I am sorry to say that just over two months into this coronavirus pandemic, the crisis for our orchestral industry is only beginning. Most of our summer employment is canceled. When we do return to work, it is unlikely that we will be able to perform as full orchestras, with some semblance of audience in attendance, before January of 2021. And it may well be longer. While some orchestras are already looking at possible opening scenarios in late August and early September of this year, it is hard to imagine that this could occur in any salubrious or monetarily advantageous way. We are faced not only with the issue of work safety for our musicians but safety protocols and reassurance for our audiences as well. There are simply too many risks and too little scientific consensus of what a “safe” return to work is going to look like.
A grim picture to be sure. But not one without hope.
First and foremost, we must always remember that our patrons and donors feel a dedication to our music, and a passion for its performance, that is as deep as ours. We have developed long-standing relationships within our communities. Those relationships will not simply be forgotten in the interim. We are already reaching out through our orchestra websites and social media platforms to maintain those connections. Virtual performances, in-home recitals, and good old-fashioned phone calls, are all avenues we are using to connect with our audiences. We, and they, are not going anywhere. Literally.
Just as this pandemic has revealed the inequities in social, economic, and political access in our democracy, the principles of our unionism—our ideals of solidarity and fairness—will be challenged in the coming months. When the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) money runs out, which it inevitably will, we are going to be put to the test. Managers, who measure this crisis by entirely different criteria from ours, will try to preserve ‘the institution’ of our orchestras above preserving the musicians they comprise. We will need to stand together to ensure that all our musicians receive the same protections and pay, and that we are not pushed into returning to work before it is safe (Note: see “Safety in an Era of Uncertainty”). Orchestra committees and the Local must bargain with managers for safety protocols before any musician returns to work. To the best of our ability, those protocols must align with the (ever-changing) scientific consensus and civil authority. When in doubt, err on the side of caution. Any individual musician who reasonably believes that returning to work would jeopardize their health, or the health of a family member, must not be penalized. NO ONE should ever be asked to sign a liability waiver, releasing the employer or facility, as a condition of returning to work. And finally, as we do take the stage again in socially-distanced, smaller ensembles, we must ensure that ALL of our musicians are paid—performing or not—and that the work is spread equitably to the extent possible.
Which brings me to the subject of media. We will most certainly be streaming performances online before we can play them for a live audience. We have already had live-streamed and newly-recorded performances from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and National Symphony Orchestra, respectively. When, what, and how we get paid for media, or even our base salary, is going to be the next battleground. The AFM has already been approached by the Electronic Managers Association (EMA) to discuss eliminating restrictions and payments in the Integrated Media Agreement (IMA). Managers are asking for unlimited rights to past performances, archival material, and anything we are able to create in the near future—no limits, no guarantee of pay. This is a treacherous slope. If Congress does not increase money to the PPP, we will most certainly be looking at another bleak landscape of furloughed musicians. Keep in mind that ticket sales—earned income—are a diminishing slice of our overall budgets. Our institutions will not be permanently hampered by a season without that percentage of revenue. But I fear if we give away payment for media, we may never see it again.
I know that many of our musicians want greater freedom to connect with their audiences through all the media platforms. There is a strong desire to keep our patrons engaged and perhaps a justified sense of panic that our jobs are dependent on that connection. But this rush to give away unlimited media risks overwhelming the potential audience. We need to present well-curated, personalized events that are targeted at our individual audience and patrons. Until we are able to return to live performance and confidently invite our audiences back to our halls, our benefits and salary are inextricably linked to media. We must tread carefully here.
As dire as this situation is, we will survive. It is not only we, the musicians, who will fight to keep our orchestras alive. Our audiences and patrons, and yes, managers and boards too, want our industry to weather this crisis and thrive. As we navigate the personal and economic fallout from the pandemic, we are seeing how intimately connected we are. We cannot move forward without taking everyone into account—we are all living on the same planet, breathing the same air.