Edit: Literally just as I published this, the Met and various unions announced that they have extended negotiations for 72 hours and at least temporarily averted a lockout. Keep an eye on developments via Google News and on Twitter. Here’s hoping this entry becomes irrelevant, and soon.
It looks like we’re rapidly hurtling toward a Met lockout, and so to…er, celebrate isn’t quite the right word…to commemorate…to observe the occasion…I thought I’d jot down a few informal tips for various stakeholders. Your mileage may vary with these; they are just some preliminary thoughts from the perspective of one music-loving audience member who was present for the length of the knock-down drag-out hell-fight that was the Minnesota Orchestra lockout. I encourage my wise readers to add their their own survival tips in the comment section.
- Recognize how devastating a shuttered or diminished Met would be, not only to you personally, but to your city and even to your country.
- Connect with other organizations who have been through similar implosions and who have helped to drive constructive resolution. I’m thinking about Save Our Symphony Minnesota and Save Our Symphony Detroit, especially. They are nice people; they care about art; they can help you.
- Remember that in this day and age all it takes is a Facebook page to create an effective gathering place for concerned patrons (see: Save the San Diego Opera). Social media is especially effective in the music world, where everyone is only a degree or two of separation away from each other.
- If you’re a writer, and you’re clever, and you play your cards right, you could make a career out of this. Camp on the story, cancel your plans for the next few months (I’m only half joking about that part; *speaks from experience*), and write. There is a massive audience hungry for information about what is going on, and that audience will only grow. Writers will need to be on this thing full-time to interpret all the spin and rapid-fire developments.
- Try to absorb all the information you can – from all sides. Be skeptical of everything.
- I know this isn’t a very polite question to ask, but – who is the most important stakeholder in this dispute? I mean, obviously everyone in an arts organization is important, but if, gun to your head, you had to choose The Single Most Important Stakeholder, who would it be? It’s not Peter Gelb. It’s not the board. It’s not the musicians. It’s not the union leaders. It’s you. Without an audience, there’s no reason to have grand opera or indeed the Met. You are the most important stakeholder. Act like it.
- Seize every opportunity to share your arts with your audience. At the beginning of the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, there was a school of thought that it was a waste of money for the musicians to produce their own shows. I initially thought this position was a sensible one. But I was wrong. Those concerts were the musicians’ single most effective weapon throughout the entire lockout. Were those concerts risky? Oh Lord, hell yes. They so easily could have been complete debacles. (Now I’m imagining the symphonic equivalent of Dashcon…) But it was their very riskiness – combined with their sincerity, their creativity, their brilliance – that made them worthwhile. What will the equivalent of the Minnesota Orchestra lockout concerts be for Met employees? I don’t know. But you’re brilliant and creative; heck, you won a place in the Met. If anyone in the world can figure it out, it’s probably you guys.
- Stay united. Find your core principles and fight for them. Once your unity fizzles out, all bets are off. As you know, this will be a very difficult position to maintain for any length of time due to the sheer number of people involved. And if your unity starts crumbling, don’t look at what the Minnesota musicians did and expect to achieve a similar outcome. The Minnesota musicians emerged in relatively good shape because, by and large, they all had the same vision for the future. There was a trust and cooperation among colleagues that was deeply moving to witness. I actually get misty-eyed thinking about it. (Dang, I’m a softie.) I deeply hope you have that kind of unity and that trust in one another.
- You’re going to make some lifelong friends out of this thing. Look forward to meeting them.
- Don’t try to control your audience advocates, if (when) they materialize. Let them do their own thing and have their own voice. Actually, I’ll back up a moment… Are you worried that there won’t be any audience advocates? You probably (secretly) are. But the answer to that question is the same as the answer to: do you believe people love opera? Your PR has said from day one that yes, people do love opera. I’ve seen your hashtag #operalives. If you really do believe that opera does indeed live, then it’s safe to bet your audience will fight for opera. People fight for things they love.
- Enjoy the inside jokes. There will be many.
- If you have a problem with your board of directors, I’d advise letting outsiders handle the fiercest criticism. I think there’s room for writers and commentators – outsiders – to effectively protest the activities of various personalities on the volunteer board. But we’re not you.
- Most things that seem consequential at the time actually won’t be.
- Fear is useless outside of being a motivator to action.
- Don’t let bitterness eat your life up. If bitterness does eat your life up, don’t let it go public. The consistent joy the Minnesota musicians showed in public helped them so very, very much.
- Some of you are going to be better at the whole lockout thing than others. If this thing lasts long-term, the people around you are going to discover strengths they didn’t know they had. If the Met situation is anything like Minnesota, horn players and flute virtuosos are suddenly going to become PR experts. Violists are going to start working in an ad hoc development department. (Scary idea, right? *viola joke*) You won’t have any idea of what you’re capable of until you’re forced to do it, and that’s simultaneously terrifying and super exciting. The experiences you have during the lockout will probably serve you handsomely later in your careers. It’s certainly made the Minnesota Orchestra musicians more effective ambassadors for their art.
- As leadership roles develop, you’re probably going to notice that certain individuals among you are Supermen and Wonder Women. (And actually in the case of the Minnesota Orchestra, we had an exceptionally large percentage of Wonder Women, no offense to our fabulous gentlemen!) To be honest, I don’t know how a few select individuals in the Minnesota Orchestra did what they all did without completely breaking down. Everyone is going to be working hard, but a select few are going to be working much harder than the rest. So look out for those people and support them.
- It won’t be all bad. Even worst case scenario, it won’t be all bad. In fact, the potential for quite a lot of good exists in the situation. Look at this amazingly cool thing that happened as a direct result of the Minnesota Orchestra lockout. Side effects like those might well make you stronger in important ways in the long run.
- Remember that much of this has happened before. In so many ways it’s so exasperatingly predictable. Call up colleagues in the Detroit Symphony and Minnesota Orchestra if you haven’t already. You’re going to start finishing their sentences. You’re not alone. Feel free to dig into old blog entries, both here and elsewhere on the Internet (I’d happily discuss with some friends and work up a recommended reading list if anyone’s interested.) I once wrote an essay about the similarities between Minnesota and 2010 Detroit; I think you’ll notice some….patterns. Studying the past will both empower you and help you to make wiser decisions.
- Hope is not truly lost until everything is over. I don’t think outsiders realize how close the Minnesota Orchestra came to unraveling completely, but take my word for it: it came really close to unraveling completely. But it didn’t quite. Then suddenly: rational people asserted themselves – in January there was a settlement – then we had the Finnish It campaign – Osmo came back, Henson left – we have an amazing new interim CEO now – and important board members are now actively seeking input from audience advocates. I mean, wow. Have we solved all our problems? Hahahahaha, um, no. But we’re on the road to solving the problems. As unlikely as it seems, seemingly hopeless situations do occasionally turn around…and sometimes more quickly than anyone would guess.
Advice for Management:
- Answer every argument and anticipate every question. Do a better job of this than you’ve done so far. Scott Chamberlain has been ripping important arguments of yours to shreds, and you haven’t responded to intelligent points he’s raised. Respond to him and voices like his.
- Because blogs are not senseless. Blogs should not be ignored. Especially when they’re as widely read as Scott’s.
- You can’t bury your head in the sand when it comes to social media. Maybe two years ago you could have tried. No more.
- Listen to what your audience says. Make an effort to listen to what all patrons and potential patrons are saying. Without them, you are nothing.
- Know that by initiating a lockout, you will be creating divisions among your core supporters. Needless to say, this will not be helpful to the goals you purportedly seek to achieve.
- Be prepared to be loathed by a significant swath of the population…not just your musicians. Do you know exactly what this acrimony will mean?
- Have more constructive plan Bs and plan Cs in your back pocket, just in case your employees don’t cave as quickly as you want them to.
- Know what a lockout and the potential of a canceled season will mean for the Met in terms of ticket sales, donations, and the general operation of your organization. Don’t make informed guesses; KNOW. If this seems insultingly obvious, I apologize, but, once again, I speak from experience. The Minnesota Orchestra management who you’ve imitated so well didn’t have a good handle on what a long-term lockout might mean to the organization. And things eventually spiraled so far out of their control that they actually came close to having the Hall taken over by the City of Minneapolis because they weren’t offering performances and therefore weren’t fulfilling the terms of their lease. They almost lost their hall, and politicians were even talking about renting it to musicians. You’d think the ramifications of something THIS RIDICULOUSLY IMPORTANT would have been understood by everyone on the management side, but…it wasn’t. It so wasn’t. And that’s just one example of how truly insane the train they took to Crazytown really was. So if, Met management, you don’t have a good idea about every major potential ramification to a long-term fight, then you’ve just made a massive massive mistake, just like the management in Minnesota did. And I’ll leave you to ponder what the consequences to that mistake might be.
My readers will probably have more to add, so keep the comment section hopping.
So. Other than that… What else do you say on a night like this except good night and good luck? The thoughts of music-loving Americans will be in New York in the days and weeks ahead.