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Monday, October 25, 2010

Detroit Symphony Strike, part 2

What about "Detroit's Economic Crisis" is difficult for musicians to understand?  I'm not clear as to why the Detroit Symphony musicians think that Detroit can continue to sustain a world class orchestra.  There is an excellent blog written on Sept. 1, 2010 by Austin McCoy called "Detroit: the forgotten center of crisis and hope."  In it Mr. Austin relates the following statistics.

Detroit has gone from being known as the “arsenal of democracy” to the poster child for government disinvestment, deindustrialization, and capital/white flight. All of these factors contributed to the city’s inability to adjust to broader economic restructuring.[iv] Detroit has lost almost half of its population between 1950 and 2002.[v] According to sociologist William Julius Wilson, the city shed 51 percent of its manufacturing jobs between 1967 and 1987.[vi] 

..less than 20 percent of the jobs are now located within three miles of the city center.”[vii] This explains why one notices that the central business district resembles a virtual ghost town after business hours.....Detroit has also closed almost half of its schools since 2005....

Now, couple this bleak data with the recent bailout of GM and Chrysler and I'm not sure how the Detroit Symphony musicians can justify or even imagine maintaining their $100,000/year plus salaries.  I'm sure the auto industry in Detroit has been a generous benefactor of the symphony in years past, but I can't imagine the public relations nightmare that would ensue if they continued this tradition after the recent federal bailout.  Explaining how they can give money away after a federal bailout would be cause for another tough round of testifying before a Senate committee in Washington.  

Let me be clear, musicians in world class orchestras should be paid a minimum of $100,000/year.  Becoming a professional musician is a long, arduous and very expensive process.  However, world class orchestras reside in world class cities, a title that Detroit can no longer lay a claim to holding.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Economic Reality Check for Musicians

The recent strike held by Detroit Symphony musicians brings a flood of thoughts to my mind.  I share these ideas constantly with my colleagues, but now I think it is time to go beyond the circle of friends who have been traditionally subjected to my "musings."

Before I begin, let me preface these thoughts with a notification that I am a professional musician in the Washington DC area.  I am a union member (but not by choice) and I am currently exhausted from a run-out concert that had me out until 1am last night and I am pumping myself up with caffeine in an effort to pull myself together for another performance tonight.  In short, I am in the trenches too and not delivering this sermon from some lofty podium or living some elite life that is untouched by the economic realities of life as a classical musician.

Ok, here it goes.....I have never been able to wrap my mind around the concept of musicians having a "strike."  To me it is the most self-destructive action any musician can ever undertake.  I was going to school in Baltimore while the Baltimore Symphony strike was occurring in 1989-1990 and to this day I believe that they have never fully recovered from the damage that was done to the orchestra during that strike.

Let's just start with "economics 101."

Let's say a musician in an orchestra is making $100,000/year from their orchestra salary.  If they go on strike for 6 months, they loose $50,000 worth of income.  (Note, I understand they get union subsidies during this strike, but that is the same as receiving an insurance payout.  Basically, you are just getting back what you have paid in over the years, so it is a break even proposition at best.)  If the strike is not advocating a raise, but just a maintenance of salary, it will take 10 years for an individual musician to recoup the income that was lost over 6 months, if indeed it is ever recovered.

Meanwhile, the strike has also cost the orchestra dearly in terms of public relations, fund raising opportunities, corporate support, not to mention the rancor and ill will that is generated behind the scenes between board members, the administration and even within the ranks of the musicians themselves.  In short, the strike just made it astronomically more difficult to achieve the very thing the musicians were demanding in the first place, namely long term economic security. 

I've also never understood the attitude from musicians that generates the statement "They" won't give us more money (or whatever is being negotiated).  Who is "they?"  Could they be talking about the board members who have volunteered and usually pay a fee for the privilege of trying to support an important community institution?  Remember that orchestras are not-for-profit endeavors.  In other words, when the workers are denied a raise, the "extra" money that is left over, does not go into the pockets of stockholders.  No one derives a benefit from not giving the musicians more money.  I cannot believe that any board member wants to have their name associated with economic or artistic failure of the organization they are supporting.  They are usually on the board because they are leaders in some segment of the for-profit world and understand the benefit of the institution to the community.  These are people who are unfamiliar with failure and do not like that word associated with their name and reputation.

I don't think the "they" is the administration either.  In the organizations that I work for, the administrative staff usually takes the first hit and suffers much earlier than the musicians.  They lose jobs, take pay cuts, etc. before the musicians are ever asked to sacrifice.   Since they are the first to go and the first to suffer, they have a vested interest in keeping the organization economically healthy.  That is not to say that there is not sometimes incompetency in administration, but hopefully the board is vigilant and will address that issue.  

I have much more to say on this subject and will continue to do so in the coming days, but since this is a blog and not a dissertation, I will stop here for now.  I welcome feedback and dialogue on this topic as long as it doesn't result in name calling and personal insults.  Let's keep it civil and useful. 

Monday, October 4, 2010

Classical Music Identity Crisis

Just read Anne Midgette's article about "Classical Crossover"  and it speaks to an issue that most classical musicians and the people who love classical music are struggling with for the past decade.  Namely, how do we now define classical music?  For years, recording labels have padded classical music sales figures by mixing in the sales from Broadway showtune albums, but I doubt there are many of us within the classical music industry who would really consider the theme from "Cats" as part of our genre. 
Now comes Renee Fleming with her new album "Dark Horse" and Sting with "Symphonicities."  Do we invite them in?  My mind immediately says "yes" to Renee Fleming, because, well, she is Renee Fleming and she is "one of us," so therefore it has to be "classical." The same goes for Yo Yo Ma.   I'm not so sure about Sting, however.   Andrea Bocelli gets a "maybe" in my book.  Yes, he does sing opera, but I never thought he was actually that good at it.  I think his success grew out of his appeal to the non-classical music audience, so I am left feeling skeptical.

Mark O'Connor is another artist who leaves me confused.  I have always felt a little naughty and guilty for my attraction to his music.  Two things tend to help me justify him as an genuine "classical music" artist.  First, he composes works for full symphony orchestras.  (This tends to justify my inclusion of Sting into our club, too).  Writing a composition for a symphony that includes multiple movements which are tied together in some meaningful manner is no small feat.  Mark O'Connor's album "Midnight on the Water" also helped me welcome him into the pantheon of classical music composers.  While it still has pieces like "River Out Back", it also has lots of Caprices.  The word "Caprice" is derived from the Italian word "Cappricio" which was first used in 1665, according to Webster's dictionary.  Any music that has it's roots in the year 1665 has to be classical.

Then there are classical musicians like Nigel Kennedy and Nick Kendall (Time for Three) who can take hard core classical music (Vivaldi's Seasons and Bach's Concerto for Two Violins in d minor, respectively) and somehow make them seem like pop music.  Talk about total genre identification confusion.....

So, I have come up my own personal criteria for how to define what is classical music.
1) Who is performing it?  Did they spend their first 10 years of their career on stage at Carnegie Hall or in nightclubs?
2) Have they undergone the rigorous, grueling, intense, often demoralizing, formal training at a highly recognized school of music?  (Hey I put in my years in music boot camp, and I'm not letting anyone else in unless they have suffered as I have.)
3) Question #2 among classical musicians, invevitably leads to Question #3, which is "who is your teacher?"  If you don't understand this question, then you are not a classical musician and neither is your music.
4) Does the music make money?  If the answer is "yes", then questions 1, 2 and 3 are now irrelevant and you are welcome into the classical music genre.

If you have comments, please share!