Is Twin Cities Business Publishing Clickbait About Our Orchestra?

Two weeks ago, Twin Cities Business ran an article about the Minnesota Orchestra called:

Does The Minnesota Orchestra Have Sustainable Labor Contracts?

Okay, Twin Cities Business: you’ve immediately pulled my Pissiness Pulley by using the words “Minnesota Orchestra” and “sustainable” in the same sentence. Much like the ideas of American exceptionalism or precooked meat products, the concept of sustainability in the orchestra world has been used to justify some truly terrible stuff. Twin Cities Business should know this, and tread carefully.

Next comes a worrying, intestine-twisting subheadline:

The orchestra’s finances might not be as stable as they seem

worried 2

we’re gonna die; we’re ALL GONNA DIE

Okay, let’s back up.

First off: the finances have recovered enough to seem stable? I missed that. The fact there’s even a perception of stability is news in and of itself.

Second, why the passive-aggressive tone? Is it sunny outside? I don’t know; it seems like it, but the weather might not be as stable as it seems.

Well, seeds of doubt as to the purpose and seriousness of this article have already been planted in the headline and sub-headline, so the actual article itself should be fun!!!!11!11!

In the afterglow of its high-profile trip to Cuba, the Minnesota Orchestra unveiled generous raises in contract extensions with its unionized musicians and music director Osmo Vänskä.

Wait. What? According to the press release, the musicians’ raise was a 2.5% increase in year one, 2.75% increase in year two, and 3% increase in year three. That’s barely keeping up with recent annual inflation rates. As for Osmo, we don’t know the financial terms of his contract, so to imply he also got a “generous” raise is lazy or misleading or dumb. Or all three. Actually, I’m gonna go with all three.

So are the deficits and financial challenges that triggered a 15-month musicians’ lockout in the past?

Um, no??? Financial challenges for an orchestra are never in the past???

No, says Charles “Mel” Gray, a professor of business economics at the University of St. Thomas, who has been tracking the Minnesota Orchestra’s finances since the early 1990s. 

Ah yes, Charles “Mel” Gray! I remember his deep-dive analysis of the Orchestra’s finances well. Oh, wait, that wasn’t Charles “Mel” Gray; that was Jon Eisenberg and Mariellen Jacobson of Save Our Symphony Minnesota. (Their citizen journalism outshone everything the press did in its depth and detail, as you can see in the video below.)

So seriously, why is Charles “Mel” Gray an expert on the Minnesota Orchestra? For the life of me, I cannot remember seeing his name before, even in all the reams and reams and reams of stories that appeared from 2012-2014. To ensure my brain isn’t cracking up (always a possibility after the year I’ve had), I Googled “Charles Mel Gray Minnesota Orchestra” and indeed, I came up with – nothing.

I don’t doubt that Gray has been tracking the orchestra’s finances. But if he is such a widely recognized expert worthy of quotation, why has his name not appeared in other articles over the years? Back in the day, even I was consulted by the press ahead of Charles “Mel” Gray, and I didn’t even take trig in high school. (And what does “tracking” the “finances” consist of, exactly? That could mean anything from glancing at the annual report once a year to building a computer in your basement that constantly calculates various Minnesota Orchestra related equations.) (Actually, I’m pretty sure Mariellen Jacobson has one of those in the basement. It’s the only explanation for SOSMN.)

“The problem is not solved; the problem is just postponed,” Gray explains. “A one-time gift can tide us over. But we are buying time and that time is going to expire, and we are right back in the thick of things.”

When the orchestra disclosed the new labor deals in May, it simultaneously announced a $5 million gift from Doug and Louise Leatherdale, and a $1.5 million donation from Betty Jayne Dahlberg. The latter gift, the orchestra said, “will help support the Minnesota Orchestra musicians’ agreement.” Gray’s concern is relying on one-time gifts to finance $2.8 million in permanent salary increases.

The musicians’ deal, which spans three-plus years, takes effect in 2017 and raises minimum weekly salaries 8 percent by the contract’s end in 2019-20. It also increases the number of musicians from 84 to 88.

What specific “the problem” is Gray referencing in his quote? The problem of funding the “generous”, aka “keeping up with inflation” musician pay raises? I dunno… Perhaps this crossed Kevin Smith’s mind? Perhaps this crossed the musicians’ minds? Perhaps this crossed the donors’ minds? Perhaps the orchestra has built a planning bridge from Point A to Point B, and we’re still on the bridge? Perhaps the orchestra understands that other donors were hesitant to give unless a long-term contract was in place? Perhaps the orchestra views the risk of future cuts as one they are willing to take in order to prove how united they are now? Perhaps these are too many rhetorical questions in a row?

Kevin Smith, president and CEO, says the new agreements provide tangible “stability” that allows the nonprofit to more effectively raise money, sell tickets and make touring commitments.

I’m going to assume the quotations around “stability” weren’t sarcastic finger ones on behalf of TCB…

He notes that musicians agreed to a 15 percent salary and benefit cut in 2014 to end the lockout, in the wake of a previous multi-year contract that contained double-digit pay increases. The new deal “doesn’t get them back to where they were” before the lockout, Smith says. He also notes that the Leatherdale gift is targeted to fulfill Vänskä’s orchestral vision, which includes the costs of touring and recording.

Smith says he is comfortable using one-time money for raises, rather than a one-time bonus: “There is nothing you can do to establish in perpetuity the [complete] financial security of an arts organization.”

Personally, in this context, I find this completely reasonable, but Twin Cities Business leaves that quote hanging, and it’s a pretty ominous hang. But why would Kevin Smith know anything about this subject? I mean, he only led the Minnesota Opera for twenty-five years; it’s not like he has credentials.

Currently, 54 percent of the orchestra’s revenue comes from contributions, 15 percent from endowment drawdowns and 31 percent from earned revenue, including ticket sales.

Wow, numbers! This information seems like it might be important and maybe even relevant! But context is for pussies, because the article immediately pivots to another subject:

The orchestra continues to struggle to attract patrons.

Wait, what? According to what metric? And what does said struggle mean for revenue, or donations, or mission, or the long-term health of the organization, or…I dunno, anything?

“People are not committing the way they used to, for multiple dates,” Smith says.

Yes, and here’s an opening for Twin Cities Business to mention that this decrease in subscription sales is occurring in many cities across the country, for reasons that might be interesting or even illuminating. But nope, they’ve moved on:

During the renovations/lockout, the orchestra lost 34 percent of its subscriber households (similar to season tickets). It has reduced the decline to 21 percent, says spokeswoman Gwen Pappas.

Wait, you’re telling me that they only lost 34 percent? I dunno, maybe I just have really low expectations, but given the crashy bangy trainwreck that was the Minnesota Orchestra’s 2012-2013 season, only losing 34% seems pretty good to me.

St. Thomas’ Gray insists the orchestra “still has problems on the cost side. Somewhere down the road there will have to be an adjustment.”

Rest peacefully knowing that bad things are coming. There’s not enough space or time or resources to elucidate exactly why they’re happening or when they’re coming, but trust me, they are. So sleep tight, guys!

We do have a group of absolutely top-notch musicians. They deserve to be compensated appropriately. The question is what is appropriate.

That is an excellent question. Do you know where a great place to answer that question would have been?: in an article titled Does The Minnesota Orchestra Have Sustainable Labor Contracts?  Twin Cities Business should run an article like that someday!

It’s not clear an unfettered market would yield these salaries.”

Actually, I’m pretty sure an unfettered market would yield a salary of $0. Orchestras make no sense in the context of an unfettered market, especially the big ones. That is why they are non-profits. An unfettered market wouldn’t yield a food pantry, either, but we still have food pantries. And I know Gray knows this, too. Soooo, in Internet parlance, wtf?

Gray, author of The Economics of Art and Culture, says he’s told some of the musicians that they could be facing smaller raises or even pay cuts down the road. His warning to musicians: “Don’t buy a huge house. Be cautious.”

Awwww. That’s a sweetly encouraging bit of condescension to end with. But you know how flighty those musicians are, blowing all their generous (temporary) raises on huge houses. Fun Factoid: Musicians’ extravagant profligacy was the single reason they were able to survive a sixteen month lockout. (wait…)

Also, am I reading this correctly that Gray goes around…presumably before or after concerts, unless he ambushes the musicians at the stage door or calls them up personally, which would be even weirder…describing the “smaller raises or even pay cuts” they will be subjected to in the fall of 2020? Does he amble around the lobby advising musicians on real estate purchases? “Don’t buy a huge house. All arts organizations have downturns.” WTF?

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So. Twin Cities Business, let’s have a little chat over at camera three.

What the hell? What was the point of this? What new facts were uncovered? What problems were articulated in a new and, more importantly, relevant way? Why did you talk to who you talked to? There wasn’t a new 990 released. The fiscal year doesn’t end for another two weeks. There isn’t a new labor dispute to be ginned up. So what triggered this pungent analysis? I can’t imagine a website ever stooping low enough to publish scary-headlined dreck simply to increase page views. So what’s going on here?

Well, if nothing else, this weirdness serves as a great reminder that the Minnesota Orchestra’s fiscal year closes at the end of the month. In a few weeks, we’ll get a better idea of where the Minnesota Orchestra’s finances are really going. So stay tuned.

Also: the musicians are blowing a portion of their apparently-soon-to-be-vanished “generous raises” on supporting their own institution. (The selfish bastards.) They pooled together $26k to serve as a match to encourage community members to donate. So whether you can chip in $5, $50, or $500, know it will be doubled! You can be a part of this effort here.

And on a not-at-all related note, here’s a classic Daily Show clip I was thinking of earlier today for some reason. Viewer discretion is advised.

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11 Comments

Filed under My Writing

11 responses to “Is Twin Cities Business Publishing Clickbait About Our Orchestra?

  1. Sarah

    All I can think of is – is this the Royal “we”? Because I’m not exactly sure what his relationship is to all of this . . . . and he was only “tracking” finances, not actually being proactive in any way (e.g. shining light on the huge endowment draws in order to get $14 mil in public financing for the Orchestra Hall renovation.

    I’d like to see his “tracking” of the new Edifice looming over the Mpls skyline . . . and who actually owns that thing, anyway?

  2. Looks like you’re not out of work (or hobby, depending on how you see it), Emily. I’m not surprised to see renewed superficial analysis of issues facing any and all orchestras to one extent or another. Keep calling them out on their nonsense.

  3. Doug R.

    Click bait, my *ss. That was a hit piece. Particularly vile, in a ‘poisoning the well’ sense, since support for orchestras partly comes from the business community. I don’t know Twin Cities Business, or its reach or influence, but I think the intrepid “reporter” and her “editor” would do well to read your dissection of their “work”. (picture me making “air bunnies” here)

    I do have an abiding interest in who might have wanted to get this out there, in this form, at this time. Ah, our supplicant press; always ready with the steno pad when the mighty have something to say.

  4. Pingback: Astonishingly Bad Analysis of the Minnesota Orchestra | Mask of the Flower Prince

  5. Pingback: Minnesota Media Chided for Coverage of MN Orchestra Musicians’ Raises | Nonprofit Quarterly

  6. Pingback: Minnesota Media Chided for Coverage of MN Orchestra Musicians’ Raises – The Nonprofit Quarterly | Music instruments market

  7. Will Short

    Dear Song of Lark, editor,
    Thank you for pulling apart “business” article in TCBJ. I, too, found it cavalier and incomplete. Especially, when Prof. Grey mentions “unfettered market”. Boy that’s Ann Rand and Tea Party territory. It is a chimera. If there is an “unfettered market” somewhere, identify it! If he can identify it take a picture of it! When he has a picture, post it! The next thing you know he’ll claim to live with Heidi,…in the Alps.!
    Regards,
    Will

  8. Elizabeth Erickson

    Well done, as always, Emily.

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