Coming up on six months of lockouts in Minneapolis and St. Paul, it’s very difficult to think of what else to say or write on this tragic situation, since lots of people way smarter than I have already done so. But since the cliff is fast approaching (or maybe already past), I thought I’d post a few thoughts mostly directed to the MOA (Minnesota Orchestral Association) Board and the soon-to-be former patrons of classical music in the Twin Cities.
I’ve got several friends in the Minnesota Orchestra; some I’ve been in contact with, a few who have been subbing with the Milwaukee Symphony off and on for the last few months (a substantial portion of the MN Orch is now working with ensembles all over the country). As time has progressed I’ve noticed quite a few similar and sometimes unexpected perspectives from the musicians I’ve spoken with, and maybe some are worth sharing.
First is the very real human cost of this debacle: lost income, families with no health insurance (cut off when the lockout started), houses for sale, permanent relocation, possible career changes, serious soul searching. Another common refrain was how the MOA Board is allowing this to happen- a slow-motion catastrophe that could permanently affect their very own community. After months of disbelief, the most common question from musicians seems to be “How can these people continue to drink this crazy Kool-Aid from a couple of guys who clearly have no idea what they’ve set in motion? Why won’t at least a few board members stand up and do the right thing?” Another source of confusion seems to involve the MN Orchestra patrons themselves. Obviously they are passionate and well-meaning, with sites like Orchestrate Excellence , some social media efforts, and lots of volunteer work, but who thus far seem to lack an effective or potent strategy to get their message across to a broad coalition, possibly including members of the MOA Board that might eventually get tired of sitting on the sidelines while the institution disintegrates. With all due respect, where are the thousands of people who attended those self-promoted concerts (shunned by most of the MOA Board), and might there be better ways to get the points across more effectively to the Board and broader community? At least the recent actions of the MN legislature might get their attention, but those wheels turn slowly.
It was interesting to hear one person reflect on one aspect of why they left the MN Orchestra many years ago, despite it’s considerable artistic cachet and (at that time) unmistakable upward trajectory. To paraphrase- “If there’s a serious problem, everyone puts their head in the sand. People in Minnesota hate conflict, and this is Exhibit A. Even the audience seems to think that it’s better to sit back and let it all play out rather than get off their asses and directly confront this idiotic Board; it’s just part of the culture up there. This time things may really come crashing down; they probably have already”. Presumably they were referring to the fact that if indeed the entire season is eventually cancelled (a very real possibility), that would have repercussions that are far beyond the scope of what this Board and arts community seem to comprehend- in most other cities it has taken years to recover, and when the smoke cleared it would be a very different institution indeed. But at least here they’ll have a really nice lobby.
For the record, no musician I’ve spoken with was willing to work with President/CEO Michael Henson in any capacity. Responses ranged from resigned disappointment to outright hostility; all agreed his departure would be a requirement for any path forward, once a decision is taken to have actual negotiations rather than silly posturing and repeating the same nonsense everyone’s heard since last April.
I lack the details of the local politics and personality clashes that are such a huge part of this now, perhaps the most important factor. But what I find most amazing is that this is Minneapolis, a city with a supposedly literate, highly-educated, culturally aware populace, and an economy that (while not ideal) is certainly able to sustain (and has sustained) major cultural institutions for decades. Not exactly Detroit. The Minnesota Orchestra has evolved mightily over the last 15 years or so (artistically anyway), and was a symbol of excellence for the city and beyond. Could anyone have possibly imagined that the MOA Board and arts community would toss it away? It is absolutely incredible, and begs the question of what might also circle the drain if things get tough, the Guthrie? Walker Center? I cannot think of another instance in which such a shining point of civic pride was abandoned for what now appear to be ideological and mean-spirited motivations, not to mention outright stupidity and incompetence.
Not to slight the SPCO; that esteemed group is certainly part of the whole picture here. The general buzz has been that somehow they’re closer to a solution that might save some of the season and/or the institution itself. I’m not holding my breath.
In the end, maybe this is just how it is and the glory days of music in the Twin Cities are over. But the record will very clearly show it was a conscious choice made by the relevant Boards and the community itself, not the musicians.
As usual, I encourage everyone to read Song of the Lark for much more comprehensive coverage and insight.
photo credit: duncan via photopin cc
With all the headlines lately regarding labor disputes/lockouts/general malaise in the orchestral world, I’ve had some pretty interesting conversations regarding the general level of management expertise that currently prevails in arts administration. Even so, the latest news from the New Jersey Symphony caught me by surprise.
At least he made it nine days. To me the bigger question lies with the Board (as is often the case)- more specifically, how did this guy get so far? According the to Times piece, Stephen Sichak, the orchestra’s co-chair, admitted they knew of the criminal history as well as questions about Mr. Dare’s résumé and business accomplishments. And a “thorough background check” was performed that seemed to satisfy everyone.
Is this considered due diligence when a non-profit of this size hires an executive? Why was the NYT able to uncover what were (at the very least) serious issues of ethics and character that did not seem to bother the NJSO Board, even though their patrons would obviously (and correctly) raise significant concerns? Not to mention how all this seems to have gotten past the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Huffington Post, and Musical America.
Here is some advice to any orchestra currently in the midst of a CEO search:
- don’t completely rely on a search firm or the League.
- do a Google search.
- don’t ignore red flags and assume your audience is also stupid enough to ignore them.
- consider thinking way outside the box, like we did.
I know the conventional wisdom is that the bench just isn’t that deep these days, with major groups like the New York Philharmonic and Dallas Symphony taking years to find the right person. But is it possible that there are actually highly qualified people out there that don’t quite fit into the traditional search procedures?
How about a “new model” for filling top management positions?
Apologies for my absence recently- suffice to say the last two months have not been boring. I’ll be back more often after Jan 1, but I wanted to get a quick post up to wish everyone a great holiday season and a wonderful 2013. If you’re sick of all the doom and gloom in the music biz, check where Santa is at the moment, courtesy of NORAD. I also enjoyed the Santa Cam.
As we all remember, last season the Detroit Symphony won the race to the bottom in the labor relations/management incompetence sweepstakes. I’m amazed and very sorry to report that apparently the Minnesota Orchestra has decided Detroit didn’t quite go far enough, and has locked out the musicians for the first time in its 100-year history. With recent developments in Atlanta, Indianapolis and St. Paul, it doesn’t appear that the war on musicians will end anytime soon.
A google search will reveal that many people way more informed than I are feverishly dissecting the Minnesota situation. If you want to get up to speed quickly and comprehensively, one of the best sources is Song of the Lark, and in one way or another it includes most of the (still unanswered) questions that occurred to me when the lockout began yesterday. Such as:
* Why was the lockout so carefully anticipated and constructed, if the management was negotiating in good faith? You don’t immediately cancel two months of concerts without some careful planning (although the blowback from patrons may be much more intense than they think).
* How does one characterize a “negotiation”, when the management hasn’t moved from its initial positions presented last April?
* Why is the management so violently opposed to an independent financial audit, given their catastrophic proposals to the musicians? They claim they have their own audits- so did Lehman Brothers. And so does JP Morgan. What’s the orchestra hiding?
* Why did the management immediately dismiss the idea of a mediator? That approach has been very successful in lots of other situations, but usually without the driving force of radical ideology .
* Why are so many proposed changes to the contract work rules simply punitive to the musicians, with no financial element at all?
I could go on. But the point is this: maybe the last contract was overly generous in some respects, maybe things weren’t properly managed in other ways, and everyone needs to share in the sacrifice going forward. But a lockout? 81 musicians and their families instantly lose both their salaries and health insurance (but not management)? The musicians are being demonized because of an economic situation and climate that breeds resentment of anything that can possibly be construed as “expert”, or highly specialized (read “elite”). Same reason the NFL locked out the overpaid, spoiled refs- anyone can do that job, they aren’t so special, right?
For decades, Minnesotans have take pride in the accomplishments and extraordinary talents that make up the state’s most prominent cultural institution. In dramatic contrast, this management and board is out to destroy it, even though they may not quite realize that yet.
We have great respect for our musicians’ talents and today is a difficult day. – Jon Campbell, Board Chair
Our intention now is to get our current players back onstage.- Richard Davis, Chair of the board negotiating team.
We have great respect for our musicians’ talents and today is a difficult day. – Jon Campbell, Board Chair
Our intention now is to get our current players back onstage.- Richard Davis, Chair of the board negotiating team.
With all due respect, that’s just bulls**t, and based on their recent actions they shouldn’t be allowed near any orchestra board. If they cared at all about the institution, both they and CEO Michael Henson would quit acting like North Korean diplomats, get back to the table with a mediator, open the books, and get a deal. And there will be a deal at some point, it’s just a matter of how much they learned (or didn’t learn) from Detroit or (more recently) Atlanta.
In the meantime, anyone that genuinely cares about the Minnesota Orchestra should make themselves heard loud and clear in any way they can.
Possibly. But last week’s news from my own orchestra was certainly a shock to anyone familiar with traditional arts management dogma. As my colleague Robert Levine has noted, this isn’t exactly new thinking, although it may be the first time a major orchestra has rather abruptly propelled one of its musicians into the CEO position. The amazing thing to me is that it happened at all, given the current industry climate.
At this very moment, musicians in Indianapolis, Atlanta, the Twin Cities, Jacksonville, and a few other places are all facing the same mindset in one form or another: draconian management and/or board proposals that will dramatically affect the institutions (and communities themselves) in ways that those managements and boards most likely do not comprehend. Often in barely concealed contempt for the musicians, we continue to see attitudes and ideas that (if implemented) could rapidly erase decades of effort and dedication. Along with high artistic standards and goals, the matching importance of quality management, board participation and governance, and intelligent development strategies seems to hardly merit discussion- it’s much more expedient to penalize the musicians that have shown up every day and done their jobs.
So how is it possible that our own board would even consider the idea of a musician running the place? One factor would be that for years now we’ve had an unusual circumstance: musicians are involved in virtually every aspect of the organization (including serving on the board), and generally positive musician/management relations even through some pretty tough times. When the whispers of this idea started to take shape, the first reactions were widespread disbelief and skepticism (from everyone, including Mark Niehaus). But after everyone got in the weeds a little and really thought it through, it didn’t seem like such a crazy idea after all.
Consider that for a new CEO, the search aspect alone is onerous: maybe 12 months out of everyone’s life slogging through a pretty thin talent pool (or maybe longer- ask someone in Dallas or New York ). Then another few months while the new person gets up to speed, then maybe it’ll all work out and that individual will somehow possess the incredibly complex and rare skill set required to be an effective orchestra CEO. With a fair amount of momentum artistically and otherwise, we just didn’t have that kind of time, and we’d been through all that just two years ago. But we did have a musician who had repeatedly demonstrated that he might have the necessary skills for that role, and those skills did not go unnoticed by either our board chair or Music Director. Plus Mark was an MSO veteran, chair of the Player’s Council, a gifted public cheerleader for the institution, and (along with myself) a musician rep on the board. He knows the whole organization (and cultural pulse of the city) inside out.
Does it matter that Mark has no management experience beyond a few years with the Cub Scouts? Of course, although I would argue that the Cub Scouts have much more in common with orchestras than most people realize. Were there other drawbacks or potential deal-breakers? Absolutely. But to their credit, our board leadership did something we always ask for but is all too rare these days: they acted like authentic stakeholders. They took decisive, innovative action and rigorously examined a truly novel idea, and after a pretty comprehensive interview process and assessment, they hired him.
Obviously there are no guarantees, and there’s always a chance the whole thing will blow up at some point for various reasons. I guess then we could do a search and Mark could go back to his horn. But I’ve seen my share of orchestra managers, some spectacular and brilliant, many more that were not. I’ve met very few musicians with the skill set I mentioned earlier, and I believe Mark is one of them. I hope and expect that he will succeed, not just for the sake of an orchestra and community I am deeply fond of, but for the industry as a whole.
The season’s off to a peculiar start as three major institutions negotiate down to the wire (or past it). Despite healthy news from places like Seattle and St. Louis, things are not looking great in Atlanta or Indianapolis.Today’s article from Drew McManus details developments in Atlanta, and this piece pretty much sums up Indianapolis. Not much news coming out of St. Paul except for a revealing interview with Artistic Partner (and our Music Director) Edo de Waart. I do love his quotes….
I have friends in all these orchestras, and beyond the personal connections it’s difficult to comprehend how such quality institutions get into these complex and dire situations, and equally vexing to imagine a path out. I can only hope that my colleagues and their respective managements will find some sort of common ground that meaningfully addresses the financial issues and yet still preserves the artistic quality that (after all) is the reason people buy tickets in the first place.
If you’re interested, please visit the Atlanta Symphony Musicians page and the Indianapolis Symphony Musicians page. Stay tuned….
Well, not for me. But obviously things have been bumpy at certain orchestras lately, and the press coming from both Minnesota and Atlanta seems to get more and more intriguing. Like today’s piece regarding the Atlanta Symphony.
Earlier this summer there were interesting articles involving both the Minnesota Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, as well as the Atlanta Symphony. Anyone paying attention will notice many of the same themes and issues facing the orchestra business over the last several years, and some familiar posturing from both the musicians and administration. The situation in St. Paul appears to be a bit more serious, with a particularly draconian approach from the management that seems mostly designed to turn the institution into a part-time regional orchestra. Hopefully that won’t happen.
And hopefully (along with generally lowering the temperature of the rhetoric), each institution will realize that one potentially helpful strategy would be to stop talking to the press. None of these fine orchestras has anything at all to gain by a public back-and-forth. In fact, in this age of anonymous comments, there is a great deal to lose regarding public perceptions, even if a particular article is basically accurate (which is not so common these days). Key facts and perspectives are never clarified by self-serving distortions or slant, and the stakes are high. Maybe it’s time to agree to a formal press blackout from both sides until an agreement is reached? And it’s worth reminding everyone that an agreement will be reached at some point, its just a matter of how long everyone wants to stretch it out, and the potential that has for long term damage (insert Detroit reference here).
Random tangent- special thanks to all of you backers to my Kickstarter project, which is one of their most-funded classical projects ever (thanks to you). We start recording tomorrow, more on that later.
Good luck to my colleagues in MN and Atlanta. I hope not to read anything more about it until you all get a nice new contract.
Just a quick post to highlight a few interesting news items and a Kickstarter update. First off, who would imagine that an erotic novel and the Tallis Scholars would have anything in common?
Also, apparently even severe dementia patients respond positively to various kinds of music. No information on whether certain performances and/or composers are definitively linked to specific forms of dementia.
Somebody found a “new” Vivaldi opera, and the Organizing Committee for the London Olympics thinks the musicians should all play for free, in contrast to everyone else that will work there. Unsurprising when one considers the routine pay scales for most of the (excellent) British orchestras.
Finally, my Kickstarter project is in its final week. We’re 2/3 of the way there, so I’m looking forward to all the last-minute activity. For all you backers thus far, sincere thanks for the help and enthusiasm. For the rest of you that are interested but still on the sidelines, now’s the time. I might be biased, but it’s a good project for all the right reasons, and you can even get a poster. What could be better? Thanks in advance….
With apologies to Shakespeare; I thought it was an appropriate title given the subject at hand. In case you missed it, a few days ago a 20-year-old intern at NPR posted an article that (to put it mildly) engendered lots of discussion, and the comments keep coming.
The post (which appeared on the official blog for All Songs Considered) is an intriguing combination of ignorance, stupidity, and entitlement simultaneously. Sadly, I’m sure it also reflects a dominant cultural mindset- that recorded music is and should always be free on demand, and that this credo has absolutely no effect on all those rich musicians who are getting ripped off by their labels anyway.
For the record, I consider myself extraordinarily fortunate to be making a decent living playing classical music. I also worked my a** off since I was about five years old to build and sustain a career in a field that virtually no one can comprehend these days (including most musicians). I realize I’m in a very small minority, and don’t take it for granted for one second. I also understand that recording fees or royalties will only be a tiny fraction of any musician’s income these days, due to massive changes in business models and the digitization of everything.
So I find it contradictory (to be kind) that a music “fan” working on a nationally syndicated music program believes (or patently implies) that all recorded music should be free (or almost free). David Lowery wrote a compelling response here, and hopefully Ms. White and the rest of the ASC staff took the time to read it. It’s also worth noting that in the classical field, a number of artist-oriented labels have popped up over the last decade or so, including two I have worked closely with- AVIE, and Innova. Nobody’s going to get wealthy recording classical music (maybe any music), but at least both of those labels treat the artists with respect.
Ms. White raises obvious issues regarding fair use and (to be blunt) theft. But some other questions stuck with me- should NPR be hiring “free culture” advocates for their music programs? Ms. White is of course free to express anything she likes, but was the ASC blog an appropriate forum for her views, or does that amount to an endorsement? Did anyone at NPR actually proof her post before it went up? I’ve been a huge NPR fan, but do they truly not comprehend who the core listeners/patrons are for ASC and their other music outlets, and if not, why send them money or federally fund them at all? Incidentally, why is WVAU (or any radio station) allowing people to sit on the floor and rip the whole library to their laptop (or is that a staff perk)? To their credit, NPR posted this in response to all the noise, but I personally found it a little uninspired.
Ms. White is 20 years old; I certainly recall way too many idiotic ideas and perspectives I had at that age. She’s been mostly vilified in the comments, and has probably paid a hefty price amongst any musicians paying attention. On the upside, her piece definitely opened up (continued?) a robust discussion, so perhaps she will eventually broaden her perspective and start buying a few tracks once in awhile.
Or even support my Kickstarter project.…..
Last week I launched my first Kickstarter project, so this seems like another good place to get the word out. It’s gotten a great response so far, and even with my slight bias, I think it’s a worthy endeavor.
Check out the video, or just go to the site for all the information. And thanks for any support!
"Berkeley Rep scrutinized InstantEncore and the competition. We opted for IE and have no regrets. Designing our mobile site and app was affordable, collaborative, and on-time. We launched both, and we love them. We can’t wait to see what they do for the Theatre."