Spokane Symphony: Stranded

Meet the 21st Century American Orchestra: Sweeping labor cuts, lockouts, strikes, and a management culture with declining human values. Unfortunately, musicians in Spokane, Washington have found themselves next in line.

In 2006 the Spokane Symphony, in a move designed to boost its artistic quality, imported fresh talent to its ranks with the promise of 191 services yielding $19,000 annually. Today, the symphony's financial outlook is vibrant by any definition; management is reporting a $27,754 surplus, healthy ticket sales and increased expenditures in a variety of other budget areas. Contributed income is the third best on record for the organization, and strongly up from the previous two seasons. Further, the endowment is greater than twice the size of its operating budget.

In light of all this good news, then, it is puzzling why management is shrinking the orchestra back to its 2002 size by jamming through a 13.5 percent pay cut, offering no minimum service count, and restricting its members from taking supplemental work in other nearby orchestras. These measures have musicians reeling financially even while the orchestra is thriving.

Spokane Symphony Board President, Peter Moye explains the rationale:

Because of the economic downturn, the Symphony's planned expansion of musician work was not economically feasible. As good fiscal agents of the Symphony, the Board feels strongly that it can no longer pay for work that is not being performed.

The "planned expansion" Moye is referring to includes the 191 service count promised to its musicians before they relocated to Spokane based on the contract's economic viability. Now that management is rescinding that offer -- and worse, promising no service count minimum for 2013-2014 even while retaining a restrictive clause on freelancing, Spokane Symphony musicians are effectively stranded.

Brenda Nienhouse, the Executive Director, says here, that the symphony is acting honorably by offering the same per service amount as in previous seasons, and is "happy to pay for services we can use."

Not wanting to pay for work that is not being performed sounds fair, but her remarks don't tell the whole story; musicians remain willing to work, but it's up to management to schedule it, and this is where results are poor and explanations are in short supply.

The 18 administrators employed by the Spokane Symphony Orchestra managed to get an embarrassing 3 (total) educational outreach performances scheduled for last season. In contrast, the Yakima Symphony, a nearby orchestra with a considerably smaller budget, and one which employs 3 staff members, managed to schedule 57 such services.

Reflecting on the financial toll the 13.5 percent pay cut will have on Spokane Symphony's 62 full time musicians is an exercise in frustration. The identity of its musicians is largely married couples. (17 singles/45 married.) Poverty level in Spokane, for two adults and one child is $18,304. One adult, without children, hits the poverty threshold at $10,836. The contract in contention is offering roughly $15,000.

Things become more depressing when one grasps that poverty models don't accurately reflect the realities of musicians' lives. Spokane players, for instance, are saddled with considerable student debt. Masters and doctoral degrees are common among their ranks. Instruments, and instrument maintenance, cost a fortune also. Management is gorging itself on the benefits of these expenses, which are absorbed by labor on insultingly low wages, disproportionate to the symphony's fiscal outlook.

Worse, the Spokane contract's restrictive language on freelancing is held over from a previous concession musicians granted when they were still trying to boost services to 191, yet management won't relinquish that tool even as it withdraws a minimum service count.

Leadership in the Spokane Symphony is creating a poverty threshold orchestra and restricting its labor force from seeking work elsewhere. These policies effectively lower the bar from the usual industry assault on labor.

According to American Federation of Music negotiator, Nathan Kahn, similar tactics are utilized in some devious foreign orchestras who seek to entice American musicians with the promise of competitive wages, then claim later that their financial projections were too optimistic. Once the cash strapped musicians have spent their fortunes to move, they're usually stuck for years before earning enough to relocate again.

On the matter of underutilizing its musicians, Kahn says Spokane Symphony management has offered no explanation. Ideas designed to meet the 191 service count, and maintain the upward trajectory of the orchestra, died on the vine. These ideas included: outreach concerts for elementary age children, instrumental coachings for junior high through college-aged school ensembles, concerts for senior centers, music wellness concerts, and music career-themed lectures in high schools.

Going by ticket sales and charitable giving, it's clear that human values are thriving in the Spokane community. The public clearly wants its symphony orchestra, contrary to the arts crisis drumbeat we hear so much about. Going by the numbers, however, the Spokane Symphony's executive leadership has effectively lowered the bar further for musician labor in the United States.

Please, no encore.