Who owns the music?

Alexander Billet looks at what the San Francisco Symphony strike tells us about how America views the public's right to arts and culture.

San Francisco Symphony Orchestra musicians on strikeSan Francisco Symphony Orchestra musicians on strike

THE STRIKE of musicians at the San Francisco Symphony has already had an immediate impact on the institution. Only a few days after walking out, management called off a large East Coast tour. For the symphony, which has posted a deficit for each of the past four seasons, this will hurt.

It won't hurt too badly, though. Executive Director Brent Assink portrays the institution as dangerously close to running aground, even pointing to his own wage-freeze in two of the past four years when speaking with the San Jose Mercury News. According to violist and chair of the musicians' union negotiating committee David Gaudry, there's a lot more to it.

The symphony's endowment has ballooned in recent years. Management has still found the pocket money to spend $11 million on its centennial celebrations in 2011, and Assink has still somehow received a $280,000 "longevity bonus" despite the rhetoric about financial straits.

It's a messy situation for sure. The image of those who play French horns and timpanis on strike, of people who dress not in aprons or boiler suits but tuxedos and evening gowns carrying picket signs, can be a jarring one. But it's not as uncommon as one might think.

Orchestras across the country have found their musicians under the gun quite a bit since the onset of the Great Recession. Artists at the Louisville Orchestra, the Chicago and Detroit Symphony Orchestras have all walked out since 2010. Pit musicians at the New York City Opera were locked out in January of 2011. Minnesota's orchestra hasn't performed since the fall due to a nasty contract dispute in their neck of the woods.

The stories all share common characteristics. Orchestras filled with musicians who have received extensive (and expensive!) training. Which is to say nothing of the oodles of talent and centuries of experience among them. Private funding that has been mismanaged to the point where the trustees and board members start to panic. Rather than hire management that can sustain a symphony in an age of downloading and indie culture, they lean on managers to take it out on the artists. It's then that we hear the cries of "elitism" sent up.

During the two-day Chicago Symphony Orchestra strike last fall there was a flurry of nose-thumbing at the players for "daring" to strike when contract negotiations broke down. Columnists and commentators made hay about the musicians' ample yearly salary, which is well over $100,000 in most cases. One is reminded of the invective launched against professional athletes when they have struck in recent years. "Millionaires vs. billionaires" we're told (which is rather rich when it's coming mainly from those siding with the billionaires).

Perhaps it's not as extreme, but it's the same kind of argument. It's also one designed to cut the musicians off from their main base of the support: the fans, audience members and communities who should be standing in solidarity with them. As classically trained violinist Ellen McSweeney wrote about the Chicago strike:

Salary does not define the dynamic; power does. Why does it matter how highly paid the CSO musicians are if they have no control over the institution for which they work? A few basic questions demonstrate the amount of power the musicians have. First, do the musicians have any say in major financial decisions made by the organization? No. Second, do they have control over the orchestra's means of production (the Symphony Center space, the equipment, the public relations department, the donor base)? No -- because they're just employees.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THERE IS another crease to the argument, and that's the crease of public access to the arts. As in other orchestra strikes, San Francisco Symphony members are highlighting the possible degradation in the quality of the music if their standard of living isn't maintained. This is certainly of concern to anyone who believes that the arts are a right--not a privilege--but it points to something much deeper.

The San Francisco Symphony's annual operating budget is almost $70 million; of that, about $2.5 million comes from public funding primarily drawn out of the city's hotel tax. That's about 3.5 percent, which is actually rather high for an American city orchestra. A paltry amount. Despite officially operating as a non-profit, the San Fran Symphony is still a private institution. This opens the orchestra up to all the regular vicissitudes that any private business has to endure; when your bottom-line is profitability, it can't be art too.

Compare this with Europe, where public arts have since World War II been seen as a necessity, and where most big orchestras receive a significant amount of their funding from the government. A 2004 article in Minneapolis' Star-Tribune looked at Finland's public orchestras (there are five in the capital city of Helsinki alone):

How has a nation of 5.2 million people--a population only slighter greater than the state of Minnesota 's--produced such a surplus of talent?...Outstanding music education is the primary reason. But at its source is a national attitude that music is not dessert, but an essential food group for personal, cultural and civic sustenance, and as deserving of government subsidy as health care and schools.

There is an obvious difference here; namely that in the U.S. the fight for public health care and schools are themselves far from being won! Let alone the idea that, again, art is a right.

Still, to look at the way most major orchestras are trotted out by their cities, one would think that they were public entities the same as subways or schools. City and municipal events (such as, for example, summer concert series) will frequently contract performances from these orchestras. Mayors love photo ops with them.

It makes for a convenient state of affairs for the city's most powerful. Politicians are able to present their city as a world-class cultural hub but be hands off during potentially messy labor disputes. When things are going well, they're a city institution. When things are bad, it's a private matter. Cultural caché in exchange for, well, very little actually.

While the Great Recession opened the window to gut and privatize everything in an already anemic public sector, the infrastructure of public arts has already long been sold off and sold out.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

PERHAPS THAT'S why the San Francisco Symphony strike--and others like it--looks so similar to so many other public sector union battles. Years of mismanagement, the ludicrous claim that sacrifices must be made despite ample funding, rhetoric about "overprivileged" workers with no mention of the high amount of training they have had to put in to make it that far.

These themes are present in any strike of course. What isn't always present is the high unionization rate: professional orchestras are one of the few occupations outside of the public sector that has a membership anywhere above 10 or 12 percent.

And, just as we've seen in the cases of water employees in Detroit, teachers in Chicago and public transit workers in New York City, it is going to take a fight to defend all of this. Where these fights have been the strongest, they have actively courted public support and reminded us of the essential role they play in local culture. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra literally took their act on the road during their strike, performing for communities and helping drum up support. In doing so they also reminded audience members--even implicitly--that they deserve access to world-class arts.

So far, it appears that the San Fran Symphony musicians have played the same tactic. In their letter to East Coast venues, they refused to apologize for their actions, stating, "We sincerely believe that the cause we are fighting for now will positively impact the level of orchestral music making in America."

More than wages, the players' health care is on the line; if management wins then any and all family members' coverage will likely come out of their own pocket.

What it all boils down to is whether the musicians are able to remind the people of San Francisco that they share a common cause. Whether they are able to put not just their own livings, but the people's right to a fulfilling culture at the center of their fight. As always, it's solidarity that provides the only way for any of us to win. That's true whether we're fighting for the bread or the roses.

First published at Red Wedge.