.  No donor groups, audience groups, volunteer groups -- in short, Friends of the Symphony -- were called in to help solve the problem. This was like a labor dispute at GM or Ford, and it got just as nasty just as quickly.
  • Unfortunately, unlike GM or Ford, the symphony requires a certain amount of good will to survive, and how much of that remains will be tested in the coming months.
  • Early press reports (and later blog posts by the likes of Greg Sandow and Christopher O'Riley) focused on a few intemperate statements by symphony musicians, which seemed to indicate that the musicians thought they shouldn't have to do anything for their keep except play their symphony concerts well in their beautiful new hall. This was wrong.
  • We know it's wrong because the striking musicians immediately started playing concerts around the Metro area in various alternate venues, such as churches and school auditoriums. And they had cooperated with management on a long-range plan that involved activities of this sort in the year before the strike.
  • Many in the media outside of Detroit (Terry Teachout in the Wall St. Journal, for example) assumed that the problem was the Decline of Detroit, reflected in recent census data from the city proper, but Detroit metro still has a large, impressive economy and it's still a major American city, much larger than in population that the state of Oregon (among others). That city is rich enough to support a Top 10 symphony orchestra if it wants to do so.
  • We shouldn't underestimate the vitriol and dishonesty of the rhetoric, especially the arguments coming from the management side. (The musicians cataloged and responded to these on their website.)
For me, the only positive development in the past six months was the series of concerts the musicians produced on their own in various suburbs and nearby cities. These addressed directly the "outreach" problem (and I find that word utterly inadequate to its task) that just about everyone who thinks about  large legacy arts organizations believes is central to their future.  Within that catch-all term, we lump cultivation and encouragement of hard-core supporters, education efforts among children, planting the classical music flag in hard-to-reach communities, raising the profile of the music in the culture at large, establishment of key relationships with elected officials and finding new foundation and individual donors, and we might also lump in "electronic outreach" -- recordings, radio and television programs, various internet forms (blogs, podcasts, etc.).

Each one of these is a complicated bit of business, but all are built on the music of the symphony. And the value of easy-to-reach, affordable concerts in large metropolitan areas such as Detroit is hard to overestimate. (It also raises some skepticism about the huge investments by cities such as Dallas and Montreal in big, shiny arts districts, but that's another subject for another time.) Music director Leonard Slatkin agreed: ""If there's one thing we've learned, it's that we have to be more involved in the communities outside of Orchestra Hall. We won't abandon it, but direct connections with other populations are absolutely crucial."

So, three problems: 1) organizing the present community of music fans; 2) figuring out a way to develop new fans; 3) raising the general visibility, er, audibility, of classical music in the area.

The new work rules might help with each of these, but the efforts of the musicians will need to be targeted properly for maximum effect. The rules tie a certain portion of a musician's base pay to "outreach" efforts, which might include teaching, playing in a smaller chamber group outside the symphony or recording work. It will be an "opt-in" -- meaning a musician can decide to forgo the money if he or she doesn't want to participate.

This sounds reasonable, but it will involve a close relationship between individuals in the orchestra and management. It calls for a plan that taps into the inner "sound engineer" of a cellist, the repressed DJ in a percussionist, the small band leader in a trumpet player -- in short, drawing on the strengths of the individuals and helping them group themselves in new ways for important purposes. That takes knowledge and trust, and both were shown to be lacking during the strike.  How much freedom to be creative and entrepreneurial will the orchestra management allow? How deeply involved will the orchestra be? Big organizations have a hard time making changes of this sort, right? Until they have to? And even then it's hard to replace one culture with another.

In some ways, the next few years will be much more interesting in Detroit than the past one, though without the "news" of a strike, it's unlikely that the symphony will be under anything like the scrutiny that it's had the past six months. We'll try to keep up with what's going on, though. Musicians, funders  and audiences all over the country will want to know what's happening.


I've written about this topic many times now, including this representative post about the "top-down" style employed by management, and this re-description.  My thinking about the strike changed over time, and more and more I saw it as a community organizing problem and a "democracy" problem. I still think that.


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