November 10, 2012 at 2:29 AMApologies for not being on v.com much lately! I've been very busy lately investigating and reporting on the Minnesota Orchestra lockout on my blog Song of the Lark. Here's an article I posted there on October 27 about (surprise) the Minnesota Orchestra lockout. Yesterday, orchestra management canceled concerts until the end of the year (SIGH), so it's clearly time to raise some more awareness within the international string community. If you feel like helping, please "like" the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra on Facebook and visit their website.
Someone asked me the other day - "So what's this whole Minnesota Orchestra lockout thing about?"
"How long do you have?" I wanted to ask.
So I'm giving myself a challenge: to summarize the lockout from my perspective in 2000 words. I'll give myself bonus points if I can stay under 1500.
The Minnesota Orchestra musicians' 2007-2012 contract expired on September 30. Rumors had abounded for months that the orchestra was facing serious financial trouble, and that management would be seeking sharp concessions from their musicians (despite the fact that, within the last five years, the orchestra has cemented its reputation as one of the greatest in the world). Within the last year, a large number of players have either retired or left the orchestra outright, suggesting internal strife. In the spring of 2012, sixteen non-musician employees were laid off. Nationally renowned arts consultant Drew McManus feared that these employees were being used as pawns in the negotiating game. On August 27 the orchestra's blog, written by conductor Sarah Hicks and violist Sam Bergman, was suddenly shut down; neither author was given the chance to write a good-bye post. Management said it was because their website was being redesigned. Fans knew better. So even from the outside, it was obvious that negotiations were tense.
On September 5, management went public with their proposed contract. (Interestingly, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra management went public with their proposal for their musicians on September 4. As you can imagine, the local media was overwhelmed and unable to properly cover either story.) Minnesota management released the proposed contract without the musicians' knowledge. It featured over 250 changes (many related only tangentially to finances) and a reduction in average base salary from $109,000 to $78,000, with musicians paying more for benefits.
For anyone who feels this salary is excessive, keep in mind:
1) Playing in the orchestra is the musicians' full-time job.
2) They are literally some of the most talented musicians in the world, who could play in any of the great orchestras of the world (and who often have).
3) Top-tier orchestras pay musicians much more than $78,000. (The Chicago Symphony, for instance, currently has a base salary of $145,000.)
4) All musicians begin their training in childhood, often at the age of two or three.
5) They have spent tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars on their education.
6) They have successfully competed in a brutally demanding audition process against dozens and dozens of other musicians.
7) They play instruments that - in the case of string players, anyway - can easily cost $100,000 or more, and are very expensive to maintain.
The day after Minnesota management released the proposed contract, the musicians called for an independent financial analysis of the orchestra's finances. They claim that the information they have been given is "contradictory, outdated, incomplete, and deliberately confusing." Consequently, they say they feel unable to make a fair counter-offer. Despite the fact the Star Tribune has called upon management to submit to an independent financial analysis, management has continued to resist, citing "unnecessary delay and duplication of effort." Also, according to the musicians: "Despite multiple requests, the Orchestra Management and Board have failed to provide a copy of the approved 2012-13 budget to the Musicians."
The subject of the Minnesota Orchestra's finances is a complicated one. Over the last few years, the orchestra has raised over $100 million in a "Campaign for the Future." Roughly $50 million of that was earmarked for a renovation of Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis. ($14 million of that money came from the State of Minnesota.) Why not use some of that money for musicians' salaries? First off, the renovation has already begun. Second, as management makes clear on its website, many donations were made specifically for the hall and not for operating expenses.
Unfortunately, there's a wrinkle to that argument. In July 2010, as fundraising for the Future campaign was in full-swing, Orchestra CEO Michael Henson was bragging about how well the orchestra was doing financially. In December of that year, the then-board chair announced, "This was a season characterized by disciplined budget management..." However, in a Strib editorial published on October 11, 2012, management admitted that "last year" they had drawn from the orchestra's endowment at a rate of 17%. (They were discussing a 2012 draw rate.) In an MPR article from 23 October, management said it drew from the endowment at a rate of 17.7% in 2012, 13.6% in 2011, 11.4% in 2010, and 10.7% in 2009. A 6% draw is considered to be a sustainable rate, and that was roughly the rate the orchestra employed until 2008. In their October 2012 editorial, management didn't acknowledge or explain their 2010 words or attitude. How many people would have donated to the hall, if they had known that such staggering wage cuts for musicians were just around the bend? During the Building for the Future campaign, small donors were not told of the orchestra's precarious fiscal state, and since the lockout began, many have expressed feelings of unhappiness, and even betrayal. The public has not heard from large donors (yet), but as best as we can tell, they were not informed of management's intentions, either. (A very wealthy and influential donor has publicly shown her support for the musicians, so we know at least one is not happy.)
In early September, board chair Jon Campbell and immediate past chair Richard Davis freely admitted they were expecting turnover among musicians. (I think it is worth mentioning here that Jon Campbell and Richard Davis are executive vice president of Wells Fargo and CEO of US Bancorp, respectively. They are businessmen, who have no experience working in the musical world.) Neither man said anything about the damage these departures would cause not just to the orchestra, but to the wider Twin Cities community. Musicians' departures may well lead to an education crisis within the Twin Cities: many of the players are also revered teachers. Campbell and Davis's remarks led me to write an essay "Is Minnesota Orchestra Management Lying To Us?", which quickly went viral in the orchestral world.
On September 16, the musicians put on their own concert at the Lake Harriet Bandshell, both to give back to their community and to raise awareness for their cause. In an unexpected move, conductor Osmo Vänskä released a statement that said, in part, "When I arrived in Minneapolis in 2003, I set many lofty goals for the Minnesota Orchestra. I knew that with hard work and dedication to our art, we would be able to achieve them and take our places among the greatest orchestras in the world. Our musicians have met every challenge I set out for them, and I could not be prouder of what we have achieved..."
The musicians also started a petition to "keep world-class musicians in the Minnesota Orchestra." They gathered 1000 signatures at the Lake Harriet show alone. As of late October, they have 6,340 online signatures, for a total of roughly 7,500 signatures.
Around this time, I started getting frustrated with management's slipperiness, so I wrote this essay: A Hundred-ish Questions For Minnesota Orchestra Management. I spent $25 printing out these questions and sending them in manila envelopes to Orchestra CEO Michael Henson, Jon Campbell, and Richard Davis, and I thoroughly documented my doing so. Six weeks later, there has been no acknowledgment of receipt, much less any answers from them. (Other patrons have received acknowledgments of their letters, and even replies.) This is frustrating, because it's a golden PR opportunity for them. They know this blog exists, and they know it can reach thousands of concerned patrons in the blink of an eye. Yet - so far - they refuse to acknowledge me or my questions. (Or, for that matter, the questions of other writers, such as Matt Peiken at MNuet.) As I've said many times before, the moment I hear from them, I'll let you all know.
When I didn't hear from management, I entertained myself by Googling Orchestra CEO Michael Henson. I found a fascinating article called "Aiming High: Michael Henson profile" from July 2010. (Awkwardly, it was on the Minnesota Orchestra's own website.) It begins: "The former Bournemouth Symphony head is strategising his way through the recession - and winning." Of course this totally contradicts what the Orchestra is now saying was happening financially in 2010. I wrote a long essay about that here. Bizarrely, after my essay was published, the article was discreetly taken down from the orchestra's website, with no explanation given for either the disappearance or the content of the article. Unfortunately for management, there are screenshots. And even more unfortunately for management, the word "winning" is quickly becoming shorthand for incompetence in the orchestra business.
On September 25, Minnesota management offered what it called its "final proposal." They uploaded a second proposed contract to their website, alongside the one they had originally offered on September 7. There were roughly eleven minor changes between the two contracts (the number will vary depending on how you parse them) in a fifty-plus page document. I discussed the few differences between the two contracts here. It would be misleading to suggest there are any substantive differences between them.
In a last ditch effort to avert silence, the musicians offered to go through binding arbitration. Binding arbitration is "the submission of a dispute to an unbiased third person designated by the parties to the controversy, who agree in advance to comply with the award—a decision to be issued after a hearing at which both parties have an opportunity to be heard." This was the first time that musicians at a major American orchestra have offered to go through binding arbitration to avert a work stoppage. (During the orchestral crises in Detroit and Louisville, the subject of binding arbitration only came up after months of failed talks.) In addition to binding arbitration, the musicians also offered to play and talk, as the musicians and management of the Cleveland Orchestra agreed to do this fall. However, Minnesota management was interested in neither binding arbitration nor playing and talking, saying that they did not want to turn control over to an arbitrator, and that they had been playing and talking over the spring and summer (not explaining that the musicians were contractually obligated to play until September 30). The musicians met and unanimously rejected the final offer. So management locked out the players, halted their salaries and health insurance benefits, and canceled concerts all the way out to November 25 (much to patrons' ire, judging by the Minnesota Orchestra Facebook page). The press release from management announcing the cancellations was so riddled with obfuscations it provided fodder for yet another frustrated essay. This too ended up going viral.
The musicians quickly got to work organizing themselves. On October 1, they rallied on Nicollet Mall outside the ongoing $50 million Orchestra Hall renovation. A few days later, they announced that they were putting on a concert of their own in the Minneapolis Convention Center auditorium. Within a week, they sold out the 2100 seat hall in a program of Dvorák and Shostakovich. The electricity within the hall was unbelievable, and like nothing any of us had ever experienced. The event instantly entered the annals of American orchestral history: Alex Ross, the critic at the New Yorker, who wasn't even in attendance, called it "already legendary."
Management has been struggling to control bad press and annoyed patrons. My blog, for instance, has garnered a surprising amount of international attention (including from Alex Ross). The entire blogosphere has been so critical of management's behavior that MPR wrote an article about it. Three former Minnesota music directors wrote a scathing anti-management editorial in the Star Tribune on October 6. The paper also produced a beautiful video about the lockout concert, and published a wickedly sarcastic editorial on October 11: "That's why the expenditure of $50 million on Orchestra Hall's lobby is such a marvelous thing: it's the most important part of the concert-going experience. You'll still have to sit through a bunch of notes coming at you like bees, but you know when it's done you get to stand in a lobby and slam back some wine in a world-class space..."
The clock is ticking. The musicians have indicated they are unlikely to offer a counter-proposal until they get the financial information they've requested. More and more players are auditioning for jobs in other cities, where they will receive better compensation and, more importantly, respect. If a sizable number of musicians succeed in winning these jobs (and it is never wise to bet against the talent and determination of these musicians), they will leave behind them gaping holes in the cultural fabric of the Upper Midwest that will take years to mend. And the future of the Minnesota Orchestra will be uncertain.
If you feel the urge to delve in deeper to the conflict, my blog is open to you. You can read viewpoints from all sides in the Orchestral Apocalypse Index.
If you feel moved to, please visit the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra's website, where you can learn what you can do to help. You can also like the musicians on Facebook to stay updated with news.
2100 words. Sigh. I do not get any bonus points.
So anyway. That was my essay. As of yesterday, all concerts were canceled through the end of 2012, although the musicians are putting on a Bach and Beethoven concert at the University of Minnesota on December 15 and 16.
The latest eyeroll-inducing statement from CEO Michael Henson is that he is confident musicians will want to come and stay in Minneapolis even if the draconian contract passes because - and I am not joking - Minneapolis is "very easy to get around." This is a man who is making $1000+ every single day the lockout continues, including weekends and holidays. I'm a little concerned he's gone completely insane, but alas, I can do nothing...except pass this information along to you.
Thanks for listening, y'all. Please think of us and, if you're the praying type, pray for a happy resolution...or at the very least, accountability.
I'm TOTALLY open to changing my opinion about management if they'd agree to open their books to an independent financial analysis to explain the discrepancies in numbers even the general public has struggled with reconciling - explain more fully why they won't go through arbitration - make an effort to answer intelligent questions that at least one hugely important donor (and many small donors) have been asking - agree to sit down for multiple in-depth hour-long interviews with the local press - explain why they took down that July 2010 article from their website after patrons started taking notice of it - and stop disrespecting the contributions their musicians make within the Twin Cities community. But that hasn't happened yet, so...
If after doing all that research, you still feel my blog is one-sided (unfair?), you're totally welcome to write yourself about the topic. Honestly, I'd be so incredibly delighted to hear an intelligent, intellectually cogent case come from management's side, whether it comes from them directly or from a patron who believes that management has important worthy points. But that hasn't happened yet. NOBODY in Minneapolis has been defending them in the press or blogosphere. Nobody. And I've been keeping an eye out, trust me!!! I'm not keen on conflict. I'd love nothing more than to believe that management is on the right track and making the right hard decisions to ensure the long-term health of the organization. But given the available information, I just can't, in good conscience, believe that's what's really going on here. And I personally believe it's a real disservice to this important story to write a "he said, she said" type article, when one side has been so shifty and opaque and unwilling to speak to the press in depth.
Thanks for your comment.
Even after reading this in its entirety, and clicking through to a few of the links, I'm not really sure what the main issue is. Is it that management's position that they can't afford to pay the musicians what they are worth doesn't make sense in light of the recent successful fundraising campaign? So, they should be more transparent about their finances? (That's my conclusion, but I could be wrong).
But a lot of this other stuff seems like a red herring that distracts from the more important points. e.g. "Who made the decision to shut down the blog? What was the rationale for shutting down the blog? Why didn't the bloggers get a chance to write a good-bye post?" and etc etc. Does anyone really think these executives are going to answer those questions? And even if they did, what use would the answers actually be to the negotiations?
I am right there with you. THANK YOU THANK YOU for all your words, articles, insights, etc. What you said was factually grounded and I appreciate that. I think you did a marvelous job of citing the issues, etc. It is a difficult and lengthy topic~I don't know I could have done it as concisely as you! I felt like I could "read all about it!" (like the newspaper shout out on the street) with that article you pinned and with all the links added to it.
This is a disease that is going around with managements of orchestras. They are playing low ball right now, because they know they can get away with it, at least for a little while. This same kind of stuff is happening with the Spokane Symphony, where I live. They are currently on strike because of management's unlivable contract offer~after landing in the black last year and then giving themselves raises. I might blog about it here sometime but I've been so busy trying to keep up with what's going on I haven't collected my words about me yet. Like I said~I don't know if I could do it so professionally the way you do, but I might give it a try. If you would want to look into it and blog about it too, I'd help provide sources, facts, and insights.
I did read Karen's post and I understand what she is saying. However, I am not understanding what you are saying. We have a freedom to be blogging, present things as we see it, and hopefully have factual information to back it up. I think neither Emily nor I are trying to not present facts. Please clarify what you are saying here.
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