When John Cage was a guest on the game show I’ve Got a Secret back in 1960, he had to adjust the performance of his work Water Walk. Before the broadcast of the show, the producers were informed that there was a disagreement between the two electrician’s unions as to who could and would plug in the five radios that were to be an integral part of the piece. Cage, of course, affably chose to simply hit the radios with his hand instead of tuning them to different radio stations; the entire potentially awkward situation was described in front of the cameras by host Gary Moore as he and Cage discussed how the piece would proceed. In addition to providing the sight of a controversial living composer being a celebrity guest on a game show, the episode demonstrates how a union dispute could affect the performance of new music in a very public setting.
Over the past decade, the unions representing professional musicians have been thrust into the spotlight. Unprecedented numbers of symphony orchestras are running into financial difficulties, initiating negotiations with those unions (many unsuccessfully) to come to a satisfactory agreement that protects both the performers and the orchestra. As Ellen McSweeney wrote about a few weeks ago, there have been plenty of examples of wise and unwise moves by both parties across the spectrum of conflicts, and it is because of this extended and protracted situation in locations throughout the country that one could easily understand how representatives from musicians’ unions would project a strong, vigilant stance against any financial threat against their membership.
One very contentious example of the strained relationship between labor and management is the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in St. Paul, Minnesota. Since 2008, the SPCO has been dealing with decreasing revenue due to the recession and has worked with the musician’s union to enact pay cuts to keep the organization healthy (12% in 2009, 11.3% in 2010). Beginning in the spring of 2012, negotiations began between the SPCO board and the musician’s union to address an anticipated deficit of between $750,000 and $1 million and by the summer, threats of reconfiguring the orchestra away from a full-time pay structure as well as the potential removal of tenure and the ability for the orchestra to dismiss musicians without peer review emerged. In October, the SPCO initiated a lockout and in November cancelled the remaining 2012 concert schedule. By early 2013 talks had ground to a standstill with much distances between the two parties, no concerts through the end of March, and musicians beginning to peel off for greener pastures.
On Monday, the new music group yMusic was traveling to Minneapolis/St. Paul along with the composer Sarah Kirkland Snider and vocalist Shara Worden; they were slated to give two performances of Snider’s work Penelope and Worden’s works written for her band My Brightest Diamond under the auspices of the Liquid Music Series (a music series, presented by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, that brings cutting-edge artists such as Laurie Anderson, Ben Frost, BOAC All-Star Ashley Bathgate, DJ/rupture, and the Bad Plus’ Reid Anderson to St. Paul). That same day the ensemble members received a message from New York City’s Musician’s Union (AFM-Local 802). The message warned them that, because of the current lockout that the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra is currently under due to a protracted dispute between the SPCO and the local musician’s union, they were not to perform the concerts. Subsequently both sold-out concerts were cancelled and the audiences were refunded their ticket expenses.
I asked Sarah Kirkland Snider for comment and background on the matter and the following is her reply:
Kate Nordstrum, Liquid Music Curator and Special Projects Producer at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, has been trying to bring Shara Worden and yMusic to the Twin Cities to perform my song cycle, Penelope, and some other collaborative works since early 2011. There had already been one thwarted attempt to present the show in the area last year (at the Southern Theater, which encountered prohibitive financial woes before the performance was scheduled to take place), so we were all very excited to finally bring this concert to life. Shara and yMusic were slated to perform it February 26th and 27th. Both shows were sold out.
Liquid Music is a series presented by the SPCO, curated by Kate Nordstrum. Its mission is to present musical artists that blur genre boundary lines, and in so doing, to expand the classical concert-going audience in the Twin Cities. The series is fully paid for by new money that Kate has brought into the SPCO for these purposes; no resources have been stripped from the orchestra.
On Monday, February 25, the afternoon before the performance, while the members of yMusic were in various states of travel to Minneapolis, each performer received a voicemail from the AFM Local 802. The president of the union stated that performing at the Liquid Music series constituted “crossing the picket line” of the SPCO and that they would be subject to fines of up to $50,000 each and expulsion from the union if they proceeded. No member of yMusic had heard anything about this from the union previously.
Most members of yMusic did not receive the voicemail until they landed in Minnesota. I had just arrived at my hotel when I got a call from Kate telling me she’d been in contact with half of yMusic and that they’d received some very troubling voicemails.
The decision was made the next morning. The members of yMusic were understandably uncomfortable with the prospect of facing those penalties from the union, and it was too late to move the show to any non-SPCO venue. So the shows were canceled. We still had a third concert lined up for Carleton College in Northfield, MN, a few days later, so we all had to stay in Minneapolis for the duration.
The AFM’s decision to take action at the last minute caused an egregious amount of inconvenience and wasted time for more than a dozen hard-working musicians and forward-thinking presenters who had been working on this concert for over a year. On a professional level, it meant a loss of income for the six members of yMusic, Shara Worden, Michael Hammond (sound designer), Brian Wolfe (drummer), and myself. On a personal level, because my husband was also away during this stretch, it meant spending money on childcare while fretting over my two- and four-year-olds being with a babysitter they didn’t know very well, all when I could have been home with them until our third show. Finally, it meant that what should have been our third concert in Minnesota—but was instead our first—was not as polished as it could have been had the players given two performances of the work just days before. But perhaps saddest of all, it meant the loss of an uncommon opportunity to present new music in an innovative format to sold-out audiences who were looking forward to it.
The musicians involved in this project and I strongly believe in fair labor practices and fervently hope that the SPCO negotiations are resolved quickly. We understand that the situation is delicate and complicated. Maybe it’s inevitable in situations like this that some peripherally-related music, like ours, becomes collateral damage. Maybe it’s not. But at the very least, our musical community should be one that minimizes that damage by showing its musicians respect, fellowship, and trust. Unions, like police, are supposed to be there to protect and serve. If you’re going to threaten your musicians with expulsion and $50,000 fines for performing a concert, do it before they’ve rehearsed, lined up childcare, and flown across the country.
In addition to contacting Sarah, I also reached out to Tino Gagliardi, President of the Associated Musicians of Greater New York, Local 802, American Federation of Musicians, and asked him for any insight he could provide from the union’s perspective. His reply:
The action taken by the musicians that play with yMusic had nothing to do with the type of ensemble it is. The union (Local 802 AFM) appealed to the AFM musicians that are members of the ensemble for solidarity by supporting our colleagues in St. Paul. The world class musicians of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra need all of our help in maintaining the standard of professionalism they deserve. The musicians of the SPCO have been locked out since October 1st. If the SPCO Society wants to present musical events, shouldn’t they get serious about bargaining a fair deal for the musicians that have committed their lives and families to St. Paul?
In some ways, the timing and location of these concerts created a “perfect storm”; the musicians couldn’t help that their concert dates put them squarely in the middle of a very contentious fight between the SPCO and the musician’s union and the American Federation of Musicians seemingly could not afford to demonstrate any hint of wavering in the face of their negotiations with the SPCO board. Making the situation even more muddy is the fact that yMusic was traveling to perform a show of their own, not to replace St. Paul musicians in some way, but because the Liquid Music Series is “presented” by the SPCO, that public association was enough to trigger the New York City union’s “appeal for solidarity.”
That being said, however, valid questions could be asked about the timing and method by which yMusic was informed of the union’s position. The union seems concerned that by supporting a concert series presented by the SPCO, the musicians would be, in effect, helping the opposition. One might posit that an early compromise might have been accomplished by allowing for yMusic to perform the concert through a venue unconnected to the SPCO – the Liquid Music tickets would have needed to have been refunded, but the performances could still have taken place in St. Paul or Minneapolis. By giving what constituted an ultimatum to the ensemble the day before the concert, however, there was no time given to find an appropriate alternate venue to perform the concert. This action calls into question whether or not the union was taking issue with the venues association with the SPCO or with the nature of the ensemble.
This is not the first example of conflict between a new music concert and the musician’s union. In April of 2012, the Brooklyn Academy of Music brought in composer Joseph C. Phillips Jr. to lead his own ensemble, Numinous, in the performance of a newly commissioned score to Ernst Lubitsch’s 1922 classic silent film The Loves of Pharaoh. As Phillips points out in his own blog, the union used strong tactics to encourage audiences not to attend the concert because his musicians were not performing under a union contract (though he explains that their wages were based off of union rates).
The emergence of non-union, DIY-style new music ensembles throughout the country over the past 15 years has added a new wrinkle to the ever-changing music industry; groups that flew under the radar for many years are now winning Grammy Awards and their leaders are being named MacArthur Fellows. AFM Local 802’s Financial Vice President Tom Olcott wrote about this situation last year and it is easy to see that while the topic of unions is not one commonly discussed in new music circles, it soon will be.
Obviously these are trying times for professional musicians across the country and the musician’s unions, as the intermediaries in so many contractual disputes, are under a great deal of pressure to protect their members’ careers and livelihoods. When the protective relationship between union and members morphs into a threatening, punitive relationship, however, it is reasonable to ask whether or not more responsible and productive methods could be used to achieve the shared goals of all involved. One only hopes that debacles such as what yMusic had to go through in St. Paul can demonstrate that work still needs to be done on this front. New music ensembles are not going away any time soon and a strong, supportive relationship from the musician’s union would be for the benefit for everyone.
[Note: I realized this week that this is my 100th column for NewMusicBox, a fact that I cannot quite comprehend. Many thanks to Molly, Alex, and Frank for helping me stay the course over the past two years and I look forward to many more adventures to come.]
Update from Rob: I should have included the fact that even though tickets were refunded both evenings in St. Paul, Shara Worden, a non-union performer, went on to perform a set with her drummer as My Brightest Diamond on both nights.