Striking musicians: Who will win this stand-off?

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra strike is now in its sixth week with no apparent end in sight. The underlying problems that led to the strike did not begin with the negotiations for this contract. In fact, the problem was identified by economists William Baumol and William Bowen in their 1966 article entitled “Anatomy of the Income Gap,” which appeared in Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma. As explained by Baumol and Bowen, nonprofit performing arts organizations, no matter how successful artistically, typically suffer from an inevitable “cost disease” of growing financial pressures and an ever-widening gap between income and expenses. The problem of spiraling expenses is persistent in the arts industry because performing arts organizations do not benefit from the productivity gains realized in other sectors of society. A live performance of a 45-minute Schubert quartet will take the same three man-hours to produce as it did a century ago, and always will. In the mid-twentieth century, classical music performance revenues averaged 60 percent of performance expenses. This percentage has precipitously declined over the decades, and now ticket sales revenues typically account for only 25-40 percent of expenses, at best. And few in the industry believe that this income gap can be substantially reduced through increasing ticket prices, which are already as high as the market will bear in most organizations.
It is largely because of the cost disease that performing arts organizations have needed to shift part of the financial burden back to their performers and managers. It is also why the recent wave of demands by musicians’ labor unions has put many symphony orchestras at risk. Interestingly, since the late 1980s, the wages of symphony musicians have increased more rapidly than the wages of most other workers. These pay increases were not strongly correlated with the financial performance of orchestras; rather, musicians’ wages were strongly correlated with private donations to orchestras. Said Robert Flanagan in his book “The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras,” (Yale University press, 2012) “The large number of orchestra bankruptcies over the past 20 years demonstrates that a wage policy that ignores measures of an organization’s economic strength will have serious consequences for both musicians and music lovers.
It is no secret that even the great Chicago Symphony Orchestra has been running deficits in some recent years. It is no secret that audiences are aging and not being replaced in equal numbers by younger generations. It is no surprise that many music lovers have turned to cheaper and more convenient methods for enjoying music, even if it is not comparable to the live experience.
The CSO musicians are only the most recent of many orchestras who stop playing until their demands are met. I understand that each aspect of the musicians’ pension plan is of utmost importance to them and to musicians at other orchestras who are lending their support, hoping they will gain if the CSO wins their battle.
But the handwriting is on the wall. Maybe the musicians will win this battle. But we will all lose this war. The longer we wait to become more fiscally responsible, the sooner we are likely to lose our beloved orchestras all together. The League of American Orchestras has been focusing on the severity of this problem for decades. Not only is it nothing new, but it keeps worsening.
The discussion should not be about whether the fine musicians who have devoted their lives to their music are worthy of a better deal. The great musicians I know who do not have a full-time contract but must get performance engagements for every time they playing, hoping they can cobble together enough earnings to survive, also are worthy of a better deal.
But those of us who love live classical music need to support the long term view, which means supporting belt-tightening and sustainability, so that the music can play on.

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