Orchestras Don't Exist to Make Money

For the past week, I've been inundated with comments, thoughts, discussions, and vitriol regarding the San Francisco Orchestra Musicians' strike. There have been blogs and articles posted all over, and I'll link to a few of them during the course of this post.

Many of the conversations have been fruitful, but there are some major sticking points that are driving me absolutely crazy. It reached a point yesterday when I had to call my mom and ask if I was crazy. BTW, if you missed it, my mom has an MBA and has worked in the non-profit sector as an employee, board member, and grant writer/business consultant for a long time...As in she was pregnant with me and working for Milwaukee Opera as a costumer...

So, I had to call her and ask her about the differences between a for-profit and a non-profit structured organization. Why? Because I kept seeing things like this "American Symphonies Spend More Than They Earn" , "It's not clear that they're willing to be as tough minded about costs as directors in the private sector," and "San Francisco and Chicago aren't alone in their financial struggles..."

There are many things inherently wrong with these statements.

The big question: do non-profits exist to make money?

   This is an interesting question, and one people really need to look at. First off, generally speaking, a non-profit cannot operate at a large surplus of three times the operating budget for the past year (note, you may have to do a little searching on this. the BBB site wanted current location). Most organizations aren't sitting on three years worth of surplus in a year. In the case of San Fran, it'd be amazing, to make a whopping $300 million surplus. However, they were, in fact, operating at a surplus in 2011, a surplus of a healthy $14million. Now, this might seem like a blip agains their operating budget of $86million from 2011, but it's darn good. But that's not what the BBB uses to allow keep up a non-profit's accreditation. It's three years of operating budgest IN RESERVES for a given year...

Wait, what's the endowment at for the San Francisco Symphony again? at the end of 2011, it was at $262.68 Million. Against the operating cost of $72.15 Million...or roughly 3.64 TIMES the operating budget, for the year 2011, in the endowment. Hey, guess what, that means, according to the BBB practices, you made too much money.

    But this doesn't completely answer the question: Do non-profits exist to make money? There are arguments, but most say "no, not really." This doesn't meant they shouldn't make any money, or grow the endowment. Here's a good post at philanthropy.com going over the importance of operating at a small surplus .

    There's another big point in accreditation for non-profits. "Spend at least 65% of total expenses on program funding." (also BBB). What's program funding? That's funding that is directly used to further the mission statement. The short one from San Francisco is:
The San Francisco Symphony sets the highest possible standard for excellence in musical performance at home and around the world, enriches, serves, and shapes cultural life throughout the spectrum of the Bay area communities, maintains financial stability and gains public recognition as means of ensuring its ability to fulfill this mission.
That means 65% of the expenses must be used for the purpose of this mission. How does a symphony set the highest possible standard for excellence? They hire the best musicians in the world. How do they do that? Competitive pay and benefits. If you want to compare to a for profit corporation, think of what it takes to lure someone to a new job. For white collar workers, this is where benefits came from in the 50s and 60s- it was a way to attract the best workers to your corporation.

I'm starting to see a major case against the San Francisco Symphony's board right now. They're not acting on the first point of their mission by trying to hide behind the ending statement "maintain financial stability." But, according to BBB regulations, they're beyond financially stable. In fact, they need to spend money. Which they did!

Wait wait wait...hold up...The San Francisco Orchestra board raised spending $11 million last year from 2011. They needed to. They HAD to raise spending. Why? Because they also brought in a whopping $145+ Million for their Second Century campaign, which has been going for the last couple years. Because non-profits CAN work at surplus, but not a large surplus, especially for an extended period of time, they had to raise the budget.

But where did that $11 million of spending go? It wasn't to the musicians. Musicians are currently being asked to pay more in their benefits, and not only not take a raise, but face a possible cut.


An organization, that has gone past the allotted surplus amount setup by the BBB, increases spending, mainly on education programs (BRAVO!). They bring in a huge amount, increasing their endowment, now, to almost 4 times their yearly budget, far passing what the BBB allows for non-profit accreditation. And now, in contract discussions with they ask for cuts.

This is a board not acting in the best interest of the mission statement. This is a board made up of two high ranking officers (Current and former) of Wells Fargo bank. And they're treating it like a for-profit. Bonuses were handed out to administration. Hey, guess what, you're spending money NOT ON YOUR MISSION BY DOING THAT! It's not going to a program, it's not going to create the best musical product. For that you need musicians. You want to give money? Keep expanding the education and outreach (which has grown huge amounts thanks to MTT's leadership).

What's this amount to? This is not a symphony fighting for it's life. We cannot compare it to Indianapolis, Atlanta, Detroit, companies where their endowments were shrinking and they were operating at perennial deficits. Yes, things need to change in the total workings of orchestras, I agree. Some blogs attack the highest paid individuals  (the second heading. And, to be fair, this blog has many great points, but doesn't seem to understand inner workings of large non-profits. but then, most people don't. I'm not an expert either). This is horrible business. How is cutting the highest paid individuals going to help the lowest paid? It's not. In fact, it's going to hurt lower musicians. You now have nowhere to grow, no possible incentive to make a great orchestra. Not that orchestral musicians need incentive to make amazing music.

This is just one of the many points that have come up. I may try and hit more, but this one just bugged the crap out of me. And I still barely scratched the surface of what's happening. So, like I said, here are a host of links.

A great blog that breaks down some great points, written by Prof. Ellen Rosewall, professor of arts management, UW-Green Bay (shoutout to the frozen north, and all my friends in Lawrence, Eau-Clair, etc!).

Kevin Case, of Case Arts Law has become a bit of a personal hero of mine lately. Do yourself a favor, start at the top, and go through all his articles. This guy is a the best kind of beast- Former concertmaster of Memphis, played with Chicago Lyric and Chicago Symphony, then went to law school. Mr. Case, you're an inspiration to me!


A Quick Follow-up

A real follow-up will come later. I've been mulling over the various releases from San Francisco Orchestra Musicians and their management, making "sense of it all." For now, here's a great blogpost really hammering on one point I only glossed over:

Non-profits are not run in the same was as for-profit organizations.


Why you shouldn't talk about an industry you know nothing about

**update one, on why orchestras aren't supposed to "make money"

**update two, contract ratified, final remarks

This in response to one of the most idiotic rants against the striking San Francisco Orchestra musicians I've ever seen. 

Anthony Alfidi, a "founding genius" of Alfidi Capital lays into the striking musicians pretty hard. First off, who is this guy? Well, turns out he went to Notre Dame and University of San Francisco, with degrees in Human Resources (wtf kind of degree is that anyway? Hey, let me teach you how to fire someone!), and an MBA in Finance (my mom has one of those. Great degrees that you pay a bunch of money for and mean nothing). He started Alfidi Capital because he was stuck in "dead end jobs" with other marketing firms. He's been investing since college, and has made money, so listen to this guys advice.

Now, I don't usually use this tone in a blog. I'm not usually this derisive, especially about things I have limited experience in. I say limited because, unlike Alfidi, I HAVE worked in similar circumstances, know a thing or two about human resources and management. unlike Alfidi, i worked in small mom-and-pop start-ups. While doing so, I took the time to listen, pay attention, and ask questions about the business side. Plus, I read a book or two about starting businesses, so I know everything there is to know. AND, back in HS, we played the stock market and I came out way ahead by investing heavily in Krispy Kreme, assuming Americans like to be fat.

Oops, slipped into the tone again. Alright, enough of that. Unlike Alfidi, while I can be just as dismissive of everything he does, I'd rather look at facts, and compare them to different sides of the argument. So, let's start off from the top of his little ignorant blog post.

"I was under the impression that every true artist in the world aspired to play at Carnegie Hall."

Well, sir, you're wrong. And, if you run through the list of people who play for the SFO, I bet they've all already played there, if for no other reason than, if memory serves, they played Carnegie Hall's 1998 opening gala. So, um, yeah, they've been there.

And won an Emmy, 4 Grammys for Best Classical Album, 3 Grammys for best choral performance, 4 Grammys for best orchestral performance, and one for Best Rock Instrumental Performance (The Call of Ktulu in 2001 with Metallica). So, yeah, this isn't their main aspiration.

Mr. Alfidi also seems to assume that venue is a big deal. Sorry sir, it only matters a little bit for younger musicians. Building the resume kinda thing...kinda like you had to work for this "other firms" before you could launch your own. Carnegie is a stepping stone, not an end point.

"...these union thugs in tuxedos are unsatisfied with a base salary of $141,700. That is far above the San Francisco median household income of $72,947."

Hey, you're right! go statistics proving whatever we want! let's do some other comparisons, with numbers.

The median expected salary for a typical CEO in US is $727,044. The median for a CEO in San Fran is $871,864. Wow, they make far less than a CEO. Now, let's compare it to something a bit more fitting. Oh, and the SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY CEO MAKES $495,000! But that's not to blame, he's entitled to it, because you understand what his job is.

A major symphony musician has gone through years of training, not some HS student, or maybe 10 years of lessons. The majority of these musicians hold doctorates (hey, they're more educated than you Mr. Alfidi, but then, so am I). They play for what is probably the second or third best orchestra in the world. Let's say, this is like a Financial Associate. Here's a description of their job. It's a pretty meat and potato kind of job in the Financial industry--pretty much a giant catch all. You sell, advise, and plan financial services, from stocks to insurance. So, basically, what you do Mr. Alfidi.

So, how much would a TOP TIER financial associate make in San Francisco? We're talking someone with 20+ years in the game, is a manager, and is training the next generation. According to salary.com, $142,810.

Oh, i get it now. Mr. Alfidi is jealous! He's jealous because he's still somewhat young, is working in a startup, and is probably making in the lower percentile of this job. OR because he is making around the median, and he can't believe someone in a non-financial industry job could possibly make this much. Hmmm...

So, a top tier musician is getting paid slightly less than a top tier ASSOCIATE in the financial industry in San Francisco. Hm...statistics, funny thing, isn't it.

"Making over $85K per year to do something a talented high school musician can do for free is pretty generous."

Really, a talented HS musician? Alright, let's do some comparisons. NOTE: THESE ARE NOT MEANT TO MAKE THE HS STUDENTS FEEL BAD! You're in HS, keep practicing, and you'll be there!

Here's a video of San Francisco Symphony playing the BBC PROMS, MAHLER SYMPHONY 7!

Alright, there's a few things there to think about. 1) BBC PROMS > Carnegie Hall. 2) HOLY SHIT THAT WAS AWESOME!

Now, here's Idyillwild Arts Academy playing Mahler Symphony 2. Sorry, couldn't find a symphony 7 video. Because, it's a bit of a challenge.

BEFORE POSTING, CONGRATS TO IDYILLWILD ARTS ACADEMY! This is a beautiful recording and you all should be proud! And if you keep working, you'll have a shot at the SF Orchestra. Really, I am impressed for your level. MR. ALFIDI, here's an incredibly talented group of HS students.

Again, congrats to Idyillwild Arts Academy. This is a very good, moving performance of a difficult piece! Keep at it and you'll be able to go pro!

Sorry Mr. Alfidi, you're about as far off as possible. If this amazing group of HS students, a private school, cream of the crop type group, can't handle SFO, then you've lost this one.

"If the symphony needs a scab played for the triangle or tambourine to help break the strike, then I volunteer to perform for free. I've had no music education, but those instruments don't look difficult"

Yep, they're cake. Here's a video of Pedro Estevan playing tambourine. Go ahead, tell me you can do this.

Because, if you can handle that simple little thing, then I'll even PAY you to do my next premiere.

"I'm willing to solo O Mio Babbino Caro on a kazoo if Renee Fleming can't elbow her way through the union's picket line."

First off, there is no way in hell Renee Fleming would elbow her way through a picket line. Unlike your incredibly selfish and self-centered profession that revolves entirely around money (shit, the rhetoric went south again...), musicians are collaborators. We work together. On everything. When a musician gets screwed, we band together because we know if one of us gets screwed, it won't be long before all of us get screwed. and never, ever, compare yourself to this, even in jest:

If your kazoo playing can come close to this, I'll write you a concerto.

"Musicians who fancy themselves irreplaceable remind me of the federal air traffic controllers who were justifiably fired in 1981 when they arrogantly broke federal law."

Wow, what a horrible comparison. That's like comparing Mr. Alfidi's blog post to Mein Kompf--both are written documents full of vitriol, political ideas, and skewed perspectives. But that's not much to go off of.

13,000 air traffic controllers went on strike. When they did, all planes in the US were grounded. 2,000 went back to work, and other replacements, mainly military personnel and other people willing to learn the job took over.

You're comparing 13,000 people to around 150. You're comparing a public industry vs. a private not-for-profit. You're comparing a job that risks the lives of thousands to those that provide a service. No, this comparison is completely invalid. Maybe Mr. Alfidi should go back to school and take a logic course...Oops, the derision has come back. There's little comparison beyond "they're on strike and you don't like it."

"Performing classical works in one of the greatest cities in the world is an honor and a privilege that countless musicians dream of having. The spoiled union brats on strike for exorbitant pay no longer deserve such an honor. Their selfish action denies music to fans and brings shame to The City."

First off, I didn't know San Fran was called "The City." That's a pretty haughty claim right there.

Second, honor and privilege doesn't pay the bills. It doesn't put food on the table. This is one of the biggest problems in music today. And I don't just mean classical music.

This idea of "exposure." that it's a "big deal and you should be thankful." Mr. Alfidi thinks that, at best, music professionals should be interns.

Because we do what we love for the sake of doing what we love.

Because it's an "entertainment industry"

Because it doesn't make tons of money, as a corporation.

Oh, Mr. Alfidi, just because you hate your job and secretly wish you had become a pianist like Joseph Alfidi doesn't mean you can bring out your vitriol. Just because you don't understand what it means to be a musician, doesn't mean you can tell us what our profession requires. You don't see me screaming that YOU'RE making too much, that the financial industry is one of the main sources of ruin in America, that investors such as yourself Mr. Alfidi were the reason for the economic downturn, not the millions of hard-working Americans, just doing their jobs. That, somehow, you have "power" because you can trade shares of a company you know nothing about beyond their profit possibilities.

Let's be honest, a high schooler with decent math skills, the ability to read graphs, and make guesses based upon the numbers they see could do your job. Anyone that feels like learning a little math and sitting down could do your job. Do you know how many musicians I went to school with that couldn't get a symphony job decided to go into the financial world? Do you know how many are making as much or more than you? Because, guess what, they dealt in far more math every day.

So, yeah, I'm a bit irritated, because this is an example of someone that has absolutely no idea what he is talking about talking down to other people, demanding their jobs because he just doesn't get it. Well, guess what, any joe schmo can do that. I just did it to you. Does it mean that my claims are correct?

Are my statistics any better than Mr. Alfidi's?

Are my insults more stinging?

Did i not link wikipedia enough?

In other words, Mr. Alfidi, only one thing was really shown here: How to put together an argument. And here are my closing remarks:

Orchestra musicians are top tier professionals in their area. I have previously said in posts that, yes, sometimes we as musicians are over-paid. That sometimes, we have to share in the sacrifice to make sure music happens. But what's been happening in America isn't a shared sacrifice. Here's a break-down of what happened in Indy. There were no cuts to administrative positions, nor CEO pay. In Atlanta, there were 16% cuts for musicians, the CEO took a 6% cut, and no word on other administrative positions. How is this a fair share?

Was this the right to for San Fran to strike? Are their demands fair? Unlike Mr. Alfidi, I'm not going to weigh in exactly. I haven't read the arguments. I was on top of it in Indy, Atlanta, and Minnesota. But, I haven't been on top of this one. But, I can assume, that whatever is happening, it's not fair. We're looking at time when orchestras are having to transform. But what they're doing isn't selfish, it isn't dishonourable. No, they're fighting because they have to fight. They're fighting because there have already been too many loses. As it is, music is becoming a commodity people want for free. There are musicians in KC playing all night gigs for under $100, when they bring in a crowds of people paying a cover and buying tons of drinks. There are audio engineers offering their home studios for $15/hour. Musicians are pricing themselves into obscurity.

Musicians are people, real people, who have worked their whole lives to become top professionals. And they are top professionals Mr. Alfidi. If they were in the same industry as you, they'd be your boss 1000 times over. I've been at this for 22 years of my life, and I still can't hold a candle to some of these musicians. And I don't expect to get paid $146,000. I expect to make a living wage based upon what I do. But with 22 years of experience, I bet I've got you beat. And I'm a small business owner, an entrepreneur, and an innovator, not so much unlike yourself.

So, before you attack a group of musicians for wanting more than the "median" income, maybe you should realize, these aren't "average" works. They're the best of the best fighting for their place in this world, a place that is slowly shrinking because CEOs demand more money, and that "median" income can't buy a ticket anymore. And they're people, who've given more of their lives to their profession than  you have even known what your profession was. They're people, Mr. Alfidi. Your blog posts rail against CEOs getting paid bonuses on failing companies, espouse a love for small businesses, and yet you're staunchly anti-union. You rally often for people, but against the structure that protects them.

Before your next post, why not read up on the symphony structure? why not come up with meaningful comparisons. Mr. Alfidi's blog isn't all full of vitriol. He wants innovation, wants to move forward...But this post was as far off as you can get, by someone as far outside the industry as possible. And, maybe, make a meaningful addition to the dialogue.

**update one, on why orchestras aren't supposed to "make money"

**update two, contract ratified, final remarks


Maybe if I flap hard enough, I'll fly away...

Opera Project 2013 is underway. Had the first full rehearsal today, a read through of all the pieces. And for this project, I volunteered my services as wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube man. Every so often, I end up doing this, mainly as a "last resort" or as special favors.

In this case, it was a very simple decision: This project contains 90 minutes worth of music. All are premieres. We have rehearsal at least once a week until the last couple weeks, then we'll add more. Rehearsals run 2.5 hours.

We're lucky we have the great musicians and singers we have. Finding another performer, and a conductor at that, willing to prepare 6 separate scores, run 2.5 hour rehearsals every week for no guaranteed pay...rough to say that least. Yes, we are planning on paying everyone involved but, at best, it'll probably be a token.

So, I took the role. We had another trombone player on board anyway, so I was a bit redundant. I'm definitely still finding my footing with the pieces; i didn't get hard copies of some of them until the first instrumental read Friday. I spent some time on them yesterday, but not as much as I should have. Now, I've got a week to prep like a mad man. One score is about three quarters marked up. The others will be marked all the hell this week...though I'll be changing the markings as I get new scores each time, I'm sure.

And I'll be fighting myself. It's a fair sized ensemble: 2 violins, 2 cellos, tenor sax, bari sax/bass clarinet,  clarinet, trombone, piano, and the singers (ranging from 1-4 at a time). Yeah, I've been in front of orchestras and bands, but that was long ago...and they can run themselves surprisingly well. And I've done some chamber stuff, but even that was, what...almost 2 years ago? right? And opera? I only filled in as a conductor back in '09. and that was in '09.

My arm is sore from flapping. My eyes felt like they hadn't blinked in 2.5 hours, and have only started to really feel better. And my mind is shot beyond compare.

The concentration. I forgot about the level of concentration. The mind is not working at the level it used to. Thankfully, I've learned to prep a bit better.

Onwards and upwards. And, hey, it's 6 more conducting credits. Should I be listing those too? Damnit...

BTW, this Black House Collective/Kansas City Electronic Music and Arts Alliance collaboration is gonna kick some major ass. It's gonna be the opera event of the year in KC, which is saying something since there have already been like 3 premieres this year!



There's an odd sense in our house these days. It's a house with three doctoral and one masters student. All composition. One doctoral is doing his defense this semester. Another defends next spring. The other may as well. The masters student also really only has one year left.

I'm done with coursework after this semester. Comps are finished. Dissertation is not yet completed, but depending on the situation, could be done as early as the fall.

And that's the kicker, for all of us: "...depending on the situation."

I've had uncertainty many times before. After DePauw, I had no direction other than "Apply for grad schools" and found myself on the beach in Jersey. It worked out. But there weren't any opportunities when I graduated, i made them.

After Brooklyn, similar situation. Job in Jersey disappeared with the economy. I applied for whatever I could, but a Masters degree is a tricky thing in my field. It's not the terminal degree, so teaching positions are incredibly difficult to find, beyond the occasional adjunct work. But much of the rest of the world sees you as horribly overqualified. So, I started a dark period in Indiana, begging for work for  3 months before getting hired at a music store making practically nothing.

Then I got into a Doctoral program. It was, somewhat, in desperation. But it was one of the schools I was interested in...I just didn't do the usual process and check out the schools.

So, there was a lot of unknown after my Masters, but, again, it was an unknown with no possibilities over my head.

Now, I'm finishing my doctorate. I've gotten one awesome opportunity for the fall already, and I'm hoping to be there. But, there's still so much over my head...

There's this Fulbright business. I will hear anytime between now and June 1. Sooner is much better, whether positive or negative. I have a preference for a "come on out to Sweden," but knowing is much better than not knowing.

There are job opportunities. Should I apply? I'll be ABD. I could be ABD with a "just waiting for the semester to end to get the diploma, but he defended in August." I could be ABD till May 2014. And then there's the fact, I could apply for the job, and get the Fulbright AND the job? What then? I'm guessing I'd turn down the job, but how will that affect future applications. My advisor has assured me that no one begrudges a Fulbright winner for taking off. I'll hold onto that.

And what if neither happen? Will I continue to work on this full length opera, or bang out a second short and turn in a set of two for my dissertation? I could be done, again, by August, or take my sweet ole time then and work on the craft and editing. I could definitely go to the opportunity in the fall, which would be effing awesome. I could do more in Kansas City, set-up events, maybe stage a couple more productions. Could edit what I have now, make it even tighter. Do a string quartet version of Cake finally.

And what exactly is my dissertation? Is it a full-length? Is it an "evening of short operas" with two 15-20 minute operas?

I've been feeling stuck in this Limbo. When there are no ready options, the world is open to you. You can take any opportunity that pops up, float around, skip town and move across the country. You spend your days searching. It's a different Limbo, a different stress. There's still a sense of unknown, but it's total unknown. The mind has difficulty processing the idea of "all options and no options are available."

But when you're sitting, waiting, with some distinct possibilities in place, it's different. You're waiting for that domino to drop that sets off the chain reaction. You're small ripples in a pond from water dripping off a leaf...It could continue, it could become a downpour and all those little ripples become a wave, or someone could throw a stone into the pond. Or a boulder.

Or possibly the entire world.

And then your original little ripples are consumed.

Trying to be tranquil in this sea of troubles is not more forte.