Our conspiratorial industry

One of the more intriguing aspects to the psychology of our industry is a general propensity to conspiratorial thinking. It’s not hard to find amongst musicians; the widespread belief that the League of American Orchestras A National Service Organization is behind all our woes is the best-known example, but conspiracy theories fester within orchestras as well – although, as the example of the Minnesota Orchestra proves, not all conspiracy theories are fantasies.

The reasons for this conspiratorial bias remain difficult for me to figure out. Years ago, in an article I co-wrote with my father, we hypothesized that  orchestra musicians lacked autonomy in their work lives to a highly unusual degree for such skilled professionals, which produced several undesirable side-effects:

…There is another, more subtle effect of this chronic lack of control on orchestra musicians: infantilization. Forced to play the roles of children, musicians can behave childishly. Musicians who, when not at work, are perfectly responsible adults, can regress to the level of five-year olds at work, especially when the conductor is even less like the mythic omniscient father figure than is the norm for conductors. Moreover, these musicians tend to view their world, much as a child might, as a mysterious and threatening place. The paranoia that some orchestra musicians exhibit towards managers and conductors, and even towards those of their colleagues who serve on workplace committees, is a consequence of this world view. Yet the subjects of this generalized paranoia are not some anonymous “they” off at corporate headquarters; they are people who, on a daily basis, stand in front of these musicians, answer their questions, and find the money to pay them.

I was surprised to discover, after getting to know a number of managers and board members of other orchestras over the years, that there is a mirror to the common belief amongst musicians that A National Service Organization is behind a plot to make our lives miserable. That mirror image is the belief that orchestra musicians would be happy and smiling if it weren’t for The Union. In many cases, that belief is sincerely held. One might wonder about the sincerity of the latest public expression of this paranoia, however, which happened in the context of another failed effort to resolve the War on the Northern Front:

Doug Kelley, a member of the management negotiating team for the Minnesota Orchestra, said his side floated the idea of a reconciliation taskforce of board members, management representatives and musicians to discuss a vision for the future of the organization. That didn’t go over well.

Even in pairs, neither side was in the mood to surrender fundamental positions.

“Without getting too specific, we felt that we kept going back to talking points,” said Tim Zavadil, one of the musicians’ representatives. “And we weren’t interested in talking points. We really want to have a conversation about what the vision is for the orchestra to determine how we move forward.”

…Doug Kelley sees something else behind the musicians’ stance. He believes Minnesota is being used by the national union to draw a line.

“I think the reason that Minnesota is such a battleground,” he said, “is because the International union has said they are really trying to change the business model in Minnesota and we can’t let that happen.”

Kelley said that is the basis behind “stonewalling” by the musicians.

Just as it’s hard to explain to musicians why managements take similar actions in similar situations without direction from A National Service Organization, it’s hard to explain to board members why musicians taking similar positions in response to similar demands from managements is not done at the urging of our Union Bosses. Ironically, though, the explanation is the same in both cases, and it’s a very simple one: neither the National Service Organization nor the Union Bosses have the credibility or the clout to enforce their will on their members.

Perhaps it’s that slightly embarrassing reality that explains why neither the National Service Organization League nor the AFM pushes back hard against the conspiracy theories. Both organizations would love to have at least the moral authority to have their recommendations accepted as gospel by their members. But the reality is that both the League and the AFM are in the position of the 19th century French politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, who is reputed to have said “there go the people: I must follow them, for I am their leader.”

The folks on the ground in orchestra board rooms and  management suites, as well as the musicians on stage, are quite willing to listen to the League or the AFM respectively – so long as they like what they hear. When they don’t, the long-cherished doctrine known within the AFM as “local autonomy,” but equally alive on the employers’ side, quickly asserts itself, and the copy of Symphony or the International Musician containing whatever the musicians or the managements or the boards don’t want to do is filed under “Recycling.”

But of course I would say that, wouldn’t I? I’m one of the Union Bosses, albeit a low-ranking one. But I’m also on the board of the National Service Organization – which makes me well-positioned to call bullsh%it on both conspiracy theories. Can I prove it’s bullsh%it? Of course not; it’s impossible to prove a negative. I can’t prove that League President & CEO Jesse Rosen doesn’t spend his mornings on conference calls with the major managers and micro-managing the demise of the full-time orchestra job, just as I can’t prove that AFM President Ray Hair doesn’t have compromising photos of all the members of the Minnesota Orchestra and is blackmailing them to vote unanimously to “stonewall” management. But both seem implausible to me, and should seem equally implausible to anyone with an ounce of sense or knowledge of how real institutions, and real people, function.

There are, however, some suggestive case studies that strongly indicate the absence of any top-down direction on either side of the table in our field. My favorite is one about the League that I tell to try to convince musicians that orchestra managers really don’t want the League running things. I’ll save that for another post. But there are case studies about the willingness of musicians to follow the lead of Union Bosses that are on-point as well.

One is the decades-long effort by the AFM to convince orchestra musicians that electronic media guarantees (EMGs) were bad negotiating practice and bad trade unionism. This effort started shortly after the first EMGs were negotiated into orchestra contracts; if memory serves, St. Louis and the National Symphony were the pioneers in the early 1970s. It ended around 10 years ago, after many, if not most, ICSOM orchestras had negotiated EMGs into their contracts and the AFM finally figured out that no one in the orchestras cared what it thought about EMGs. But a recent situation is even more telling.

The Charleston Symphony musicians agreed in December 2010 to a new contract – after being out of work due to a management shut-down of the orchestra in March 2010 – that reduced the number of full-time positions from 48 to 24. Worse yet, there were still 36 musicians on the payroll, so 12 of those simply lost their jobs, without their consent, and were compensated with a severance package consisting of $5,000.

Needless to say, the Union was not at all happy about this; according to what I’ve been told, the resulting bad feelings between the union (national and local both) and the musicians were an underlying cause of the recent decertification of the AFM by the remaining members of the Charleston Symphony. And the union was entirely right to be upset; to the best of my knowledge, there had never been a mass elimination of orchestra positions occupied by full-time musicians since the dawn of the modern orchestral era in the US. Talk about a threatening “change in the business model” that the union would fight tooth-and-nail; it makes reducing salaries by 40% seem positively unimaginative.

But the Charleston musicians negotiated that settlement and ratified it, and, according to the way the AFM operates, that was the end of the matter, even though what the musicians did was anathema to both the union and the orchestra musician community. Their right to negotiate and ratify a truly awful settlement was not seriously disputed by anyone.

I’ve heard it suggested that the Minnesota Orchestra board members believe that Ray Hair has sent the MO musicians on a kamikaze mission for the benefit of the union. It is absolutely true that the AFM has been supportive of the MO musicians; that’s what unions are supposed to do. And it’s absolutely true that the AFM views this dispute as nationally important, although Mr Kelly’s characterization of the problem as “the AFM not liking a new business model” is only true if “paying people less” is equivalent to “a new business model.” That sounds like a pretty old business model to me. What the AFM – not to mention its orchestral musician members – doesn’t like is a huge salary reduction demanded by an institution that has the capacity to raise boatloads of cash when it chooses to.

But the notion that the Minnesota Orchestra musicians are dupes of the AFM, and that all would be well had the Union Bosses not weighed in, is not only false; it provides yet another excuse for the Minnesota Orchestra board to avoid confronting the single most salient fact of this dispute, which is that they have produced one of the epic non-profit failures of recent times.

The Minnesota Orchestra is not only a great orchestra; for decades it was a great orchestral institution as well. With Osmo Vänskä building on the work done by previous music directors, no orchestral institution in the US did better at bringing great orchestral performances to its community and representing its community to the the world. And, until the arrival of Michael Henson, it had done so while paying its bills, balancing its books, and generally avoiding messy public disputes.

But no longer; now it has failed to produce concerts for a year, with no realistic prospects for producing any this season either. It has raised a ton of money for a hall that remains dark and will stay dark for the foreseeable future. Worst of all, the board completely committed to a risky and confrontational labor relations strategy that has failed in the most spectacular fashion; a strategy that has not only produced an indefinite cessation of its core product but has produced serious talk amongst politicians of the city terminating the lease on its hall and the state taking its endowment way, as well as highly unfavorable international attention to the Twin Cities as a community. This is not common-or-garden governance failure; this is failure of world-historical dimensions. It’s the non-profit equivalent of Napoleon invading Russia without winter clothing.

If I had been part of a board that produced that kind of failure, I too would desperately want to believe that someone else – anyone else – was to blame.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.


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  • The problem with settling with management/board on their terms is that it validates their approach to the problem and makes their hand stronger going forward. If the musicians feel that the management goal is not to present the best orchestra possible, and not to make the orchestra the center of the activities of the Minnesota Orchestral Association, then validating that approach is a problem.

    If the musicians thought that it was possible to work with the current management and board to “rebuild their shared institution,” then they would have settled long ago. The underlying problem appears to be that they believe the exact opposite. And the management and board have done nothing to convince them otherwise.

  • Barry,

    My suggestion is this: The musicians of Minnesota Orchestra should presently sign a contract with the MOA, and begin rebuilding their shared institution. That is the best way forward, and it is perhaps the only way that the Minnesota Orchestra will continue to exist. Signing a contract is how the Minnesota Orchestra begin to replicate the Detroit Symphony’s successes.

    And if anyone wishes to bring charges against the MOA board or the management, individually or collectively, then they should do so and stop publicly posturing. All the press noise serves only to alienate existing affluent donors (who continue to remain solidly with the MOA), and it gives pause to those who have yet to contribute. Can it be a revelation to some people that much of the institution of the symphony is funded and run by private interests? That there are fewer and fewer people willing to give in the amounts that make a difference to a “world class” orchestra? The only leverage remaining for the musicians in this particular situation leads to a Phyrric victory, and the end of the institution.

    I’m not saying that this situation is fair. I think we can all agree that it is not. Yet, it remains in the musicians best interests to find a way to sign with the MOA, despite their deeply felt reservations. That’s betting on the long view, and that’s my suggestion: sign a contract.

  • Peter, thanks for the link. It’s good to see the DSO doing well, but the article says nothing that attribute their success to the lower pay scale. Rather, tickets sales, contributions, number of donors, and on-line viewers are all up. I would say that the DSO musicians are due large salary increases in their next contract (even though their endowment is about 1/3 Minnesota’s). These are key points in the Minnesota dispute — management seems to have manipulated finances, and missed many opportunities for increased revenues, while focusing solely on draconian cuts to musicians’ compensation. If you agree with this approach, then I would say you must be in the vast minority of musicians who believe austerity is the way to prosperity in the classical music industry. And if you have specific suggestions for how Minnesota can replicate the success of Detroit–besides just cutting musician salaries–then I would like to hear them (or better yet, send them directly to the Minn. Orch. board).

  • Peter, I’m not aware of any (serious) accusations of criminal violations brought against the board and management. Certainly they can be accused of poor business ethics (say, in awarding the CEO more than $200K in bonuses during a deficit year, just before staff were laid off), or simply incompetence and heavy-handedness. I suspect you’re right that fund raising potential has been severely hampered, but I don’t blame the musicians. This is just one more barrel that the board has put the musicians over – “We’re your main donors, so you need to do what we say.” Meanwhile, the “unrestrained rhetoric” from community supporters continues with today’s public presentation, “The MOA Debacle: Unlocking the Truth.”

  • My point is that the pool of major donors in Minneapolis is perhaps smaller than the musicians suppose, and I am unpersuaded that there are enough other affluent donors in that market to make up the difference. After such unrestrained rhetoric accusing the board of various levels of ethical and even criminal violations, it’s difficult to imagine many major donors stepping in with significant support.

  • “Whether it’s called a lower pay scale, or a non-negotiable demand for a specific dollar figure that represents a massive compensation cut, the MOA has decided the depth of their support and they have held firmly to that position — even as the losses to the institution mount.”

    I’m not sure what your point is. The musicians have remained incredibly unified as well, and at a huge economic cost to them. The rightness of a given position is not measured only by how strongly it is held. But there is no question that the musicians have suffered far, far more than have the staff and management.

    I think it’s worth mentioning again that this is about far more than money. I suspect that a board and management in whose good intentions the musicians had some faith could have gotten a settlement – with economic concessions by the musicians – a long time ago.

  • Whether it’s called a lower pay scale, or a non-negotiable demand for a specific dollar figure that represents a massive compensation cut, the MOA has decided the depth of their support and they have held firmly to that position — even as the losses to the institution mount. No one, I suspect not even the MOA board, doubts that fighting for maintaining the Minnesota Orchestra’s status and their artistic achievements is a worthy endeavor…in the abstract. The issue is who pays for that aspiration. The MOA seems to have a remarkably united board, and if there are significant donors who disagree with the board’s choices they have yet to speak up.

    Henson and the MOA have been inexcusably callus and dismissive towards the musicians during these negotiations, and they have made this whole delicate situation more difficult and contentious. Their tactics have put the musicians in an awful position, but their behavior shouldn’t be reason enough to ignore the funding realities in Minneapolis.

    As I’ve written before, if an orchestra is not inspiring donors to fund their artistic contributions as readily as they fund a new lobby, then perhaps the orchestra is not contributing to the community as much as they think they are.

    For example, the musicians have privately raised $127k for their fall concert series. Even if they reach their goal, and it’s matched, what difference does $300k make in this scenario? Could they raise that again? And then even more the next time? Where’s that new money going to come from? And could it ever be enough to fully fund a major orchestra…or even a smaller one? At the moment they’ve raised enough to pay one musician.

    If I had my druthers, the musicians would be payed at rates that exceeded their hopes. I’d like to think that there are many who feel the same way. However, until there are enough people in Minneapolis to support the orchestra at significant levels (or simply enough affluent people), then the musicians’ current position on their salary levels will remain mired in unrealistic expectations.

  • “I fail to see how agreeing to a lower pay scale inevitably destroys the Minnesota Orchestra. These sort of unfortunate reductions didn’t destroy other orchestras — such as the Atlanta Symphony, or the Detroit Symphony.”

    Two points. The first is that a generic “lower pay scale” is not really the issue. What’s at issue is a non-negotiable demand for a specific dollar figure that represents a massive compensation cut. Negotiations might actually have produced a lower pay scale – unfortunately, the board never tried negotiating in any sense that most people understand the word.

    The second is that, just as it takes a long time to build a great orchestra, it can take a while for that level of quality to depart. The jury is definitely out on the question of what effects the concessions that Detroit and Atlanta took will have on the quality of the product.

  • Agreeing to a lower pay scale in and of itself does not destroy an orchestra. But agreeing to salary cuts of this magnitude, as well as the rest of the MOA’s demands, would turn the MO into something other than a major symphony, and as you point out, once that is gone, it’s not coming back. There’s nothing wrong with orchestras on a smaller scale than the majors – that’s how I make my own living – but the musicians apparently believe that maintaining the MO’s major status, and the enviable level of artistic success they have achieved in recent years, is still worth fighting for. And please recall that part of the “new business model” that Mr. Henson has been pursuing includes a new mission statement that does not contain the words “symphony” or “orchestra.”

  • I fail to see how agreeing to a lower pay scale inevitably destroys the Minnesota Orchestra. These sort of unfortunate reductions didn’t destroy other orchestras — such as the Atlanta Symphony, or the Detroit Symphony. The regrettable reality is that no matter how this situation plays out the musicians will most likely be payed less than they were previously. I encourage them to approach the negotiations with that in mind, and find a way to sign a contract.

  • I think Mr. Sachon torpedoes his own position. He says “I do not believe that large orchestral institutions will be rebuilt in America. Once they are gone, there is no coming back.” This is precisely why the musicians of the MO cannot possibly agree to management’s outrageous demands. The proposed contract would destroy a large orchestral institution, and it would very likely never come back.

  • The fact is, there is little left to lose for the Minnesota Orchestra Association by waiting for the musicians to agree to a dramatically lower pay scale. While I deeply sympathize with the locked-out musicians, I find it difficult to believe that MOA is an “institution that has the capacity to raise boatloads of cash when it chooses to” — as if the money were there and the MOA are simply refusing to collect it in order to achieve a new business model. My worry is this: Once you tear down Grand Central Station, it will never be rebuilt again. The reason for the demolition doesn’t matter, it’s just as gone. The “heyday of American long-distance passenger rail travel” will never come again, and neither will the circumstances that allowed Grand Central to be built. In the same way, I do not believe that large orchestral institutions will be rebuilt in America. Once they are gone, there is no coming back. There’s lots of blame to go around — but it’s time for the musicians to sign a contract, even with a lower pay scale. No one is helped by a Pyrrhic victory.

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