Way Out of Tune

Times are tough, but this is no way to treat a community treasure

Having canceled five concerts, with negotiations apparently cut off and at a stalemate, the Spokane Symphony Orchestra Board must take whatever action is needed to get the musicians back on stage. What emerges from this community travesty in the making is a picture, not of greedy musicians, but rather of musicians who, having willingly exploited themselves just to play their music, are unwilling to further exploit themselves. And of course there’s that little matter of putting food on the table.

At 50 percent earned income, the SSO is actually doing well. All it really needs is a small amount of additional unearned income. How about corporate America? Millions upon millions to SuperPACs, but no money to save community treasures? Right. In any case, boards have to ask. That’s the gig. (And even at 50 percent earned income, Spokane can still do better — more people need to support our orchestra by buying more tickets. Trust me, the shows are worth it.)

Instead, to balance their books (and that’s what this is about, as the SSO doesn’t have an actual deficit), the board is holding out over a pay cut of a little more than $2,000 per annum, plus new rules that would further restrict the amount of time an SSO musician would have to pursue additional income.

As for those for salaries, are they kidding! SSO’s core musicians are now making $17,460 per year, and the board actually expects them to work for less? The bright young lady who drove the beer cart last summer at Indian Canyon made more than that on just tips.

The board asserts that total pay divided by “services” comes to more than $43 an hour, which sounds like pretty good pay. But SSO Board President Peter Moye, a decent and dedicated man for whom saving the Fox was a labor of love, has to know that this calculation does not present anywhere near the full picture. Musicians can’t bill out for 15-minute phone calls. Instead, they devote hours practicing and preparing, all unpaid. I suggest that $43 an hour should be divided by maybe four.

Might we all at least agree that no one can live on $15,000 a year? And might we also agree that if the SSO is to attract the kind of talent that has transformed what at one time was, at best, an upscale community orchestra into what it is today, a musical organization worthy to performing in the Martin Woldson Theater, our underpaid musicians at least need time to supplement their income. This means they need the freedom to substitute in other orchestras, to take on students, to play recitals, all in hopes of maybe doubling income — which still won’t be much.

Members of the Utah Symphony, even after recent cuts, make at least $50,000 a year. Members of the Portland Symphony make about the same. Yet our board wants to give members of the Spokane Symphony, who are so poorly paid, even less time to make up the difference.

Utah and Portland, you say, aren’t fair comparisons? OK, I’m not sure why not; how about the Austin Texas Symphony? They pay about what SSO members are currently making.

But there’s a difference: in Austin, musicians can miss practices, even performances. Our board wants to give our musicians only one week off a year and require that they make every performance, all the while practicing on their own. They even want to penalize players if they aren’t available for summer performances.

Years ago the SSO was indirectly subsidized by our local universities, mostly by Eastern Washington University. Joint hires, adjunct opportunities, all that. But Eastern isn’t hiring as it once did. And Gongaza doesn’t have a large music department. Moreover, during the past almost 20 years, in the interest of becoming fully independent and attracting more tightly focused and talented musicians, the SSO did, from time to time, work at raising pay, which, alas, never came close to reasonable levels. As a result, supplementary employment has become even more important. Seems to me that the board, in the interest of maintaining quality, might actually want to look for ways to make it easier for the SSO musicians to supplement their meager pay, not the opposite.

Back to the problem at hand: Time is passing. Five concerts have already been canceled, and The Nutcracker comes in three weeks. Surely the board doesn’t plan on diminishing this performance through the use of recorded music? Assuming this, rehearsal needs to begin soon. It’s time for the board to send its lawyers for coffee, then sit back down with the musicians and — together — get this show back on the road.