As ICSOM progresses through our 50th year, it seems only right to ponder where we have been and where we are headed. Beyond that, it’s important to ask ourselves why we have faced the struggles of the past and how that might or should inform and influence our future decisions.
I claim neither originality nor completeness for any of my observations or analyses. They are undoubtedly influenced by my strong personal bias that orchestras benefit from a separation and specialization of duties, allowing those best suited to particular jobs to perform them without unnecessary distraction. I go so far as to believe that we should encourage the successful functioning of our managements, boards, and staff without taking on their duties.
Of course, we all have our biases. We have unique histories, vantage points, goals, and tolerances — not only as individuals but also as orchestras. So it’s no surprise that orchestral musicians will draw different conclusions from our past. Those same differences apply to people who influence our professional lives but who are not themselves orchestral musicians. We somehow learn to deal with differences of style and opinion among musicians (albeit sometimes with great difficulty). As long as the success of our institutions is also tied to non-musicians, it behooves us to consider what affects them and to discover ways of dealing with their differences as well.
Recognizing that orchestras have such varied histories, it is astounding that the landscape of common struggles is so vast. For whatever reason, our field has not provided us with easy gains. Of course, that’s not uncommon in the labor movement. But many musicians I’ve met don’t like to associate themselves too strongly with the labor movement. And often the most prominent musicians have reason to keep their distance, as they are able to cut beneficial deals on their own. This basic distinction between the privileged and the masses predates the origins of ICSOM.
Somewhat surprisingly, although such divisions can tear away at the united front required for successful concerted action, they did not play a significant part in ICSOM’s formation and have not been among the major issues it has addressed. In fact, musicians with the most to lose have often led the fights that have brought us where we are today.
The early history of ICSOM was dominated by an internal struggle of a completely different nature, one that put orchestral musicians at odds with local union officers who were not committed to proper representation. Musicians demanded and attained the right to negotiate and ratify their collective bargaining agreements. Without that step, it’s hard to imagine that musicians would have seen any of the many major improvements in working conditions that were ushered in through ICSOM’s influence.
We have indeed seen tremendous gains in our contracts — so much so that some have claimed we have become victims of our own success. Although that seems plausible, I disagree. Yes, musicians wanted living wages, good health insurance, pensions, decent touring conditions, and other benefits of a good job — and those benefits are costly. But they did not come overnight, nor were they forced upon organizations that were incapable of providing them. These improvements came about incrementally; and they were somehow manageable, otherwise they could not have occurred.
If we are going to blame our industry’s difficulties on the improvements we have attained, just consider the analogy for small businesses. When a small business grows but doesn’t know how to expand successfully, would we say that it fails because of its success? I think it’s more accurate to view its demise as due to a lack of management skill — especially since some businesses are able to handle such expansions. Expansion is known to require changes, and if management is not up to the task, it will not be able to modify operations in appropriate ways while retaining core values and success.
When a business is privately owned, the owner decides whether it is better to expand or not. Some owners choose to stay small and happy. (Whether the future will reward them as planned is an open question.) Some choose to expand and fail for lack of business acumen. Others have the necessary business skills and succeed. Still others might realize they are not equipped to handle an expansion and accept the guidance of people with more knowledge, experience, and skill.
Granted, when an orchestra’s board of directors and management negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with their musicians, things are much more complicated. Collective bargaining agreements encompass significant compromises from both sides. Overall though, when everyone’s goal is to have the best orchestra possible, this seems to work pretty well. When other motives are at play, the results are correspondingly less than ideal. We must look to words and actions when judging motives, and even then they can be hard to determine.
In our field we are hearing that the very business model that was successful enough to get us here wasn’t really successful. So much so that it requires a fundamental change of operations and core values. It has been said that a purposeful return to smaller operations is needed in some orchestras to allow for “proper” support by a new and untested business model — even if that new model must be forced upon stakeholders because they cannot be convinced of the supposed superiority. This takes the analysis of our business problems to a new level of avoidance where neither blame nor responsibility is ever accepted. What could be the motivation for such talk? Before tackling that question, let’s turn our attention to the early days of ICSOM.
In a real sense, the early struggles, including those with the union and with employers, centered on justice. That may be why the gains were both significant and attainable. When the element of justice is at the heart of an issue, a campaign gains a powerful momentum that snowballs, either gathering support or rolling over obstacles from union officers, musicians, board members, music directors, audience, and the general public alike. After all, most people believe justice is not to be denied.
At some basic level, everyone knows that it is not right for unions to bypass their members and agree to terms and working conditions unwanted by those members. In the same way, who other than music directors (or those under their sway) would insist that music directors should have the power to hire musicians based on non-musical grounds or to dismiss musicians without cause? And when symphony organizations can afford to pay music directors, soloists, and managers handsome salaries, is demanding that musicians talents be properly remunerated asking for more than justice? When justice is at the core of an issue, powerful tactics are not only required, they are demanded. Some things really are worth fighting for!
But I’ve never known musicians to hold out for changes they believe are either unattainable or detrimental. Instead, I see disputes where, at least on the surface, there is disagreement about what is attainable or beneficial. When one delves below the surface, however, one can question motives on both sides of the negotiating table. While motives are hard to pin down, they are often the driving force behind the intensity in labor disputes, especially when both sides claim to be doing what is best for the organization.
This can be seen clearly in attempts to downsize orchestras. These fights were not evident during ICSOM’s early history, as orchestras, by and large, did not offer full-time employment then. Over time, individual orchestras, including my own San Diego Symphony, were faced with downsizing fights when there were persistent financial challenges. But those fights were confined to the troubled orchestras until we started to hear the term “structural deficit” being applied to all orchestras at bargaining tables and in newspaper interviews throughout the country.
I’ve written about structural deficits before, originally for an address to the 2004 ICSOM Conference. The website orchestrafacts.org used to publish a number of papers about structural deficits along with interesting details about orchestra employment. While that site is no longer run by its original owners, the 2008 version of the site, along with my paper on structural deficits, can still be found at web.archive.org/web/20060718180942/http://www.orchestrafacts.org. (To avoid the long url, visit the Internet Archive Wayback Machine at archive.org and search for “orchestrafacts.org.” By the way, I highly recommend the Wayback Machine as a tremendous research tool.)
To summarize a central thesis of the paper that applies here, what we sometimes see in orchestras — rather than the healthy functioning of board and management, with proper education, budgeting, and oversight — amounts to collusion between the board and management to reduce the expectations placed on them. Isn’t it strange that even when management has been in place while some catastrophe has brewed, board and management often come hand-in-hand asking musicians to pay for the problem? One would expect a board’s oversight duties to push it to hold management accountable for the circumstance it is reporting. Perhaps this is better understood by realizing that orchestra boards are tasked with oversight of a management that depends on that very same board to help raise a significant portion of the budget (unlike in the for-profit world). If a manager pushes a board too hard, his or her job is on the line. If the board isn’t pushed enough, the bottom line suffers.
When that happens, either because a particular orchestra has individual problems or because the economy has soured, we are likely to hear that the problem is too big and that too much is being asked. A call for downsizing may soon follow. As I’ve said, motives are hard to pin down, but it is unlikely that those proffering this argument will say or think that their motivation is to make the board’s and management’s jobs easier. But unless they are not the same people who made the commitments to produce at a certain level (in the last collective bargaining agreement), it is. If the board and management can’t convince musicians they are not to blame for what went wrong, they were either not doing their job at the time they made those agreements or they want to excuse their lack of performance now. When the reasons given are understandable, time and again musicians have given needed concessions, even when it has meant great sacrifice.
What we hear all too often these days is that a permanent downsizing is necessary. (I wonder what the stock market would do with such a statement by a for-profit board. Hint: Stock prices are tied to future earnings.) In other words, those responsible for making the organization the best it can be are saying that they can’t do better — and that no one else could do better either. That claim must be assessed, but it is the sort of claim made by people who are in over their heads. Perhaps what is actually needed is a change of leadership (board, or management, or both).
But a positive change in leadership is particularly difficult to bring about. One reason is that unsuccessful organizations are not attractive to those who might help. It will be difficult to persuade a great manager to come to an orchestra whose financial future is uncertain and whose board is less than top notch. And the current board and management may not have influence with potential board members and donors who might make a difference. Further, it is human nature for people to protect their jobs by making excuses for their own lack of forethought, foresight, and proactive action.
I’ve watched my orchestra, the San Diego Symphony, swing through many cycles of relative success and difficulty. When I moved to San Diego in 1973, the orchestra was said to be up and coming. We successfully transitioned from a nighttime orchestra to a lower-end ICSOM orchestra. Then, without much warning, one year our summer season was cancelled due to a lack of funds. A pattern started to develop. Things would be put back on track just enough for the orchestra to perform until the next calamity. This happened so often that one would think from reading the newspaper that “financially troubled” was the first part of our name. As was the case with other troubled orchestras, we faced ultimatums from our board of directors, who threatened to stop fund raising, to delay putting tickets on sale, to cancel seasons, and even to dissolve.
After a Chapter 7 liquidation bankruptcy filing by our board that was successfully converted into a Chapter 11 reorganization by the musicians, those days seem to be behind us in San Diego. Our current board and management are by all measures a vast improvement over those of the past. We are extremely fortunate to have benefactors that include Joan and Irwin Jacobs, who made what was at the time the largest endowment gift ever given to an orchestra. They have continued giving their support and energy to help steer our orchestra on a path for success.
Looking back at our troubled years, though, all too frequently we faced seemingly insurmountable problems. We’d say to ourselves that at least things couldn’t get worse — but they always did. When we surveyed American orchestras, we saw that orchestras could be divided into levels that roughly corresponded to their reputation and pay scale. There was a top tier whose orchestras were well established and well run. A middle tier had orchestras that, while not of the highest stature, were stable and valued components of their communities. Then there was our bottom tier that included a significant number of orchestras whose very survival was uncertain.
One difference between the bottom and higher tiers was that an orchestra’s very existence was never used as a bargaining chip by boards or managements in either the middle or the upper tiers — the way it was done repeatedly in ours. It is sad, but one can no longer make that claim. What has changed? Surely, commitment must play a part.
The commitment musicians have to their orchestra differs significantly from that of board members and managers. Most musicians are committed to their orchestra in the sense that their orchestra is part of their identity. Of course, there are those musicians who view their current jobs as stepping stones to a better orchestra, but even they see themselves as orchestra musicians — and they can’t be orchestra musicians without an orchestra. This is much more than a need for employment. During our bankruptcy our musicians somehow managed to make ends meet without the orchestra, some in music and some in other professions. Even after all we went through and with a much reduced salary, most who hadn’t landed jobs with other orchestras did return when given the chance. I believe this wasn’t for lack of options as much as their desire to be orchestra musicians.
The same cannot be said for the vast majority of board members and some managers — and that is probably as it should be. After all, the reason that people become board members or managers is not because they dreamed of it and sacrificed many days and hours when they were young training for it. But within that mix of board members and management — with their different abilities and motivations — lies the difference between the success and failure of our orchestras.
Even during our most dire times, there were board members who gave their all trying to manage or help the situation. To this day I remain in awe of their commitment to our orchestra. I don’t think we would have survived without them. Taken as a whole, however, our board and management were not up to the task at hand, and, for whatever reasons, the necessary changes that might have yielded actual success were never accomplished. I don’t even think such changes were seriously considered by those in charge. Changing the way an orchestra operates is not an easy task, and no one has ever claimed that getting buy-in from donors, board members, staff, and musicians can happen overnight. And it hasn’t.
Nonprofit boards do have important oversight, hiring, and policy roles and responsibilities, just as they do in the for-profit world. One difference, though, is that community leaders are brought onto nonprofit boards because their community ties and philanthropic propensities will help the organization be successful in its day-to-day operations. Obviously, I am not talking about aiding in music making. Since most orchestras depend on donations for at least half their budget, board members often prove their worth by “giving or getting,” by opening doors to other donors, and by having vendor ties to help with marketing or production. With such a large portion of our budgets not covered by earned income, our success is dependent on our board’s ability to help produce unearned income, in addition to our staff’s ability to bring people into our halls and keep them coming and contributing.
This is such an important distinction between our world and the for-profit world that it warrants consideration of how deeply it enters into all aspects of our business. The same board that is responsible for oversight is also responsible, in large part, for attaining successful results. I, for one, try not to look at our concerts as the sole mission of orchestras, even though I do think it is the primary mission. It may seem crass, but I choose to look at the orchestra business as two-sided: the production of concerts (or operas or ballets) and the production of donations. Half of an orchestra’s business is to produce donations. Of course, we all know that the purpose of donations is to support the music, but producing those donations is every bit as much of our business as are our concerts. And donations must be sought as actively and as rigorously as musicians prepare for concerts. Unless the staff and board are as skilled as the musicians on stage, we cannot reach our potential to bring interested audiences into the hall for rewarding concerts or to gain the community’s involvement and support.
In organizations that function well, board members and managers willingly enlist for these duties. They affiliate themselves with an orchestra because they prize orchestral music. They understand their role in attaining donations and in promoting the orchestra to the public. They view orchestral music as valuable and uplifting, not something to force on an unwilling public.
Unfortunately, it seems that over the years this viewpoint has become less popular, not only in the general public but among our boards and managements. The dumbing down of America is affecting not only the arts but also education, and even the acceptance of scientific findings. But our population is vast, and there are still plenty among us who see the value of the arts. So it is quite disturbing when we hear board members and managers speak publicly about how the public doesn’t want us. Too much product. Decreasing numbers. Aging audience. Again, these are the very people entrusted with the stewardship and success of our orchestras. The ones pointing fingers at external causes are the very ones who have the most influence over how audiences are attracted to our concerts and developed.
Perhaps it was easier in the early days. Dictatorial music directors got their way. Orchestra musicians were not well paid. Deals could be cut directly with the president of the musicians union. But were orchestras better? Although I dearly love some of the recordings from that era, those same recordings lead me to think that audiences are better served by our contemporary orchestras. Surely, social changes throughout the U.S. have influenced some changes in orchestras over the years. Some boards that used to care only about music directors and soloists now understand and celebrate the talent pools they have in their orchestras. Many want their musicians to have good and stable employment. Many still passionately care about the quality of their orchestra. But not all, and there’s the rub.
Why would someone be a board member or a manager of an orchestra and not want the orchestra to be as good as it possibly could be, in all respects? Because it might mean admitting one’s own inabilities, just like the small business owner who doesn’t have the business acumen to expand successfully. As long as things are kept small enough, and as long as a few key donors are willing to foot the bill, everyone’s job on the management-board team is made easier. In fact, people might even believe that if things are kept small enough, the board and management won’t ever face a financial failure — a success! Having artistic success is not as easy.
To be fair, this same mentality can also be found among musicians. When orchestras grow, they sometimes outgrow the abilities of some of their long-time musicians — perhaps the very musicians whose earlier contributions were responsible for the success the orchestra has enjoyed. Of course, those musicians deserve humane and respectful treatment. But sometimes they do put themselves at odds with the best artistic interests of the orchestra. This is no more or less surprising than what boards and managements do.
Maybe we can help the situation by doing a better job of influencing our environment. What can be done to counter the dumbing down of America and to spur interest in what we do? How can we help the public appreciate some of the greatest creations of mankind and dispel the notion that they are only for elitists? What can be done to educate board members, both about orchestra life and well-functioning boards? What can we do to foster a greater pool of well-trained, experienced managers who are up to the Herculean task of running an orchestra well? What resources can be made available to our boards and managements to help them with their jobs? These are important questions, especially when one realizes that positive changes to boards and managements are probably most easily and most effectively brought about from within those boards and managements (assuming that they are already performing at a high enough level to accomplish that).
Whether we like it or not, times are indeed changing. Orchestras must and will continue to adapt — just as they, and orchestral music itself, have done for more than 300 years. People, whether musicians, board members, or staff, will differ in how they think things should change or whether any particular innovation enhances or detracts from what we do. But when I hear the same words I encountered during our troubled past coming from the orchestras I used to look up to, I can only think that the words are serving the same purpose as they did here — to camouflage the fact that a board or management, despite any good intentions, is not up to the task at hand and wants to redefine that task.
One thing seems very clear, though. The cry for permanent downsizing is not an answer — it is a symptom.