Commentary: Strike points to need for new orchestra model

Orchestra members walk the picket line during the opening night gala at the Kimmel Center on Friday.

"The only way to stop the decline of the orchestra is to purge the board of those who . . . think the musicians are overpaid and spoiled babies. . . . Then . . . invite a summit with the Perelmans, the Robertses, and other arts-concerned families to make the case that without the Philadelphia Orchestra, everyone loses."

- James Undercofler,

former orchestra president

By Mark Randall

Happily, the orchestra strike is over but one hopes its board will never be entirely purged of those who might consider the hypothesis that the musicians are overpaid. Calling the musicians "spoiled babies" may be a little harsh, but they are certainly a rare, protected species found only in Nonprofit Land.

Consider, for a moment, the very idea of "nonprofit." To the extent that "profit" has a contemptible ring to it, "nonprofit," by contrast, comes off as smugly virtuous. But putting aside profit's odious air of filthy lucre, and considering it more dispassionately, profit means simply a gain, a benefit, the advantage you derive over your efforts. It is the calculation we subconsciously make in our every action, even in those that do not involve money.

If, under simple etymological scrutiny, profit is by definition good, then "nonprofit" begins to seem not so much altruistic as just plain unfortunate, a rough synonym for failure. Not profiting from an effort means that the effort is literally not worth it. The normal response is to stop doing it.

Except, of course, in the arts. To engage in an arts nonprofit is to admit, however tacitly, to the discouraging and paradoxical idea that what you are doing is not, to use a fashionable word, sustainable. Somehow this does not seem to embarrass the art world. Let's put on a show! It will cost $10,000 to mount. If we fill the house every night we'll gross $4,000. Great!

Enter the aristocracy: the Medici, the Salzburg princes, the Perelmans, the Robertses. These people (who by the way found nothing at all contemptible in profits) are now able, by virtue of same, to generously fill the gap between the cost and - let's be candid - the lack of public interest.

Consider first the costs. In the world that most of us live in, expertise and specialization make one more profitable. This is why, as Adam Smith might have put it, the person who was good at tailoring became a tailor and the person who was good at blacksmithing became a blacksmith. In classical music though, the training is so arduous, the skills so special, and the demand for them so relatively low, one makes oneself essentially a charity case, which is to say, at the mercy of the aristocracy's generosity.

It is thus a little impudent, not to say pointless, of players to claim some monetary worth for themselves that bears no relation to the revenue they bring in, but relies solely on the vanity or civic pride of the philanthropic class to keep them in comfort and prestige. It's the old-school way but it saddles the musicians with contradictory roles: a forelock-tugging subservience on one hand and haughty sense of entitlement on the other. Better, as former orchestra fund-raiser Julie Harrower Diaz suggested in The Inquirer, "to look inward and make a model that works by compensating players the best they can."

As for the public interest, it is not lacking altogether but it is clearly insufficient to pay the bills without philanthropy. Classical music has always been a niche market and, as an essentially 19th-century form whose traditional audience is getting older, it is getting only "nichier."

The new labor agreement apparently requires the musicians to participate more fully in fund-raising and education and perhaps this will connect them more realistically to the relation between costs and demand, salaries and revenue.

As Diaz wisely noted: "The world is changing." Indeed, it would be wise for the players to begin to ground their worth more in economic reality and less in the coercive power of their sterling but ephemeral reputation. Not to compare high art to low, but the big swing bands were once a staple of the culture. Then TV came. Tastes changed. There was a hopeful refrain in the '60s that "The big bands are coming back."

They didn't.

Mark Randall is a Philadelphia writer and pianist.