The Day the Music Stopped

Musicians in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra have been locked out since June 17 as management proposes massive salary cuts. Despite their supposedly elite status, classical musicians face the same kinds of brutal austerity measures as other workers.

Locked-out Baltimore Symphony Orchestra musicians in Baltimore, MD on June 17, 2019. BSO Musicians / Twitter

On its surface, classical music is often seen as a pastime of the wealthy and cultured, and the very existence of symphony orchestras strikes some as elitist. However this perspective obscures an important truth about musicians in symphony orchestras: they are just as much members of the working class as Teamsters and teachers, and are equally entitled to a dignified life.

In Baltimore, that way of life for the members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is under direct threat from a management that puts more value on the money in the Orchestra’s endowment than the quality of life of its players. On Monday June 17, the musicians of the BSO were put on lockout in an attempt to bully them into signing a contract that would cut salaries by 20 percent. That’s especially bad considering that the salaries from the BSO’s recently expired contract had musicians making less than they were ten years ago, when adjusted for inflation and cost of living.

Not only did the board vote unanimously and abruptly to cut the orchestra’s summer season, the decision and the resulting lockout leaves musicians without pay and health insurance until the start of the 2019–2020 season in September. Members of the orchestra have expressed deep fear about the loss of health care and salary jeopardizing their ability to pay their rents, mortgages, and bills.

This type of behavior from orchestra management is nothing new. From the end of 2012 to January 2014, the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra braved a sixteen-month lockout, eventually signing a contract that, while better than what was originally proposed by management, still cut musicians’ pay and benefits.

Emily Hogstad, an amateur musician and freelance writer, noted several similarities in language between the MSO and BSO management’s lockout statements. In two examples the BSO Management cites as being successful examples of how orchestras can rebound from labor disputes on its FAQ, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was locked out by management for two months before signing a contract that trades a marginal raise in pay for worse health care and longer durations of orchestra vacancies. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra went on strike for six months in 2011, only to concede to an almost $30,000/year pay cut.

Musicians I spoke to on the picket line seemed doubtful that management and orchestra members (represented by the American Federation of Musicians Local 40-543) would be able to reach an agreement during the contract negotiations set for Friday. Greg Mulligan, co-chairman of the Baltimore Symphony Musicians’ Players Committee, told me he considered the moves by management to be “a union-busting tactic.” Another musician, who asked to remain anonymous, was distraught about the cuts in medical care that will affect members of her family. On the whole, morale was low. Management cited fiscal woes (which they had concealed from politicians, musicians, donors, and the public) for the reason for the cuts and lockout, but Mulligan doesn’t believe that line.

“There’s about $72 million in the endowment,” he said. “Each year, the endowment gives a draw to the orchestra, and the reported draw in the last few years has been around 5 percent. By Maryland law they can take up to 7 percent. So they’ve been leaving a million and a half dollars on the table by not taking the full 7 percent and that’s about the extent of the deficit they’ve been claiming the last few years. They can solve their so-called deficit by taking a larger draw.”

Another part of the BSO story involves the Maryland state legislature, which recently ratified House Bill 1404. This bill established a working group consisting of musicians, board members, BSO administration, and legislators that would work toward putting the symphony on the path to financial resilience, as well as allocating the BSO $3.2 million in funds over the course of two fiscal years. The BSO announced their summer season believing that this bill would pass.

Larry Hogan, Maryland’s Republican governor signed this bill into law, but, importantly, did not yet agree to release said funds. However, as Hogstad notes, on May 29, the day after this legislation is signed into law, the BSO abruptly cancelled its summer season, signifying that a rift had occurred between management and politicians. That was more than enough reason for Hogan to decide against allocating the funds, telling the Baltimore Sun: “We continually pour millions and millions of dollars into the BSO, but they’ve got real serious issues and problems with the management, with losing the support of their donor base and the legislature took the money out of the budget and fenced it off.”

My personal hunch on the failure of HB 1404 is that BSO management was not happy with the new bill’s work group idea, which would have given musicians a seat at the table in charting a plan for the BSO’s finances. But beyond that, it is important to emphasize that the decision of Hogan to not release the HB 1404 funds is yet another iteration of the Republican governor’s habit of punishing Baltimore, one of the poorest cities in America, with further austerity.

Take, for example, Hogan’s shuttering of the Red Line transportation project in favor of funding highway expansion benefiting wealthy suburban populations, even after billions of dollars in funds from the federal government had already been disbursed to pay for the Red Line, a project which would have reduced the disparity in transportation access for poor Baltimore neighborhoods. His callous statements refusing funds to the BSO due to “mismanagement” echo those he made blaming city officials for the freezing conditions and disrepair that forced Baltimore Public Schools to close last year, when the root cause of that problem rested more with regressive funding practices at the state level.

Jeopardizing one of Baltimore’s main cultural institutions is just another feather in the cap of Hogan’s program of austerity measures that punishes Baltimore, a minority-majority city, in order to rally the support of his wealthy white suburban base.

A lockout is probably the nastiest of tactics used by orchestra management to force union musicians to sign lackluster contracts. Lockouts take the power of withholding their labor out of the musician’s hands. Management does this for good reason, since orchestras with strong unions, aided — crucially — by community and audience support, have repeatedly used militant tactics to their advantage. Two recent examples of this include recent strikes at the Lyric Opera in Chicago in October and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2011, both of which not only staved off the vultures of austerity, but also resulted in pay raises for their musicians. These are no small wins in times when alarm bells are constantly ringing about how classical music is in its death knell.

Classical music’s image of lush concert halls and wealthy, educated patrons are antithetical to the realities of those who work in the profession. For one thing, training in classical music is expensive: the cost of private lessons is prohibitive in itself, but even at the highest echelons of the field, most musicians still rent their instruments, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars to own.

The most prestigious music schools are still, for the most part, private conservatories whose cost of attendance is astronomical. One member of the BSO told the Baltimore Sun that she is over $100,000 in student loan debt for her conservatory education. The music industry basically pioneered the idea of a gig economy, and perhaps the only exception from that precarious life is a union job in a symphony orchestra.

Still, even those jobs don’t pay for the hours of unpaid work musicians spend practicing. Many symphony jobs are located in expensive cities, and even unionized symphony musicians teach at music schools or private lessons to supplement their income in order to afford the cost of living in these places. Classical musicians are especially prone to workplace injury (yours truly suffers from chronic pain caused by twenty years of violin playing), with hearing loss and musculoskeletal injuries being the most common.

This picture of precarity illustrates that, despite how classical music may look in the public eye, those who produce it are workers too. The only difference between them and others? In the hands of organized musicians, a rousing chorus of “Solidarity Forever” sounds especially good.

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Kate Wagner, an architectural writer and critic, is the creator of the viral blog McMansionHell, which roasts the world’s ugliest houses from top to bottom. She studies the history and theory of architectural acoustics as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University and the Peabody Conservatory.

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