It's a symphonic lock out
September 14, 2012 10:08 AM   Subscribe

With negotiations between management and the Indianapolis Symphony musicians hitting a standstill, one of the few remaining full time orchestras in the country has been locked out.

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra musician’s contracts have been under negotiation over the last few months as the board and union struggle to find common ground amidst economic downturn, a depleted endowment, and falling ticket sales.

The management demanded extreme cuts, the orchestra would be slashed from 87 to 63 members, those surviving would take a 45% paycut, pension changes, and perhaps most devastatingly, the ISO would become a 36 week orchestra.

Having a full-time, 52-week orchestra is a relative rarity at present, with the ISO making up one of just 17 such organizations in the USA, and having a full-time symphony is a source of pride amongst many cultural institutions.

The musician’s counteroffer was a 14-week furlough per member, taken over a five-year span in order to save the organization 3.2 million dollars. They offered to bring in an outside consultant, a move the management refused. With the deadline looming and no change in sight, the musician’s union tried to drum up support with an online petition, and offered up a heavily reduced “play and talk” temporary contract, so that the first two concerts of the season could be performed.

Instead, they were locked out, and have taken to playing in the street outside their venue as protest.

The ISO’s financial woes are hardly unique in the world of orchestras. Loiusville just finished a year of brutal contract negotiations that saw the management seek non-union players; Minnesota faced dramatic cuts, and cities around the country have been struggling through the recession.

However, the ISO’s situation is perhaps a bit different to many others. In 2009, longstanding music director Mario Venzago unexpectedly did not have his contract renewed, a move the man called "unprecedented" given how little warning their was. In early 2011, Simon Crookall, the CEO who ousted Venzago himself stepped down in mysterious circumstances.

Venzago’s replacement is the Polish conductor Krzysztof Urbanski, the youngest music director of a major US orchestra. Urbanksi has only played a small number performances with the ISO since his appointment due to previous engagements, but his hiring was viewed with much excitement, his arrival heralded with billboards, and the hope that he would bring some youth and excitement to the orchestra. His performances in other locations have earned him rave reviews, and his recent west coast debut prompted a reviewer to state:

"Urbanski has already caught the attention of the music world, especially in Europe. He is on the radar of the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic. The Indianapolis Symphony would be crazy to blow the opportunity Urbanski presents. If it does, someone else will snap him up in a second. I would if I ran an orchestra."

The first of the canceled concerts was to be his season opener with the ISO (the second was with the popular pops group Time For Three).

With the musicians now playing in the streets, and facing an unknown period without their salary — including health benefits — the lockout has received some national coverage. In Indianapolis, internet commenters are primarily on the musicians' sides, and some are asking why the city was willing to help the financially ailing Colts basketball team in 2010, but hasn’t waded in now.

As of yesterday, both parties posted statements saying:
"On Tuesday September 11, and Wednesday September 12, members of the bargaining teams from the Indiana Symphony Society Inc. and the Indianapolis Musicians, AFM Local #3 met with a mediator from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. During these meetings, the parties had good dialogue and made some progress. Additional meetings have been scheduled for next week. At the request of the federal mediator, the parties will refrain from public comment about the details of the talks that have occurred on Tuesday and Wednesday."
posted by themadthinker (32 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Pacers, not colts in the second to last paragraph.
posted by symbollocks at 10:32 AM on September 14, 2012

They could all play for free beer at the Amanda Palmer show.
posted by Strange Interlude at 10:37 AM on September 14, 2012 [25 favorites]

and hugs! don't forget the hugs!
posted by sparklemotion at 10:38 AM on September 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

>Pacers, not colts in the second to last paragraph.
Damnit, what symbollocks said. Knew I'd have to screw up at least a few things in this.
posted by themadthinker at 10:40 AM on September 14, 2012

That's disappointing. But the orchestra appears to have lost $40 million--about 25%--of its endowment since 2007, and it ran a $9.6 million deficit in 2008. True, they were in the black in 2010, but only after "aggressive cost-cutting," i.e., they cut their spending by 30%.

A lot of that was probably the stock market tanking, but if the numbers are anything like accurate, the budget is hurting. And ticket sales seem to be too. Sounds like changes need to be made. I feel for the musicians, but it's not like this is an essential service or anything. That there isn't a ton of money in classical music shouldn't come as an enormous surprise to anyone.

some are asking why the city was willing to help the financially ailing Colts basketball team in 2010, but hasn’t waded in now.

Probably because, Philistines as we are, the people of Indiana give a damn about the Pacers and would be annoyed if the team left. The ISO? If ticket sales are any benchmark, not so much.
posted by valkyryn at 10:41 AM on September 14, 2012

And by how much has management cut their own pay?
posted by Faint of Butt at 10:53 AM on September 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

But the people of Indiana don't give enough of a damn about the Pacers to actually pay what it costs to run the team in, well, you know, ticket sales? If that's the benchmark?

Either way, you're taking money from people who evidently don't care to support people who do. And, as a certified Philistine myself, I feel I can say that neither one is exactly essential.

I'm all about letting the market decide, but it's really hypocritical to intervene in one case and not the other. And I think that the real distinction is probably a lot more about what the political class cares about than about what "the people" care about.
posted by Hizonner at 10:54 AM on September 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

You know, I've spent a lot of time thinking about this, increasingly in the past couple weeks as this has hit dramatically in Indianapolis and Atlanta specifically. I love classical music, am a regular symphony attendee, and have friends in major orchestras across the world. I believe that symphonies are an important cultural institution. But I really don't know what the solution is here.

Michael Kaiser would tell you it's not a relevance problem but a ticket price and marketing problem, that when they offer free concerts at the Kennedy Center the lines are down the block - no matter what is on the program - but folks are unwilling to shell out 50 or 100 dollars to see Beethoven 3 again. That might be true, but I think it's more likely that that turn out is the result of having one free concert in the summer and it being a big event to go to and less about a general public thirst for classical music. Then again, Kaiser has been tremendously successful in turning failing cultural institutions around.

A lot of folks will tell you it is strictly a relevance issue - only old folks go to the orchestra, and old folks only want to hear Beethoven and Strauss (indeed, I sat next to a wonderful elderly gentlemen once at a NY Phil concert who left right before Rite of Spring because he "couldn't stand that modern music" and this was just before Rite's 100th birthday). Very few people, really only musicians, seem to be interested in things like Nico Muhly. If anyone has been to the orchestra recently - at least here in Portland - they will tell you that, despite the Oregon Symphonies best efforts (collaborating with the likes of Storm Large), the auditorium is frequently half full and mostly retired types.

A lot of people will contend that it's strictly an education issue, that if kids had better exposure to the arts in school, they would be more likely to attend orchestra concerts and the like as adults.

And then a lot of people hold it's strictly an administration issue - that orchestras have been year after year mismanaged, often depending on large gifts from loyal donors to meet huge budget gaps that go unaddressed, gifts that have become rare since 2008. Musicians are paid too much, the tenure system is broken, admin eats up too much of the costs, marketing is a waste, etc.

The truth is that it is a combination of all of the above. It's a systemic issue. I really like to think that it isn't because "the live orchestra is dead" or whatever, because that is much too simple and broad to capture the complexity of the issue - and there are still lots and lots of people who love going to the orchestra. Perhaps the notion of the orchestra as an elitist, expensive, and funded largely through wealthy private donors type or organization is dead, and if it is, than good riddance, but a new model is needed. We have, as the public, let our cultural institutions operate without necessary innovations in ways that we would never let our for-profit companies do, because we all like the "idea" or an orchestra, and think that the orchestra should operate apart from the economic climate that affects the majority of businesses. And in some respects that's a good thing. Orchestras are not and should not be purely money driven and should exist to preserve the tradition of orchestral music. But we have to find new and better ways to make that happen, because the old system just isn't working and this is only going to get worse. Portland is offering a novel but contentious solution, the art tax, which will help fund both arts education in schools and arts organizations in the city. I have mixed feelings about it, but it is one way.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:55 AM on September 14, 2012 [12 favorites]

it's really hypocritical to intervene in one case and not the other

Maybe. But that's the political reality. I don't think there should have been any assistance to the Pacers either, but the fact that there was doesn't require me to believe that there should be for the ISO.
posted by valkyryn at 11:00 AM on September 14, 2012

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is also locked out in a similar contract negotiation failure, with the members not getting pay or health benefits. This is what greed has led us to, when once the wealthy were proud to be patrons of the arts.
posted by notashroom at 11:00 AM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Philistines as we are..."

Yup, same ol' same ol'

Jocks get the funding from the community cuz "they bring in money" and the arts gets to suffer in the meantime. Just like my art teach in high school had to pay for supplies out of his own pocket while the football team continued to get the funding... :\
posted by symbioid at 11:19 AM on September 14, 2012

So what are the 17 orchestras that maintain a 52-week pay period? I cannot for the life of me find a list of the cities.
posted by cooker girl at 11:21 AM on September 14, 2012

I've lived in and around Indy all my life. If anything, Indianapolis has always been pathological in its deep-seated need to be seen as a world-class city. Unfortunately, in chasing that need, it long-ago hitched its horse to sports at the exclusion of all else. If the arts can somehow ride the sport coattails, good on them, but don't expect anything beyond a few spare shekels tossed the arts way from time to time. It's frustrating, considering any actual world-class city will always have a vibrant arts scene, supported by both public and private money.

The cynic in me says that, if there wasn't a union involved, public money would somehow, magically come to the rescue of the ISO. 'Cause that's how Indiana rolls.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:23 AM on September 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

only old folks go to the orchestra

Old people and Asians.
posted by gyc at 11:32 AM on September 14, 2012

Google suggests that the average salary for ISO musicians is $75,600. Assuming a 25% premium for health care and other benefits, that works out to $8.22 million for an 87 member orchestra. So the salary of the whole symphony is about 64% of Danny Granger's salary from the Pacers this year. It's 25% of the City's $33MM commitment to the Pacers (granted, $30MM is an interest free loan rather than a straight up gift).

None of that is to say that the City should bail out the symphony or that the budget pain is not real. It just gives some perspective to the scale of the issue.
posted by AgentRocket at 11:43 AM on September 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Related: Robert McDuffie's new approach to educating professional musicians (Performance Today audio interview), looking at the McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University, where the curriculum includes economics, technology, business law, entrepeneurship, digital rights, fundraising, non-profits, and other fields necessary to succeed in "the next generation of musicians." (No actual courses listed at the moment, it seems).
posted by filthy light thief at 11:53 AM on September 14, 2012

Jocks get the funding from the community cuz "they bring in money" and the arts gets to suffer in the meantime.

Jocks get funding because more people care about them. Not that many people care about symphonies. Even when people aren't going to games, they watch on TV, follow the team in the paper, buy merchandise, and generally give them at least a little interest. Symphonies are, by comparison, a far more niche activity.

I'm not saying it's right, but it is genuinely about what people care about.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 11:54 AM on September 14, 2012

Pacers, not colts in the second to last paragraph.

I assure you that everyone in Maryland is mentally replacing every proper noun with "Colts."
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 12:06 PM on September 14, 2012

Great post.

I'm all about letting the market decide, but it's really hypocritical to intervene in one case and not the other.

It's not just one, either -- the city subsidizes the various professional sports teams in various ways, down to police patrols and maintaining a clean downtown. If memory serves me correctly, we Indinapolis residents are still paying off the bond on the now-demolished RCA Dome (former home of the Colts) and pay an entertainment tax in restaurants to help pay for their new stadium.

Having a full time orchestra is not only a point of pride, but a unique educational opportunity. And the presence of star conductors like Urbanski and popular combos like Time for Three (which features the ISO's young concertmaster) shows that the symphony has a future.

I'm fine with subsidizing pro sports, in which I have little interest, as a point of civic pride, but we can, and should, do both.
posted by Gelatin at 12:16 PM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am helping to start a contemporary orchestra in West Bromwich the UK. My job is to train the development group that is raising money for scholarships and instruments for musicians, who would otherwise need to pay to take part in one of the five performances each year. I have actively worked to help the team understand the value of tie-ups with sports organisations, who command the lion's share of community money. The reason: sports fans are not idiots. They tend to spend more money than music fans and tend to support more local cultural institutions than music fans, who are looking for specific cultural experiences related to their loves. The result has been active and quite specific support by all the Premier League teams in the West Midlands.
posted by parmanparman at 12:29 PM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Maybe they'll have to return their expensive cello to the store, move back to their hometown, and find a job as an undertaker's assistant.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 12:31 PM on September 14, 2012

There is a sense in which classical music in a peculiar creation of the middle class, meaning the music we now understand as classical was once more "interactive", way back before any middle class existed. Jazz wasn't so much new invention as repairing the damage done by the middle class.

There wasn't any trouble funding this middle class perspective on classical music so long as the upper middle class viewed symphony tickets as desirable conspicuous consumption, but such fashions cannot live forever.

We certainly need free public music and arts education in both classical and jazz styles, but maybe symphonies aren't the most realistic way to inspire that support anymore.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:38 PM on September 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

As an Indiana resident that spent a large amount of his life in Indianapolis, I can't say I'm really shocked here. It's sad, but it's a combination (as said above) of Indianapolis' need to subsidize sports above all else, perpetuated by the fact that yes, more people give a damn about sporting events than symphonies. It's sad, but this looks like an inevitability to me. I'm mostly concerned about the individual instrumentalists themselves. I don't make nearly the money they do, and I know all too well what it's like going without health care. In the short term, I hope things go well for them. In the long term, I'm sure they'll be fine. They got where they are for a reason and I'm certain there's something comparable, if not as lucrative, out there.
posted by Ephelump Jockey at 1:24 PM on September 14, 2012

I think El Sistema in Venezuela gives an interesting contrast to this.
posted by yoHighness at 2:13 PM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

We certainly need free public music and arts education in both classical and jazz styles, but maybe symphonies aren't the most realistic way to inspire that support anymore.

And that certainly may be true. And what we really need is to have that discussion.

Part of the issue really is that orchestras are not treated like educational or even public arts organizations - they are thought of that way, in a very abstract sense, but they aren't treated that way, not anymore. Even in living memory there exists the orchestra of the mid-century, Bernstein's orchestra, that was a much more egalitarian institution, a thing that might appear on television on the weekends with concerts directed toward kids or exposing families at home to orchestral music. There are nods to that type of thing that exist in orchestra culture today, but they are almost tokens, or requisite motions for a grant. It isn't all the orchestra's fault - it's as much the dwindling public interest in them as it is their losing touch with what contemporary audiences want, or not knowing what audiences want because the target audiences themselves don't really know.

And of course orchestras try, they do. They try in weird ways to be everything to everyone. They wear a lot of hats. Classical music used to be pop music of course, it was once the entertainment of the masses. And now, two hundred years after the birth of the modern orchestra, they have fallen mostly into historic preservation as entertainment music has become something completely different. But we don't just let them be historic preservation - partly because music doesn't work like other historic preservation projects because it is performance based, and partially because, for better or for worse, people do keep writing for the orchestra, and the academic institutions and the NEA think this is a valuable pursuit, and it certainly can be. We also expect our orchestras to perform public functions, like play for the fireworks, represent our cities on tours, and hold pop concerts at the waterfront or whatever. The point being - I think we don't know how to keep our orchestras afloat because we as a public are a little unclear about what we want them to be and why we want them to exist. We say be edgy, so they play something by Carter or Adams or Muhly, then we say, no, that's too weird, so they play Beethoven, and we say no, that's boring and this affair is stodgy and we can get a similar experience on Spotify (orchestral concerts being not the collective joy type experiences one might get at a rock show or whatever) so we tell them to play the 1812 overture and shoot some cannons once a year free to the public and everyone says ain't it great we have an orchestra.

There is a weird hermeneutic disconnect. Somewhere along the line orchestral music passed from being something interesting to something somehow necessary but no longer interesting. They are not profitable, they do not, like museums, hold assets, they do not have the following or cult worship or merch sales and such that sports do, and the vast majority of the population doesn't actively support them with their dollars or attendance, and yet we keep them around. And we don't really ask "why?" Because the answer seems obvious or intuitive - but it really isn't. It only seems that way because of history and hermeneutics and this ersatz pedestal on which we have placed "classical" music. If we really had a public discussion about why we want to keep these things going, perhaps we could build a model that would make them solvent. But until then, this is what's going to happen. Let's face it - the donors who have been the backbone of orchestra funding for the past 20 years are dying. Young people aren't going. 20 years from now, it is a very real possibility that orchestras will either have to close down, or be supported by taxes or grants and play to auditoriums of a handful of people. The only way to prevent that is to figure out what orchestras ought to be doing and then back that up with arts education and public support.

And we have to be realistic about it. Perhaps not every city needs an orchestra. Perhaps there are too many conservatories (how many conservatory kids do I know who now work shit jobs and have basically worthless degrees because there are just absolutely for classical musicians). A whole lot of art doesn't need to be supported by taxes or grants or whatever because art can be very profitable. We can and should help the orchestras, but they need to meet us halfway and we need to decide where that is. Without the orchestras, classical music will not die. There is more classical music now than ever before. So I don't think we need worry about that. But the way we see live classical music might need to evolve.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:35 PM on September 14, 2012 [7 favorites]

As the son of a (retired) symphony musician, I've been watching this progression from the sidelines for about 30 years. I considered a career as a classical musician, but eschewed it for computers when I was nearing high-school age. This was a few years after my father's orchestra, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra ended up in a similar lockout situation as Indianapolis. The VSO was ultimately saved by a combination of generous donors and forgiving creditors, but the writing was on the wall: What they were doing wasn't working and they had to begin to re-invent themselves financially and culturally.

My understanding has been that many of the major symphony orchestras in the US have been held together financially in the last 30 years by large endowment funds that were constructed mostly mid-century. In Canada, the situation was rather different, since the Canadian government provided very generous direct financial support to Canadian orchestras, obviating the need to develop develop large endowment funds. Ironically, this lavish support from the government left most Canadian orchestras unprepared for the financial realities of the late 20th century forward. The Canada Counsel for the Arts drastically cut their funding for orchestras, leaving some orchestras scrambling to adjust to a nearly 50% cut in Government funding over just a few years. The VSO recovered after a time of great uncertainty and has since become relatively stable but other Canadian orchestras didn't fare so well.

Lutoslawski has summed it up pretty well. Classical music in most cities has not been surviving as a regular business proposition for a long time and the external support has become much more fickle as a population's cultural repertoire changes. While many people really like the IDEA of having a symphonic orchestra in their city, that doesn't seem to be enough to sustain one in many cases. Honestly, even though I enjoy going to orchestral concerts and can afford to do so, it's not much on my radar so unless there's a particular piece I am very excited to see, it's not something I think to do.

I would love to see classical music thrive in North America, but I'm fairly certain that if it does, it will look very different than it has over the last 200 years.
posted by WaylandSmith at 4:43 PM on September 14, 2012

Things are tough all over. The following US orchestras will not start the new season.

According to the letters section, London orchestras are doing well. And I just learned a while back that one of the world's better orchestras ;-> has done surprisingly well on it's own for 80 years.

Perhaps as the support of the 1% fades in the US, re-arrangements will allow ticket prices to descend from the stratosphere once again into a range for mere mortals. In any event, those who wish to play will find a way.
posted by Twang at 5:43 PM on September 14, 2012

Reminded me of the recent bankruptcies of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Louisville Orchestra, and the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra's (formerly Honolulu Symphony Orchestra) bankruptcy and disbandment. Note also that all of these orchestras pulled it together and are still playing concerts.
posted by Red Desk at 6:57 PM on September 14, 2012

those surviving would take a 45% paycut, pension changes, and perhaps most devastatingly, the ISO would become a 36 week orchestra.

Most devastatingly? If I was taking a 45% pay cut, I hope that the amount of work expected of me would also decrease.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 10:49 PM on September 14, 2012

Probably because, Philistines as we are

That's probably not fair to the Philistines, Aegean refugees and victims of bad historical PR that they were. They may have been quite supportive and appreciative of the arts, for all we know.
posted by homunculus at 12:35 AM on September 15, 2012

Sadly I just don't think the numbers work out. If you have a 2000-seat auditorium, you have to sell it out for one performance every single week at $50 a pop to make $5m, which still isn't quite enough to pay a fulltime orchestra. Theater works because you can do it with a handful of employees, musicals work because the venues are huge and ticket prices are high, sports work because of massive government subsidies and TV revenues. I don't see how orchestras can work without a major business model change. Maybe a touring company can cover several metro areas, and do the same performance several times in each one?
posted by miyabo at 8:57 AM on September 15, 2012

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