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As Florida Orchestra cuts salaries, new business model is needed to survive

The bass fiddles perform with the Florida Orchestra in the Mahaffey Theater. The orchestra is led by conductor Stefan Sanderling.

MARTIN LENGEMANN | Special to the Times

The bass fiddles perform with the Florida Orchestra in the Mahaffey Theater. The orchestra is led by conductor Stefan Sanderling.

It was an embarrassment this month when the Florida Orchestra opened the 2010-11 season by cutting the pay of its musicians. It has happened before through the years — the orchestra board and management being unable to fulfill the terms of its labor contract with the musicians has been more common than not — but surely this was the final straw.

Can the orchestra survive yet another broken promise to its musicians? Or was this a necessary tough choice to put the orchestra on a realistic financial footing once and for all?

When I originally reported the revision of the musicians' contract — made through a legal device called a "side letter,'' rather than a renegotiation of the contract, which has two years left to run — the facts of the change were not readily forthcoming from the orchestra or the American Federation of Musicians. I had to write the story with less than precise information.

So, for the record, here is the deal, according to Harold Van Schaik, bass trombone player and spokesman for the musicians: ". . . our annual salary for the next two years will be $24,500 for 25 weeks this year and 24 next year. We were supposed to make $29,890 this year for 32 weeks and $32,000 next year for 34 weeks,'' he said in an e-mail.

Is that sustainable pay for a musician to make a living?

"I don't know the answer to that,'' said orchestra president Michael Pastreich, when I asked him that question. "My assumption is that it is more sustainable than nonexistence of the orchestra.''

Van Schaik said it wasn't a living wage and would compromise the orchestra's ability to hold on to and attract talent. "Quite a few members are seriously looking at leaving the orchestra,'' he said. "It was already a challenge to get people to come here to take auditions.''

It should be pointed out that few, if any, in the orchestra actually make the base pay. Under the contract, principal players receive a premium — the concertmaster, for example, typically is paid at least double the base pay — and musicians can negotiate their own deals for extra compensation. Many musicians also teach and play other gigs.

Still, with the revision, Florida Orchestra members are at the bottom of the list among U.S. orchestras that pay their musicians under an annual contract rather than on a per service (that is, per each rehearsal and concert) basis. Van Schaik has a chart that compares the orchestra's base pay to that of 20 others, and the range goes from $107,640 for 52 weeks at the Pittsburgh Symphony to $26,100 for 37 weeks at the Richmond Symphony.

Van Schaik and other musicians object to the way the contract revision was carried out. They say they were basically presented a take-it-or-leave-it offer: Accept the pay cut or the season would be canceled. The musicians ratified the change in a vote completed the day before the first rehearsal of the season.

Pastreich said that $8 million in gifts and pledges from five anonymous donors was contingent on the musicians' pay — as well as other budgetary items — being cut. A portion of this money was made available to the orchestra at the beginning of the season to give the board and management some breathing room, he said, to work on sustainable solutions to the perennial financial problems, instead of constantly having to hustle just to make the payroll.

"This is the first time in my three years with the organization that the majority of our conversation has not been about what are we going to do next week in order to stay alive,'' Pastreich said. "The financial crisis has been abated so that we can focus on how do we pull ourselves out of a cycle that's been around a long time. We went into this season with more money in the bank than at any time in our discernible history.''

To be sure, musicians are not the only orchestra employees who have taken hits. Pastreich said management staff has been decreased by about one-third over the past three years. There were staff pay cuts last season. Pastreich said he took a 10 percent pay cut and will make $147,420 in the 2010-11 season.

On a recent Friday afternoon, I had a meeting with Pastreich and Van Schaik in Pastreich's office. The two represent opposite sides, of course, but usually they seem to be on good terms. This time, though, the exchanges were sometimes testy and awkward.

Pastreich didn't go into detail, but it's clear that he envisions a smaller number of musicians under contract for a shorter season. At the moment, the full-time musician complement is 71, and the revised contract calls for a gradual reduction to as few as 65, likely through attrition.

He said a 24- or 25-week season was a base from which to build upon, pointing out that all the orchestra's subscription programs this season are still in place despite the cuts. The number of park and youth concerts are close to the same. What was mainly lost, he continued, were nonsubscription concerts, such as last season's Led Zeppelin and "Blue Planet'' concerts, which can be risky to present. The Zeppelin show did well at the box office; "Planet'' flopped.

For possible role models, the orchestra CEO said, he had looked at so-called nonstandard orchestra contracts around the country for organizations such as the Orchestra of St. Luke's in New York, Music of the Baroque in Chicago and Philharmonia Baroque in San Francisco.

Van Schaik rejected these as models, because they are smaller orchestras that tend to be made up of a mix of musicians paid annually and per service. They don't perform week in and week out, and they have a more specialized profile than a symphony orchestra. They're in musically rich cities.

"They're not comparable,'' he said. "These are niche ensembles. These are not the cornerstone ensembles and cultural pillars of a city. Music of the Baroque has, if they're lucky, half a dozen concerts in Chicago, which is quite well served by the Chicago Symphony . . . and a number of semi-full-time professional orchestras that surround Chicago. For us to be modeling ourselves after a niche ensemble when the Tampa Bay area is the 19th largest metropolitan area in the United States, and we are the largest resident performing arts organization in this area, that's where the logic breaks down.''

To some degree, Pastreich's response was that the model of the orchestra has to be changed, because the old model never really worked, and the change will be painful. When I asked him if it was like that old saw that you have to break eggs to make an omelet, he said, "I think there is something to that.''

On a more dramatic level, something like this is taking place in Detroit, where the symphony orchestra's musicians have been on strike all season, having rejected a contract proposal that includes a 30 percent pay cut to a base of about $70,000. The Detroit Symphony is projecting a $9 million deficit.

One thing Pastreich said surprised me. Conventional wisdom used to be that the revenue brought in by nonprofit performing arts organizations was split 50-50 between earned income (ticket sales, basically) and donations. However, he said donations now account for a much higher percentage of revenue.

"Our economic engine isn't selling tickets,'' he said. "Our economic engine is fundraising. Last year we went from being a little bit below average in earned revenue to a little bit above average. We went from 32 percent to 36 percent of earned income; the average was 34 percent for American orchestras.''

The orchestra projects a budget of $8 million in 2010-11 — down from slightly more than $9 million the previous season. And it has to raise some two-thirds of the budget from individual, corporate and government sources. That is a mighty tall order in a tough economy.

"We have to become a greater and greater fundraising machine,'' Pastreich said.

Fair enough. But can the orchestra keep up its musical standards while reconceiving its business model? On that question turns its survival.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.

As Florida Orchestra cuts salaries, new business model is needed to survive 10/30/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 30, 2010 5:30am]
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