The Baltimore Symphony: Three Strikes And You’re Out

The Baltimore Symphony locked out its musicians as of 12:01 AM on Monday, June 17th.

If you’re fuzzy as to the definition of a lockout (as I was seven [!] years ago when I first started writing about orchestral labor disputes), here’s the dictionary definition.

A lockout is:

the withholding of employment by an employer and the whole or partial closing of the business establishment in order to gain concessions from or resist demands of employees

Merriam Webster dictionary

I want to preface the rest of this with my opinion. To my mind, a lockout is the most horrifying, corrosive form of labor dispute. It does not pave the way to a stronger, healthier organization. It is symptomatic of breakdown. Thought of charitably, it is an admission of failure: a confession of incompetence. Thought of less charitably, it is a form of arson meant to quickly transform an organization, or to score political or social points.

That interpretation rings especially true when a lockout happens at an orchestra. An orchestra’s reason for being isn’t to make money, but rather to improve the lives of citizens. The music is the product. Therefore, you cannot lock out an orchestra without simultaneously locking out audiences, the entire justification for the organization’s existence. This simple fact makes orchestral lockouts especially serious and grave.

Because a lockout is such an unspeakably extreme last resort, it is the responsibility of any management team to broadcast the severity of the situation calmly and consistently over a period of years, and then, more importantly, to respect stakeholders and to search tirelessly for equal partners to help fix problems with.

Based on the facts currently in the public domain, that is not the path that the Baltimore Symphony chose to follow. They’ve snubbed the (to my eyes) reasonable requests of Save Our BSO, a group of audience advocates, and many of the Baltimore musicians found out about the upcoming lockout via social media rather than in-person. Obviously, these stakeholders are not being respected and treated as the equal partners that they are.

On June 14th, the Baltimore Sun ran an article with a hugely alarming headline: The BSO’s financial situation was much worse than most people realized, documents and interviews reveal.

The lede is an indictment in and of itself:

Until the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra canceled its summer season, few people outside the nonprofit’s administrative offices realized just how precarious its financial situation was.

my reaction to this information in gif form

Well, um. I guess this blog entry is over, then, right? Honestly, that information is all the information we need to know. It’s strike one. Based on that fact alone, the current leadership is either inept, unfit, or untrustworthy (or all three). Before they reached the cliff, they were apparently unaware of what was going down financially (how?) or unwilling to build bridges with stakeholders to problem-solve (why not?). To my mind, both possibilities are disqualifying, and they signal a need for resignations. Honestly, the Sparknotes version of this entry ends here.

But in case you want to keep going…

If you don’t know already, you should be aware that the Baltimore Symphony recently lobbied the Maryland state government for $3.2 million over the next two fiscal years to help buy time to straighten out the organization’s fiscal house. (I went into more detail about that in this entry from late May.)

In the June 14th article, the Baltimore Sun writes:

In hindsight, asking the General Assembly for more money was a desperation move, the classical music equivalent of a Hail Mary pass. From the time Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, introduced House Bill 1404 in late February, the odds were it wouldn’t achieve its intended goal of keeping the orchestra playing through the summer…

“We were candid when we talked about the severity of our cash flow issues,” [chairwoman of the symphony’s board of directors Barbara] Bozzuto said. “But in retrospect, we could have been even more forceful.”

My reaction to this characterization of events in gif form

Del. Maggie McIntosh, the Democrat who worked for several months to pass the bill, has a shall we say, slightly different perspective on those discussions…

McIntosh was taken aback when she learned that the summer season had been canceled after weeks of hard work on her part.

“At no point did I get that this dramatic action would be taken,” she said. “Nobody ever said that. Everybody was then shocked that as of July 1, they’d run out of money. That was never a part of any discussion…”

My reaction to this in gif form

So. Behold strike number two: telling different things to different constituencies, and in the process pissing off politicians. Minnesota tried this please-everybody tactic in the early 2010s, when they asked state legislators to help with the cost of renovating the Orchestra Hall lobby, and then in the process leaving out relevant information as to the severity of the organization’s financial situation. That whole…adventure didn’t do any favors for the CEO’s post-Minnesota career.

But what’s even wilder about this particular dumpster fire is that this same management team is still hoping to get a major loan from the state.

From management’s new FAQ page:

Discussions are ongoing about a potential $1 million loan from the State of Maryland, a loan to support ongoing operations and support sustainable operations moving forward. This State loan was proposed only after the likelihood of the $1.6 million lifeline was questioned, and we appreciate the consideration of this additional support at a critical time for the BSO.

Baby hit [the state] up one more time!

I’d say I’d like to be a fly on the wall during those conversations, but I’m pretty sure my wings would fall out from all the secondhand cringe.

Additional problems exist. For its June 14th article, the Sun took a look at two BSO cash forecasts, one dated December 7, another dated April 19. Between those two dates, a projected deficit of $1.2 million turned into a $1.51 million one, “largely because contributions hadn’t kept pace with projections,” according to reporters.

“Results from contributed revenue this year have been low,” [Baltimore Symphony CEO Peter] Kjome acknowledged.

Hm: what could possibly have happened over the course of this season to depress contributed revenue?

I guess we’ll never know…

Management blames the failure in forecasting on “extremely strong” fundraising in 2018, which then in turn left donors unable “to maintain that level of support every year.” Which, I mean….maybe. I myself can only listen to so many orchestra fundraising calls before cracking and blocking the number.

But Greg Mulligan, co-chairman of the BSO Musicians Players Committee, offers an alternate (or at least additional) explanation: donors weren’t particularly excited to support management’s vision of a shortened season and likely labor dispute. The timing on that motivation makes sense: rumbles regarding drastic cuts began last fall, at the start of the same year that Kjome himself admits has boasted lackluster fundraising totals. Mulligan goes so far as to say in the article, “There have been large donors who have told us that they’re not going to give their legacy gifts to the BSO this year.” Anecdotal, but logical, and worth considering.

That lack of money brings us back around to the funds from the state legislature. Let’s look at the timeline of how that went down, because that story is difficult to wrap your head around.

February 28, 2019. Legislation meant to aid the Baltimore Symphony (House Bill 1404) was brought up in the Maryland House and began winding its way through the legislature. It would provide $3.2 million in funds over the course of two fiscal years and establish a workgroup to help plot a more stable way forward financially (more on the contents of HB 1404 here).

April 8, 2019. HB 1404 was marked “passed enrolled” on legiscan.com. (“Passed enrolled” means that the bill “was passed again by the original chamber as amended by the opposite chamber.”)

April 18, 2019. Kjome told the Sun: “We are hopeful and optimistic that the bill will become law. A tentative date has been set for the signing ceremony and we anticipate having a firm date in the coming weeks.”

April 24, 2019. Buoyed by the promise of this upcoming infusion of cash, the Baltimore Symphony announced a 2019 summer season.

[drumroll]

Pay especially close attention from here on out.

May 24, 2019. In the words of the June 14th Sun article, on this day, “it became clear that House Bill 1404 was not on [Governor] Hogan’s final list of vetoes,” leading to “a surge of optimism” among the bill’s supporters.

May 25, 2019. HB 1404 was marked “enacted” on the legislature website.

May 28, 2019. According to the June 14th Sun article, this was the date that HB 1404 became law.

May 29, 2019. A “special meeting” of the Baltimore Symphony board was called (source: once again, the June 14th Sun article). During that meeting, the board voted unanimously to cancel the summer season.

We can piece that much of the timeline together via available public reporting. However, the timeline gets fuzzier once you try to pin down the dates of some important “conversations” that Kjome references in this June 14th Sun article. Because – and this is very important!lack of a veto isn’t enough to get the money into the orchestra’s coffers: Gov. Hogan also has to agree to release it.

ADDENDUM, 11:47PM central time: Greg Mulligan wrote in the comment section below on the evening of June 18: “Good catch on the stated dates. In fact Peter Kjome told us on 5/30, the date the BSO canceled the summer season, that they (BSO Management) had known for about a week (since 5/22) that the governor might not fund HB 1404. So at least some of those discussions Peter mentions took place before, not after, the bill officially became law on 5/28. But we BSO musicians were only told the same day (5/30) the BSO sent the press release out announcing the cancellation of summer concerts.”

At one point Kjome apparently thought it likely that Gov. Hogan would assent. The orchestra went ahead with announcing its summer season because they were expecting that money to get to them.

But reading between the lines, something seems to have soured.

“We have had conversations with a number of leaders in Annapolis,” Kjome said. “After the bill became law [May 28], there were additional conversations about the timing of when the allocation would be authorized.”

Management, on its FAQ page under the awkward question “It seems like things have moved very quickly in the past few weeks – how did we get to where we are today?”, gives an interesting, if ultimately unfulfilling answer, to the question about what changed during those conversations…

We had every reason to believe that the initial $1.6 million lifeline for FY20 would be forthcoming, and had expected to use this to immediately borrow funds in the form of a short-term bank loan to address our financial issues and help support efforts to operate ‘as usual’ while the workgroup was established and intensive discussions about the business model would continue.

Unfortunately, final decisions have not yet been made about numerous items in the State’s budget, including the BSO grant. To-date, it has not been paid nor has a commitment to release the funds been made, and there is not a strong indication that the expenditure will be authorized.

https://www.bsomusic.org/about/frequently-asked-questions-about-the-baltimore-symphony-s-contract-negotiations/

(My bold.) Of course the frustrating part of that answer is that we go from “every reason to believe that the lifeline would be forthcoming” to “not a strong indication that the expenditure will be authorized” without any explanation of what happened in between.

And clearly the weirdest thing about this timeline is how quickly and completely the prospect of state aid appears to have collapsed: in fact, if the Sun is to be believed, it must have happened within a matter of hours.

First, Kjome himself claims that “after the bill become law” (which according to the Sun, means “after May 28”), “conversations about the timing of when the allocations would be authorized” occurred.

Then literally the following day, on May 29, the special meeting of the entire Baltimore Symphony board was held, featuring the unanimous vote that nuked the summer season. (A summer season which, remember, had only been announced five weeks earlier.) What happened here?

Unfortunately for the BSO, that state money has not been released, and between May 25 and June 13, Governor Hogan appears to have lost some or all of the interest he may have once had in doing so. The Sun article features this quote by the governor from Thursday, June 13:

“We continually pour millions and millions of dollars into the BSO, but they’ve got real serious issues and problems with the management, with losing the support of their donor base [my bold] and the legislature took the money out of the budget and fenced it off,” the Republican governor said. “So I don’t know what the resolution is going to be.”

Yikes.

It’s never a good sign when a governor apparently calls out an orchestra management’s poor performance.

If the Sun‘s reporting holds up – and I have no reason to believe that it won’t – then this is the third strike. I want to know more about the questions raised by the blindingly fast events of those puzzling 140-odd hours in late May: dodging a gubernatorial veto, a “surge of optimism”, HB 1404 becoming law, a special meeting being called to cancel the summer season (when was this meeting called? were risks or rewards of the cancellation in the new political moment ever fully explained to board members?), having that cancellation being sold so convincingly that the board cast a unanimous vote in favor of said cancellation, conversations with the governor and unknown “others” in Annapolis apparently between May 28 and 29…

Obviously more reporting needs to be done, especially on this last point. As of right now, bystanders are missing some important puzzle pieces. Maybe if we’re lucky, clarification will eventually appear on the management’s FAQ page (which I have a feeling will get a real workout in the following weeks and months; oy).

But despite what we don’t know, here are three things that we do. (Three strikes, if you will.)

1.) The Baltimore Symphony management was not forthcoming about the extent of its financial problems until the last possible moment, preventing any grassroots patron energy from being a part of the solution.

2) The Baltimore Symphony management burned bridges with state legislators and possibly the governor, and appears to have gotten nothing out of doing so.

3) The Baltimore Symphony management called a special board meeting to take an extreme step – canceling the summer season – when the ramifications of the fate of HB 1404 were still in flux.

In baseball, it’s three strikes and you’re out. But unfortunately, in the case of musicians and patrons in orchestral labor disputes, it’s just one lockout and you’re…well, out.

And at the risk of torturing metaphors, when you’re out, that means it’s time for supporters of good governance to go to bat.

9 Comments

Filed under Labor Disputes

9 responses to “The Baltimore Symphony: Three Strikes And You’re Out

  1. Greg Mulligan

    Thanks for your wonderful post, Emily! Good catch on the stated dates. In fact Peter Kjome told us on 5/30, the date the BSO canceled the summer season, that they (BSO Management) had known for about a week (since 5/22) that the governor might not fund HB 1404. So at least some of those discussions Peter mentions took place before, not after, the bill officially became law on 5/28. But we BSO musicians were only told the same day (5/30) the BSO sent the press release out announcing the cancellation of summer concerts.

  2. Loren Ludwig

    is there a way for readers to block or silence the stupid and distracting animated gifs? i couldn’t get more than a couple paragraphs into your text before i had to get away from them and stopped reading…it’s a shame–seems like your content would have been worth reading. [edit: i copied your text to a text editor where i could read it in peace…not sure i’d be willing to go to that effort again, though]

    • Amy Adams

      See, now….I come here specifically for Emily’s reaction gifs, as she’s a connoisseur.
      I remember the Benedict Cumberbatch phase during the lengthy and disastrous Minnesota lockout. #Memories

  3. Samira Phillips

    Thank you for this excellent analysis. As a BSO donor I can confirm that a number of us have chosen not to renew our memberships or make donations until the musicians have a contract, and certainly not until the current management and leadership are replaced—and we’ve made that clear directly to the President of the BSO and the BSO Board President. Those are also among the bridges the current management has burned. My family has decided to continue our subscription in the hope that there will be a fall season, but some long-time subscribers I know have also canceled their subscriptions. It’s a very painful catch-22.

    • Really sorry to hear that. Folks in Minnesota struggled with the same moral quandaries during the 2012-14 lockout, and different people came to different conclusions.

      • Samira Phillips

        There is a fund that the BSO musicians have set up (see http://www.bsomusicians.org) and now seems to be the time to start directing donations there. I suppose the longer this standoff lasts, the more will go there and the less will be available to the BSO as an institution, so it’s still a quandary!

  4. Alan White

    Thanks for the terrific post, which really crystallizes the unfortunate events of the past few months. As one who grew up attending BSO concerts, and was motivated (at same) to pursue a musical career, the current situation is becoming surreal. Yes, the medium of live classical music (at least in high-budget ensembles) is enduring challenging times. However, I do read of emerging success stories in other major orchestras, especially those utilizing new and creative “business models.” Artistically, it is likely worth the expense to bring in renowned soloists from around the globe. I do not feel the same regarding the principal conductor/music director. We currently have someone who jets around to various posts, to a great extent, championing contemporary musical programming. Would it not make more sense to have someone with a (largely) full-time community presence, someone who can reach out to the community-at-large as a Baltimore resident? We need someone in that post that can identify with high-value donors (the established classical music-loving base), and those residents with evolving, fresher musical tastes. Finally, the programming of contemporary classical music is a very tricky business. If nothing else, I feel the members of the ensemble should have a voice in this programming, and it should not be the exclusive domain of the music director. Paying concert-goers can be a selfish bunch, and not only does the presentation of live classical music need to be engaging (which it often is not), new music must be chosen carefully, and (dare I say) artfully presented. Needless to say, the vessel that is the BSO management has effectively run aground.

  5. Stephanie Stephanie

    Thank you for providing a clear-cut timeline, obviously something that the BSO (mis)management is unwilling to do. Kjome must have a to hide. WHY IS HE CONTINUING TO DRAW A HUGE SALARY AND BENEFITS PACKAGE when the very essence of the BSO is facing loss of income, loss of healthcare, loss of financial security, potential loss of food on the table, etc…? If the BSO is that broke, then NO ONE has the right to any compensation. The BSO is NOT a top-heavy management out for a profit but THE MUSICIANS. Without excellent players, the BSO is essentially a management company.

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