I’m a veteran of 33 years in the Houston Symphony. I served as an ICSOM alternate delegate and attended my first ICSOM Conference shortly after my second season with the HSO. That would have been in 1977. The HSO had just come back to work from being locked-out for around six months. As you can probably imagine, just starting out as a professional musician found me with little reserve for a major work stoppage, emergency meetings, poster making, and the myriad labor activities involved. Attending my first ICSOM Conference on top of all that was overwhelming. I couldn’t follow the discussions about seniority, wage, and scale rates, pensions, work rules, strategies for negotiations—I was quite simply in major overload. To top it off, as I attended the meetings in Cleveland, a major hurricane was about to hit Houston! I was probably less than useless to my orchestra as their delegate that year. Gratefully I relinquished the post back to our long-time representative Kyla Bynum.
During the following years, I didn’t think too much about ICSOM. I would attend orchestra meetings and listen to the reports, but really didn’t take in much except for looking through the yearly Wage Charts, to see where we stood. Pension and seniority issues were things far in the future for me.
In the intervening years I mostly stayed under the radar, but I did serve on several orchestra committees and on two negotiating committees, both which proved to be very difficult. The last negotiating committee I served on was in 2002. As some of you may recall, that was also when Local 802 struck the theater district in New York City. I’ll come back to that later, because it left a very big impression on me. In retrospect, though, this is something I realized only as a result of this year’s Conference. It wasn’t until this summer that I learned of the far-reaching ramifications of the issues involved. During our strike, I (and I suspect many of my colleagues in the HSO) was preoccupied with our own crisis here in Houston. We did note that Mayor Bloomberg stepped in to aid in the resolution of Local 802’s problems. Similarly, Houston’s Mayor Lee Brown put together a team of mediators, Alvin Zimmerman and Ed Wulfe, to get both sides back to the table after three weeks of a strike.
So, after almost 33 years of playing professionally and serving on orchestra and negotiating committees several times, I was elected this past season to represent the orchestra at the ICSOM Conference in Nashville—for what in effect was my first time.
I was not prepared for what I experienced during the four days of the Conference. The first thing that I noticed was dedication of the delegates, the AFM, the Symphonic Services Division staff, and the legal professionals. The words that kept coming to my mind were “brain trust.” ICSOM represented, to this first-timer, an astonishing collective of experts in every area in which we musicians operate. My summary of topics below will be incomplete and is of a general nature. (Laura Ross’s detailed report has everything covered.) I hope I can convey just how blown away I was (impressed doesn’t even come close) by what ICSOM does (and has done since 1962) for each of us every day. I left the Conference totally energized and inspired!
For example, there was an afternoon session structured like a mock arbitration in which the delegates had to play the roles of management and players in a case modeled after a real-life arbitration case. First of all, we had the feedback and help of both Peg and Lenny Liebowitz. Interestingly, it was educational to have to approach the case from the management’s side—both strategically and in taking on the other side of the issue and arguing for management’s position. For me, it was invaluable, since we have a significant arbitration concerning health-care pending presently, as I’m currently on the orchestra committee.
Another area which I found incredibly useful was the talk by Barbara Haig on public relations and negotiations. It served as a reference and checklist to compare retrospectively the actions Houston’s negotiating committee actually did during the 2002 strike. Incidentally, we received invaluable information about how to deal with a strike directly as a checklist from Nathan Kahn and the Symphonic Services Division.
There was an informative presentation on the whole area of bankruptcy presented by Trish Polach. Here again is an invaluable resource available through ICSOM. Trish’s expertise in bankruptcy law means that the musicians of any orchestra whose board or management threatens bankruptcy will have experienced guidance at their disposal. The complexities of the various types of bankruptcy are too confusing to try and untangle unaided.
There are experts in the AFM, SSD, and ICSOM (including delegates and others) about electronic media and the Internet. This becomes incredibly relevant today as the whole world moves more and more deeply into electronic and digital media. When I began my career, CDs were still a few years into the future and recordings were only produced by large labels by a few orchestras. That has all changed radically, and with that change we have to quickly adapt. The collective knowledge and resources in ICSOM are already helping us negotiate through this major transition.
This brings me back to the musician’s strike in New York in 2002. Both David Lennon, the president of Local 802, and Lenny Leibowitz, legal counsel for the union, gave talks on the ramifications of that landmark case. For those of you who may not be familiar with the situation (as I wasn’t), I’ll summarize briefly. A company produced a new machine that uses digital samples of all the orchestral instruments. Using that virtual orchestra machine, it is now possible, using computer programming, to replicate any piece of orchestral music so that the score can be performed in real time by a single machine operator, including tempo variations to match what happens on stage. My understanding is that what was being proposed in a veiled way in the theater district was not to completely replace the pit orchestras, but to substantially reduce the number of instrumental musicians. From there it’s a short step to complete replacement, especially in the opera, ballet, and musical theater pits. Local 802 took this battle to court and through appeal and won against the “virtual orchestra machine” twice. I believe this victory has a huge impact of what the face of live music might look like today, and the immediate future, had this new technology slipped by us all unnoticed.
We face similar challenges but also opportunities with the new ease of using digital technology to self-produce recordings of exceptional quality. ICSOM is, again, staying attuned and proactive on our behalf here; witness the new live-recording agreement we recently voted into effect, as proposed by the AFM.
Having served as a delegate for the year before the Conference in Nashville, I got to see the scope and range of help and experience that ICSOM provides through it’s mailing lists (Orchestra-L and especially Delegate-L). Delegates and orchestra committee chairs (and by extension, all musicians in ICSOM orchestras) can ask for the help and experience of the collective so as not to have to re-invent the wheel on common issues or to avoid mistakes already experienced by others.
During lunch on the final day, the members at large met with their assigned delegates to discuss major issues of concern. The topic my group chose was health-care. I imagine from the responses of all the members of our group that this is a big issue for all of us in the industry—not to mention the entire country. It was invaluable hearing other that orchestras grapple with the same issues as does Houston, and to hear about some of the creative solutions and approaches other orchestras are trying. This is a large issue, as evidenced by the fact that we were still heavily into the discussion when lunch ended. At that point we had barely scratched the surface. Because of such general and widespread interest, I would propose having a whole afternoon devoted to health care at next year’s Conference.
One of the great benefits created by Delegate-L, Orchestra-L and the atmosphere of the Conference is the feeling of connection between the musicians—the feeling that we are not alone. This comes both in times of need through the support of the strike fund, but also by staying in touch around the country and tracking trends in the currents of the state of the industry as a whole. We are no longer so isolated.
From my perspective, the industry is facing many unique challenges due to new forms of entertainment (Internet, inexpensive rental movies, downloadable music) as well as all the other things competing for consumers’ entertainment dollars and time which we have traditionally faced. Collectively we can be more responsive to these changes as we communicate with one another in finding things which help us redefine ourselves as these changes occur. ICSOM is an outstanding resource for that.
These impressions leave out so much of went on during this year’s Conference. I apologize for not being more comprehensive and complete. I hope to trade detail for an overall impression: by the end of it I was so enthusiastic that I wanted to find some way to communicate to my orchestra some measure of that respect and admiration I felt for the participants and the process: people giving of themselves for years and years (two of whom were honored for upwards of 25 years of continuous service to ICSOM) for the benefit of all of us.
At one point I asked the assembly if anyone there could give me some highlights of ICSOM’s impact on the industry. I was referred to a document of considerable length which gives a comprehensive history. (This document is readily available to all of us online on the ICSOM website). I pressed on, saying that probably most of my colleagues wouldn’t wade through it. (I certainly hadn’t up to this point.) A few minutes later ICSOM Chairperson Emeritus Brad Buckley (incidentally one of my bassoon mentors) wrote and read a short list of ICSOM’s impressive achievements which I reproduce below with a few of my reflections and comments:
Brad Buckley’s List:
- Conductor Evaluations: The bank has over 600 conductors whose evaluations are available to ICSOM, ROPA and OCSM orchestras. Michael Moore spoke about how few orchestras are actively using these now—but he urged us to reconsider filling them out even if only the last questions if for no other reason that these evaluations may prove to be quite interesting historically many years from now. They are unique in music history: orchestras’ opinions of conductors.
- The ICSOM Comparative Chart: Later taken over by the AFM and renamed as the Wage Chart, it now lists wages, benefits, working conditions and other information for over 140 orchestras in ICSOM, ROP A and OCSM.
- Establishment of the AFM Strike Fund: Any orchestra which has been aided by this will tell you how important it is.
- Enabling Orchestras to Negotiate and Ratify Their Own Contracts: Probably the driving force behind the establishment of ICSOM.
- Professional Negotiators: Orchestras now use professional negotiators either from SSD or elsewhere.
- Establishment of the AFM Symphonic Services Division (SSD): Possibly the only specialized “union within a union” devoted to our specialized needs.
- Information Exchange: through ICSOM Settlement Bulletins, Senza Sordino, the ICSOM Directory, and the annual ICSOM Conferences that provide training, information and a forum for industry discussion between orchestras.
- ICSOM Emergency Relief Fund: Available to ICSOM orchestras when needed.
- Minority Programs: $1 of per capita ICSOM dues goes to scholarships for the senior division Sphinx Competition winners.
I hope that these reflections will capture some of the gratitude I now feel toward ICSOM and give you some small idea of the scope and importance of its work. It works so efficiently that I have taken it for granted all these years! We are all its beneficiaries.
Eric Arbiter has been Associate Principal Bassoonist in the Houston Symphony since 1974. He is currently serving his fifth year as Acting Principal. After 33 years, he still loves going to work!