A Tale of Two Cities

August 25, 2010 | Bill Eddins |

Two interesting situations are developing that on the surface may not seem connected but are actually deeply related.  For better or for worse.

Detroit.  Charleston.  One’s a biggie.  The other’s a ……… not so biggie ……… though I’m sure that the musicians in Charleston who rely on those jobs to make a living would argue otherwise, and I can’t really blame them.  What they have in common is that for years no one has taken adequate responsibility for the long term health of these organizations.  Now they’re paying for it.

Charleston is in the worse situation.  The orchestra actually closed down in March and is currently exploring ways in which it can be reconstituted.  With the debacle in Honolulu fresh in everyone’s memory this cannot be an easy time for the Charlotte Symphony musicians.  The announcement of this new Chamber Symphony/Ensemble venture is not going to make anyone sleep any better.  No matter how this is spun the truth is that if it goes ahead it will divert precious resources away from the CSO at this most crucial time in the organization’s history.

Of course, there is a long and distinguished history in Classical Music of organizations moving in when they detect a wounded comrade.  Just look at the situation in Florida – there used to be several orchestras up and down the East Coast.  Now there are residencies by (insert name of Über-orchestra here).  Hardly ethical in my book, but that’s the way things go.

Detroit is also at a crucial phase, and once again the usual arguments are being trotted out on both sides of the dispute.  There is one argument, however, which I feel has become less and less powerful as the years go by – the “if we aren’t paid as much as everyone else the quality of the orchestra is going to nose-dive and we’ll turn into a intermediate stop for musicians aiming for the big gig.”   This is the position posited by the musicians’ negotiating committee, as well as industry guru Drew McManus.

Politely, I disagree, for a couple of reasons.  First, it ain’t so easy getting a decent paying gig in this business.  For every person who gets that job there are now hundreds of people auditioning.  It’s essentially a crap shoot most of the time, but the general quality and number of people who could do these gigs is so high now that the competition is ridiculous.  Those people who are so outstanding that they could win any gig they want are few and very far between.  It’s also not like there is a 40% turnover in personnel every year.  Even if the DSO took a massive pay cut this year I hardly expect that the industry mag would suddenly become replete with page after page of audition notices for the band.

There’s another argument, however – 10 years (or farther) from now the gap between the Haves (Chicago? Boston? etc.) and the Have Nots (everyone else) is going to be much wider than it already is.  There are going to be a very, very, very few orchestras who can survive with $40 Million+ budgets, paying their musicians six figures plus benefits, with tours, recordings, etc.  For the rest of us that is simply not sustainable.  That’s not defeatist – that’s realistic.  While the big boys were jacking up their salaries over the past 40 years, and everyone else was trying to Keep Up With The Joneses, some serious systemic imbalances got contracted into the picture.  No one seemed to mind deficit after deficit after deficit.  But, unfortunately for us, only the Government has license to print money.  The general economy is retrenching and the orchestra business isn’t going to be far behind.

The admittedly excellent orchestras like Detroit are now in the position where decades of deficit spending and endowment raiding are going to come home to roost.  Whether we like to admit it or not, we musicians have been complicit in this debacle.  At some point the long-term health of an organization must be more important than how much the salary will increase during the next year of the contract.

I don’t think Detroit need worry about artistic quality being impacted by what the salary is.  Much more dangerous to the artistic quality is a $6.5 million dollar operating deficit.  A couple more of those and they’ll never have to worry about the artistic quality again, and I don’t mean that in a good way.

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