By Kevin Case
The 2022 “bargaining season” is coming to a close. Most orchestras with expired CBAs have settled, though there are a few exceptions. I personally handled 10 negotiations, and I have some thoughts on how things went.
This round of bargaining was not focused as squarely on pandemic-related issues as in 2021, though of course COVID-19 always lurks in the background. Some trends have emerged as orchestras take their first steps back to something like normalcy after more than two years of economical and societal upheaval. Overall, and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, contract settlements have been largely positive.
Looking back a year, there is no question that the pandemic continued to dramatically affect orchestras during the 2021–22 season. At the 2021 ICSOM Conference in Pittsburgh, most of us were cautiously optimistic that the upcoming season would look more typical. The vaccines that became widely available in Spring 2021 were remarkably effective at preventing both transmission and severe disease. Summer 2021 was largely a time between variants, with low case counts, hospitalizations, and deaths. Even when the Delta variant took hold in Fall 2021, the numbers were not nearly as bad as in the pre-vaccine era. As a result, most orchestras discontinued their most stringent COVID protocols to start the 2021–22 season, particularly with respect to distancing. Audiences wanted to see a full orchestra on stage.
Financially, the picture was promising as well. No ICSOM orchestra went out of business as a result of the pandemic (notably, San Antonio’s demise was most definitely not the result of the COVID-19 pandemic). Thanks to federal aid, musician pay cuts, a rising stock market, and generous donors, many orchestras were in better financial shape than they had ever been.
Unfortunately, the next variant to raise its spiky head, Omicron, put the recovery on hold for a time. Many performances were canceled when Omicron reached its peak in January 2022. Orchestras frantically (some more frantically than others) tried to develop subbing contingencies when multiple musicians tested positive. Audiences were obviously affected as well, and houses stayed light. What was supposed to be a “normal” year instead turned into yet another “pandemic” year, albeit one far better than 2020–21.
As a result, a fair amount of uncertainty hung over the industry as bargaining began in Spring and Summer 2022. In addition to questions about the future of the pandemic and the extent to which live audiences will return to our halls, new economic challenges arose: high inflation, the possibility of a recession in the coming year as central banks raise interest rates, a stock market that came back to earth after an amazing two-year run, and the fallout (hopefully not literally) from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Inflation in particular is of great concern to musicians and management, and unfortunately it is a problem without an easy solution in bargaining. The increased costs to musicians in their everyday lives are real, and painful. But our employers are facing similar increased costs. Further, unlike many businesses that can simply raise prices on products that people need to buy, orchestras have little ability to leverage inflation to increase revenue—raising ticket prices at a time when we are trying to entice audiences back to our halls would be a risky strategy.
As a result, the 8% or 9% annual raises that musicians would need in order to keep up with inflation are increases that most ICSOM employers do not have the wherewithal to provide. But even a substantial raise that would be very attractive in “normal” times—say, 5%—is actually a cut in real dollars to the musicians.
But most orchestras at least started bargaining from a healthy place. By summer 2022, the vast majority of ICSOM orchestras had restored musician salaries to pre-pandemic levels. Some had even retroactively restored pay that had been cut during the pandemic, especially if they received substantial Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) and Employee Retention Tax Credit (ERTC) funds. Only a few orchestras were still working under their concessionary COVID agreements.
In broad strokes, most of the settlements I negotiated or have seen in the industry fall into two categories: progressive, multiyear agreements with solid raises every year (e.g. Atlanta, Charlotte, Florida Orchestra, Fort Worth, LA Philharmonic, San Diego); or one-year extensions with raises and sometimes a cash bonus (e.g., Chicago Lyric, Cleveland, Grant Park, Utah). Which category a settlement falls into depends largely on the extent of fear and uncertainty among managers and board members. Those confident about the future returning to something like pre-pandemic times, especially in terms of ticket sales, were willing to agree to attractive long-term contracts. Conversely, employers with a more pessimistic view—or at least, with deep concern that audiences may not return and the economy will plunge into a deep recession—were unwilling to commit to anything beyond the coming season. There has been a roughly even split in my negotiations. But in either case, the massive amount of federal aid that orchestras received has precluded most from pleading poverty; for those who nonetheless tried, that pleading was even less convincing than usual.
It is not unreasonable for employers to be concerned about the future in this environment. I also understand how that concern may lead to a desire for a short-term agreement. And a short-term agreement is not necessarily a bad thing, if the economics are acceptable. In fact, the conventional wisdom says that unions should always seek one-year agreements, and make management “buy” additional years. I’m not sure that should always be the strategy in our unique workplaces, but certainly, you cannot force an employer to agree to additional years if it does not want to—and if you try, the economic proposals you will see for those additional years will be unappealing.
Whichever way an employer chooses to deal with the present uncertainty, however, there is one course that has no justification at the moment: demanding deep cuts to musicians’ compensation and benefits. Indeed, as a general rule, that should never be the first place a management should turn—it should be the last. And to be fair, most ICSOM employers did not insist on cuts in recent bargaining. A few have, though, and for several reasons, that is now an even more unreasonable demand than ever.
First, as noted, nearly every orchestra was able to take advantage of copious amounts of federal aid—two rounds of Paycheck Protection Program funding, two rounds of SVOG disbursements, and several quarters of FICA tax relief through the ERTC. Orchestras that obtained such funding have no justification to seek pay cuts—especially if management used a portion of the money for non-payroll purposes, as many chose to do. It is not necessarily wrong for an employer to take advantage of unexpected funding to establish a reserve fund or pay off pension liability; however, to demand pay cuts from musicians at the same time is inexcusable.
Second, fundraising is healthy. It held up remarkably well during the pandemic, and that well is far from dry. According to Giving USA, philanthropic giving to the arts, culture, and humanities rose a stunning 20.3% from 2019—the last pre-COVID year—to 2021. The increase was 13.5% even when adjusting for inflation. The money is out there; indeed, many orchestras who shied away from large capital campaigns in the past are now planning campaigns with surprisingly aggressive targets.
Although some managers have speculated that donations will dry up in a bear market, it is worth pointing out that even with the recent downtown, the major equity indexes are substantially higher than they were at their pre-pandemic, January 2020 peak. And the silver lining of higher interest rates is that bonds—the backbone of endowment funds—now sport the most attractive yields in decades.
To put it bluntly, a management that claims struggles with fundraising right now must not be doing it right.
Third, while I got an earful in negotiations from management about declining ticket sales, it is far too soon to reach any conclusions. Consultants and some managers have taken to publicly opining that ticket sales will never recover to pre-pandemic levels because audience behavior has changed irrevocably—the subscription model is dead, audiences don’t feel safe, people will now get their entertainment at home, etc. But there is no basis yet for considering these trends permanent. And here is the key point: to the extent these prognosticators point to ticket sales during the 2021–22 season—which most do—those predictions are unsupportable.
Multiple news articles, including recent articles in the New York Times and Washington Post, have cited statistics from a TRG Arts study that purportedly showed a 39% decline in ticket sales from pre-pandemic levels. What the articles fail to mention is that the TRG study was released in March 2022. Worse, the time period in which data was collected for the study ended in December 2021, which puts it in the Delta/Omicron timeframe. What happened 10 months ago is simply not relevant anymore. As the saying goes, past performance is not proof of future results. Let’s have a season or two without pandemic-related cancellations, and then we’ll talk. (For more on how orchestras should be confronting this challenge, see the resolution Ticket Sales, passed at the 2022 ICSOM Conference.)
Another common thread in recent bargaining has been audition reform. Over the past two years, musicians in many ICSOM orchestras have worked hard to align their audition, tenure, and subbing policies with emerging DEI best practices. The most important change has been with respect to screens: more and more orchestras are keeping them up through the entire process. This used to be more controversial—surveys of bargaining units often found musicians split on the issue, with strongly held beliefs on each side.
Now, most musicians are on board. In fact, I can’t think of a single recent negotiation where the musicians did not seek to modify their process to keep screens up, if that wasn’t already in the contract. Not all efforts were successful, though, and it is worth pointing out why.
The obstacle is music directors, period. Literally every time one of my committees has proposed keeping screens up, the first answer from management is “we’ll talk to the music director,” and after they do so, the answer often is “sorry, can’t do it.” Music directors want to see people play, and many seemingly refuse to accept the notion that that may open the door to unconscious bias.
Progress only occurs, then, when management tells the music director that they’re going to agree to keep screens up anyway, over the music director’s objections. I’ve seen it happen, and it’s the right choice. The music director does not run the organization. The music director is an employee—or in some cases, an independent contractor who still must take direction from the employer. Management and the board can override the music director any time they want, if they have the will. Sometimes the will is there, sometimes not.
Another common modification of the audition process is to auto-advance underrepresented musicians of color past the preliminary round. This strikes me as more controversial than it should be. Auto-advancing has long been a common practice in just about every ICSOM orchestra, at least to some degree. Sometimes the criteria are objective (e.g., a candidate has a job in another ICSOM orchestra, or has subbed for a season), but often it boils down to a person a committee member, conductor, or principal knows. Expanding the criteria to include musicians of color, especially when organizations like SOPA can facilitate the identification of qualified musicians, is not a stretch. It certainly isn’t any worse than inviting a friend, student, or substitute musician to skip the first round. And at the end of the day, everyone has to play at least one round behind a screen.
The other common issue in recent negotiations has been employers’ desire to use smaller ensembles, particularly for education and community outreach. That is understandable: orchestras need to reach out to different communities, and as a practical matter, funding is often available for such programs. Musicians performing in smaller groups can also be an effective fundraising tool generally. But making such activities mandatory is problematic. That is not the job that many ICSOM musicians signed up for. They won a job to play in an orchestra. Many are not comfortable playing in small groups or making presentations to kids. It does not seem fair to change their job duties now.
Other musicians are happy to do this kind of work, though, which leads to the second problem: equity. If small-ensemble/outreach activities are part of regular orchestra services, the danger is that the same group of people will be doing all the work—either because they want to do it while others don’t, or because management picks “favorites” and passes over willing musicians. I have tried hard to come up with a fix for this equity issue, but I haven’t found an acceptable one yet. The clause, “best efforts to allocate the work equitably,” which was common in many COVID-era side letters when musicians were unable to perform on stage as a full orchestra, did not solve the problem.
So, these kinds of activities should incorporate two principles: first, the activities must be voluntary; second, the activities must come with some form of extra compensation, whether monetary or in the form of extra time off, which some orchestras have done for years. Thankfully, in most of my negotiations where management was seeking to establish or expand small-ensemble programs, we were able to stick with those two principles. Thus far, I have not seen a widespread push to force musicians to do these activities as part of their job. It still may come, though.
A new round of bargaining begins in 2023, with challenges both new and old. There will again be many expiring ICSOM contracts, thanks in part to all the one-year agreements this year. We don’t yet know how the pandemic will evolve, how audiences will behave this season, or what will happen with the economy or the war in Ukraine. The midterm elections will also have a real effect on everyday lives. But I have no doubt that our musician bargaining teams will do their utmost to reach agreements that are fair to both their colleagues and their employers, no matter the circumstances.