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  • 9. Are Labor and Management (Finally) Working Together to Save the Day? The COVID-19 Crisis in Orchestras

9. Are Labor and Management (Finally) Working Together to Save the Day? The COVID-19 Crisis in Orchestras

Matthew VanBesien

© Matthew VanBesien, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0242.09

Pausing to revise this essay in the midst of the 2020 global COVID-19 pandemic presents a very interesting opportunity for reflection. At present, many professional orchestras and opera companies in America have temporarily reduced or suspended operations, and have fully or partially furloughed musicians, artists, stage crews, and administrative teams. At the same time, many companies are indeed staying active and keeping their employees on the organization’s payroll, some even fully. They have been able to do so in part because of federal PPP assistance (an unprecedented moment in emergency funding for arts non-profits), and because musicians and managements at many orchestras are working together to adapt to and weather this moment. The weeks and months ahead in the 2020-21 season—and potentially into 2021-22 and beyond—look uncertain at best, and at worst, catastrophic, at least for some. That said, all is not lost in the orchestral world. This article was originally conceived during a more “normal” time. While many would argue that there has scarcely been any “normality” in the performing arts since the global recession of 2007-09, our current moment and experience with COVID-19, accompanied by economic impacts and by social, racial, and political unrest, may in fact ensure that there will be no return to a normal time for the arts in the future. MVB, October 16, 2020.


“Our labor unions are not narrow, self-seeking groups. They have raised wages, shortened hours, and provided supplemental benefits. Through collective bargaining and grievance procedures, they have brought justice and democracy to the shop floor.”1 These words were spoken by then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy in the summer of 1960 to leaders of the AFL-CIO as he was receiving their endorsement for president. It would be two years later that President Kennedy would issue an executive order allowing collective bargaining for workers in federal government, something prohibited up until that point. Two years after that, the New York Philharmonic ratified its first year-round, fifty-two-week, contract for its musicians, described in The New York Times as “the first time that an entire symphony orchestra in the United States will operate on a 52-week basis” (Strongin, 1964: 41). While Kennedy was considered a champion of organized labor, and presided over a White House overtly supportive of the performing arts, one wonders if he himself understood that the unionized workforce in America would reach its apex in the 1960s and the early 1970s, only to begin a slow and steady decline in the decades to come (Hamilton Project Report, August 2019).

From this author’s vantage point, there may be no more vexing aspect of the professional orchestral sector than historical labor-management dynamics. Yet in this crucial moment of 2020, there appears to be reflection and even inflection—an opportunity for a new paradigm amidst a severe crisis. Orchestras, opera companies, and all the performing arts are wrestling not only with catastrophic disruption of the global pandemic, but also with long-standing issues in engaging and growing new audiences, structural and systemic financial challenges in many major orchestral and opera companies, the long-delayed identification of structural racism and under-representation of musicians of color within the sector, and the sector’s slow and often mixed success in embracing digital media and technology, to say nothing of these companies’ ongoing desires to further ensure artistic quality and cultural vibrancy at their institutions.

It is within this challenging context that the current labor-management structure and all its related dynamics deserve attention, honest debate, and evolution towards a far more collaborative and transparent model in order to address the daunting challenges ahead. Some might argue this work and resultant progress is already manifesting itself in 2020.

Anyone who has been privileged to work within the field must recognize all the gains organized labor unions have helped provide for musicians and artists over the past century. Professional musicians deserve and need to be able to have representation and to bargain collectively. I myself began my career as a professional French horn player in the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, and was a member of the AFM [American Federation of Musicians] for nearly fifteen years before transitioning to management. We must also recognize that the labor management construct and the resultant dynamics have not always served either party optimally. Labor and management have often become mired in technical, contractual struggles and disagreements at the expense of identifying and addressing larger, systemic issues facing orchestras. This has often resulted in negative PR and public sentiments, difficult organizational cultures, challenging dynamics with philanthropic donors, and in the most severe cases, utter organizational dysfunction and/or dissolution. Even the most calcified stakeholder in either the labor or management camps would concede that some kind of re-assessment and evolutionary moment within the current labor-management structure is likely overdue.

The question that might now be raised in any examination of the orchestra sector is: “How is this all really working, and is our current and historical model actually the best we need going forward—for the musicians themselves, the art form and its future, and the organizations that employ them?” While the current labor-management construct has been in effect for many years and began to truly advance the plight of musicians in the second half of the twentieth century—I’m personally betting that few in our industry would honestly say they feel it has, at least historically, been adaptive to shifting conditions in the marketplace or engendered trust and honest, constructive dialogue amongst stakeholders. The long-standing argument in this space has always been that the orchestral contract model just needs much more flexibility, which is indeed true, but this author would argue that the historical labor-management construct itself, and how it has played out in organizational culture and dynamics, is an equally culpable factor.

COVID-19 Crisis—Orchestras Respond

The Metropolitan Opera provides an arresting example of the economic carnage of COVID-19, considering the drastic steps taken by the company’s leadership after only 48 hours into NYC’s lockdown, and also how little transparency and consultation appears to have been provided to their musicians, choristers, and stagehands in March 2020 and onward throughout the summer. All the aforementioned stakeholder groups have been furloughed without salary since early March (the company has continued to fund health insurance), and the cancellation of the Met’s entire 2020-21 season suggests that this may not change until sometime in mid to late 2021.

Attentive observers of the opera and performing arts world can recognize, over the last ten to fifteen years, the Met’s serious financial issues—some structural and systemic, and some conceivably as a result of the shifting of the company’s resources towards expanding digital platforms to develop a global audience base, and towards more lavish, built-for-HD productions that require very significant investment. As with so many other facets of the arts, the pandemic now lays bare these systemic challenges, while it also exacerbates and accelerates nearer-term issues a company like the Metropolitan Opera faces. Adaptive leadership, collaboration, transparency, clear communications, and a shared understanding of the key problems and possible paths forward, seem in short supply.

Also striking is some reporting and commentary from the ICSOM newsletter, Senza Sordino, for August 2020. In the August newsletter, Chairperson Meredith Snow begins her report by stating, “We find ourselves in a very tight spot. I doubt there has ever been a time…that our orchestras have been in a more precarious situation” (Snow, 2020). Snow goes on to frame the struggle of the arts within the current pandemic, social, racial, and political crisis facing the country, while also acknowledging the opportunity within the crisis to “see where we are headed” stating that, “This is a moment for our nation to do better. It is a moment for us to do better.”

Paul Austin, ICSOM President and musician in the Grand Rapids Symphony, feels that even since the global recession in 2007-09, there are more examples of “trusting and harmonious” (Austin, 2020) relationships between labor and managements at major US orchestras than before, that ICSOM is working diligently to encourage a culture of transparency and mutual respect, and, further, that work and commitment from both sides is now benefitting orchestras greatly as they work to weather the challenges of 2020.

Meredith Snow and Paul Austin’s words stand in some contrast to the recounting of another situation within the ICSOM newsletter, that of the travails of the New York Philharmonic’s early response and attempts to more freely utilize digital media at the onset of the pandemic in March. While all performing arts companies and artists quickly scrambled to provide online content and maintain connectivity with audiences in the early months of COVID-19, the ICSOM bulletin2 recounts a rather unsavory moment in which, according to the AFM and ICSOM account, management at the New York Philharmonic employed the threat of enacting force-majeure and furloughing musicians to secure unlimited, unpaid use of archival digital content.3 Fast-forward eleven months, and indications from both musicians and management point now to a more evolved, collaborative relationship based on greater and consistent transparency. Austin also acknowledges that indeed there are still orchestras where the labor-management dynamic is highly adversarial, but many more are committing to “building bridges” (Austin, 2020), whenever possible.4

At the other end of the spectrum from the New York organizations above, three other American orchestras—the Philadelphia Orchestra, Houston Symphony, and Grand Rapids Symphony—all appear to be navigating the pandemic crisis more adaptively and successfully, keeping their musicians employed, active, and at least partially compensated, and signaling to their respective communities how they are working together through challenges to engage, entertain, and keep inspiring their audiences.

The Philadelphia Orchestra Association has continued to employ its musicians throughout 2020 and into 2021, though at a reduced salary rate, and has forged ahead with regular digital concert offerings with their Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin (who is also the Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera), along with other guest conductors and soloists. While acknowledging the serious challenges of the moment, Philadelphia Orchestra President Matias Tarnopolsky sees the current, collaborative approach taken by both the orchestra’s musicians and the management as a furthering of real “change in the paradigm” to a “culture of ‘we’.” Tarnopolsky goes on to assert that “the institutions who play this moment right, help bring their institutions together, ultimately have the opportunity to fulfill their missions and live up to their responsibility to preserve the music” (Tarnopolsky, 2020).

Tarnopolsky, who began his tenure in August 2018 on the heels of an extended period of financial pressure (including a 2011 bankruptcy) and labor unease, felt from the start it was important for the orchestra to communicate a “warm, open embrace of the community.” Working in close partnership with Nézet-Séguin, the two fast-tracked a collaborative approach with the orchestra, board, and staff to become a more unified organization, well before the onset of Covid-19. “We wanted one organization, focused on the community, not just on ourselves,” says Tarnopolsky, who stressed that this important work further galvanized the organization once the pandemic set in.

The orchestra CEO relays a story on March 12, 2020, when the initial pandemic lockdown was imminent, and amidst planned concerts both in Philadelphia and at Carnegie Hall in the coming days. “It was really automatic,” as he tells it, the musicians and management springing collectively into action, arranging television cameras in preparation to broadcast that evening’s concert to Philadelphia audiences and worldwide. Normally the machinations of broadcasted concerts take several weeks (if not months) of preparation; however, the working relationship which they’d already strived toward help pave the way for immediate, decisive, and collaborative action.

As Tarnopolsky looks to the future, he acknowledges all the challenges, but is grateful that, “science that has gotten us through so much of what we’ve tried to do up to this point.” He cites as guiding principles their commitment to the people of their organization, protecting the integrity of their musicians and the ensemble, and to helping the people of Philadelphia throughout the pandemic. “The digital stage is here to stay, as are the important partnerships and collaborations this difficult time has fostered. It’s also incumbent on all of us to nurture this new paradigm, a new way of working as we emerge from this pandemic.”

Likewise in Houston, at the Houston Symphony, musicians continue to be employed, and live concerts with greatly reduced in-person audiences resumed in Jones Hall in late summer. John Mangum, Houston Symphony CEO, credits their ability to seek out shared solutions to a shift in the company’s mindset about negotiating. “Our contract is a living, breathing thing,” cites Mangum, and he acknowledges that negotiations happen on a “very regular basis,” not merely upon the conclusion of each multi-year agreement. Mangum stressed how the musicians in Houston are “engaged, connected, and interested in real time success” (Mangum, 2020).

Brinton Averil Smith, Principal Cellist with the Houston Symphony (and previously a member of the New York Philharmonic), credits consistent communication, transparency, and shared goals as key factors in Houston’s ability to navigate this and other challenges. The positive culture in Houston is “a long time coming,” says Smith. “Historically, our orchestra had a very adversarial relationship with management, and even at times with the board and donor community. We’ve been on a much more positive trajectory for about 15 years, working with each successive leadership team and making a conscious decision to build a more collaborative culture, one plank at a time.”

Smith adds that while the Houston Symphony was “one of the first [orchestras] out of the gate to negotiate a pay decrease during Covid, we were also one of the first out of the gate to begin performing live, in-person concerts in our hall starting July 4, 2020.” He acknowledges the situation feels like an “existential moment” at times, and there were indeed some tough moments when the orchestra first considered starting concerts again, especially amidst a case count spike in metro Houston. But with regular testing and good safety protocols, the orchestra’s musicians and CEO Mangum came to the conclusion, according to Smith, that “we can’t go out in normal times and tell our community that music and what we do is essential, then disappear for the next 18 months.”

Paul Austin in Grand Rapids also weighed in on how the Grand Rapids Symphony has specifically responded during this crisis, noting immediately in our discussion how they had benefitted from the orchestra’s “solid leadership in Mary Tuuk (CEO) and Aaron Doty (GM).” The orchestra is not only still fully employed, but was only recently asked to consider a 5% pay reduction, which was voted on and accepted. Austin notes that management made it clear that from the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, they would resist “the easy way out” (Austin, 2020), and not place a large burden on the musicians through furloughing and salary reduction, and he feels this approach has yielded very positive results and goodwill within their organization.

Challenges Ahead

Outside of the COVID-19 crisis there are, and will continue to be, real challenges in the orchestra sector, from which a more fundamental question (at least for this author) emerges about the labor-management construct itself, and how musicians and managements will choose to work together (or not) in the coming years. In addition to periodic labor-management relations issues and flare-ups, usually emanating as a result of severe financial challenges, some key issues are as follows:

  • Significant changes in audiences, and the public’s “consumption” of and support for all of the performing arts, along with rapidly changing buying patterns for ticket sales, both subscriptions and single tickets
  • Lingering questions of cultural relevance as to whether these major musical institutions can ever truly be, “representative” of their communities with regard to diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice
  • Philanthropy and sponsorship continuing to make up an ever-growing part of these companies’ budgets, bringing the volatility of fundraising as yet another variable in the financial equation
  • Healthcare and benefits costs escalating at a pace far faster than other expenses and revenue streams, mirroring the greater health care landscape
  • Legacy pension and retirement plans exerting significant financial pressure on organizations, while creating risk to, if not significantly jeopardizing, musicians’ retirement benefits altogether (especially for those in multi-employer plans such as the AFM-EP, the union’s multi-employer pension fund)
  • A decline in the ability to leverage and monetize the various forms of media, recordings, and broadcast activities as organizations and their musicians (and notably the leadership of AFM and orchestra managements) struggle to find common ground
  • The near-complete loss of the dominant position classical public radio once held in many US markets

There are also remaining cultural aspects of the traditional, adversarial labor-management construct about which we should have some honesty:

  • While collective bargaining is a necessary factor in having unionized musicians, the reality (with some exceptions) is that these isolated negotiating periods, which are usually every two to four years, can result in high levels of added stress, animosity and mistrust across all constituencies
  • There are significant temporal, strategic, and emotional drains on the musicians, professional staff, board members, and music directors/chief conductors involved; most managers, and perhaps musicians, would freely admit that combative, adversarial collective bargaining is one of the least enjoyable aspects of leading or performing in any major orchestra
  • Alternative methods for collective bargaining (e.g. Interest Based Bargaining) have neither been embraced nor recognized in any consistent way within the sector
  • Significant bargaining issues in work rules surrounding conditions of recording, broadcast, and digital media as orchestras wrestle with ways to “deliver” their respective art forms to rapidly changing public tastes and attitudes.

Conclusions and More Questions

My own experience in orchestral management work has been that a vast majority of orchestras and opera companies’ managements and boards actually do want to employ excellent musicians and artists, secure their services by paying competitive salaries, provide comprehensive benefit plans, and create a positive, safe, respectful, and artistically satisfying work environment. Musicians also share in the desire for organizational success (and this seems even more prevalent today), offering their talents in expanded ways on and off stage.

When you consider the value proposition for both sides of management (board/staff) and labor (musicians), one begins to see quickly how these sometimes adversarial groups could actually develop a much more evolved, collaborative model. Musicians have shown intense dedication and made enormous sacrifices in their own lives, professional work, and education to attain these highly coveted performing roles, and are also keen to bring their energy, ideas, and perspectives to the table. While laypeople on most non-profit arts boards (they receive no compensation and are, in fact, normally required to make sizable annual and capital contributions), and those who are part of professional management and staff (again, with lower salaries than comparable positions in the for-profit sector and a high degree of financial—and sometimes labor—volatility), do have the privilege of working in a field about which they have real passion, the hours, stress, and professional demands on them are not insignificant. Each of the stakeholder groups described above have made conscious decisions to play a role in the orchestral world, and are clearly prepared to continue to be invested in it, so it seems only logical, given each side’s commitment, that solutions must be found.

As these organizations strive to keep moving forward in the time of this pandemic and immense challenges, a flood of other questions emerges:

  • What examples from other industries, sectors, or countries can be investigated to help inform a path forward? Or, can the orchestral sector actually become a best-case example itself?
  • What kind of evolved labor-management construct would the musicians themselves like to see in the future? What might ICSOM’s role be as both a convening body and a potential industry-specific representation model for the future?
  • Is AFM willing to devote real, constructive energy to the orchestral sector and represent their musicians in their current challenges, or at least to empower ICSOM and the artists themselves to take the lead even more?
  • Lastly, can the issues of financial pressure, rising health-insurance markets, deteriorating pensions and retirement plans, digital media, diversity, equity, and inclusion, all combined now with COVID-19 and 2020, finally bring about opportunities for increased, honest dialogue on both local and national levels?

Despite all the significant questions and challenges enumerated above, there are some palpable reasons for optimism. While audience loyalty is experiencing seismic change, consumption of live performance remained strong pre-COVID across a good part of the industry, with greater numbers of unique attendees. There also appeared to be a growing appetite for more creative and innovative programming, environments, and contexts in which to experience live performance, and artists and ensembles willing to operate outside the normal parameters and delivery methods of classical orchestral and opera performances. New ensembles with different artistic and operating models (e.g., International Contemporary Ensemble, The Knights) have emerged in North America, demonstrating artistic vibrancy while employing a more cooperative structure, rebuffing the long-held labor-management-board operating model and dynamics of more traditional peer organizations.

If there is indeed a way to cut through the usual rhetoric then perhaps there are new directions and an evolved labor-management construct that can be developed and that will advance the musicians’ cause and commitment to music, moving the art form itself forward and helping organizations to weather COVID-19 and emerge as stronger, more successful, and effective advocates for the orchestra in our country. To be sure, managements, boards and musicians all need to acknowledge current and past transgressions, but more importantly now commit themselves to a new relationship based on transparency, shared progress, collaboration, and a unified passion for the advancement of music as an art form in society. In my own career, I have often referred to a group of highly talented musicians coming together as an orchestra as a “very right thing” in a world too often populated by “wrong things.” I only hope I continue to be correct about this in the future.


Austin, Paul. 2020. Interview by the author, 10 October 2020.

Averil Smith, Brinton. 2021. Interview by the author, February 2021.

Dressman, James A. III. 2020. “The Effect of Force Majeure Clauses during a Global Pandemic”, DBL Law, 1 April, https://www.dbllaw.com/the-effect-of-force-majeure-clauses-during-a-global-pandemic/

Hamilton Project Report. August 2019. https://www.hamiltonproject.org/blog/the_hamilton_project_2019_a_year_in_figures

Jacobs, Julia. 2020. “New York Philharmonic Musicians Agree to Years of Pandemic Pay Cuts”, The New York Times, 7 December, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/07/arts/music/new-york-philharmonic-pay-cuts.html

Mangum, John. 2020. Interview by the author, October 2020.

Papers of John F. Kennedy. 1960. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files. Speeches and the Press. Speech Files, 1953-1960. New York State AFL-CIO, 30 August 1960. JFKSEN-0910-024. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. https://www.jfklibrary.org/asset-viewer/archives/JFKSEN/0910/JFKSEN-0910-024

Skolnick, Rochelle and Deborah Newmark. 2020. “Electronic Media for a COVID Season”, Senza Sordino, 58.3 (August), 4–7.  https://www.icsom.org/senzasordino/2020/08/electronic-media-for-a-covid-season/

Snow, Meredith. 2020. “Lessons for the 21st Century”, Senza Sordino, 58.3 (August), 2–3. https://www.icsom.org/senzasordino/2020/08/lessons-for-the-21st-century/

Strongin, Theodore. 1964. “Philharmonic and Musicians Agree on Year‐Round Contract”, The New York Times, 1 May, https://www.nytimes.com/1964/05/01/archives/philharmonic-and-musicians-agree-on-yearround-contract.html

Tarnopolsky, Matias. 2020. Interview by the author, October 2020; February 2021.

1 Papers of John F. Kennedy (1960).

2 See https://www.icsom.org/senzasordino/issues/august-2020/.

3 For more on questions of force-majeure during a pandemic, see Dressman, 2020.

4 As this article was being finalized, the New York Philharmonic announced the full cancellation of the 2020-21 season on October 13, 2020 and the musicians agreed to years of salary cuts: (Jacobs, 2020).

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