DSO: Conflicted, Supportive, Rather Embarrassed

(Beware: quasi-rambling free-write below.)

For those of you with at least one foot in the classical music arena, this season’s drama surrounding the Detroit Symphony Orchestra should be old hat by now. Being some divorced from the debate since moving to TX, I’m by no means an expert in this topic. Briefly:

• Because of budget strains, orchestra management demanded a pay cut for the orchestra’s contract renewal
• The orchestra refused the offer, negotiations ensued, the orchestra went on strike at the end of Summer 2010
• Negotiations continued; performances were initially canceled individually as their respective dates approached, with the remaining season canceled outright in its entirety a few weeks ago
• Just a couple days back, the entire percussion section quit
• Today, the orchestra suggested arbitration, leaving the situation in temporary limbo

NOTE: The current, unfortunate culture war dogfight in Congress over NEA, etc. funding is a completely separate issue. (Some have been confusing the two.)

Again, I don’t know every detail of the past 6 months. I can say that my initial reactions were mostly sympathetic for the DSO and the city of Detroit. DSO is an institution, one of the few orchestras in the country in which a musician can make a comfortable, respected living. Not only is it Michigan’s top orchestra, but it’s also a top tier ensemble under the baton of a world-class conductor (Leonard Slatkin). Detroit has suffered immensely, especially in the last few years, so this was just more salt on the wound. The Motor City has such a rich musical history, and this cultural blow was the last thing the city needed. What’s next, the cancelation of the Detroit Jazz Festival?

Note: I said mostly sympathetic…

I don’t claim to represent “blue collar culture” or anything of the such, but I almost always try to keep the “other”/”non-musician” view in mind. So many musicians, especially classical, tend to have a narrow with-us-or-against-us view of music and art as a whole. It’s disturbing, and frankly sad. A big reason for my focus on Music Appreciation and working with “non-majors” (gasp!) is that I’d like to serve as a “Goodwill Ambassador” of sorts from the “arteratti.” (“Hey, we’re not all bad. See?”) As I tell every student every semester, classical music is the popular music of yester-century. Music is music.

In classical music’s defense, part of what sets it apart is the intense amount of training required. Virtuosity is key, more so than in a number of other styles. The average professional pop/rock band has 4-5 capable, (likely) primarily self-taught musicians. The average professional symphony orchestra has 80+ highly skilled musicians, each having incessantly practiced his/her 10,000+ hours. (These hours were both free and paid for in the university/conservatory.) As a result, it’s reasonable for professional, trained musicians to be compensated well for their time and talent. (Any reader of this blog should know I champion paying for music, which includes paying the musicians.)


Taken from today’s NYT ArtsBeat article:
“In its most recent offer management set base minimum pay at $80,200, rising to $81,200 by the third year of the three-year contract. The musicians would each have the option of earning an additional $7,100 a year if they chose to take part in extra duties like community and educational concerts… The minimum salary in the last contract was $104,650…”

Here is where I start to roll my eyes. Yes, I completely understand: a ~20% pay cut stings regardless of tax bracket. However, what many “non-majors” may not grasp is that this seemingly full-time salary is for a less-than-full-time job. (See above paragraph — part of musicians’ high pay is to compensate for the high skill level & training.) They’re not rehearsing/performing 40 hours a week. And they’re not always practicing their concert music 40 hours/week either. A big portion of an orchestra’s seasonal repertoire is just a recycling of the typical symphonic Top 40. (Hey, you need to give the audience something familiar now and again.)

Furthermore, this salary is not the entirety of each musician’s yearly income. Consider this: most professional musicians also teach – private studios, university faculty, guest artist masterclasses – and play other freelance/steady gigs on the side with other ensembles. (Note that the “additional $7100” mentioned above is probably less than each musician makes yearly doing those same tasks on their own as freelancers.) For some musicians, this recent $100K was likely a majority of their yearly income. For others, it could have been half. Seriously. 20% is one thing. 20% of XX% is another.

Given all the training, specialization, sacrifice, etc. mentioned above, musicians aren’t breaking their backs. (Unless they have poor posture, from which I used to suffer.) It’s not manual labor. We’re lucky to create art for a living. Not everyone gets to express for money.

I’ve had a number of summer jobs in the past. One was construction, specifically concrete. That was back-breaking labor. Horrible. So was fast food. So when I played “full time” (i.e., playing 2-3 hours each night) on a cruise ship for twice the pay of all the onboard manual labor (i.e., working 10+ hours each day, 7 days a week, 6 months at a stretch), I felt humbled. I had no room to complain. None. I was improving my jazz chops and getting paid to travel. A number of the singers in the department (who performed 3 nights/week), however, felt different, and regularly complained for higher pay and bigger spreads backstage. Sick of hearing it, I ultimately exploded at a department meeting, asking why they felt so entitled. How could they, in their right minds, think they deserve so much when they “worked” so little? It didn’t hit home with them, but it’s stuck with me ever since. The diva mentality runs rampant in our musician culture, and it’s partially to blame for the layperson’s perception of musicians as lazy with a false sense of entitlement.

DSO drama may not be national news, but this country’s near-incomprehensible economic crisis has been for years. Most everyone has sacrificed, whether they wanted to or not. Layoffs, foreclosures, constant ~9% unemployment, lost wealth, and seemingly crumbling middle class aren’t a good recipe for organization reliant on public donations (read: symphony orchestras). Add to that, most orchestras have seen their audiences age and plateau/dwindle in recent years. There is simply not enough money as there used to be, and every needs to tighten their belts. Economists aren’t using the term “new normal” for their health. No magic math will solve this issue. If an orchestra is to continue, then the musicians better tighten their cummerbunds as well. SHARED SACRIFICE is a large part to the solution to not only the orchestra’s problems, but the country’s as a whole. (What if – GASP! – fewer snacks were included in the backstage spread??? Or none?!?!?!? Madness!!!)

I obviously have no solution, large or small, to the DSO’s problems. Or any orchestra for that matter. However I do know that when I read much of my peers’ quasi-partisan support of the DSO, I’m only half-nodding in agreement. The other half is wincing in embarrassment. It’s time we all descend the ivory tower and put ourselves in context. Maybe then musicians would start to gain more support…

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