When John Cage was a guest on the game show I’ve Got a Secret back in 1960, he had to adjust the performance of his work Water Walk. Before the broadcast of the show, the producers were informed that there was a disagreement between the two electrician’s unions as to who could and would plug in the five radios that were to be an integral part of the piece. Cage, of course, affably chose to simply hit the radios with his hand instead of tuning them to different radio stations; the entire potentially awkward situation was described in front of the cameras by host Gary Moore as he and Cage discussed how the piece would proceed. In addition to providing the sight of a controversial living composer being a celebrity guest on a game show, the episode demonstrates how a union dispute could affect the performance of new music in a very public setting.

Over the past decade, the unions representing professional musicians have been thrust into the spotlight. Unprecedented numbers of symphony orchestras are running into financial difficulties, initiating negotiations with those unions (many unsuccessfully) to come to a satisfactory agreement that protects both the performers and the orchestra. As Ellen McSweeney wrote about a few weeks ago, there have been plenty of examples of wise and unwise moves by both parties across the spectrum of conflicts, and it is because of this extended and protracted situation in locations throughout the country that one could easily understand how representatives from musicians’ unions would project a strong, vigilant stance against any financial threat against their membership.

One very contentious example of the strained relationship between labor and management is the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in St. Paul, Minnesota. Since 2008, the SPCO has been dealing with decreasing revenue due to the recession and has worked with the musician’s union to enact pay cuts to keep the organization healthy (12% in 2009, 11.3% in 2010). Beginning in the spring of 2012, negotiations began between the SPCO board and the musician’s union to address an anticipated deficit of between $750,000 and $1 million and by the summer, threats of reconfiguring the orchestra away from a full-time pay structure as well as the potential removal of tenure and the ability for the orchestra to dismiss musicians without peer review emerged. In October, the SPCO initiated a lockout and in November cancelled the remaining 2012 concert schedule. By early 2013 talks had ground to a standstill with much distances between the two parties, no concerts through the end of March, and musicians beginning to peel off for greener pastures.

On Monday, the new music group yMusic was traveling to Minneapolis/St. Paul along with the composer Sarah Kirkland Snider and vocalist Shara Worden; they were slated to give two performances of Snider’s work Penelope and Worden’s works written for her band My Brightest Diamond under the auspices of the Liquid Music Series (a music series, presented by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, that brings cutting-edge artists such as Laurie Anderson, Ben Frost, BOAC All-Star Ashley Bathgate, DJ/rupture, and the Bad Plus’ Reid Anderson to St. Paul). That same day the ensemble members received a message from New York City’s Musician’s Union (AFM-Local 802). The message warned them that, because of the current lockout that the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra is currently under due to a protracted dispute between the SPCO and the local musician’s union, they were not to perform the concerts. Subsequently both sold-out concerts were cancelled and the audiences were refunded their ticket expenses.

I asked Sarah Kirkland Snider for comment and background on the matter and the following is her reply:

Kate Nordstrum, Liquid Music Curator and Special Projects Producer at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, has been trying to bring Shara Worden and yMusic to the Twin Cities to perform my song cycle, Penelope, and some other collaborative works since early 2011. There had already been one thwarted attempt to present the show in the area last year (at the Southern Theater, which encountered prohibitive financial woes before the performance was scheduled to take place), so we were all very excited to finally bring this concert to life. Shara and yMusic were slated to perform it February 26th and 27th. Both shows were sold out.

Liquid Music is a series presented by the SPCO, curated by Kate Nordstrum. Its mission is to present musical artists that blur genre boundary lines, and in so doing, to expand the classical concert-going audience in the Twin Cities. The series is fully paid for by new money that Kate has brought into the SPCO for these purposes; no resources have been stripped from the orchestra.

On Monday, February 25, the afternoon before the performance, while the members of yMusic were in various states of travel to Minneapolis, each performer received a voicemail from the AFM Local 802. The president of the union stated that performing at the Liquid Music series constituted “crossing the picket line” of the SPCO and that they would be subject to fines of up to $50,000 each and expulsion from the union if they proceeded. No member of yMusic had heard anything about this from the union previously.

Most members of yMusic did not receive the voicemail until they landed in Minnesota. I had just arrived at my hotel when I got a call from Kate telling me she’d been in contact with half of yMusic and that they’d received some very troubling voicemails.

The decision was made the next morning. The members of yMusic were understandably uncomfortable with the prospect of facing those penalties from the union, and it was too late to move the show to any non-SPCO venue. So the shows were canceled. We still had a third concert lined up for Carleton College in Northfield, MN, a few days later, so we all had to stay in Minneapolis for the duration.

The AFM’s decision to take action at the last minute caused an egregious amount of inconvenience and wasted time for more than a dozen hard-working musicians and forward-thinking presenters who had been working on this concert for over a year. On a professional level, it meant a loss of income for the six members of yMusic, Shara Worden, Michael Hammond (sound designer), Brian Wolfe (drummer), and myself. On a personal level, because my husband was also away during this stretch, it meant spending money on childcare while fretting over my two- and four-year-olds being with a babysitter they didn’t know very well, all when I could have been home with them until our third show. Finally, it meant that what should have been our third concert in Minnesota—but was instead our first—was not as polished as it could have been had the players given two performances of the work just days before. But perhaps saddest of all, it meant the loss of an uncommon opportunity to present new music in an innovative format to sold-out audiences who were looking forward to it.

The musicians involved in this project and I strongly believe in fair labor practices and fervently hope that the SPCO negotiations are resolved quickly. We understand that the situation is delicate and complicated. Maybe it’s inevitable in situations like this that some peripherally-related music, like ours, becomes collateral damage. Maybe it’s not. But at the very least, our musical community should be one that minimizes that damage by showing its musicians respect, fellowship, and trust. Unions, like police, are supposed to be there to protect and serve. If you’re going to threaten your musicians with expulsion and $50,000 fines for performing a concert, do it before they’ve rehearsed, lined up childcare, and flown across the country.

In addition to contacting Sarah, I also reached out to Tino Gagliardi, President of the Associated Musicians of Greater New York, Local 802, American Federation of Musicians, and asked him for any insight he could provide from the union’s perspective. His reply:

The action taken by the musicians that play with yMusic had nothing to do with the type of ensemble it is. The union (Local 802 AFM) appealed to the AFM musicians that are members of the ensemble for solidarity by supporting our colleagues in St. Paul. The world class musicians of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra need all of our help in maintaining the standard of professionalism they deserve. The musicians of the SPCO have been locked out since October 1st. If the SPCO Society wants to present musical events, shouldn’t they get serious about bargaining a fair deal for the musicians that have committed their lives and families to St. Paul?

In some ways, the timing and location of these concerts created a “perfect storm”; the musicians couldn’t help that their concert dates put them squarely in the middle of a very contentious fight between the SPCO and the musician’s union and the American Federation of Musicians seemingly could not afford to demonstrate any hint of wavering in the face of their negotiations with the SPCO board. Making the situation even more muddy is the fact that yMusic was traveling to perform a show of their own, not to replace St. Paul musicians in some way, but because the Liquid Music Series is “presented” by the SPCO, that public association was enough to trigger the New York City union’s “appeal for solidarity.”

That being said, however, valid questions could be asked about the timing and method by which yMusic was informed of the union’s position. The union seems concerned that by supporting a concert series presented by the SPCO, the musicians would be, in effect, helping the opposition. One might posit that an early compromise might have been accomplished by allowing for yMusic to perform the concert through a venue unconnected to the SPCO – the Liquid Music tickets would have needed to have been refunded, but the performances could still have taken place in St. Paul or Minneapolis. By giving what constituted an ultimatum to the ensemble the day before the concert, however, there was no time given to find an appropriate alternate venue to perform the concert. This action calls into question whether or not the union was taking issue with the venues association with the SPCO or with the nature of the ensemble.

This is not the first example of conflict between a new music concert and the musician’s union. In April of 2012, the Brooklyn Academy of Music brought in composer Joseph C. Phillips Jr. to lead his own ensemble, Numinous, in the performance of a newly commissioned score to Ernst Lubitsch’s 1922 classic silent film The Loves of Pharaoh. As Phillips points out in his own blog, the union used strong tactics to encourage audiences not to attend the concert because his musicians were not performing under a union contract (though he explains that their wages were based off of union rates).

The emergence of non-union, DIY-style new music ensembles throughout the country over the past 15 years has added a new wrinkle to the ever-changing music industry; groups that flew under the radar for many years are now winning Grammy Awards and their leaders are being named MacArthur Fellows. AFM Local 802’s Financial Vice President Tom Olcott wrote about this situation last year and it is easy to see that while the topic of unions is not one commonly discussed in new music circles, it soon will be.

Obviously these are trying times for professional musicians across the country and the musician’s unions, as the intermediaries in so many contractual disputes, are under a great deal of pressure to protect their members’ careers and livelihoods. When the protective relationship between union and members morphs into a threatening, punitive relationship, however, it is reasonable to ask whether or not more responsible and productive methods could be used to achieve the shared goals of all involved. One only hopes that debacles such as what yMusic had to go through in St. Paul can demonstrate that work still needs to be done on this front. New music ensembles are not going away any time soon and a strong, supportive relationship from the musician’s union would be for the benefit for everyone.

[Note: I realized this week that this is my 100th column for NewMusicBox, a fact that I cannot quite comprehend. Many thanks to Molly, Alex, and Frank for helping me stay the course over the past two years and I look forward to many more adventures to come.]

Update from Rob: I should have included the fact that even though tickets were refunded both evenings in St. Paul, Shara Worden, a non-union performer, went on to perform a set with her drummer as My Brightest Diamond on both nights.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

16 thoughts on “Solidarity

  1. Gabe Langfur

    While the timing of the union’s communication is clearly not good, is it not fair to suggest that the members of ymusic also have the responsibility to think ahead regarding the SPCO situation?

    If you choose to work for an employer that is locking out their regular employees, in any capacity, you are acting in opposition to those regular employees.

    I don’t see how this has anything to do with ymusic being a new music ensemble. If the SPCO tried to present a concert by the musicians of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, I’m sure the union would have had exactly the same objection.

  2. Mell Csicsila

    The SPCO has been on the International Unfair List for a while now and the International Unfair List is published every month in the journal which each member receives. yMusic should have been asking these questions ahead of time. Sadly, so many performers are unaware of what their _responsibilities_ are with union membership beyond any benefits. It’s not pleasant, but plenty of burden falls back on the ensemble for not being aware on their own ahead of time. If the members of yMusic are in the union on their own, it is a “union” group no different from a union wedding band. The members are supposed to be filing contracts and paying work dues per the bylaws, even if they aren’t. I suspect that there may be party bands in Minnesota that have had to decline bookings at certain venues related to this issue, as well. I’m not saying it’s a happy thing, just part of the deal when you are a union musician.

    1. Maria Jette

      There’s been a lot of fallout from the lockouts at both of our great orchestras–restaurants and bars have really been hurt, and I (a freelance singer) just had a concert cancelled because the presenter (a large downtown church) has lost $60K per month which they make from a parking lot next to Orchestra Hall.

      However, I think I can pretty confidently (and sadly) report that there aren’t ANY union “party bands” remaining in the Twin Cities. Those days, and the days of union gigs in bars etc., are long gone here. The local AFM is sustained almost exclusively by the two orchestras… or at least, it HAS been.

  3. Marc Ostrow

    Rob – Congrats on your 100th article! Your post regarding the AFM raises some thorny issues that don’t have easy answers. While the union serves a valuable function, the AFM (and other unions) have been slow to adjust to the times, both in terms of the their contracts and policies. That many orchestras won’t provide archival recordings of premieres is one example, as it’s easy to ensure that such recordings don’t supplant performances or commercial releases. And as for other rules, just try to figure out what union scale is for local 802 for a demo recording for a small ensemble. Loved, loved, loved the Cage clip! Performance art at its highest!

    1. Janz Castelo

      Marc, AFM orchestras have a composer study tape letter of agreement which can provide composers with a recording of the performance of their work at no cost. The recording is strictly for study purposes.

      Additionally, the AFM’s recently negotiated Integrated Media Agreement makes commercial use of live performances incredibly affordable, assuming the orchestra you are working with is signatory to the Agreement. Next time you have a work performed by an AFM orchestra, ask them about it. You might be pleasantly surprised at the cost.

  4. Tino Gagliardi

    I’m a bit bemused by Mr. Deemer’s association with union activism and solidarity with a particular musical genre. The musicians’ union is made up of very well educated and intelligent individuals that you can count on having eclectic tastes in music. Perhaps Mr. Deemer doesn’t know or understand the structure of our guild. We are a union of musicians, bottom to top. Our representatives and leaders all come from the same place – performers and artists. I personally had the privilege of performing under the baton of Luciano Berio and Steve Reich to name a few and perhaps why I am sensitive to some of Mr. Deemer’s comments. It was indeed unfortunate that yMusic found itself in a difficult position. The dispute with SPCO as well as the Minnesota Orchestra have and continue to be well publicized both in the media and in AFM publications. It is also regrettable that the musicians involved were unaware of the dispute prior to traveling. If the opportunity for the union to offer earlier notice had occurred in order to give yMusic a chance at a different venue, the union would have acted accordingly. I have the highest regard for the musicians of yMusic and commend them for supporting their brothers and sisters of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. It is a trying time for musicians. It seems that managements across the country are forgetting that it is the musicians that make an orchestra, not the administrators.

    1. Derek Anthony

      I’m honestly confused by your comment, particularly the way you drew the conclusion that Mr. Deemer doesn’t understand the structure of your guild. I’m not seeing the editorializing which you seem to be upset about. If your complaint was that the article was anti-union, I was not under the impression that anyone had suggested an anti-union bias so much as practicing good communication could have prevented a lot of heartache and inconvenience. What would you suggest as a reasonable way to prevent situations like this in the future?

    2. David Claman

      I’m wondering if other readers find Mr. Gagliardi’s “bemusement” and tone a bit condescending and a bit disingenuous? And his explanation of events is a bit one-sided and incomplete.

  5. Samantha Yorkshire

    I am 100% confident that if I received a voice message threatening $50,000 fines and possible expulsion from my union, I would have “supported my brothers and sisters” as well. The cancellation wasn’t as much of a decision by yMusic as it was a forced outcome on AFM’s part, and the notification was handled in very, very poor form. “Regrettable” is leaving your packed lunch at home. Unacceptable is allowing the plans, rehearsals, and countless hours and dollars spent on this performance to continue as planned without any prior notification, followed by the all-or-nothing mentality surrounding the performance of the event (SPCO musicians’ livelihood > yMusic et al.), and AFM’s repeated accounts of completely scapegoating accountability for the lack of conversation leading up to its day-of threats. Perhaps yMusic did not fully realize the symbolism of its association with SPCO. Perhaps they did, but association does not equal accountability in every case, particularly with a piece that has been so hard-fought to be performed for so many years finally has the opportunity to come to fruition in a sold-out, receptive environment. I would argue that this is one of those cases.

    It is crucial that musicians be adequately compensated for their skill, and an association with SPCO could show support for less than ideal wages for musicians. Understood (even though the relationship was ultimately limited to that of presenter-performer due to an ongoing relationship between Kate Nordstrum and members of yMusic). But negotiations or not, as Mr. Deemer’s article aptly points out, there was ample opportunity to alert yMusic of its symbolic association with SPCO and consequently provide the appropriate time for the musicians and composer to find an alternative means of presenting the piece. Or, at the very least, save thousands of dollars and hours of time while pursuing other opportunities in the future.

    Mr. Deemer’s closing words resonate deeply with my person, “When the protective relationship between union and members morphs into a threatening, punitive relationship, however, it is reasonable to ask whether or not more responsible and productive methods could be used to achieve the shared goals of all involved. One only hopes that debacles such as what yMusic had to go through in St. Paul can demonstrate that work still needs to be done on this front.” It seems that in this case it was also forgotten that it is the musicians that make a union, not the administrators.

  6. Christina Jensen

    It is interesting to note that none of the other Liquid Music concerts that have been presented since the lockout began have been affected. And it seems an odd coincidence that the yMusic musicians were contacted in the afternoon on the same day that in-person meetings between the SPCO and union began again, regarding the SPCO’s latest “play and talk” proposal.

  7. Sarah Kirkland Snider

    yMusic, Shara and I were all keenly aware of the SPCO dispute. But we were told by the presenters of the Liquid Music series that the lockout was not going to affect these concerts. The SPCO lockout began in September 2012, and since that time Liquid Music has presented other concerts which were not threatened. Again, Liquid Music is a new, experimental chamber series that Kate Nordstrum independently researched, designed and brought to the SPCO with her own independently-raised funds; not the other way around. Although the series bore the SPCO name in presentation, it featured almost entirely non-SPCO performers and was so different from anything resembling subscription programming that we had no reason to doubt the presenters when they told us that the lockout would not affect these concerts. Moreover, there was hardly consensus from the SPCO players themselves that this series was hurting their cause; on the contrary, Kate and her fellow presenters had received numerous statements of support from orchestra members who felt that the series was helping to grow and expand the SPCO audience at a time when the ensemble had no other way to do so (and when the opposite could easily happen instead.) We certainly saw and continue to see the series in this light, as a force for good for the SPCO, and did not in any way feel that our participation in these concerts was a betrayal of our fellow musicians. We were contracted for this concert long before the lockout began, and once it did, we accepted the assurances of our presenters that this series would be unaffected. This is obviously new and murky territory, symbolic of the larger changes that are taking place in the orchestral music world, where different kinds of programming are cropping up and new rules and communication strategies on the part of the union must be developed to address them. The strike began in September. Local 802 had nearly six months to come to grips with the fact that there is a lot of grey area here, anticipate the fact that yMusic would rightfully trust the assurances of its presenters, and reach out to those performers to communicate any concerns well before it was too late to come up with alternate solutions. A union needs to protect the interests of all of its members, not just some, and certainly not some at the expense of others.

    1. Mell Csicsila

      I might feel some compassion if you had asked the Local 30-73 or Local 802 ahead of time and were told it was OK and then this situation happened, but you seem to have gone solely on the word of the presenter which has an affiliation to SPCO.

      I do education outreach for a rather famous orchestra here where I live. I am not a party to the CBA between the musicians and the orchestra in any way, although I receive the same pay and cartage that a member of the orchestra receive for their participation in the program. When the musicians of that orchestra went on strike (for less than 24 hours) on a day when I had a school classroom visit scheduled, I did not go. It was very simple. I owe it to my colleagues to not have anything to with the organization until the issue is solved.

      I also doubt that Local 802 was checking up on this. I have had my issues with union managements in the past, but they’re not psychic and they aren’t tracking your every professional move. I more reasonably imagine that someone in the St. Paul/Minnapolis area (possibly even a locked out SPCO musician) reported the impending concert to the union and they were then compelled to act.

  8. Ken Shirk, AFM

    One of the worst things one human being can do to another is undermine the other’s legitimate efforts to preserve and raise their standard of living. THE worst thing a union member can do to another human being is cross their picket line, literally or figuratively. That is what the musician of yMusic were about to do in Minnesota, and what Local 802 was able to help them avoid, thankfully, just in the nick of time.

    The article and previous comments characterize Local 802’s warning call to the musicians as “poor timing,” “last-minute,” “unacceptable” and “suspect.” I disagree entirely.

    The American Federation of Musicians publishes a list in its monthly magazine, every month, of all the organizations with whom it or any of its local union chapters have a labor dispute. It is called the International Unfair List. The SPCO has been on that list for months. The list includes an advisory to all musicians to check with the AFM before soliciting or accepting engagements with organizations on the list.

    Additionally, the AFM has published numerous articles in its magazine about the ongoing woes of the musicians of the SPCO. The AFM recently issued via email a union-wide (US and Canada) call-to-action, sent to every member with an email address, asking them to lend their support to the valiant musicians in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Local 802 in New York City has also published articles about the Minneapolis labor dispute.

    And finally, for at least a half-century, the AFM’s bylaws have contained a clear and unambiguous prohibition of members working for any entity on the Unfair List.

    What is regrettable is that all the musicians of the yMusic group either missed all those highly public indicators, or assumed that none of it applied to them. To that last point, that’s why our magazine urges members to call the union before performing engagements for organizations on the Unfair List – to remove any uncertainty.

    No one reading this list should be taking New York Local 802 to task for leaving a last-minute voicemail warning with the musicians. Local 802’s responsibility for its members’ activities does not extend west of the Hudson River, and it has no jurisdiction over its members actions outside the local. The musicians of yMusic should be thankful that their local discovered – and cared enough – what they were about to do in another local’s territory in time to warn them off. Without that warning, those musicians would now be faced with defending their actions before a national hearing board. They would not be having a good time.

    As a professional musician and union member since 1976, and as a union representative on the local and national levels since 1983, I would like to thank the musicians of yMusic for making the right decision under difficult circumstances. Their support of their colleagues in Minneapolis is to be commended, and I know they have the sincere appreciation of their fellow musicians in the Twin Cities.


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