President’s Report

Unplugging the Virtual Orchestra Machine

Volume CIV, No. 3March, 2004

David Lennon

On Feb. 6, Local 802 achieved an unprecedented agreement with the Opera Company of Brooklyn (OCB) that bans the use of the virtual orchestra machine and commits the company to use only live musicians in all future productions.

In the wake of last year’s Broadway strike, it demonstrates that the struggle to preserve live music is far from over. Although the company may be small, the victory is not.

The dispute over OCB’s use of the machine began last summer when Local 802 members launched an e-mail and letter writing campaign to OCB board members voicing their objections to the company’s use of the virtual orchestra machine. As a result, the two most renowned board members, Marilyn Horne and Deborah Voight, resigned.

This time, in anticipation of its upcoming February performances of “The Marriage of Figaro,” OCB contacted 802 informing us that it would like to hire live musicians. At a meeting with OCB, 802 expressed its adamant opposition to the displacement of live musicians by the virtual orchestra machine and began initial discussions on ways that the union might be able to help the OCB in its fund raising efforts to ensure a future budget that could sustain a full live orchestra. We had what we believed was a positive first meeting.

Unfortunately, we were proven wrong when shortly afterward OCB issued a press release claiming that Local 802 now supported its use of the virtual orchestra machine.

In response, we organized a protest of the company’s opening night performance. One of the challenges we faced was the fact that a few musicians, primarily students, had been hired to play along with the machine. We arrived at the hall in Brooklyn early and were able to speak with the student musicians and, in very short time, impressed upon them the gravity of the situation. Every one of them joined the union and refused to play with the machine. Due to the courage and foresight of those student musicians, who understood how important it was that OCB sever its partnership with the virtual orchestra machine and make a commitment to live music, every 802 member owes them a debt of gratitude. They are the unsung heroes of the real drama that evening. The agreement also gives the musicians union recognition and sets March 1 as the deadline to begin talks for a first contract.

Given the events of the past week, one might say that Local 802 has declared war on the virtual orchestra machine. If so, it was really a counterattack against those who invented this machine and those who would utilize it. But war it is. It is an unequivocal assault on live music. They try to divert us and the public with claims that their machine solves live performance challenges, such as accommodating smaller venues or budgets. In the language of war we call that camouflage. What it disguises is their outrageous attempt to solve these live performance challenges by eliminating live music!

One merely needs to look at the beginning and the end to see through their smokescreen.

Were the purveyors of this machine trying to promote live music when they sold their technology to Broadway producers who were attempting to use it to replace all live Broadway orchestras? Their eagerness to sell out all the talented performers on Broadway, not to mention the audiences, belies their “virtuous” claims. That was the beginning. Looking ahead, if in the end producers were allowed to replace all live orchestras with the virtual orchestra machine, to cut costs, increase profits, or both, would they refuse? Would the virtual orchestra machine makers take the moral high ground and refuse to provide them with the weapon? The answer, of course, is no. They have already shown us that they would point that weapon directly at us. And therein lies the driving force behind this machine — money and greed.

The day we stop fighting what amounts to attempted murder of live music, is the day we might as well shut our doors. How can we fail to use any and all means necessary to protect what no machine can ever replace: the uniqueness, subtlety, inspiration, devotion, passion, heart and soul expressed through live music?

We must persuade those producers and presenters who truly are struggling with limited resources to see their way past this seemingly easy fix. Replacing live musicians with a machine betrays the very art form they are trying to promote. We must work with these employers to help them find ways to continue to uphold the highest of artistic standards.

That is exactly what has now been memorialized in the agreement with the Opera Company of Brooklyn. The first agreement banning the virtual orchestra machine and pledging a commitment to using only live musicians is no small victory. Moreover, if a small company like the Opera Company of Brooklyn can make such an unprecedented commitment to live music, those producers with far more resources should have no excuse.

Some would have you believe that Brooklyn, Broadway, London and touring shows are all separate and unrelated situations. Do not be fooled. The common thread that inextricably ties them together is the device at the center of the battlefield — the virtual orchestra machine.

In London, Cameron Mackintosh is threatening to replace over half of the “Les Miserables” orchestra with a virtual orchestra machine. The manufacturer of that machine is Brooklyn-based Realtime Music Solutions, the very same machine and manufacturer used by the Opera Company of Brooklyn! Mackintosh is one of the producers that unsuccessfully tried to pass this contraption off to Broadway audiences last year. That is why 802 needs to wholeheartedly support our brothers and sisters of the British Musicians Union.

Just days ago, a producer with business ties to a prominent theatre owner and League member informed 802 that he was planning on using a virtual orchestra machine in an upcoming Off Broadway production (we will keep you posted as that situation develops).

This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that we have to fight to keep music live. We can, we must, and we will take a stand. The fight on Broadway was not the end. It was just the beginning.