The world of classical music is under increasing pressure to create and sustain effective organizations that can survive into the future as well as remain relevant to its communities. Orchestras can no longer rely on a rich benefactor to write an annual check to cover the ever-growing deficit. Donors increasingly demand financial accountability before making any substantial donations. Consumer spending habits are evolving; patrons of orchestra concerts are less inclined to buy season subscriptions in favor of single ticket purchases. Music education in the schools has all but disappeared. The graying of the American audience is repeatedly confirmed in audience surveys. Tower Records, the mecca of classical music lovers in New York City, has closed its doors. So what, then, is the future of classical music and the institution of symphony orchestras in 21st century America?
Leaders in the field agree that there are many serious issues challenging the relevance of symphony orchestras in the present and future. However, they do not agree on how to reverse the downward spiral. One theory involves increasing the involvement of symphony musicians in the governance process of the orchestra. A leading proponent of this theory is the founder of the Symphony Orchestra Institute (SOI), Paul R. Judy. Under his leadership, SOI was dedicated to fostering “improvement in the effectiveness of North American symphony orchestra organizations, to enhance the value they provide to their communities, and to help assure their preservation as unique and valuable cultural institutions.” As stated in SOI’s publication Harmony, SOI believes that one method for achieving its stated mission is through musician involvement in the governance of symphony orchestras. It is the foundation’s belief that “musician involvement increases the effectiveness of symphony organizations.”
Has worker involvement in the governance of for-profit organizations been successful? Can musician (i.e., worker) involvement in the governance structure of symphony orchestra’s result in greater organizational effectiveness?
The Structure of the Orchestra
The governance structure of American orchestras has remained relatively unchanged throughout the years with a traditional model of governance. The New York Philharmonic was established by Ureli Coreli Hill in 1842 as the Philharmonic Society, and it is the country’s oldest active orchestra. Initially, the musicians used a cooperative model to govern the orchestra. In the cooperative, the musicians held the decision-making power in the orchestra, including the choice of repertoire to be performed, the hiring of conductors, and who to include in the membership of the orchestra. Eventually, the musicians were receptive to the reorganization of the Philharmonic to gain some financial security and a steady salary. In 1909, two wealthy patrons reorganized the governance structure of the orchestra into its current traditional management style. They established a Board of Directors that would finance the orchestra and retain the music director/conductor. (1) In 1942, the Philharmonic Society merged with the New York Symphony to form the present day New York Philharmonic.
Within the traditional governance structure of symphony orchestras, the economic model was first established in 1881 when Henry Higginson founded the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). Henry Fogel, president and chief executive officer of the League of American Orchestras (the League, formerly the American Symphony Orchestra League) and former executive director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, states that Higginson “proposed a guideline that, astonishingly enough, we still use today: 50% of the orchestra’s income would come from the ticket sales; the rest would have to be contributed in some form. Higginson, in fact, proposed the first orchestra endowment fund.” (2) This economic model addressed the non-profit status of symphony orchestras. An orchestra will not earn a profit, and revenue from ticket sales is insufficient to cover expenses. (3) Total earned income only accounts for 45% while contributions are 55% of the total budget. This economic model is different from that of European and Canadian orchestras, which receive a high level of subsidy from their governments. In recent years, however, Canadian and European orchestras have also been experiencing a decrease in government subsidies.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra was established in 1891 by a group of businessmen under the leadership of Dr. Charles Fay. It was the vision of Dr. Fay to establish an “orchestral association.” (4) The orchestral association that was formed by Fay has become the model for today’s orchestral governance structure. The goal of Dr. Fay’s orchestral association was to organize a group of businessmen responsible for the decision-making of the organization and for meeting all financial commitments. The financial burden of the orchestra would no longer be the responsibility of one wealthy individual who could exert total control over the organization.
It is the view of Henry Fogel that the Boston and Chicago symphonies “established the model of a community-based board that ‘owned’ the organization. In these orchestras, board members set broad policies, hired the conductors and, later on, began hiring the managers.” The combination of the economic fundraising and the orchestral association established the traditional governance model that is still in place today for the majority of American orchestras.
The traditional governance structure, which is based upon the Boston and Chicago models, has a three-pronged leadership structure. The three leaders of the orchestra are the chair of the board of directors, the music director (or conductor), and the executive director (or chief executive officer / managing director). The balance of power between each of these branches varies by institution and personality. This leadership model has been referred to in some creative ways. Fogel refers to this governance structure as a “three-legged stool,” where the three legs manage the operation of the orchestra as a partnership. Thomas Morris, former executive director of the Cleveland Orchestra, more creatively refers to this triangular structure as the “Bermuda Triangle,” with the music director and executive director supporting the board chair. (5)
Both Morris and Fogel agree that this three-pronged leadership structure is filled with innate weaknesses. For instance, the chair of the board of most orchestras is usually a person with no formal music training, yet s/he is the leader of a musical organization. It should be noted that the three prongs of leadership continue to exist in the governance of today’s orchestras, regardless of whether the institution uses a more traditional model of governance or is a cooperative orchestra owned by the musicians. The variance between a traditional and cooperative model is who controls the board (i.e., musicians or community leaders, and what constituent group has the power to select the board members. The only exceptions to the three-pronged model among professional American orchestras are the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which does not employ a conductor, and, most recently, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, which does not employ a traditional music director.
The Historical Role of Orchestral Musicians
Historically, musicians were treated as laborers with no rights or voice. Dr. Wilfred Bain, the renowned dean of the Indiana University School of Music in the 1960s, stated, “Snaring top flight musicians is easy, because people who push brooms are treated better than symphony players.” (6) The historically poor treatment of musicians has been the impetus for many significant events in the evolution of symphony orchestras.
For a large part of the 20th century, conductors of American orchestras were European and schooled in the European style of conducting and temperament. They were trained as dominating forces not to be crossed, and were in complete control of all the power in the organization. As noted by Fogel, “These conductors learned in the opera houses of Europe that the best way to exert their power was totally.” (7) It was not uncommon for rehearsals to extend into unpaid overtime. The rehearsal continued until the conductor was satisfied that the music was ready to be performed. As recounted by Ayers, “Fear, paranoia and frustration were the hallmarks of the day. Violin pedagogue Josef Gingold recalled, in a 1991 interview for the New Yorker: ‘Among players, fear joined with a sense of privilege. It was a feudal kingdom with the conductor as king, the first-desk players as dukes, and everybody else as serfs.’” (8) There were times when, if the conductor (or even the conductor’s wife who was sitting in the audience) did not like the way a musician was playing, the musician was fired after the rehearsal or performance.
It also is important to note that the European conductors had difficulty working with American orchestra boards. European orchestras did not have community-based boards with decision-making power; therefore, European conductors ran their orchestras with complete control and authority. An uneasy accommodation would eventually be reached between European conductors and American boards.
This form of dictatorial leadership was a strong impetus for the unionization of American symphony orchestras. One of the first labor actions in the industry occurred in reaction to just such a dictatorial stance of the music director; the musicians of the BSO went on strike in the 1920s to unionize and protest working conditions. It would be a number of years before the musicians of the BSO would finally win the right to unionize, but it was a stark statement in response to the authoritarian treatment of musicians. Fogel observed that this strike in Boston totally surprised the members of the board, who were conservative and anti-union and who were not used to being challenged. It was a very paternalistic arrangement. The board was used to making decisions with no outside input. “They kept financial matters secret and policies were set without input from any other constituencies, either inside the organization or in the rest of the community.” (9) The BSO did not win the right to unionize until 1942, and it was the last major orchestra in the country to do so.
The unionization of symphony orchestras under the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) altered the power balance in the governance of orchestras. The orchestra leadership could no longer unilaterally impose financial and working conditions on musicians, and it was necessary for the board to negotiate with the local union officials of the AFM.
Unfortunately with the unionization of orchestras under the AFM, the paternalistic and dictatorial role was transferred from the orchestra’s board and conductor to the local union officers. Musicians still had a bitter struggle ahead of them to achieve control over their working lives.
When the AFM negotiated contracts for the orchestra musicians, negotiation was done behind closed doors between the local musicians’ union officers and the orchestra’s board and executive director, without any representatives from the orchestra musicians being present. (10) In the 1950s and 1960s, the Boston musicians’ union was the only AFM local union that allowed orchestra musicians to attend negotiation sessions with the Boston Symphony. On the whole, union leaders were ignorant of the issues that affected symphony musicians, and they often negotiated only minimal increases in salary and improvements in working conditions. Local officers and the majority of the local’s membership were mainly casual (i.e., non-symphonic) musicians. The musicians had to accept whatever contract was negotiated because they did not have the right to ratify the agreements. It was not until 1983 that the symphonic musicians finally won the right in the AFM International bylaws to ratify their own collective bargaining agreements.
During the 1950s and 1960s, orchestra musicians were strongly discouraged from forming any types of internal player committees by both the orchestra management and the local union leadership. Management threatened the musicians with employment termination, and the local union leadership threatened to terminate their AFM membership. At that time, if you weren’t a union member, you couldn’t work in the music field.
After years of this substandard treatment, groups of musicians in orchestras throughout the country began reaching out to each other, sharing information. In 1962 and 1963 representatives of American and Canadian orchestras met on four occasions to discuss their common problems with their orchestra leadership and local unions. Out of these meetings grew the organization of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM). The goal of ICSOM was to improve their profession through combined strength. Initially the AFM was antagonistic toward the organization in fear of losing their power. It was not until 1989 that ICSOM was formally recognized in the bylaws of the AFM.
Once the musicians wrestled power and control away from the conductor and local union officers, they profoundly impacted how orchestras were to be governed. When orchestras were first formed, the musicians were told to enter through the service door and to stand in line to collect their pay checks. In the 1970s, they began sitting at the negotiation table, negotiating their own contracts with the orchestra management. The adversarial relationship between musicians and management still exists in many orchestras. However, musicians have shown their commitment and expertise in many areas and now are not only involved in the issues that affect the musicians’ immediate working life but are also involved in the organization as a whole.
- Hart, P. (1973). Orpheus in the New World. New York City: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., page 84.
- Fogel, H. (2000). Are Three Legs Appropriate or Even Sufficient. Harmony, 10. pages 11-34.
- In Quick Orchestra Facts, the League recently reported that orchestra revenues in the 2004-05 season were broken up into the following categories: concert income – 36%; other earned income –9%; private contributions –39%; government grants –4%; and endowment draw –12%.
- Hart , page 32.
- Morris, T. W. (2002). Symphony Orchestra Boards and Board Leadership. Harmony 14, pages 47-69.
- Ayers, J. (2005). More Than Meets the Ear. Minneapolis: Syren Book Company, page xi.
- Fogel, page 15.
- Ayers, page 34.
- Fogel, page 14.
- Ayers, page xxv.