Labor and management fiddle while orchestras burn

As I hope you’ve had the pleasure of not knowing up til now (sorry to be the bearer of bad news), another important American orchestra has the opening of its new season threatened by labor/management strife.  In this case, it’s the second time in three years for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which went through a wrenching dispute in 2012, one which resulted in pay cuts for the musicians and a shorter season for the audience.

The sides are back at it again; you can read statements from both here.  To spare you the effort of wading through the self-serving rhetoric, the issue boils down to management, citing severe financial stress, asking the musicians for further give-backs, and the musicians, having already given plenty, not willing to give more and risk diminishing the orchestra’s artistic quality.  It’s the latest variation on the song we’ve heard several times before, and will likely hear many more times in the next few years.

Predictably, the classicalsphere, largely made up of musicians, music critics and music lovers, has placed the white hat on the musicians and the black hat on management.  Perhaps the staunchest defense of the musicians’ side comes from Kevin Case, an attorney with a specialty in arts law.  Case, who also vocally sided with the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra in their recent labor strife, has now weighed in on the ASO.  See if you can count in his piece the examples of “clearly,” “of course,” “crystal clear,” “plain and simple” and other formulations intended to express omniscience and thwart rebuttals, to which we may add his superb ability to read the minds of his adversaries in order to find the base and craven motives within.  My respect for a writer’s fairness and objectivity goes down with each such fallacy, but that’s just me.

Well, call me wishy-washy, blasé, willfully ignorant or anything else you choose, but I really can’t be bothered getting into the nitty-gritty of each side’s argument here.  Because while labor and musicians are fiddling with percentages of this and numbers of that to gain short-term advantage, the entire enterprise of American orchestras, Atlanta included, could any year now go up in a conflagration that would make this latest squabble seem like a backyard cookout.

Hyperbole?  I wish.  And I hope it doesn’t happen.  Alas, the numbers regarding aging and declining audiences, increased pressure on unearned (i.e., non-ticket) income, rising costs, growing debt, shrinking endowments and other indicators are not pretty overall, even if they’re worse in some places than others.  To see what I mean, read the latest of many clear statements of the unpleasant facts on Greg Sandow’s essential blog.  While Greg starts off by writing about the Metropolitan Opera here, he soon gets to the pattern that many, if not most orchestras have fallen into.  Eventually, and perhaps sooner rather than later, the current, aging structure may come crashing down and have to be built up again.  Frankly, that might not be the worst thing that could happen, if it’s used as an opportunity for fresh thinking on both sides.

Now, if the musicians and management of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, perhaps after they’ve reached a cease-fire and gotten their season underway, can take advantage of their labor peace to look five, ten and twenty years into the future, and come up with ways to cope with the almost inevitable restructuring (artistic and managerial) that will be necessary for survival — then I will read with interest.  Otherwise, wake me when it’s over.

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