Published in the May 2009 issue of the Overture, official publication of Professional Musicians, Local 47.
Orchestra Musicians Face the Music
An astonishing number of orchestras across the nation have re-opened their contracts in reaction to the economy, subjecting players to salary and benefit reductions, cutbacks, and shortened seasons.
And those are the lucky ones.
By Linda Rapka, Overture Managing Editor
Symphony orchestras across the nation are downsizing, negotiating salary cuts, cutting rehearsals and performances, and in some cases shutting down altogether. In the face of shrinking endowments and dwindling ticket sales, orchestras are asking for unprecedented concessions from their musicians. And they’re getting them.
“Nearly every orchestra from ICSOM and ROPA has had some discussion either about its regular contract expiration or some modification to an existing agreement,” said Chris Durham, newly appointed director of the AFM Symphonic Services Division and former violinist and orchestra committee chair with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. “It’s a large number.”
About one-third of orchestras within the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, which represents 51 orchestras across the nation, have agreed to re-open contracts in the past year. So have many within the Regional Orchestra Players Association, which includes more than 70 orchestras.
Though re-opening contracts is undesirable for musicians and their local unions, when the only other option is bankruptcy, there isn’t much choice.
“In my career as a musician, I’ve never heard of this many major orchestras re-opening their existing agreements,” said Peter Rofé, LA Philharmonic bassist and longtime negotiator for Philharmonic musicians and member of the AFM Symphonic Audio/Visual Agreement committee.
Even the mighty “Big Five” weren’t immune — the Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra and Boston Symphony all re-opened their contracts in recent months, accepting concessions and givebacks.
“In general, when the economy suffers, orchestras have a tough time,” said Meredith Snow, LA Philharmonic violist and ICSOM delegate. “I don’t know that there are any orchestras out there right now that aren’t struggling with management.”
Urban, rural, big and small, orchestras of all sizes and varieties are feeling the pressure. Concessions, cutbacks and compromises are being made by management, musicians and unions alike.
“In the symphony world, ticket sales surprisingly are doing pretty well,” said Durham. “The main area of decline is loss of revenue generated by endowments because they’ve gone the way of everything else in the stock market. In some cases, an orchestra’s endowment is down 25 to 30 percent.”
Feeling the Pain
In recent months, the Baltimore Opera Company has filed for bankruptcy; the Santa Clarita Symphony canceled their 2009 season; Honolulu Symphony musicians are struggling to get paid; and the Pasadena Symphony Association announced a recovery plan that cuts season programming, switches venues and slashes ticket prices.
Orchestra musicians in Cincinnati, Virginia, Grand Rapids, Atlanta, New Mexico, Utah and Buffalo have also taken recent hits, including pay cuts of up to 11 percent, slashed benefits, reduced number of services, and unpaid furloughs.
“We have had 43 requests for negotiating help from all conferences (ICSOM, ROPA, etc.), unaffiliated orchestras, and five theaters — the most ever,” Durham said.
Musicians who have seen their paychecks slashed are increasingly taking to other methods of survival. Some are taking “day jobs,” finding career paths unrelated to music, or turning toward teaching.
Scrambling to Survive
Before a request from management to re-open an existing contract can be acted upon, it must be approved by the local union and by a majority vote of the orchestra players. Generally, approval is granted only when management has done everything in their power, including laying off administrative personnel, taking pay cuts, and/or doing extra work for no additional pay, to deal with their financial problems before asking concessions of musicians.
“Before re-opening a contract, musicians have to look at the orchestra’s finances to make sure they aren’t being given a song and dance from management,” said clarinetist Paul Castillo, former ROPA delegate, Local 353 Secretary/Treasurer and Local 47 Trustee.
Once a contract is re-opened, management often looks toward concessionary bargaining, where musicians are asked to accept cutbacks to the existing terms of employment. Common requests include deferred or skipped payrolls, fewer number of services performed, pay cuts, and reduced health care and other benefits.
“Concessions from musicians have to be looked at as a loan,” Durham said. “Part of the problem is that management can’t go to get money because the bank won’t give it to them. At some point there should be a recovery plan to restore that. But musicians probably take up 30 percent of budget. They shouldn’t be responsible to fix 100 percent of the problem.”
Another recent trend is for orchestras to extend their existing agreements.
“Because the local situations are so different in every community, some places are simply inserting an extra year in the contract,” said Bruce Ridge, ICSOM chairman and double bassist in the North Carolina Symphony. By extending a contract, an agreement previously expected to be renegotiated (usually synonymous with increased wages and benefits) instead retains its existing terms. This effectively amounts to a wage freeze, a term of contract fervently frowned upon by ICSOM bargaining committees.
“In 2008, there was much following the rules of concessionary bargaining. Now, we’re really in a crunch,” Castillo said. “We’re now grasping for wage freezes, which is not a good precedent to set.”
Before Taking That Cutback…
While there is no doubt we are suffering one of the worst recessions in history, musicians and Locals should not simply take it for granted that cutbacks are, in fact, necessary.
“The American Symphony League has this apocalyptic ‘new economic reality’ view where they’re saying all orchestras across the board need to take cutbacks,” Snow said. “But this isn’t necessarily the case. Places like Detroit are hurting more than L.A., which has a stronger economy.”
“It’s very unfortunate the League is doing it this way,” Durham said. “Some employers look at this as a financial opportunity and ride on the surf of the orchestras having problems. In some cases it’s simply not true. I’ve been involved in situations where employers have requested re-openers and we’ve refused.”
“You can’t take it on blind faith,” Snow said. “Everybody’s hurting, so chances are it’s true, but management may be asking for more than they need.”
Orchestras are cautioned to be careful not to get caught up in the panic of the global economic meltdown.
“We are seeing an attempt by orchestras to change the rhetoric of the industry in what some managers are calling the ‘new economic reality,'” Ridge said. “Our response is, What’s so new about it? Recessions occur. And we are responding. Our heads aren’t in the sand. But we cannot allow the permanent reduction of an operating budget by, say, a third, with the idea that it will continue like that in the future. We have to continue pushing for growth.”
“We don’t need to make radical changes and long-term shifts,” said Durham. “We need to make changes one step at a time, and only when it’s verified that there’s a problem. It’s too easy to give up hard won gains because of a short-term problem.”
Gains Against the Grain
Bleak as the outlook is for some, not all orchestras are in dire straits.
“There are several orchestras that are having great success,” Durham said. “Certainly Los Angeles has a strong orchestra, and San Francisco just reached a very positive agreement. In the theater world, most for-profits are bargaining raises.”
In February, the San Francisco Symphony ratified a new four-year contract providing for wage increases and significant gains in local media provisions. Last month the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra reached a new three-year agreement that includes significant advances in salary and benefits.
“There’s a tendency to look at the situation as a one-size-fits-all problem, with a one-size-fits-all solution, when really the problems are localized,” Ridge said. “It’s not as if you can label the economy as the overriding situation; it’s how it has affected each individual institution.”
Ridge advises musicians to investigate all options before making any drastic changes.
“Question everything,” he said. “For every gloom and doom report released, there is an equally compelling story of success and positive change.”
The Silver Lining
“The arts are good business,” Ridge said. “In times of recession, all organizations need to look at managing their debt. In a recession, you can’t be concerned with balancing the budget; you have to manage your debt. If we allow management to fundamentally alter the organization, then we will be ill-equipped to take advantage of recovery that lies ahead.”
Before the recession, America saw a great resurgence of classical music in America, which the LA Times in 2006 called a new “Golden Age.” Classical concert attendance was up, and opera attendance has risen 40 percent since 1990.
“We feel that after this recession ends, this trend will continue,” Ridge said. “We see this as a temporary cyclical economic downturn. It is important that we don’t lose the message of growth and advocacy. The recovery is going to come, and the arts are going to play a big part in that.”
Ridge has no doubt that musicians will weather this crisis and urges them to keep hope intact.
“I have been inspired by the unity we have demonstrated. Soon there will be even more opportunities for activism, within our communities, and within our union,” he said. “I know we will all respond.”