A Layman’s Guide to the Minnesota Orchestra Lockout

Someone asked me the other day – “So what’s this whole Minnesota Orchestra lockout thing about?”



“How long do you have?” I wanted to ask.

So I’m giving myself a challenge: to summarize the lockout from my perspective in 2000 words. I’ll give myself bonus points if I can stay under 1500.


The Minnesota Orchestra musicians’ 2007-2012 contract expired on September 30. Rumors had abounded for months that the orchestra was facing serious financial trouble, and that management would be seeking sharp concessions from their musicians (despite the fact that, within the last five years, the orchestra has cemented its reputation as one of the greatest in the world). Within the last year, a large number of players have either retired or left the orchestra outright, suggesting internal strife. In the spring of 2012, sixteen non-musician employees were laid off. Nationally renowned arts consultant Drew McManus feared that these employees were being used as pawns in the negotiating game. On August 27 the orchestra’s blog, written by conductor Sarah Hicks and violist Sam Bergman, was suddenly shut down; neither author was given the chance to write a good-bye post. Management said it was because their website was being redesigned. Fans knew better. So even from the outside, it was obvious that negotiations were tense.

On September 5, management went public with their proposed contract. (Interestingly, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra management went public with their proposal for their musicians on September 4. As you can imagine, the local media was overwhelmed and unable to properly cover either story.) Minnesota management released the proposed contract without the musicians’ knowledge. It featured over 250 changes (many related only tangentially to finances) and a reduction in average base salary from $109,000 to $78,000, with musicians paying more for benefits.

For anyone who feels this salary is excessive, keep in mind:

  1. Playing in the orchestra is the musicians’ full-time job.
  2. They are literally some of the most talented musicians in the world, who could play in any of the great orchestras of the world (and who often have).
  3. Top-tier orchestras pay musicians much more than $78,000. (The Chicago Symphony, for instance, currently has a base salary of $145,000.)
  4. All musicians begin their training in childhood, often at the age of two or three.
  5. They have spent tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars on their education.
  6. They have successfully competed in a brutally demanding audition process against dozens and dozens of other musicians.
  7. They play instruments that – in the case of string players, anyway – can easily cost $100,000 or more, and are very expensive to maintain.

The day after Minnesota management released the proposed contract, the musicians called for an independent financial analysis of the orchestra’s finances. They claim that the information they have been given is “contradictory, outdated, incomplete, and deliberately confusing.” Consequently, they say they feel unable to make a fair counter-offer. Despite the fact the Star Tribune has called upon management to submit to an independent financial analysis, management has continued to resist, citing “unnecessary delay and duplication of effort.” Also, according to the musicians: “Despite multiple requests, the Orchestra Management and Board have failed to provide a copy of the approved 2012-13 budget to the Musicians.”

The subject of the Minnesota Orchestra’s finances is a complicated one. Over the last few years, the orchestra has raised over $100 million in a “Campaign for the Future.” Roughly $50 million of that was earmarked for a renovation of Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis. ($14 million of that money came from the State of Minnesota.) Why not use some of that money for musicians’ salaries? First off, the renovation has already begun. Second, as management makes clear on its website, many donations were made specifically for the hall and not for operating expenses.

Unfortunately, there’s a wrinkle to that argument. In July 2010, as fundraising for the Future campaign was in full-swing, Orchestra CEO Michael Henson was bragging about how well the orchestra was doing financially. In December of that year, the then-board chair announced, “This was a season characterized by disciplined budget management…” However, in a Strib editorial published on October 11, 2012, management admitted that “last year” they had drawn from the orchestra’s endowment at a rate of 17%. (They were discussing a 2012 draw rate.) In an MPR article from 23 October, management said it drew from the endowment at a rate of 17.7% in 2012, 13.6% in 2011, 11.4% in 2010, and 10.7% in 2009. A 6% draw is considered to be a sustainable rate, and that was roughly the rate the orchestra employed until 2008. In their October 2012 editorial, management didn’t acknowledge or explain their 2010 words or attitude. How many people would have donated to the hall, if they had known that such staggering wage cuts for musicians were just around the bend? During the Building for the Future campaign, small donors were not told of the orchestra’s precarious fiscal state, and since the lockout began, many have expressed feelings of unhappiness, and even betrayal. The public has not heard from large donors (yet), but as best as we can tell, they were not informed of management’s intentions, either. (A very wealthy and influential donor has publicly shown her support for the musicians, so we know at least one is not happy.)

In early September, board chair Jon Campbell and immediate past chair Richard Davis freely admitted they were expecting turnover among musicians. (I think it is worth mentioning here that Jon Campbell and Richard Davis are executive vice president of Wells Fargo and CEO of US Bancorp, respectively. They are businessmen, who have no experience working in the musical world.) Neither man said anything about the damage these departures would cause not just to the orchestra, but to the wider Twin Cities community. Musicians’ departures may well lead to an education crisis within the Twin Cities: many of the players are also revered teachers. Campbell and Davis’s remarks led me to write an essay “Is Minnesota Orchestra Management Lying To Us?“, which quickly went viral in the orchestral world.

On September 16, the musicians put on their own concert at the Lake Harriet Bandshell, both to give back to their community and to raise awareness for their cause. In an unexpected move, conductor Osmo Vänskä released a statement that said, in part, “When I arrived in Minneapolis in 2003, I set many lofty goals for the Minnesota Orchestra. I knew that with hard work and dedication to our art, we would be able to achieve them and take our places among the greatest orchestras in the world. Our musicians have met every challenge I set out for them, and I could not be prouder of what we have achieved…”

The musicians also started a petition to “keep world-class musicians in the Minnesota Orchestra.” They gathered 1000 signatures at the Lake Harriet show alone. As of late October, they have 6,340 online signatures, for a total of roughly 7,500 signatures.

Around this time, I started getting frustrated with management’s slipperiness, so I wrote this essay: A Hundred-ish Questions For Minnesota Orchestra Management. I spent $25 printing out these questions and sending them in manila envelopes to Orchestra CEO Michael Henson, Jon Campbell, and Richard Davis, and I thoroughly documented my doing so. Six weeks later, there has been no acknowledgment of receipt, much less any answers from them. (Other patrons have received acknowledgments of their letters, and even replies.) This is frustrating, because it’s a golden PR opportunity for them. They know this blog exists, and they know it can reach thousands of concerned patrons in the blink of an eye. Yet – so far – they refuse to acknowledge me or my questions. (Or, for that matter, the questions of other writers, such as Matt Peiken at MNuet.) As I’ve said many times before, the moment I hear from them, I’ll let you all know.

When I didn’t hear from management, I entertained myself by Googling Orchestra CEO Michael Henson. I found a fascinating article called “Aiming High: Michael Henson profile” from July 2010. (Awkwardly, it was on the Minnesota Orchestra’s own website.) It begins: “The former Bournemouth Symphony head is strategising his way through the recession – and winning.” Of course this totally contradicts what the Orchestra is now saying was happening financially in 2010. I wrote a long essay about that here. Bizarrely, after my essay was published, the article was discreetly taken down from the orchestra’s website, with no explanation given for either the disappearance or the content of the article. Unfortunately for management, there are screenshots. And even more unfortunately for management, the word “winning” is quickly becoming shorthand for incompetence in the orchestra business.

On September 25, Minnesota management offered what it called its “final proposal.” They uploaded a second proposed contract to their website, alongside the one they had originally offered on September 7. There were roughly eleven minor changes between the two contracts (the number will vary depending on how you parse them) in a fifty-plus page document. I discussed the few differences between the two contracts here. It would be misleading to suggest there are any substantive differences between them.

In a last ditch effort to avert silence, the musicians offered to go through binding arbitration. Binding arbitration is “the submission of a dispute to an unbiased third person designated by the parties to the controversy, who agree in advance to comply with the award—a decision to be issued after a hearing at which both parties have an opportunity to be heard.” This was the first time that musicians at a major American orchestra have offered to go through binding arbitration to avert a work stoppage. (During the orchestral crises in Detroit and Louisville, the subject of binding arbitration only came up after months of failed talks.) In addition to binding arbitration, the musicians also offered to play and talk, as the musicians and management of the Cleveland Orchestra agreed to do this fall. However, Minnesota management was interested in neither binding arbitration nor playing and talking, saying that they did not want to turn control over to an arbitrator, and that they had been playing and talking over the spring and summer (not explaining that the musicians were contractually obligated to play until September 30). The musicians met and unanimously rejected the final offer. So management locked out the players, halted their salaries and health insurance benefits, and canceled concerts all the way out to November 25 (much to patrons’ ire, judging by the Minnesota Orchestra Facebook page). The press release from management announcing the cancellations was so riddled with obfuscations it provided fodder for yet another frustrated essay. This too ended up going viral.

The musicians quickly got to work organizing themselves. On October 1, they rallied on Nicollet Mall outside the ongoing $50 million Orchestra Hall renovation. A few days later, they announced that they were putting on a concert of their own in the Minneapolis Convention Center auditorium. Within a week, they sold out the 2100 seat hall in a program of Dvořák and Shostakovich. The electricity within the hall was unbelievable, and like nothing any of us had ever experienced. The event instantly entered the annals of American orchestral history: Alex Ross, the critic at the New Yorker, who wasn’t even in attendance, called it “already legendary.”

Management has been struggling to control bad press and annoyed patrons. This blog, for instance, has garnered a surprising amount of international attention (including from Alex Ross). The entire blogosphere has been so critical of management’s behavior that MPR wrote an article about it. Three former Minnesota music directors wrote a scathing anti-management editorial in the Star Tribune on October 6. The paper also produced a beautiful video about the lockout concert, and published a wickedly sarcastic editorial on October 11: “That’s why the expenditure of $50 million on Orchestra Hall’s lobby is such a marvelous thing: it’s the most important part of the concert-going experience. You’ll still have to sit through a bunch of notes coming at you like bees, but you know when it’s done you get to stand in a lobby and slam back some wine in a world-class space…”

The clock is ticking. The musicians have indicated they are unlikely to offer a counter-proposal until they get the financial information they’ve requested. More and more players are auditioning for jobs in other cities, where they will receive better compensation and, more importantly, respect. If a sizable number of musicians succeed in winning these jobs (and it is never wise to bet against the talent and determination of these musicians), they will leave behind them gaping holes in the cultural fabric of the Upper Midwest that will take years to mend. And the future of the Minnesota Orchestra will be uncertain.

If you feel the urge to delve in deeper to the conflict, my blog is open to you. You can read viewpoints from all sides in the Orchestral Apocalypse Index.

If you feel moved to, please visit the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra’s website, where you can learn what you can do to help. You can also like the musicians on Facebook to stay updated with news.

Edit 12/30/2012. I wrote a sequel to this entry, A Layman’s Guide to the Minnesota Orchestra Lockout, Part 2. You can read that here.


2100 words. Sigh. I do not get any bonus points.


Filed under My Writing

10 responses to “A Layman’s Guide to the Minnesota Orchestra Lockout

  1. Amy

    You do get points for coherence and severity. I’d say you’re well in the black.

  2. Terry

    2,100 words is very close, and hey, brevity is not all it’s cracked up to be! Especially when recapping the Greek Tragedy in which we find ourselves at the moment. I cannot imagine how the musicians themselves are coping with it. Such an utter betrayal of everything the people of Minnesota (musicians, subscribers, donors, audience members, board members, taxpayers, staff members, etc.) have built and supported over the last 110 years.

    As Douglas Allchin of St. Paul, MN, wrote in his Letter to the Editor (StarTribune, Oct. 22, 2012): “The management has failed the public’s trust as stewards of this cultural resource. It is time for the Orchestra Board to recognize the need for new leadership.”


  3. Once again, I am blown away by your brilliant writing. I should know better by now. Thanks for your clear and concise documentation of this chaotic mess management and the board have created.. It is definitely time for new leadership.

  4. lee4713

    Sigh. Bankers (MNOrch) and M&A lawyers (SPCO) in charge. Didn’t these guys already crash the US economy?

    • barbara berg

      Sigh. Bankers and lawyers. I teach the future bankers and lawyers who will make these same decisions in future decades. In zip code 10583, music is a *frill* to be taught during lunch time. My orchestra students’ lunches are under their chairs, to be gobbled as best as one can….their homes cost 1 million AND UP, and property taxes are $20k and up. Change must come from the early grades in the education system. I am also a major orchestra professional violinist. Minn. Orch. was my first orchestral concert experience. I see both sides….and am looking at going into administration to change this horrendous situation.

  5. Kevin Kooiker

    Very nicely done. You get bonus points from us!

  6. Wonderful writing, and a good explanation of what is happening. I keep getting emails from MN Orchestra management (asking me to donate more money! Imagine the gall!). Musicians are not factory line robots, interchangeable at will. I wish management would understand this.

  7. So the management raised more than $100 million dollars for the lobby and “the future” while telling donors the finances were sound. And when the musicians’ contract expired they turn around and say “just kidding about the finances, we have to cut salaries…” If I were a donor, I’d be furious. I’m not an attorney, but it sounds to me like a criminal investigation is very much in order on the management. Especially since they will not release their finances.

  8. Mike

    Can someone tell me how the board and president are picked. Is there anyway to dismiss them and get better leadership?

  9. bfelt

    Word has it the Minnesota Orchestra’s stagehand labor agreement is up at the end of December. Bet the Board and Management will be offering the same deep pay cuts for them. Another lockout looming?

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