By Michael Hiltzik
November 4, 2016
Subscribers to the Pacific Symphony’s 12-concert classical series are marking their calendars for the next performance later this month, featuring the distinguished Spanish pianist Joaquin Achucarro in the Grieg Piano Concerto. They should mark it with an asterisk, because the orchestra is talking about going on strike.

The group’s 84 musicians (four more seats are currently vacant) have been working without a contract since Aug. 31, when their last four-year contract expired. They rejected management’s last contract offer on Oct. 23. No talks are currently scheduled, and the players are getting anxious about what happened last time, when the negotiations stretched over a year and a half.

“Time is of the essence,” says Adam Neeley, a violist and head of the bargaining committee for the players, who are members of the American Federation of Musicians. “We have a clear mandate from the members that we’re not going to keep playing and playing without any negotiations.”
Labor unrest seems to be sweeping through the U.S. symphony corps, with a strike at the Pittsburgh Symphony entering its second month and a work stoppage at the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra causing the cancellation of concerts through December. A two-day strike staged in September by musicians of the storied Philadelphia Orchestra — who hoped to recover some of the pay they lost during the orchestra’s 2011 bankruptcy —  forced cancellation of its season-opening gala.

These tensions reflect the challenges generally facing performing arts groups in the U.S., including an aging audience and more tightfisted donors. Unlike employers such as manufacturing or service companies, these groups have few options to stem rising costs.

“There are no opportunities for productivity gains in the performing arts,” says Robert J. Flanagan, an emeritus labor expert at Stanford business school who analyzed the economics of 63 U.S. orchestras, including the Pacific Symphony, for his 2012 book, “The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras.” The size of the workforce is mandated by the demands of a performance piece: a first-class orchestra can’t trim costs by having six violinists on stage when a symphony requires 12 — at least not without sacrificing artistic standards.

“Composers determine the labor costs of their works forever,” Flanagan says. “Technological changes aren’t going to help much.”

On top of that, the Costa Mesa-based Pacific Symphony has challenges all its own. Its musicians are trying to force a fundamental change in its business model from part-time to full-time, salaried employment.

The musicians say they’re trying to get the organization to adapt to changing realities in the Southern California music business; its management responds that the old model has served it well, allowing for “slow and steady expansion over the last three decades that sensibly matched our artistic offerings with our community’s demonstrated appetite for classical music,” as its president, John E. Forsyte, told me in an email.

The Pacific may be overshadowed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, whose $117-million budget outstrips that of any other U.S. symphony by a sizable margin. But it shouldn’t be overlooked. The Pacific’s annual budget of $20 million ranks roughly 22nd in size among U.S. orchestras, just behind the Indianapolis and San Diego symphonies ($24 million each) and ahead of the Milwaukee and Oregon symphonies (about $16 million each).

Unlike those orchestras, however, its musicians are paid per-“service,” a catch-all term designating rehearsals and performances, rather than salaried.

“They’re the only orchestra that size with a per-service model, and they’re twice the size of any other per-service orchestras,” says Drew McManus, a Chicago orchestra consultant who writes a daily blog about the business.

In a sense, the Pacific is a prisoner of its own history. Founded in 1978 at Cal State Fullerton, the orchestra became a favored artistic side gig for Southern California’s army of studio musicians, a relief valve from the film scores and commercial jingles from which they chiefly earned their livelihood. They were happy with its part-time nature because it allowed them maximum scope to pursue more lucrative studio gigs.

“For a long time, at the negotiating table musicians tried to get moreflexibility in scheduling,” says Robert F. Sanders, a former Pacific musician who is president of the Orange County Musicians Assn. and participated in numerous bargaining sessions.

In that environment the Pacific Symphony thrived. Its ensemble comprised some of the finest musicians in the country, it attracted world-class virtuosi as soloists, and in 2006 it moved into the glittering Cesar Pelli-designed Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa. Its artistic reputation was strong. Several alumni have graduated to permanent jobs at major orchestras around the country; Neeley, a Northwestern-trained performer, recently auditioned for a chair at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and remains on-call as a member of its substitutes roster.

But film, TV and commercial work has been disappearing locally. Film scoring has moved to London and other overseas locations; TV commercial producers abandoned jingles and now rely more on licensed pop tracks. “When I moved here,” Neeley told me, “part of the plan was to break in at the studios, with the orchestra giving me a somewhat livable base while I started a freelance career. Four years later, I haven’t played a single gig at a major studio. That’s because the work is not available.”

Consequently, the orchestra has become the principal source of income for many members; the “flexibility” its musicians once craved now imposes an undesirable uncertainty on their annual income. That’s especially true because the symphony doesn’t guarantee musicians a minimum number of services per year.

The musicians say the Pacific can’t maintain its artistic quality under the old model, as its average pay will shrink in relation to competing orchestras. Its musicians can earn about $44,400 in the current season if they attend every available service, according to the musicians union, but the average member of the orchestra probably gets enough credits to earn $31,400.

By contrast, the rapidly-expanding San Diego Symphony, which has an annual budget of about $24 million, recently reached a five-year contractwith its 82 salaried musicians that will pay an average of about $70,000 in its first year, rising to $80,000 in 2021.

“What we’re arguing for is not only in our best financial interest,” says Neeley, “but is in the artistic interest of the organization itself. If we continue to offer compensation that doesn’t begin to compete with our peers, we’re going to see people leave the orchestra, and fewer people auditioning for the orchestra.”

The symphony’s management has made some tentative steps to meet the union’s “concerns about the predictability of work and annual wages,” Forsyte says, but the musicians consider these half-hearted. The symphony is willing to guarantee 185 services, according to the union, but with conditions that could erode that figure over a year.

The question confronting the Pacific boils down to whether it’s a $20-million orchestra that happens to employ part-time musicians, or a part-time employer that happens to have a $20-million budget. At the moment, it’s suspended between those two models.

What both sides agree on is that the symphony has made itself an indispensable part in Southern California’s artistic landscape. It’s not the musicians’ fault, or management’s, that the landscape has changed under its feet, but that makes the symphony’s transformation into a full-time orchestra more necessary, even urgent.

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