Orchestras feel the squeeze

Financial problems and musician strikes have created a perfect storm of problems for symphonies over the last several years.

Paul Sancya /AP/File
Detroit Symphony Orchestra on strike.

Symphonies have increasingly fallen silent over the past few years as musicians threaten strikes and their parent organizations face financial challenges because of a lack of patrons and donations.

Most orchestra unions are chapters of the American Federation of Musicians, which focuses on improving health care, pensions, and insurance for musicians as well as assisting with negotiations between orchestra members and their management.

A new round of walkouts was averted in October when the Seattle Symphony Orchestra voted to approve a strike, then agreed to a contract extension through Jan. 31. Audiences in Minnesota weren’t as fortunate. After the Minnesota Orchestra management proposed salary cuts, the collective bargaining agreement between Minnesota Orchestra musicians and the Minnesota Orchestra Association expired early in October, prompting the cancellation of concerts through Nov. 25.

Musicians in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra held out for 48 hours in September after disagreements over their salaries and health-care benefits. In Philadelphia, the orchestra filed for bankruptcy in April; it was reversed in July after musician salaries were reduced by 15 percent.

But musicians going on strike means nothing if the audience doesn’t show up. Low ticket sales and shrinking subscriptions, donations, and endowments are also sounding a mournful note in concert halls.

“The subscription model, which is the bedrock of funding, is no longer sustainable,” says Keith C. Ward, director of the school of music and a professor at the University of Puget Sound.

Many people, feeling the pinch of the recession, are reluctant to commit to a season of concerts. It’s now a matter of just getting people into the orchestra hall, says Mr. Ward. “There is a competition for audiences. There is this challenge of, how will they spend their entertainment dollars?”

Orchestras have tried various strategies to bring people in, and Ward points to discounts for younger patrons and updates through social media. Deals with nearby restaurants for dinner beforehand also help make a concert the centerpiece of an evening. “There’s an effort to package the concert into an evening out,” he says.

But mostly management needs to keep musicians happy – without them, there’s no concert.

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