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Orchestra lockout prompts the question: What are experts worth?

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Minnesota Orchestra musicians have been locked out since Oct. 1.

Whatever side you lean toward, the Oct. 1st lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra musicians is terribly disappointing on many levels. One of the most disheartening byproducts of such situations are the public comments that follow the media reports. (When did our society decide everyone was worthy of an open mic? Our descent into that mud pit must parallel our rising dependence on blood pressure medications and sleep aids.)

My recent inane activity of reading Star comments on the lockout (128 and rising) can be filed away with other such irresistible, car-crash-gaper-like, post-postmodernist pastimes such as Facebooking, obsessively checking SteepandCheap, and trolling Craiglist for a brown leather left-facing sectional (anyone?). It’s obvious why I’m not one of the full-time members of this incredible orchestra. Clearly, I should be practicing. Which is what the musicians will be getting back to, once they finish up their applications for unemployment.

Meanwhile, I’ll be reporting from the sidelines as a freelance musician who has had the occasional thrill of glancing down at her phone to see the Minnesota Orchestra personnel manager phone number lighting up. Oh, you need someone at Orchestra Hall in 20 minutes to sight read an all-Bernstein program and I’m still in pajamas? Sure, I’ll just grab a baby-sitter! What’s that, someone has strep throat and can’t play the “Hansel and Gretel” program? I’m your woman, let me cancel all other gigs! Wait, you need an extra player for Mahler 7 next week and I just had my second child three days ago? Not a problem! (It shames me only slightly to admit that these are 100% factual situations. THAT is how good this orchestra is.)

So, about those comments. (Yep, still not practicing). The most popular one is some variation on the theme of “I can’t believe they pay people that much to play an instrument.” I’m totally guilty of the same sort of comment last week when I learned how much NFL referees get paid: $149,000 under the old contract, $173,000 under the new, whether they work one game or all. This is for part-time, seasonal work. But you know what? After my nausea passed, I accepted that these are experts in their field. Fine.

They are, indeed, world-class musicians

What are experts worth in music, then? There have been a lot of media references to the M.O. musicians as “world class,” to which many readers respond with a verbal rolling of the eyes. The Minnesota Orchestra musicians won’t toot their own horns, so to speak, on this one, so allow me.

To get to those plastic black thrones onstage, most musicians have survived multiple rounds of auditions with ridiculously long odds. They have climbed the ladder of regional orchestras to get to the big one. They’ve moved their families or delayed having a family at all. They’re damn good at what they do, and the rest of the country knows it. To dismantle this orchestra would be to take our state one notch down on the cultural map. Do we need more reasons to be called a flyover state?

But I digress. The point is that if you agree that we have here some of the country’s top musicians, then what, indeed, are the country’s top musicians worth? How does that compare to what the country’s top lawyers, salesmen, doctors, mixologists, golf pros, lobbyists, craft brewery owners, and vice presidents of real estate are worth? And can we learn something from those numbers?

The music world, particularly the classical one, probably seems to exists in its own little bubble. Many people aren’t concert-goers, and even orchestra patrons have little interaction with the musicians on the stage. I get why many people might not have much sympathy for the plight of the locked-out workers since, as many readers commented, they already make a lot more money than most of us. However, we are all members of the same local economy, and we would all like to see more Minnesotans working. When 80+ full-time musicians lose their jobs, they need to take other work.

About to see trickle-down effects

Readers commented along the lines of “if they’re so great, they’ll find another job.” All too true — orchestra musicians are already being offered temporary playing opportunities in other orchestras and are working freelance gigs here in town that they would ordinarily turn down. This lockout means a season of increased hardship for many freelance musicians in town who are deeply tied to our local economy. Freelance income isn’t going to stock options, vacation homes or investments in Chinese factories. Every penny goes right back into our homes, kids and local stores. A healthy Twin Cities arts community starts at the top, and we’re about to witness the trickle-down effect of this lockout.

The deafening silence from Orchestra Hall continues alongside the hubbub from the peanut gallery. Still, there is the occasional reason to take heart, as with comments such as this which I believe says it best: “there are — as you, an expert has verified — hundreds of musicians eager to jump in and take these jobs. … I played trumpet in high school, where do I sign up. Sort of like replacement refs. Anyone can do it.”

Just ask the Packers how that worked out for them.

In the meantime, I’ll try to get back to practicing.

Rena Kraut is a freelance classical clarinetist who performs, writes and lives in Minneapolis.


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Comments (29)

  1. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 10/05/2012 - 08:59 am.

    Cultural wastelands

    My take on reading the comment threads of newspapers posted by anonymous commenters is that they are mostly moronic, therefore not anything to waste one’s time reading, let alone getting upset over. These are people who live in a cultural oasis, watered by the superlative artistry of musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, but who can only a see a mirage as they peer out from their own, self-created cultural wastelands.

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 10/05/2012 - 09:49 am.

    Fire Management

    And let the office staff take over operation of the Minnesota Orchestra. They couldn’t do any worse,

    (and WHY won’t the current management produce detailed financial statements to justify what they’re doing to the musicians, could it be that substantial amounts of endowment funds were lost in ill-advised, high risk investment schemes?).

    Clearly we have allowed the bean counters to take over the orchestra and pay themselves VERY handsomely (rather than keeping them in their proper place of advising people with a broader, more creative perspective and a more responsible attitude, who SHOULD be in charge).

    If we don’t replace the managers who are perpetrating this destructive impasse with the finest musicians in the country, we’ll end up with what we have had with the Twins this year,…

    a bright, shiny, new facility but no reason for anyone to go there.

    I strongly suspect that, if those who contributed to the Orchestra’s capital campaign to upgrade Orchestra Hall had realized that management intended to wipe out the Orchestra as soon as the new hall was being built, they would have given their money in a different way.

    Better we should have kept the existing building and continued to fill it with our current crop of amazingly excellent musicians.

    Of course it’s possible (even likely) that those in charge of the Orchestra have such tin ears that they don’t think it makes any difference if the Minnesota Orchestra drops to fourth or fifth-rate quality,…

    or, they think the people of Minnesota are so lacking in musical sophistication that they won’t be able to tell the difference.

    They’re wrong about BOTH and, consequently, need to be relieved of duty in favor of those who are inclined to do what it takes to maintain the finest orchestra in the nation at it’s current level of excellence,

    (which, for some reason, they seem completely unwilling to do).

    I’m left to wonder that, with the lack of financial information they’re providing to the general public and the musicians, what is the management of the Minnesota Orchestra hiding? Are they sacrificing our orchestra in the very selfish pursuit of keeping their own jobs by keeping hidden some ill-advised financial management and investment decisions of the recent past,…

    bad decisions which the fundraising efforts required to fill in the resulting deficits they’ve caused would inevitably force them to reveal?

    I hope the REAL story, likely of serious financial mismanagement and mistakes, will be revealed and remedied before it’s too late to save the orchestra from the devastation management seems determined to perpetrate on the musicians and the music lovers of the State of Minnesota.

    • Submitted by Thierry Carlson on 10/05/2012 - 11:31 am.

      Lots of Questions

      Greg raises a lot of very interesting questions. While I don’t actually believe (or don’t want to believe) that anyone has engaged in fraud or intentional financial mismanagement, it does seem odd that a non-profit organization the size of the Minnesota Orchestral Association would be so unwilling to open its books. Is this unusual in the non-profit world? Additionally, just for the sake of discussion, how likely is it that two major bank executives should be the ones responsible, along with the orchestral association president, for the current lockout of Minnesota Orchestra musicians? Maybe not strange at all. Just a coincidence, I’m sure.

  3. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 10/05/2012 - 10:14 am.

    Is Orchestra Hall going to open its books ??

    I read a couple days ago that the musicians were asking for OH to express its case that the cuts in salaries were compelling from the actual facts of assets & revenues vs. liabilities & expenses on its books. Yet the OH was apparently resisting. Now why is that ??

    When considering the moronic nature of some of those commenters the author mentions, first, they are apparently avid readers of the Star-Tribune. So their information sources might not be the best.

    Secondly, our environment is one where a $1 – 2 billion sports palace handout was championed by rabid Vikings fans and venal legislators, and the same environment now decries the salaries of classical musicians. I wonder how much overlap there might be here, between the Strib commenters and the sports enthusiasts ??

    How about a $77 per ticket subsidy for the Orchestral performances for the next 30 years ?? Would that get more support for the musicians in this environment ??

  4. Submitted by Thomas Dickinson on 10/05/2012 - 11:43 am.

    Well said, Ms Kraut. It’s a wide world and the MN Orchestra plays an important part in it for all Minnesotans whether they are interested in the orchestra or not, in the same way that the Vikings play an important part–though not worth subsidizing a wildly successful for-profit company with a stadium most citizens don’t want to underwrite!–for those of us with no interest in them (all 7 of us :-)), because they are important to our neighbors and our neighbors’ happiness. Musicians of this type and level are treasures, just as top athletes are (they are top athletes in a way themselves) and a very long and tough selection process has put them in our midst, thank god. They are crucial to our access to some of the greatest works of intellectual and heart creativity of our civilization. Who measures their real lives or their happiness by economic metrics? Maybe in public we do, to our great diminishment, but I doubt many do at home. What these people do is about fundamental worth, not some arbitrary abstract like money and the myths we make about it called economics.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 10/05/2012 - 01:22 pm.

      RE: “…they are top athletes in a way themselves…”

      I once heard classical musicians described as “Olympians of the small muscle groups.”

      • Submitted by Sarah Nagle on 10/07/2012 - 11:53 am.

        Wow, that is so true

        Playing the way these musicians play is really an endurance content. And they hit it out of the park every time, to use a sports metaphor (about the only one I know).

  5. Submitted by elliot rothenberg on 10/05/2012 - 12:07 pm.

    ridiculously skewed priorities

    The same locals who want to pay professional athletes like Joe Mauer $24 million per year don’t want to pay the finest classical musicians in one of the world’s greatest orchestras $100,000. Thanks to the stupidity of these folks who love to spout off and that of the Orchestra’s board of directors, many of our best musicians will be lured away by people in other cities who appreciate their talents. The departures no doubt will include Osmo Vanska, maybe the world’s greatest conductor. We will be left with a fourth-rate orchestra presided over by a fifth-rate conductor, all governed by a sixth-rate board of directors. Does that make all of you happy?

    • Submitted by john herbert on 10/05/2012 - 01:08 pm.

      ridiculously skewed priorities

      How much more do you want to pay for a ticket?

      • Submitted by Sarah Nagle on 10/07/2012 - 08:34 pm.

        What’s your point?

        I don’t hear a lot about pro sports tickets and the cost of the stadium. But as far as the orchestra goes, I would pay to hear a first-class orchestra. I’m not interested in spending less for a crappy concert. Quality costs; you get what you pay for.

  6. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/05/2012 - 12:25 pm.

    What are the musicians worth?

    Your labor is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it. In this case it’s $89,000 apparently.

    If they believe their labor is worth more than that they should try selling it to other orchestras.

    Let the market decide.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 10/05/2012 - 01:33 pm.

      Not really

      Did the “market decide” that the professional sports teams in this locale were worth billions in subsidies – for already wealthy owners, not in need of a single penny ??

      No, it took political corruption to subsidize these teams – against the will of the people most affected. Therefore, it was necessary for the proponents to conduct end runs to avoid seeking approval of those taxpayers most affected in BOTH cases – Twins and Vikings. These were not the market’s decisions.

      Also, you confuse the Orchestra Hall management’s offer of salary reductions with the marketplace. It is only a goal of that management, which, if the comments above hold water, is actually the source of the financial problems of the orchestra – NOT the musicians !!

      But we won’t really know, will we, unless and until the Orchestra releases its financials ??

    • Submitted by Susan McNerney on 10/05/2012 - 01:34 pm.

      The market will decide, Dennis.

      That’s what everyone is afraid of. We’ll have a half-price orchestra instead of a world-class orchestra.

      That’s the inevitable result of the types of cuts being proposed here.

    • Submitted by Amy Adams on 10/07/2012 - 08:39 pm.

      Succinct but wrong, Dennis.

      “Let the market decide.”
      I believe that’s the definitive philistine viewpoint.
      You are absolutely wrong on a moral level…if management would open their books, we might find out how wrong you are on a fiscal level.

  7. Submitted by john herbert on 10/05/2012 - 01:06 pm.

    What are the musicians worth?

    I second the comment above.

  8. Submitted by Andrew Lewis on 10/05/2012 - 03:26 pm.

    wrong instrument

    I’m a world class musician, where’s my 100 G’s? I pay in a few thousand dollars every year just for the opportunity…I guess I picked the wrong horn.

    • Submitted by Thierry Carlson on 10/06/2012 - 09:28 am.

      not sure

      >> I’m a world class musician … << I have no doubt that you are, but I'm afraid you're going to have to prove that by auditioning for and winning a position with a world-class symphony orchestra. At that point, classical music audience members, subscribers and donors will be happy to get the 100 G's to you. Unfortunately, you will still be at the mercy of a crazy board of directors who might decide, willy nilly, to cut your pay in half in a bizarre race to the bottom. What horn do you play?

      • Submitted by Andrew Lewis on 10/06/2012 - 09:28 pm.


        I didn’t audition, I was invited. I don’t know how we’ll stack up this season, but I assure you that we are world-class, and unfortunately, nobody knows or cares except other bagpipe bands. Nobody in any pipe band gets paid, but it’s fun to play among the best. We are, and if it strikes your fancy, you can follow us at the world pipe band championship in Glasgow this year. It is broadcast on BBC, and I think you’ll agree that if pipe bands were orchestras, we’d be at least worth the cost of our reeds.

        • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/10/2012 - 01:01 pm.


          How much do your reeds cost? I kid! (Though, I admit, I enjoy bagpipe music on a limited basis. But I certainly prefer a classical orchestra. Actually, I prefer a pops orchestra or jazz band or orchestra to a classical orchestra, but you probably understand exactly what I’m saying.)

  9. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 10/05/2012 - 03:56 pm.

    Having just looked over the MN orchestra site where it lays out it’s position on the lockout, I’m dumbfounded as to how they think this can end well for them.

    Among other things, they:

    -Tout a 6% reduction in administrative costs since 2002 as evidence that it’s not just the musicians sacrificing (hmm, they’re asking for over 30% reductions. 6% vs 30%)
    -Describe how musician pay has risen in recent years, and don’t acknowledge that it coincides with the orchestra’s increasingly strong reputation and performance
    -Reject arbitration, because the arbitrator might not understand the industry. Yes, this is such a unique problem that no one could possible understand it
    -Publish their board-of-directors, which reads like a who’s-who list of the wealthy– CEOs and senior law partners galore, some of whom have compensation that is readily available (and north of 2 million)

    The orchestra management will either come to its senses, or this will be the end of a truly world-class orchestra. And perhaps that will be OK– although it would have been nice to know of this before we committed money to build a facility that might be far superior to the orchestra

    • Submitted by Sarah Nagle on 10/07/2012 - 11:51 am.

      Board of Directors

      Didn’t one of them make the comment that the musicians needed to remember that they were paid more than a lot of their audience members? Well, I HOPE so – I HOPE they are paid more than I am, and I HOPE that people of modest means are attending concerts. That’s the way for us to have a world-class orchestra, and I appreciate having one as the “home team”.

      I wonder how much that Board member is worth . . .

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/10/2012 - 01:04 pm.

      Email to subscribers

      The recent email to subscribers about the lockout made me reconsider my pledge to the new building project. Until they recognize that it IS about the music and the musicians and not a shiny new building or how important the directors are, I’m not going to drop a dime in their hat.

  10. Submitted by rolf westgard on 10/05/2012 - 04:10 pm.


    are paid based on how much people will pay to listen or watch, either in person or on the air.
    For a civic orchestra this is usually supplemented by contributions outside of ticket revenue.
    Orchestras have a lot of players so revenue gets divided into smaller pieces.
    Professional athletes tend to create more revenue than orchestra musicians, so they get paid more.

    • Submitted by elliot rothenberg on 10/05/2012 - 08:25 pm.

      athletes supposedly creating revenue

      If professional athletes making as much as $24 million a year are creating so much revenue, why do middle class taxpayers have to pay to buy them a new billion dollar stadium seemingly every year?

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 10/06/2012 - 02:29 pm.

      “…are paid based on how much people will pay…”

      Or, due to the actions of local, regional, and state “leaders”, the pay of the professional sports entertainers is based in a significant way on how much PUBLIC SUBSIDY they have been given – right out of the taxpayer’s pocket.

      Your comment suggests that people pay willingly, which is true for those who buy tickets to the games, but those purchases are seriously subsidized by all others. Otherwise, your implication is false. Many Minnesotans are COMPELLED to pay for the vainglory of professional sports teams they could care less about.

      Now, we are hearing from those who could care less about the Minnesota Orchestra, whining that they are paid too much, therefore let the market do to them what it will. Where were these objections when billions were being pulled from the taxpayers’ pockets and handed over to a different kind of entertainer ??

  11. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/10/2012 - 09:25 am.


    Professional sports makes its money from TV contracts, not from ticket sales. When the National Orchestra League lands a network contract, then musician’s salaries (and endorsements, which is where professional athletes make their money) will go up.
    And business leaders will have to show the amount of money spent in the city by music lovers (how many sports bars does the Minnesota Orchestra support? A couple of downtown restaurants might show a modest boost on concert nights, but modest.
    I’d love to see the day when the orchestral playoff finals attract a TV audience comparable to the Stupor Bowl, but I don’t see it coming soon.
    Dennis has a point about the markets, but his analysis is constricted.
    And there is -some- subsidy of classical music via PBS, but it’s pretty limited.

    Final point — how much do school systems spend on orchestras and on athletic teams?
    How many parents show up for orchestra concerts (if they exist) vs. Friday night football?
    This is where it starts.

  12. Submitted by Terence Fruth on 10/10/2012 - 10:35 am.

    Orchestra lockout

    As a labor lawyer I represented the Mpls public school system in the first big enrollment decline. The teacher and administrator contracts economics were compared to school systems in communities with demographics similar to ours. Minneapolis was paying more than cities with a similar ability to pay. We negotiated reductions and in the case of the principals, took our case to arbitration and as a result the principals pay and benefits were reduced to a competitive rate. Outdated work rules were modernized. All of these changes were based on data and expert opinion. I see none of this in the media accounts of this labor dispute. It seems extreme to lockout employees without showing the public the hard data that justifies such a draconian measure. The school district showed the unions, the public, the courts and the arbitrator why the District could not continue to pay above the market and above it’s ability to pay. Have I missed something? Our orchestra competes in a world market and so the data is there.

  13. Submitted by Pamela Brown on 10/31/2012 - 10:17 am.

    What are the experts worth…fact and fiction

    With all due respect to the players of the MO who do indeed work very hard, orchestral players on their own can hardly call themselves ‘world class performers’ per se. They are experienced readers, who are able to correctly interpret and perform music from any time period in the history of music. As an ensemble, the MO has been called ‘world class’. It was even called, for one night, the ‘best orchestra in the world,’ by Alex Ross. (That has been taken completely out of context by the players, but that is another story.)

    Can any of these players individually hire a hall and fill it? Do they play their own music? Do they play on their own without a conductor? Of course not, but listening to the sad-story mantras of the last few weeks, one might feel stupid for daring to ask questions.

    Orchestras are going belly-up every week. The times are changing. People are not as excited about being squeezed in next to strangers. An orchestra is not only an ensemble, but a business enterprise. All the parts need to work together to create a positive future, keeping in mind what the market will bear.

    If the players took their noses out of their music for a few minutes, they might grab a clue themselves.
    They might even decide to live in the real world. ;-0

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