Times are tough in the classical music world. The musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra went on strike over management’s proposed 33 percent pay cut before the current season started—and remain on strike two months later, with no end in sight.
That didn’t happen at the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra. Subscription sales are up 12 percent this season, and single-ticket sales are up again for the first three concerts this year—after a 30 percent increase last season.
“We’ve never done it before,” says Mary Steffek-Blaske, the symphony’s executive director. “It helps that we’ve done ‘Buy One, Get One Free’ and other promotions. But the most impressive thing to me is that our retention rate for subscription sales is 87 percent. That means if they buy a ticket, they’ll come back.”
The bad news is that income from corporate sponsorships is down. “We have the same number of sponsors except the couple that opted out: Pfizer and Borders,” says Steffek-Blaske, naming two of the orchestra’s biggest supporters (others include Toyota and Campbell Industries). “A number of individuals and foundations stepped up, so the numbers weren’t as bad as they might have been. In ’08–’09, donors were 50 percent of our revenue, and it was down to 45 percent in ’09–’10.”
To compensate for the loss, everyone at the symphony took a pay cut. “Senior staff took 10 percent cuts starting in January 2009,” says Steffek-Blaske, “and it’s come back some, but it’s not back to what it was. Arie [Lipsky, the orchestra’s music director] also took a voluntary 10 percent cut, and he continues at a reduced rate.”
Though the musicians got a nominal 1 percent pay increase per last year, their real income also fell. “We reduced the number of practice sessions by [programming pieces] the musicians were more familiar with, and we changed some programs to be mainly focused on the strings,” explains Kim Eagle, president of the orchestra’s board of directors.
As in Detroit, the AASO and its musicians’ union couldn’t agree on a new contract before the current season started. But “we have a gentleman’s agreement,” says Steffek-Blaske: “no strike, no lockout.” The musicians played the first three concerts under the terms of the old contract before principal violist Kathleen Grimes announced a tentative agreement on November 16. It gives the musicians pretty much everything they wanted—more rehearsals plus pay increases of 1 percent, 11⁄2 percent, and 2 percent over the three-year contract.
Though relieved, Grimes stresses that “the agreement still needed to be ratified.” Steffek-Blaske confirms the tentative agreement—though like Grimes she warns the contract has to go before the board—”and they may or may not approve it.”
Even if the musicians or the board shoots down the agreement, it’s unlikely that what happened in Detroit could happen here. A 33 percent pay cut may be worth striking over—but not a 1 percent raise.
This article has been edited since it appeared in the December 2010 Ann Arbor Observer. The instrument Kathleen Grimes plays has been corrected.