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To get orchestras out of their financial mess, all sides must accept the new realities

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Eric Nilsson
Eric Nilsson is an attorney in Minneapolis.
Submitted photo

By Eric Nilsson

Eric Nilsson, Falcon Heights, is an attorney. Two members of his family are musicians in the SPCO. 

The labor crisis affecting the Minnesota Orchestra and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra deepened Wednesday, as SPCO management announced a Sunday deadline for musicians to accept its latest offer or face a lockout.

At both orchestras, the impasse can be summed up this way:

Musicians believe that they're underappreciated; that their skills deserve higher compensation than management wants to grant, and that management has been derelict in fundraising and too emulative of cost-cutting business executives.

Management, in turn, claims that it does fully appreciate the musicians; that it doesn't have the money to pay what the musicians want, and that raising dough for classical music is one tough job, and in time, if expenses aren't aligned with revenues, the gig will be up. 

As one who appreciates both the Minnesota Orchestra and the SPCO, and as current chair of the Governing Members of the SPCO (a group of 150 dedicated contributors), I have a few thoughts on the current labor discord. 

There are three realities that all sides — musicians, managers and audiences — need to address. All three are fastballs with a nasty curve: 

The first reality is this: However much it takes to become a top-flight classical musician, the performer can expect to earn only what the market is able and willing to pay.  

What's the "market"? It's people with money, be it $10 or $10 million, who would buy concert tickets or make donations to current operations and, one would hope, to an endowment for the long haul. 

Today, far more "people with money" are inspired to give to charities meeting human needs than are willing to pay top-flight classical music performers year after year. In other words, the problem here is not parsimony. The problem is that unless and until society at large assigns higher value to the extraordinary work of classical music performers, musicians cannot expect to be paid what they deserve.

To persuade people without intense exposure to become huge fans and significant financial supporters of orchestras is a tall order.

An important aspect of this first, harsh reality is that the musicians' leverage against management is limited. In other contexts, labor can push against profitability. NFL refs or NHL players, for example, can press against the owners' profits and team values. Not so in the nonprofit world of symphony orchestras, where there is no such thing as "profit" or entity "market value." 

None of us who invests in the Minnesota Orchestra or SPCO expects a personal financial return. Nor can most musicians easily join another "team." Regrettably, with few exceptions, orchestras across the country are experiencing serious financial woes.

The first reality points to a second: to increase significantly society's value perception of live, world-class classical music, greater exposure and appreciation (in that order) would need to occur in our schools, starting at kindergarten and continuing through college.  The exposure would have to be via the core curriculum, not simply by casual, extracurricular band, choral, orchestra and individual instruction. 

People surrounded by classical music can vouch for its intrinsic value and thus, are willing to pay. However, to persuade people without intense exposure to become huge fans and significant financial supporters of orchestras is a tall order. And the payback I'm talking about would be a long process — 20 years if we were to institute today a "core curriculum," K-through-college approach. We would then have to wait 20 years longer before the first crop of people with such exposure would reach an age when they would be capable of making major contributions to the Minnesota Orchestra and the SPCO. (I know what I'm talking about here: In my own case, even after intense exposure to classical music all my life, I didn't start giving substantially until I was well past 40.)

The timeframe associated with the second reality — the links between exposure and appreciation; appreciation and support — leads to a third reality. To keep live, top-flight performances of classical music afloat today, we need to devise new approaches to how music-making by the Minnesota Orchestra and the SPCO is presented, marketed and financed.  

For a number of years and to counteract reductions in corporate and foundation contributions because of other needs in the community, the SPCO has run with a three-step approach:

 First, make concerts more accessible, by reducing ticket prices (raising ticket prices works against the essential need to grow audiences), performing in 10 venues across the Twin Cities and offering "memberships" (an unlimited number of concerts for just $5 a month).

Second, encourage new audience members to become subscribers and donate.  

Third, as people become more committed to the SPCO, get them (like me!) to increase their donations by making more significant annual pledges. This innovative model works well, but it needs more time to expand. And it needs a boost.

Apart from making concerts eminently affordable and accessible, we who want the Minnesota Orchestra and the SPCO to thrive need to attract more people who have not yet experienced enough exposure. We need to figure out how to compress many years' worth of exposure (and thus, appreciation) into a dozen or so concerts over a two- to three-year period. We have to draw more people away from a mind-boggling array of alternative attractions. We have to disabuse people of the stereotypical perception that orchestra concerts are only for snobs or nerds or old folks or some kind of elite.  

Personally, I'm in favor of trying any number of radically improbable ideas to introduce more "people with money" to live performances by our orchestras. Smash down the barriers — real and perceived.  Plant a group of SPCO players at midfield during halftime at a Vikings game or a bunch of Minnesota Orchestra members on the infield between innings of a Twins game. Drop a few SPCO and Minnesota Orchestra string players onto the stage in the middle of a rock concert. Play in a downtown skyway over lunch hour. Turn all Muzak equivalents in the Twin Cities into advertising for the SPCO and Minnesota Orchestra. 

And when it comes to financing, put the full-court press on those people with money, particularly those with plenty of it, many of whom are outside the circle of traditional giving to the Minnesota Orchestra and the SPCO and who have never attended a concert. Give them the same argument that was used on all of us for the Vikings stadium — it's not about liking football or, in the case of the orchestras, about liking Bach, Beethoven or Berg.  It's about keeping this a world-class community so as to attract and grow world-class economic activity for the benefit of every single member of the community, whether or not he or she attends football games or orchestra concerts. 

Musicians and management alike need to acknowledge these three core realities:  that society's value perception of classical music is too low; that the perceived value could be increased exponentially, but it would be a 40-year project; and that radical measures need implementing — today. 

Otherwise, the "we want more" theme of the musicians and the "we don't have the dough" refrain by management will devolve into a cacophonous clash of bands repeating the same old tunes until chairs, instruments and musicians slide off a listing stage. The rest of us who love the world-class music of our local orchestral gems will find ourselves in cold, silent water.