A Classical Musician’s Best and Worst of 2013

Financial Vice President's Report

Volume 114, No. 1January, 2014

Tom Olcott


BRIGHT SPOT: The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra negotiated a new contract with us in 2013, which resulted in more work for musicians.

BRIGHT SPOT: The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra negotiated a new contract with us in 2013, which resulted in more work for musicians.

Happy New Year! As we enter 2014, it’s time to look back and examine the best and worst of 2013, from a classical musician’s point of view.


1. The New York City Opera declared bankruptcy. Its board managed to eviscerate and destroy an adventurous and vibrant opera company through gross mismanagement, and mishandling of endowment and other funds. The board’s suspect activities include the entirely inappropriate payment to an artistic director who never appeared (Gerard Mortier), and the added confusion – not infusion – of Koch Industries money. The Kochs’ money – whether directed toward the New York City Ballet, the American Ballet Theatre or the renovation of the New York State Theatre – was never intended for the promotion of ballet, opera or any other art form. Rather the money was spent solely for the purpose of ingratiating the Koch brothers to the moneyed world of Lincoln Center boards. Not only is this a decided loss for opera lovers, opera singers and our musicians, but also for the artistic world that is the heart of New York. The Kochs could not care less. They believe they have gained political access. They don’t care about the art. Oh, and do you want to buy a harp? NYCO will auction one off soon. Sad and deplorable.

2. I mentioned the Minnesota Orchestra in a prior column. Their board’s misbehavior and negligence has been unforgivable. Musicians are still locked out after 15 months and there is no end in sight. One of the finest orchestras in the world, silenced. This lockout is a viable artistic plan for a nonprofit organization charged with the preservation and stewardship of its performing entity? Not!

3. I don’t wish to harm or insult our local nonprofit orchestras in any way, but the following needs to be said. Some orchestras need to revitalize their boards in order to preserve their ensemble’s presence in the cultural spectrum. The survival of some organizations is directly threatened by their board’s calcification and lack of imagination. Any Local 802 members who can influence these institutions should do so. We will always assist on request.


1. There are a number of orchestras in the U.S. that are doing great work. Each is artistically relevant and exciting, and has true community and local political support. The San Francisco Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Cincinnati Symphony and the Buffalo Philharmonic are all in that category and I know there are others.

2. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra negotiated a new contract with us in 2013. The new agreement eased some travel conditions and thereby enabled an expanded touring schedule. That means more work for all – a good thing!

3. The American Ballet Theatre reaped the benefits of a similar contract provision, allowing for greater scheduling flexibility. ABT’s standing eight-week employment guarantee became 12 weeks of employment in 2013 – again, more work for musicians.

4. Over the year, Local 802 achieved some traditional labor victories in the classical field. We won grievances and put money back into musicians’ pockets. We protected musicians by seeking and obtaining union contracts with several employers that had tried to make nonunion arrangements. We discovered that some employers had violated archival recording agreements and we fixed the situation, which brought even more money to musicians.

5. We reached tentative agreements with the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players, and, perhaps more significantly, with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra. Each agreement was reached after unusually cordial and mutually respectful meetings between the parties, in contrast to prior negotiations which were significantly more arduous, time-consuming and confrontational. Neither of these agreements contains concessions. In fact, they contain provisions that provide added benefits to our musicians. This seems to indicate, at last, a departure from the economic gridlock that has paralyzed our industry for many years. I would venture a cautious optimism that the union will be able to win even better wages for musicians in the future.

6. Local 802 allied itself more strongly with the local conservatories and music schools. We’ve greeted this pool of potential new music professionals through outreach programs and face-to-face conversations with a large number of potential new members. We have been able to bring a number of student ensemble productions under union contracts when those ensembles enter the professional arena apart from campus presentation.

7. Local 802, through our political endorsements, and effective interaction with candidates favorable to our positions on musical issues (and other social justice issues) now has more influence with the New York political environment than it has ever in the past. We can, with continuing diligence and focus, raise our profile and influence significantly. Doing so, we are always driven by the desire to aid Local 802 members in any way possible.

8. Each local orchestra committee I know of is incredibly dedicated to its constituents, diligent in research and thought, persistent in advocacy for their colleagues, knowledgeable of the wider economic context in which contract negotiations reside, and – this is important, too – funny as hell! Management’s side of the wall on all these negotiations is solemn – our side is often just hooting with laughter. Congratulations to all committee members for keeping dedication, faith and their sense of humor.

9. The Local 802 staff continues to work tirelessly for all of our members. All members need to know that, and should say so when they interact with a staff person. (Also, tell us when we can do better!) That will make us all stronger.

10. With all of that, Local 802 will finish the year very close to budget, and with institutional economic good health.


1. The notion that a committed community can support your orchestra is an idea that all orchestra managements and musicians need to embrace. Your goal is to go find your community and bring it to your side. Find it in Queens, and in Brooklyn, and wherever else that support is needed. This counts for smaller ensembles as well. If you are a smaller neighborhood band or orchestra, find support in your neighborhood, block by block, person by person, business by business. If you find your support, Local 802 will help all involved musicians get a leg up on a professional career. Really.

2. Local 802 needs to develop collective bargaining agreements with major venues, rather than with each band or orchestra. This would be a major game-changer, and it deserves some explanation. Let’s say we’re trying to help a group of musicians win better pay and benefits. Our current approach is to make the bandleader, conductor or producer of the band sign a union contract. This classic approach has been uneven and unsuccessful. What we need to do is have the halls or venues be in charge of paying fair wages and benefits to musicians. The halls, venues and clubs are the ones with the ultimate power and money. They are the ones who should guarantee that the musicians they present are covered by a fair union contract.

3. Local 802 needs to find a way to preserve work for members when employers face legitimate funding shortfalls or other inadequacies. It may be in some circumstances that a relationship that is more collaborative than confrontational may go further in preserving and growing work than its traditional opposite approach.

4. Local 802 is already trying to promote foundational giving to deserving employers. We may be able to expand such efforts in a way that is productive to our members.

My final thought is that we can fight any one of these fights alone, or we can fight them together. I look forward to next year, when we fight these fights together. That’s always the better option as we seek to preserve our life and art. Best to all and a happy and prosperous 2014.