If Atlanta’s lockout succeeds, music across America will be the poorer for it

If Atlanta’s lockout succeeds, music across America will be the poorer for it


norman lebrecht

September 08, 2014

When the Minnesota Orchestra locked out its musicians in October 2012, two considerations weighed high in the board’s mind. One was that Minnesota paid well above the going rate to attract top players. The other was that, a month earlier, players in the Atlanta symphony had agreed after a short lockout to a 14 percent pay cut. The money men of Minnesota reckoned they could quickly force the same sort of deal.

Well, it didn’t work out that way. In part, because the musicians were prepared to sit it out for 15 months until the board gave way and, in part, because a very substantial chunk of the community and the audience saw the need to maintain high wages as a guarantee of player quality. The players felt supported. That encouraged them to hold out.

minnesota state fair


Atlanta was unimpressed. Despite making a pledge that the 14 percent was a one-time-only cut, the board and president set about planning for a second lockout, stalling through eight months of negotiations with offers the players could only refuse. On the table, we hear, was this:

Year 1: 0 % increase in salary

Year 2: 1% increase in salary

Year 3: 1.5% increase in salary

Year 4: 2% increase in salary

These tiny increases, however, were to be paid at the expense of deep cuts in the health benefits package which would have left every player worse off. Actual salaries would be the same in 2018 as they were in 2011, but the players would pay much more for their health cover.

What Atlanta was telling its players was that the 2012 one-time-only cut was just a sampler. From now on it was going to be cuts all the way – not just in pay but in jobs as well, with one-third of the orchestra to be removed by natural or unnatural causes.

It was an offer the players had to refuse, and one which the company did not expect them to accept. Labor lawyer Kevin Case writes: ‘As an attorney, I cannot envision any scenario in which I would advise my musician or union clients to accept the kind of demands the ASO is making. […] It makes a mockery of the protections afforded by the National Labor Relations Act and the entire scheme of federal labor law.’

atlanta symphony orch

Atlanta planned its lockout for eight months and was ready with all the PR and legal paraphanalia the moment midnight chimed.

The threat to Atlanta’s players is graver and more heartless than Minnesota. They have been lied to and belittled and locked out. Their families cannot get health protection. They have fewer opportunities for other employments than the well-known and well-connected musicians of Minnesota. They are under extreme pressure to cave in.

But if Atlanta’s musicians give way, other hardline boards will take heart. As in October 2012, the next orchestral lockout will be but a heartbeat away. If Atlanta’s musicians surrender, music across America will be the poorer for it.



  • William Ford says:

    From atlantamusiccritic.com:
    Another sad weekend for the beleaguered Atlanta Symphony Orchestra that has been locked out of Symphony Hall by the management of the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC), the overlord to the ASO. From the news reports AMC has read, the ASO is inseparable from the WAC and, in fact, the symphony is really the WAC dba the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. So if the community is to begin apportioning blame for the red ink the symphony incurs, it should probably begin with a close inspection of how the WAC does business and how its losses are apportioned to the symphony. Truth is that the Woodruff Art Museum is a middling institution at best, while across the street the ASO is top-tier. Where should the emphasis be placed and what is the WAC doing overall to reduce it operational costs?

    Another place the community can look to apportion blame is Stanley Romanstein, the ASO’s President. The ASO musicians contend that he has not held up his end of the bargain when they took large cuts two years ago in exchange for increased fundraising efforts. Maybe, just maybe, in his fundraising efforts, he has asked donors to fund based upon an agreement that the ASO have a balanced budget. Again from news reports, he has said donors are requesting such a contingency. We may never know- but emergency situations require emergency strategies. Romanstein’s strategy seems to be “burn the house down” rather than asking for money to maintain the size of the orchestra and to pay the ASO musicians a decent wage as part of a long-term financial strategy. It reminds AMC of the movie “Team America” where the policy was that in order to save something, you must destroy it.

    Relatedly, the ASO staff responsible for social media marketing should have fingers pointed at them. The ASO has one of the most meager social media presence of any major symphony orchestra. AMC has a Google update about the ASO and it shows articles and news releases about the orchestra are frequent only when the financial situation is in focus. One need only compare the ASO’s media presence to that of the Pittsburgh or Cleveland Orchestras to seem how lame it it. Maybe social media will not result in more donations, but if you don’t try you will never find out.

    Another place the community can look at is the mirror. Atlanta, whose citizenry like to think of a a “world city,” has a population of 5.5 million people and is the ninth largest in the country. It GDP is sixth in the nation. Atlanta and Georgia governments can support money for stadiums, and tax-breaks for movie productions, but apparently can not find the wherewithal to find some additional tax dollars to support a world-class orchestra, which may be one of the few actual world-class institutions in the city. And donors can’t really donate more? Really? Maybe the best that Atlanta can do is “The Real Housewives,” which is probably made with some of those tax-breaks. Sometimes the attendance at the ASO concerts is well, sparse. Shame on music lovers who don’t attend.

    So what blame should be apportioned to the musicians- in a word- none. They are extraordinarily talented, they work many hours not only in the weekend performances but during the week in rehearsals and doing special concerts such as those for children. The must practice to keep their skills at their peak. So they are asking for wage increase after having taken a large pay cut two years ago. Is that outrageous? AMC doesn’t think so. So they are asking to increase the number of full-time musicians. Is that outrageous? AMC doesn’t think so. Contract musicians who may be used from time to time will not enable the ASO to maintain the uniformity of its sound and level of outstanding performance. But the musicians are almost being forced to hold out against the machinations of management. If they give in, after having given in two-years ago, will confirm that they are a paper tiger.

    So what’s to be done? Its easy to suggest fixes, based on wishes rather than fact, but maybe its time to create the Symphony Orchestra of Atlanta that is free from the WAC, Yes it would be tough, and yes, it could be unstable in the short rum, but so is the current ASO. Maybe there are venues that are cheaper than Symphony Hall- maybe not. But AMC’s advice is to start looking, if it hasn’t already been done. Maybe an employee-owned symphony is the way to go with each musician sharing profit and loss. That’s what the musicians are doing now except they shoulder more of the loss than the profit. But if AMC was in a position to be a large donor, AMC would be hesitant to give to the WAC or to the ASO as currently constituted because of the train wreck that is the WAC and ASO management that allowed a cumulative debt (that is said to be in the mid $20 million), without developing a response other than cutting musician salaries, hours, and health care coverage.

    What a sorry situation in this relatively wealthy town. AMC hopes for the best but is anticipating the worst. AMC is sure that the musicians are also.

  • Eric says:

    This is sickening!!
    Don’t these governing boards understand they are working for the Musicians? NOT the other way around?
    At least that’s how I see it.

    I think a Symphony Orchestra can go on longer without a board than without Musicians!!

  • Nick says:

    Is it merely coincidence that ASO President Stanley Romanstein succeeded Allison Vulgamore in 2009? Ms. Vulgamore, it will be recalled, moved north to manage the Philadelphia Orchestra, the ensemble she soon took into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

    On his appointment, Romanstein said in an interview –

    “I am a musician from a family of musicians. As a musician, I never underestimate the power of music to move, to transform, to provoke, to unite, to inspire. I think it’s critical that the leader of any arts organization remember that people come to us, connect with us, work with us, people give to us because of the innate power of music. IT’S ALL TOO EASY TO GET DIVERTED INTO THINKING THAT IT’S ALL ABOUT THE BUDGET OR THE BUSINESS MODEL. Those things are vitally important, but they are important only in their relationship to the power of the music.”


    Now we know where his priorities really lie!

  • Lowell says:

    The Golden Age of Orchestras in America is over. The musicians need to wake up and take the cuts. Diminished wages still beat unemployment.

    • working musician says:

      It was just a matter of time before a nay-sayer like Lowell would show up. Let me guess, you’re Republican, too!

  • William Smith says:

    I thought the Minnesota musicians did agree to a pay cut, just one not as big as demanded.

  • sdReader says:

    Excellent post, Mr. Lebrecht!

  • shenyeh says:

    Norman, that’s a too pessimistic headline. Not all orchestra boards in US are like that in Atlanta. As a matter of fact, a significant portion of major US orchestras have boards that are deeply passionate about the art form and take great pride in artistic excellence and reputation of their organizations. Here, in California, all three major orchestras, Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego, are doing marvelously because of that. Sure, the managements and musicians in these healthy organizations will always try to gain advantage for their individual perspective in negotiations, but that’s very different than the situation in Atlanta, where the board is bored.

    • sdReader says:

      Pacific Symphony Orchestra (in Orange County) is the 3rd largest orchestra of the state by budget and renown.

      • shenyeh says:

        PSO budget is only about 3 million dollars less than SDSO. But they do a fantastic job generating ticket revenue 8.6 million a season, quite bit ahead of SDSO, and they have really great players there. On the other hand, it is a paid-per-service orchestra for musician compensation, with many not guaranteed to be engaged for all services, thus not paid. Typically, an orchestra in US that can generate that much revenue in ticket sales, with that kind of high caliber and deserving musicians, can attract sufficient donor support to pay each musician annual base salary at least over 80 thousand dollars, but PSO pays far less than that, nor pays in-house health benefits. I am sure this is NOT the desired model for locked-out musicians in Atlanta, nor anywhere else.

  • NYMike says:

    Much as I dislike the faux Philadelphia bankruptcy and Vulgamore’s role in it, I’m wondering if she saw the handwriting on the wall in Atlanta prompting her to look for work elsewhere.

  • Amy says:

    Here to bait, person-commenting-under-the-name-Lowell?
    Not impressed.