Why do US orchs have to call in the Feds to talk to their musicians?

Why do US orchs have to call in the Feds to talk to their musicians?


norman lebrecht

May 20, 2015

The Utah Symphony has signed a three-year contract with its musicians.

That’s nice.

But they could only do so with the help of a federal negotiator. ‘I’m proud of the successful outcome of these efforts and grateful for the musicians’ cooperation and support in ratifying this agreement early,’ said Melia Tourangeau, outgoing USUO President & CEO. ‘Under the guidance of Federal Mediator Kevin Hawkins, we were able to have productive discussions and build a level of trust I’ve never before experienced during contract talks.’

Why the hell is that? Why can’t orchestral managers and musicians, who went to the same schools and share a common goal, talk to one another without calling in Big Government? But the Met did it. So did Atlanta.

You want to know what’s wrong with US orchestras? That’s wrong.

I’ll take questions on the subject next week at the LOA convention in Cleveland.

utah symphony



  • Josephine Blosephine says:

    Take your comments to the US, go right ahead. American musicians make about twice what UK musicians do, and in the cases of the largest orchestras, it’s a living wage — not true in most EU groups. Perhaps you can pick up some info about US orchestras there. By the way, what is this “LOA” to which you refer? I think the acronym for which you grope is LAO. As in League of American Orchestras, formerly and appropriately known as ASOL (American Symphony Orchestra League).

    But since you’re commenting on regional and amateur American orchestras (Vermont/Waco Symphonies? Seriously?) as if they’re major ICSOM bands, this is not surprising.

    The reason the feds have to come in is that the IRS is right on the tails of “non-profit” status of these groups. These are orchestras than routinely run deficits, their CEOs drawing salaries of US $500,000+ even when the musicians are locked out and working at McDonalds, and no one realizes that the players are actually not an unnecessary evil.

    The IRS must grant 501c3 (nonprofit) status to groups expected to return a public service in return for exemption from US income taxes. Clearly this is subject to some extremely creative manipulation.

    Norman, until you understand this better, it might be beneficial to listen more intently to people who actually know; as in the people who make the noise — not the greedy SOBs with little arts background who sometimes run the bands. Perhaps the LAO convention will be a meaningful learning experience. I hope so, but the only people there will be the greedy folks and clueless hangers-on like [redacted], with a few exceptions.

    • John says:

      The anger expressed in your email is part of the problem. Most of those who get involved in orchestra management do it for the love of music. The vast majority get paid far less than $500,000 — much, much less. Throwing around “SOB” and “ASOL” to refer to many who are only trying to do their best in the face of some strong headwinds is, to give you the benefit of the doubt, unkind at best.

      • Blair Tindall says:

        John, I just noticed your comment. “ASOL” was actually the moniker for the League before it changed its name a few years back. It was a point of hilarity for musicians — it really WAS called “American Symphony Orchestra League” before, for real. I guess I’m one of the only people around here old enough to remember 😉

        It was pretty hard to talk about an ASOL convention with a straight face back then.

    • CA says:

      Just a point of clarification: the Utah Symphony is one of the few 52-week orchestras in the US–meaning that its players have a contract/receive pay for all 52 weeks of the year, including generous paid vacation and other PTO. This fact (its 52-week status–unless that changed with this contract, but I don’t think so) puts Utah way above the “amateur” or “regional” status that you reference. Furthermore, Salt Lake City is the smallest US city with an orchestra of that stature, which according to the LAO, is Group 1, although possibly they are just barely in that category and certainly they are not anywhere near being a true or fair comparison to our top ten.

  • bratschegirl says:

    Unfortunately, there are some boards of directors that simply cannot conceive of musicians’ ideas being worth considering unless they carry a stamp of approval from some outside authority such as a federal mediator.

  • William Safford says:

    It would be much better if we could call in the Feds to help fund our classical music infrastructure.

    Alas, that is not going to happen in the current political environment.

    • Paul Ricchi says:

      Nor SHOULD it happen in any political environment in the US where among politicians there is general ignorance of “art”…as well as a lack of appreciation. Witness the gutting of music education as “trivial”.

      The prospect of a bi- partisan legislative committee influencing the selection of soloists for the Boston Symphony’s season is a nightmare scenario.

      • William Safford says:

        Well, that points to an even greater issue: the lack of arts education in general and of our politicians in particular, which reflects in turn the dearth of arts literacy in our polity.

        The days of Abe Fortas playing string quartets with Sasha Schneider are long gone, alas (Condoleeza Rice being an outlier).

        We once had much stronger government support of the arts in the U.S. We didn’t have that level of intrusiveness then.

  • Paul Ricchi says:

    There is precedent.

    In the very early 1960’s President Kennedy sent Arthur Goldberg, the Secretary of Labor to avert the cancelling of the Metropolitan Opera season over a labor/management disagreement.

    Federal negotiators are often involved when averting a work-stoppage is considered vital to the economy or (much less often) the culture. They generally have the trust of both sides having been above the fray.

    Seeing this as in some way “wrong” is a judgment made in ignorance of history.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      On the contrary, made in full awareness of history. Government has no business to interfere in labour relations in a private company.

      • Paul Ricchi says:

        They certainly do if both parties to the controversy invite their involvement.

      • Blair Tindall says:

        With all due respect, American orchestras are not private companies. They are considered “non-profit.” And because of their tax-exempt status and relationship to the Internal Revenue Service, it is logical that the federal government is involved in arbitration.

      • Robert Levine says:

        “There is no place for government in the internal negotiations of a private company. It’s not government business.”

        That’s a legitimate point of view. But it’s not the way labor relations work under the National Labor Relations Act. The FMCS has to be notified when contracts expire, and they always offer to help. Federal mediation is long-standing part of public policy regarding labor relations in the US.

        Labor negotiations require skill from both parties, developed through training and/or experience, regardless of how good the relationships are or how strong financially is the employer. It’s not a question of “simply talking to each other.”

  • CA says:

    Sigh…and you can interpret that anyway you wish, because that word fits many observations about this field anymore and how it works….or doesn’t.

    On the subject of the Met, I believe that the orchestra musicians’ contract has been negotiated and agreed to early (ie well before the cba expires) on several occasions. Must be nice. Sigh……

  • Nick says:

    Surely one problem is that most of those charged with the management of US orchestras by and large do not have the detailed administrative knowledge and depth of people management skills that their UK counterparts do, for example. Most of the orchestra managers I have met seem to spend far more of their time fund-raising than managing.

  • Patrick says:

    Norm — I don’t see the problem. Utah Symphony musicians now have a reasonably good three-year contract. It seems that it was arrived at in a perfectly sane and agreeable way. What makes that “wrong”?

  • George Brown says:

    With regards to your article on the Utah Symphony, I wish you had inquired with someone here from either side of the negotiating table, before shooting from the hip like that. Had you done so, you might have taken a different angle with your story.

    The FMCS here provides more services than simply mediation. They also can act as facilitators, which is what Kevin did — brilliantly I might add, and for free. This saved both sides a ton of money on attorney fees (even though both sides had the financial wherewithal to use their attorneys). His facilitation skills also helped create a trusting, transparent negotiating atmosphere resulting in Kevin only needing to come in a few select times instead of requiring him at every session. The result, if you’ll recall from another part of the article, was that we wrapped up negotiations months early without anyone from the outside needing to be at the table most of the time.

    The Met and Atlanta called the FMCS — at the back-end of the process — as Mediators to help end their lockout. After meeting Kevin Hawkins from FMCS over a year ago, our CEO, Melia Tourengeau, introduced our Negotiating Committee to him, proposing the idea of his possibly assisting at the FRONT end as a facilitator to make the process smoother. Our Negotiating Committee was equally impressed with him and agreed with Melia, seeing the value — procedurally as well as financially — of using his services as a positive creative solution to what can sometimes morph into a polarized process.

    So, what happened HERE is hardly an example of what’s wrong with US Orchestras. Perhaps in advance of fielding questions about this at the League conference next week, you might consider asking a few first. Seeking out Melia could make a good place to start. At the very least, it might get you to look at what we accomplished in a different light.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      There is no place for government in the internal negotiations of a private company. It’s not government business.

      • NYMike says:

        In the US, arts institutions (known as non-profits) are not “private companies,” since their financials on IRS form 990 are open to public scrutiny at GuideStar.com. Further, some concert halls (see MN orch.) are owned by their municipalities and leased back to the orchestra.

        The Federal Mediation Service has been instrumental in resolving rancorous disputes between managements and musicians over the years. I agree with other posters here on your listening and observing at LAO.

      • Patrick says:

        Well, yeah, actually it is government business. “Government,” as you call it, benefits by musicians working full-time on a reasonable salary. Not only do the musicians pay taxes but “government” avoids having to support them when they’re locked out or otherwise unemployed. It is a reasonable & very effective social service that benefits “government” and musicians and society in general.

        Or is that a bad thing according to your rules?

  • Blair Tindall says:

    Yes it is. The American government collects no taxes from the organizations. Such negotiations are directly in line with government financial concerns.

  • Paul Ricchi says:

    They certainly do if both parties to the controversy invite their involvement.

  • George Brown says:

    And to expand upon upon what NYMIKE said, in our case, the Utah Symphony used the FMCS’ (free) service, not to avoid a rancorous dispute between the two parties, but to stack the odds — from the get-go — towards circumventing one. And it worked.

    It won’t work for EVERY American symphony, particularly if a CEO and/or Board Chair is Hell-bent on restructuring its orchestra by gutting its Musicians’ contract. But when both sides are coming to the table in good faith, it is a very creative tactic, and CAN be a highly effective one, for keeping the process running smoothly.

  • Stephen Proser says:

    The photo that accompanies this article is of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with their volunteer in-house band, The Orchestra at Temple Square performing at the Salt Lake City Tabernacle.

    The Utah Symphony performs across the street at their home, Abravanel Hall.

    The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service is operated by the U.S. Department of Labor to facilitate and mediate negotiations between employers and labor in all sorts of businesses big and small, private and public, for profits and non profits.

    I fail to see what difference it makes whether an orchestra engages a private facilitator or a facilitator from the FMCS. Norman, what exactly is your beef?

    • Blair Tindall says:

      Mr. Proser provides useful information here. I don’t know how negotiations happen abroad, so it may be difficult to unravel our situation here in the states as well.

      But I echo his question; what is the objection here? Also, his comments about the image used for the story are worth considering in the future.

  • George Brown says:

    And I suggest you have a well thought through answer to Steve’s question before you get to the Cleveland conference.