The Detroit Symphony saga carries on, with this weekend’s performances of Haydn and Dvorak cancelled. The orchestra’s musicians have rejected the latest proposal from management, as explained in this article by Free Press music critic Mark Stryker, who I will refer to as “Lieutenant” from this point forward because I love the movie Airplane. I tackled the subject of the DSO strike a while back in a piece of hard-hitting journalism that rivaled anything John Tesh did when he hosted Entertainment Tonight, and the response was passionate. Passion can be applied almost anywhere, though, and if the reactions from Lieutenant Stryker’s story are any indication, the readers of the Detroit Free Press are passionate about not giving a shit about the Detroit Symphony.
It goes without saying that many of the people who commented on the story are almost assuredly not symphony patrons, but whoever they are, they don’t have a whole lot of nice things to say. The overwhelming feeling is one of complete disregard, perhaps best summed up by someone called HackerDave’s comment, “Good luck symphony musicians and remember…don’t bag the eggs with the milk.” “Ordinary” people never like to hear stories about people richer than them squabbling over money. The NFL is about to find this out, even though the players union has many legitimate concerns. The contention between people over how big a slice of pie everybody gets makes the people who think they’re forced to eat crackers for dessert pretty unhappy.
There were all sorts of comments on the story, but three basic themes emerge: nobody cares if there’s a Symphony in town or not, musicians get paid too much for something that most people consider a hobby, and unions are of the devil. I’d like to examine each of those themes in a little greater detail…
Who cares if Detroit has a Symphony or not?
This, of course, is the million-dollar question facing almost any arts organization in America. How do we quantify the value of Art in our society? It’s pretty simple, actually: we can’t, any more than we can quantify the value of religion. You can make up some fancy spreadsheets showing how local restaurants and businesses fare on concert nights, or show flashy tourism figures, but the true value of Art and Culture is almost entirely intrinsic. We do not live in a nation of people afraid to hang their hat on something they cannot see or feel or know. Perhaps if concert tickets were paid “voluntarily” on a standard 1/10th scale into a basket passed around by the ushers people would feel better about the meaning Art can possess.
A major part of the problem many have with arts organizations is that they receive subsidies from the government because they are considered part of the public good. We could engage in an entertaining debate about whether or not tax exemptions are a form of subsidy if we wanted to carry our Art = religion metaphor further, but the fundamental principle behind both types of organization is a good one: to make the community a better place to be. There are a lot of people who may not care if the Detroit Symphony were to disappear, but there are probably an awful lot of people who wouldn’t care if Greater Grace Apostolic Church disappeared, either.
$100,000 to play the TUBA?!
Ask anyone who knows me and they will tell you that this is my all-time pet peeve. The notion that musicians should be paid little or nothing will never die. One commenter even went so far as to say, “Not like these guys worked for a living anyway. They can always go to the Diag and perform music while hoping that passersby will drop some change in their opened instrument cases.” Very few people can understand the work it takes to master an instrument…it’s more work than the overwhelming majority of us will ever do in our lives. But stupid people are everywhere, and this attitude will be around as long as anyone is receiving any form of compensation for doing something that clearly everyone does while in the shower or working in their garage.
Now, do musicians make too much money? As I explained in my last post, I believe they do in some cases, Detroit being an almost absurdly extreme example. I feel strongly that orchestras and other arts groups could get themselves in significantly better financial shape moving forward if we adjusted our expectations on salaries to something more reasonable. But the amount of calls for an “all-volunteer DSO” is pretty sad, and illustrates how out-of-touch most people are with music and musicians. Musicians’ salaries should be scaled back, yes, but don’t act like they should do it for free just because some of us don’t collect garbage or build roads in our spare time.
Can we find a way to drag Barack Obama into this?
One time my stepdad literally chased two union members off his porch and out into the street. He is not alone. Unions are increasingly drawing the ire of most folks. I’m not here to try and sell anyone on unions, although I will plug the IBEW for no reason because they really took care of my grandfather after he put in 50 years of being an electrician, so thanks there. Many unions have certainly become a little more difficult to get behind in recent years, and this has led to calls for their destruction. Of course, placing your good faith in the hands of organizations to do the right thing for their employees is not always a championship solution, either.
As far as I can tell, unions are a necessary evil, no different than government or the Los Angeles Lakers. Perhaps the demands in this case are extravagant, but I think it is perhaps a bit of a reach to say that unions are ruining everything. People ruin everything. Shit is going to be ruined. If unions don’t do it, something will fill the “we must ruin everything” void.
The truth is, at the heart of almost every disagreement is a fundamental failure to acknowledge reality by one or both parties. The situation with the DSO is complicated, sure, but until both sides have any interest in facing what precious little truth exists, they’ll just end up staring at each other like Conan O’Brien and Max Weinberg. They appear close to ending the strike, but is the damage already done? Only time, and their new contract, will tell.