Are SSO contract negotiations a canary in the coal mine?

Is the Seattle Symphony heading toward a civic calamity?

The changing economics of the arts industry has left many orchestras on the brink of catastrophe. The Philadelphia Orchestra is the highest profile example. A large deficit, no permanent music director, and general disdain for the musicians is jeopardizing the future of this Big Five orchestra. Other orchestras are suffering too. The future of the Everett Symphony is uncertain, while the Bellevue Philharmonic is still on shaky ground after a leadership brawl last year. And not long ago, the Columbus Symphony, the professional orchestra for Ohio’s largest city, disappeared entirely for a period of time.

As grim news filtered in from the rest of the orchestra world, locally there was always a sense that the Seattle Symphony was different and remained fundamentally strong. I certainly felt this way. I am sure many of the orchestra’s die-hard supporters continue to feel this way.

However, just before the start of the 2009-2010 season, my own opinion of the orchestra’s health began to shift. The SSO had only just begun the search for Schwarz’s replacement after he announced the year before he wouldn’t seek to extend his contract after 2011. In recent weeks, other signs of ill health surfaced, particularly with the revelation that SSO president Thomas Philion would step down at the end of his current contract in June 2010. Most recently, I patched together details of stalled contract negotiations between management and the musicians. These revelations have put me in a pessimistic mood.

The Seattle Symphony, its management, and board directors stand at a crossroads. Soon, the future of the orchestra will be decided by a handful of critical decisions. The course set in the next few months will determine whether the SSO can shed itself of it’s provincial mindset and compete with the likes of Pittsburgh, Dallas, Minnesota, Saint Louis, and even San Francisco for talent and attention.

The most important decision facing the orchestra today is what to do about the musicians’ contract. Negotiations have seemingly stalled between management and players. The orchestra management hired Ralph Craviso – a notoriously tough negotiator – to strong arm musicians into a contract with drastic cuts to their salaries and benefits. Now that outgoing president Philion’s influence is waning, Craviso is reportedly assuming some of the day-to-day management responsibilities for the orchestra. But, his record is mixed. Before helping orchestra management negotiate musician contracts, Craviso was a bare-knuckled airline industry negotiator. Since leaving the airline industry, Craviso’s critics contend he has built a reputation for squeezing cost savings out of musicians at the expense of orchestra morale and standing in the community.

Musicians say management has been coy about the health of private fundraising. One might infer from the furlough days imposed on staff last summer, the hardball negotiating tactics, and the revolving door at the top levels of management, that private donations are a weak funding source for the symphony. When Thomas Philion joined the orchestra as its president, I commented that any job requires time to learn the position, and to learn the key figures interested in and involved with the orchestra. One of the most important roles for an orchestra president is as chief fundraisier. Fundraising is a difficult business because it depends on building strong relationships between an institution and its donors. Philion and his predecessor, Paul Meecham, both had short tenures as SSO president. In both cases, one wonders if either had sufficient time on the job to establish the relationships necessary to increase private donations.

Hale, echoing a similar conclusion, writes in a piece posted on the Seattle Symphony and Opera Players’ Organization website, “The SSO is troubled by the need for greater unearned revenue…Unearned revenue remains the steep road to climb in order to reach the current levels of the Seattle Symphony’s peers.”

For a moment, imagine what Seattle’s orchestra would look like if, five years into the future, vacancies in the orchestra aren’t filled with permanent appointments. Key positions in the symphony instead filled on a temporary basis – creating an orchestra of part-timers. A contract like that tells me, and all others who care deeply about the orchestra, that neither its top managers nor its board of directors are serious about the future of the orchestra. The future music director of the SSO – regardless of who it might be – would join a situation where they had little or no ability to shape the sound of the orchestra or the artistic growth of their new musical charge. There are already too many vacancies in the orchestra, especially principal cello. Retirements and other departures could mean that up to 20% of the orchestra’s members – including principal positions – would be filled by cheaper, temporary musicians.

Stagnant or reduced musician salaries would also prevent the orchestra from improving the quality of its playing. SSO player salaries already lag far behind the salaries of musicians in other orchestras nationwide. Even the musicians of the Indianapolis Symphony earn more than their Seattle counterparts. Further reductions would make the SSO the least competitive orchestra in its class. The effects of Seattle Symphony’s low musician salaries were seen this past summer when Amos Yang, the San Francisco Symphony’s assistant principal cello, was offered the principal spot with the Seattle Symphony. Yang is an exceptional cellist and would have been an excellent section leader, but he turned the position down allegedly because the SSO couldn’t meet his salary demands. If the SSO is going to become one of the best orchestras in the country, it is going to have to do better than a roster of second-bests and temps. Otherwise, the SSO would effectively become the Wal-Mart of orchestras.

The only scenario worse than an orchestra limping along artistically, in a perpetual state of decline, would be for management to lock-out musicians and shut the orchestra down for 2010, much like what happened in Jacksonville. A move like this would be a fatal blow, and toss the SSO onto the heap of decaying classical music institutions with the Honolulu Symphony, the Baltimore Opera, and the Columbus Symphony. If this happens, SSO management should be generous with the lye before the public is able to ask too many questions. With Philion on the way out and Craviso merely fulfilling the requirements of his contract, neither having a stake in the long-term health of the SSO, this is an option that could very well become a reality.

As we head toward 2010, there are reasons to be hopeful about the SSO’s future. Foremost on the list is that the SSO will have a new music director either by the end of the 2010-2011 season, or not long after. Schwarz has boldly mended fences with musicians, and his departure will leave new blood guiding the orchestra to the next level of artistic excellence. Vacancies will give the new music director a chance to shape the orchestra’s sound, and renewed good will among the musicians will allow the new music director to experiment with repertory, programming, and those deceptively mundane decisions like where musicians sit on stage to create holistic unit.

The board will hire a new president as well. The prospect of being involved with an orchestra about to hire a new music director, should make it easier for the SSO to attract and a hire a top candidate. Most ambitious administrators are probably salivating at the chance to be with an orchestra in the SSO’s position. If given time and latitude, the new president could shift the orchestra’s finances from a sales-driven to fundraising and donor-driven revenue stream. The new president will have a crack fundraising team of eight employees that could be used to wage a concerted campaign to secure the orchestra’s financial future.

Most important in discussions about the orchestra’s future, is the opportunity implicit in a crisis. Musicians, management, symphony boosters, and even civic leadership (don’t forget that Seattle owns Benaroya Hall) have a stake in the future of the orchestra. As 2009’s final days fade, now is the time for musicians and the symphony board to recognize current contract negotiations will determine nothing less than the orchestra’s future. I would urge the SSO board to rely on their own aspirations for the SSO and not the advice of managers and consultants who will be gone from the picture by the time the sun returns to Seattle skies. They should ask themselves what they want from the Seattle Symphony. Greatness should be their answer.


10 thoughts on “Are SSO contract negotiations a canary in the coal mine?

  1. Thank you. I am passionate about the SSO and I want it to succeed but I couldn’t let this story pass without a mention. I think the SSO is poised for big things if the right decisions are made. I hope, in the new year, musicians, management and board members put their heads together to come to decisions that will be good for the orchestra going into the future and not just address short-term challenges.

  2. I am dismayed at the current state of the SSO. Seattle seems to pride itself on its big artistic ambitions for such a small-sized city. Letting the symphony fall into the mud this way is disappointing. Where are the organizations and private donors in the SSO’s time of need? Are there no relationships established to make that a possibility? How can the city let their symphony flounder?

  3. A really superb overview of the situation and the relevant issues. I am very troubled by the engagement of Mr. Craviso; that does not seem to be the sign of a board and management looking to cooperate on a resolution to the challenges facing the orchestra. Being a tough labor negotiator might make sense with airlines, where labor costs are such a large percentage of overall expenses, and where, to some degree, employees are interchangeable. But when you’re trying to develop and sustain an ensemble where you want to create cohesion between 100 personalities, the conductor, etc., it seems like an act of horrendously bad faith. Relying increasingly on less expensive extra musicians rather than filling vacancies is also a poor long-term strategy; you lose something important when many of the players onstage don’t feel like they’re really a part of the team.

    The SSO went through a serious financial crisis in the early 1980s, just preceding and following the tragic and premature death of Rainier Miedel. AT that time many asked what purpose an orchestra serves. Whatever dissatisfactions people may have with Gerard Schwarz as a conductor, he deserves a lot of credit for building the SSO into a stronger institution (along with Deborah Card; one reason she’s now running the Chicago Symphony). Seattle has also come a long way since that time; it has evolved into one of America’s great and most economically important cities. I find it a bit unbelievable that an orchestra in the city that is home to Microsoft, Amazon, Nintendo, Starbucks and Boeing hasn’t been able to develop a more visionary and effective board; much credit is owned for raising the money to get Benaroya Hall built, but a $100 million endowment could come in handy at a time like this.

  4. I am sorry to read about the problems at the SSO. I am a season subscriber and enthusiatic supporter of the Oregon symphony, which has certainly had its share of financial challenges in recent years. Many painful cuts have been instituted at the oregon symphony in order to achieve a balanced budget and financial stability. Fortunately, we have an outstanding symphony president in Elaine Calder, who seems to have a very good relationship with symphony musicians. The orchestra has never sounded better under the baton of Carlos Kalmar (it would certainly be worthwhile for Seattle classical music lovers to take a trip down to Portland to hear the Oregon Symphony). However, many challenges remain, such as dealing with declining ticket sales. I wish you the best in Seattle. I fervently hope that both the SSO and the Oregon symphony can make it through these difficult times and emerge even stronger.

  5. I agree with MacroV that it is puzzling that a city such as Seattle with so many large and succesful companies (don’t forget Google) is hurting in the corporate donations arena. This is one area where an opportunity exists to improve funding if the orchestra can find the right approach and win the financial support of some of these large corporations.

  6. The SSO isn’t the only orchestra with a business model that is broken. But since the SSO is dependent on selling tickets to keep the doors open, a recession, like the one we are in hurts bad. People are guarding the wallets more and are more selective about what they spend their personal entertainment dollars on.

    This could be offset by more robust private fundraising which is what other orchestras do. I looked at the 990’s for the Seattle Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, and Indianapolis Symphony. On a cash basis, in 2006 SSO fundraising lagged behind these other two orchestras. The SSO raised $10,042, 347; Indianapolis raised $18,286,720; and Minnesota raised $15,842,261. the FY 2007 990 has accrual numbers, which begin to show the impact of the recession, but which lag far behind Minnesota and Indy. The SSO raised $5,421,152; Indianapolis raised $7,308,585; and Minnesota raised $17,134,329. Now, I know you can find numbers to prove just about anything, but neither Minneapolis nor Indianapolis strikes me as economically vibrant or as wealthy as Seattle.

    Imagine if the SSO had both strong ticket sales and even slightly better fundraising.

  7. I am quite torn about the matter but urge caution and restraint on the part of all. I speak as a trustee of a large arts organization, an SSO season ticket holder for many years, and an individual donor of several thousand dollars to the SSO.

    The orchestra serves at the pleasure of the audience and the donors. I am personally unimpressed with pleadings about salary parity with other orchestras. The typical player makes far more than most in the arts in Seattle and elsewhere, and generally more than similarly trained professionals like teachers. Salaries ought to be a combination of living wages and supply and demand, and it is no secret that conservatories produce more quality musicians than there are full time jobs for in US orchestras.

    I wonder if there are not more than enough musicians of quality who would be happy to fill the slots of those who would strike or who consider themselves underpaid, and how many of these would land a job elsewhere for more money? This is called the marketplace folks, and we all voluntarily participate in it. And unlike transit, utilities, teachers and the like, the public can do without an orchestra.

    They have to feel good about an evening out to hear it play. Nobody wants to watch a group perform who is in conflict, whether the particular audience member’s sentiments lie with the players or with management. We can always stay home or take in a movie or play.

    We lost the Sonics over greed of both the owners and the players, and resulting indifference by most in the community, including politicians. Their departure has largely been a big yawn, and were we to lose the SSO, the impact on most in the region would be even less, since sports generally evoke more passion and interest. We must not allow this to happen, but the fragility of the arts in general and orchestras specifically is real, and the resources and will by government, corporations and individuals to engage in a rescue or urgent fundraising pitches is low. Consider yourself warned.

    I love the orchestra but my donations and good will are in large part contingent on management and the players playing well with each other, and I don’t mean musically.

    On the topic of orchestra leadership, I am concerned about board leadership that seems to focus on glam over substance. The current chair is Leslie Chihuly. While I assume she is a fine person, does she bring the requisite skills to the orchestra behind her name. At this time of challenge and pending leadership void with the managing director and music director, It gives me pause as a subscriber and donor as it should others. I challenge the Board and leadership to consider the impact on their credibility and effectiveness when they select what appears to be figureheads selected for name recognition rather than significant leadership experience and credentials to positions of such responsibility. We are past the time when Boards are rubber-stamps to management – or are we with SSO? The Board has a fiduciary responsibility to lead and engage in independent decisions, and truly oversee management. Does this Board meet this standard?

    And appealing to us corporate donors with guilt or obligation will not go very far. Many of us give significantly to the arts. The SSO is one of many deserving and needy organizations. Organizations give voluntarily and have no moral obligation to do so. They expect accountable and responsible behavior from the beneficiaries of their philanthropy. Likewise individual donors, many of whom are not as financially well off as the players and management of the SSO, are writing checks because of loyalty and love of music. Their generosity is equally fragile and contingent upon the transaction remaining equitable and fair in their perception.

    So to the players, Board and management – be very careful. You and your community have much to lose and little to gain if you lose control of your negotiations or your image. Work hard to remain the community treasure that you are.

  8. thanks for your comment lowell. I too am torn, but for different reasons. in order to stay competitive artistically, musician salaries need to be increased or maintained at their current level. cutting them, after $3.2 million in cuts already, puts the salary to far behind comparable orchestras in Minnesota, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, etc. Holding the line on salaries is a realistic goal in the current economic climate. Apparently (and I have no way to verify this) but the amount it would take to keep salaries at their current level is $400,000 a year. If this is true, surely the SSO can raise $400,000?

    As has been stated here and elsewhere, the SSO sells more tickets than most orchestras. This fact has helped keep the band playing while other revenue has suffered. On this point, I give high marks to the marketing and public relations staff at the orchestra. Perhaps I am biased because I interact with this part of the SSO administration more often, but they have come up with more ways to sell tickets than I thought were possible. They are fortunate to have such a good product to market in the SSO musicians.

    This aspect of the orchestra’s business hasn’t been married with solid cultivation of community of people dedicated to the orchestra’s future and continued artistic growth of the orchestra. The SSO isn’t alone on this one, lots of nonprofits struggle to cultivate future donors.

    While I would say I am more of a musician partisan on this issue, I wonder if they haven’t hurt themselves by not resisting cuts more clearly in the past and associating with a stronger, national union. Union management is done by the musicians themselves. A union is a large, complex entity with its own politics and divisions. Managing a union is a full time job in itself and currently this work is being done by musicians who already work a full time job playing an instrument. Would the musicians be in a stronger position if they had outside support for the work they do? It is a question I have wrestled with in the last week.

    What to do? If I were on the board I would urge holding the line on salaries — no more cuts. If you cut salaries you will be playing catch up for years. Hold the line even if it is for two years. By that time there will be a new music director and a new executive director. Since a salary decision will impact the future of the orchestra, I propose letting the future artistic and business leadership decide what to do with musicians salaries.

    If I were management, I would also reject proposals from musicians that smack of the union trying to manage the orchestra. Also I would put a freeze on hiring replacements until after Schwarz has left and Philion’s replacement is hired. The musicians should choke this provision down. Again, since these are fundamental questions about the direction of the orchestra’s future, let the future leadership decide if the orchestra can afford to fill the current vacancies. Rest assured there will be vacancies and big ones at that. They will need to be filled.

    I understand that the orchestra can’t run deficits forever, but cutting costs isn’t the way to do it if the business model is out of whack. Since the board’s primary objective is fundraising, they should snap to and find a way to close the gap with private donations. The hand wringing that is going on among arts organizations is unnecessary until it becomes necessary.

  9. Lowell’s last sentence rings very true for me, “Work hard to remain the community treasure that you are.”.

    Having spent my Sunday reading about this situation, I’ve read about two distinct viewpoints. Firstly, the musicians’ viewpoint. They frame this discussion in terms of organizational goals, artistic endeavor and a desire to find a path that will lead to the symphony being healthy in the years to come. That seems like the right approach to me, and if their salary demands are not excessive, but more in the line of cost of living increases, it seems stupid to drag the organization down in the media, damaging it’s reputation.

    The other viewpoint is framed by two words, cuts and money. While cuts are part of the national dialogue in this recession, one quickly realizes from the Seattle Times article that this is an ongoing situation at the symphony. The Seattle Times was quite clear that musician cuts happened in 2005. I’m also surprised that the musicians’ base salary is published, but that none of the other salaries in the organization are published. Surely the management are not voluntary and this method seems heavy handed. I wouldn’t want my salary published in a newspaper.

    Something I’ve found is that companies that do well have employees that really care about their work, workplace and company. The Seattle musicians obviously care very deeply about their organization, and are sending a clear message that the organization is trying to walk down the same path that has led to this current situation.

    Maybe it is time to stop fighting, and start thinking, so that a new path can be made, ensuring the Seattle Symphony can “remain the community treasure” that it is.

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