Union Busters

The arts are constantly under fire in our country. The recent wave of orchestra managements coming down so hard on the musicians is a really frightening occurrence. There is no example more glaring than the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. It's really a shame to see that the city of Detroit has lost an entire season of symphonic music because the management is actively trying to strong arm the musicians. I understand that union busting is in style at the moment. The citizens of Wisconsin can tell you all about it. At some point, however, you have to question the sincerity of owners/managers who say they desperately need concessions. Even the owners of NFL franchises are crying poor immediately following the conclusion of a season that produced eight of this year's top ten most watched programs on television and the most watched television program in American history. If I remember correctly, those Super Bowl commercials are pretty expensive and the networks are paying a pretty penny just to get the rights to televise the games. Please note that's not paying to televise the game, that's paying for the right to televise the game. That's like paying $20 to get into a dance club, then having to pay another $14 for each drink. Lucky you! 

Just as NFL owners figure that the public will not sympathize with an athlete who makes millions (not all of them do, but not everyone is aware of that), managements, especially in a place like Detroit, assume that the public will not sympathize with a musician that makes a salary that is above the national average.  They are hoping that the combined effect of a lack of public sympathy and a lack of other opportunities will result in musicians cracking and playing for less. By less, I don't just mean a lower salary. How about watered down health care, eliminating the pension, and tenure too! In Wisconsin, they don't just want to take money off the table, they want to take away the right to bargain collectively. It's sad. 

One of the problems most classical music organizations have is a lack of vision. So many organizations in our industry fail to attract and retain audiences because they can't see past six months from now. Many of them also fail to retain their most talented musicians. I'm under the impression that when someone first joins the board of an arts organization, they do so because they have a genuine interest in the art form and want to personally see to it that it continues to thrive in the community. Perhaps those people are now thinking they can get the same thing for less. I HIGHLY doubt it. This mentality shows the lack of vision and foresight that has gotten many organizations in the hole they are in now. However, let's just play devil's advocate for a moment and say they could. Let's pretend that every orchestra in America agrees to concessions and still retains their talented musicians. This would never happen (note that the Detroit Symphony now has ZERO percussionists), but we are in the land of pretend for the moment. Congratulations management! You just got superior talent at a lower price! Sounds like a great deal. Fast forward 20 years. The orchestras won't be nearly as good as they are now because the most artistically talented youth in our country will choose to do something else. It won't be just because of the lack of arts education in the schools, which is a completely different and even more longwinded discussion, but because kids will realize that the light at the end of the tunnel just isn't that bright. 

Now that I've started teaching more, I've gotten the opportunity to see the hopes and dreams of aspiring professional orchestra musicians entering conservatory as bright-eyed freshman from a completely different perspective. It was only ten years ago that I was in the exact same position. I remember my first days at Curtis and seeing a performance of the Philadelphia Orchestra and hanging out with the musicians after the performances. I had the feeling that these musicians were individuals whose extraordinary talent and hard work had afforded them the opportunity to lead a lifestyle comfortable enough to focus on furthering their craft without losing sleep over the rent. Despite the long odds of getting one of the great jobs, there was the sense that if you could run the gauntlet of orchestral auditions and find yourself in the winner's circle, things would be pretty smooth from that point on. I hope this will continue to be the case. If it doesn't, it is my opinion that a lot of the best and brightest will take their talents to a different craft. When I was 17, if someone had told me that even if I made it to the Chicago Symphony the salary would only be $50,000, I can assure you I would have taken my parents' advice and gone to business school. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE LOVE LOVE making music, but that thought makes "living the dream" seem a lot less cool, especially when you consider that 99% of students won't get to live that dream. So what's left for them if the ceiling is already relatively low? If you lose the dream of the top level being worth the risk, you risk losing the pinnacle of the craft in your region altogether.

Take a look at soccer in America. Every World Cup season I hear somebody tell me about how much Americans suck at soccer. The truth is the best American athletes just don't play soccer because it doesn't seem cool and because they don't know of anybody that plays soccer and makes money. They do see football, basketball and baseball. So that's where they go. Most Americans haven't heard of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Can you imagine if Lebron James had been playing goalie since he was five instead of basketball? Try kicking the ball past a guy who is 6'8, 260 lbs with over a 40 inch vertical. The same thing could potentially happen with music if people are convinced there's nothing in it. Maybe the next Gustavo Dudamel uses his leadership skills to do something else. Perhaps the next Jim Markey goes to the Duke School of Theology instead of Juilliard (To Jim if he reads this... I don't know what you would do, but just taking a totally wild guess). Who knows. 

At any rate, I hope it never comes to that. Perhaps our industry will make it past this rough patch relatively unscathed as a whole and we can get back to the important business of improving the craft with some of our nation's best on board. It's vitally important that we do. Our world needs math and science, but it also needs music. As Wynton Marsalis, one of my heros, said... "Art is what makes life sweet." You can accomplish a lot in life and you can accumulate a lot of things. You can also be overrun with disappointments and heartbreak. Either way, the ability to make the emotions of those experiences culminate into something that elevates people and provides a truly visceral experience in life is the responsibility of the musician. I hope we get to keep doing this for a long time to come. 


  • curkey
    great analysis.....

    great analysis.....

  • Samuel Schlosser
    Samuel Schlosser
    Hey, Awesome article! You're a great writer! Right on. :-)

    Hey, Awesome article! You're a great writer! Right on. :-)

  • Barry
    Well said, Weston!

    Well said, Weston!

  • James Kent
    James Kent
    Detroit Symphony isn't the only orchestra having problems. There isn't a crisis with the arts, or overpaid musicians. There is absolutely a crisis with arts management. Overpaid CEO's and incompetence at the highest levels. I wish all the best to my colleagues in Detroit, Louisville, Charleston and many others through these difficult times.

    Detroit Symphony isn't the only orchestra having problems. There isn't a crisis with the arts, or overpaid musicians. There is absolutely a crisis with arts management. Overpaid CEO's and incompetence at the highest levels.

    I wish all the best to my colleagues in Detroit, Louisville, Charleston and many others through these difficult times.

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