President’s Report

Unity Conference Revealed Divisions on Role of Recordings

Volume CII, No. 10October, 2002

Bill Moriarity

The second Unity Conference took place Aug. 14-18 in Ottawa, Canada. A full report on its activities, as reported by Assistant Director and Concert Supervisor David Lennon, can be found here.

The first Unity Conference was held in Las Vegas in 1998, when the five player conferences met together for the first time to make collective recommendations to the AFM. (See the October 1998 Allegro for extensive reports of that first conference.)

Participants in the first Unity Conference included all five player conferences – ICSOM, RMA, ROPA (Regional Orchestra Players Association), OCSM (Organization of Canadian Symphony Musicians) and TMA (Theatre Musicians Association). In disconcerting contrast, this second conference was limited to the three symphonic organizations, ICSOM, ROPA and OCSM, making the title of the conference somewhat ironic. Perhaps “unity by separation” might have been a better name, reflecting the mood of the largest and most influential of the conferences, ICSOM.

Over the past several years a growing division has developed among the musicians in several major U.S. orchestras over the role that recordings should play in their lives and that of the institutions employing them. It may seem strange that this particular issue should generate so much heat at this time. There is nearly unanimous agreement that opportunities to record in the orchestral field have diminished over the past decade, and that this decline continues. Every major indicator tells us also that “classical” recording sales make up an ever smaller percentage of CD sales, to the point that no major recording label is actively engaged in orchestral recording. (At the last industry negotiation there had been mutual agreement that no symphonic issues would be raised. When management broke that agreement and once again made the proposal to eliminate the mandatory two-hour pay requirement, one union-side wag remarked, “At least there’s one up side to this. Some company seems to be thinking about recording an orchestra.”)

Despite this reality, a split has come about. It seems to have been stimulated by terms and conditions I negotiated on behalf of members of the New York Philharmonic for the release of five multi-CD sets of Philharmonic historical recordings. With the Federation’s approval, I negotiated modifications to the AFM-promulgated Radio to Non-Commercial Recording Agreement, a rarely-used document providing for both upfront payments and revenue sharing on the back end. The two important negotiated changes involved an interpretation of the original language of the agreement that would allow a multi-CD set to be released for the same upfront payment as had been used for a single-CD release and, with four of the five sets, an improved revenue-sharing provision (50 percent of gross revenues from dollar one).

The New York Philharmonic Orchestra Committee, clearly seeing the writing on the wall, has believed for some time now that electronic media work – radio and television broadcasts and recordings – should serve dual purposes: one, of providing at least a modest level of income for the musicians, and two – and possibly more importantly – of maintaining the orchestra’s artistic credibility for an ever-widening potential audience. In other words, they see recording activity as supportive of live performance, their principal work. These CD sets are a result of that philosophy, as are the one-hour local radio broadcasts that were initiated last season.

Musicians in several other major orchestras – Chicago and Cleveland, to name two – disagree fundamentally with this philosophy. According to the discussions I’ve had with several musicians from those orchestras, they believe that the job of maintaining a public profile and enhancing institutional credibility is solely a management function. It is the job of musicians to perform, an ongoing task requiring constant practice and development and done with the expectation that whenever performance occurs, they will be compensated in accordance with certain accepted minimum standards. (An important tenet of their beliefs is the desire for a clear delineation between labor and management. The lines should not be blurred in such a way as to damage union solidarity.)

Each of these arguments has its strengths. It is possible that individual orchestras’ relationships with their managements is highly relevant to musicians’ position on this issue.

The battleground (not too strong a word in this case) came to be the Electronic Media Forum (EMF) “discussions” among representatives of symphony, opera and ballet managements and representatives of orchestra musicians from ICSOM, OCSM, ROPA and the AFM.

What began as a roundtable labor-management effort soon degenerated into a union-side-only debate – with management fully aware of what was happening – consisting of e-mail messages and phone-conference meetings, all of which ultimately lasted more than a year.

It has ended for the moment in surprising but inconclusive election results at both ROPA and ICSOM. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to discern what the election of new officers will mean to the very issue that started the disagreement – orchestral recording. Some perceived as hard-liners – those opposing any change in recording terms and conditions – were elected. Some were not. The absence of any substantive public discussion of the issue by many of those running for office makes the results difficult to interpret. (The newly-elected chair of ICSOM only came forward as a candidate in the 24-hour period before the election. He had not been prominent in the discussions until then.)

The questions now are how we resolve our difficulties so as to move forward and who should make the first moves toward reconciliation. The answer to the first cannot be known. Reconciliation can be a difficult process when intense emotion is present.

The answer to the second seems self-evident. It is the union’s job to preserve its institutional integrity. The AFM must lead the efforts to heal and unify. AFM President Tom Lee has expressed to me his deep concern regarding this issue. However, Secretary-Treasurer Florence Nelson has long experience in the orchestral field; she is an officer of known integrity and is widely respected. In my mind, she should take the primary leadership role.

The AFM Symphonic Services Division staff, seen by some as so far playing a very divisive role, must take a more disinterested stand. In the AFM, union democracy has come to mean that union administrative personnel, including elected officers, will maintain an arms-length relationship with orchestras, especially regarding internal orchestra or orchestra association politics. With some difficulties this has worked well for us; the orchestra field is highly organized and very successful. Until it can be shown that this approach is wrong, it should not be changed. And it is possible that the entry into the process of a brand new face – ICSOM Chair Jan Gippo of St. Louis – can help facilitate consensus.

Whatever we do, we need to get past our current problems. As evidenced by recent situations involving orchestras in Buffalo, San Antonio, San Jose, St. Louis and other cities, the future will test those of us who care deeply about this field to the extremity of our strength.