I’ve been pondering the flood of responses to the recent dispute between Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, and the union representing the musicians at the Met.
There are many insightful discussions on Facebook, blogs, newspapers & journalistic media as well as heavy-handed PR campaigns on both sides. I’ve been attempting to gather my (conflicting) thoughts on the matter.
I was reminded of a conversation I had with a man who worked in accounting for the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. This particular person was explaining the intricacies of the job, specifically the way to be successful and eventually move up the ladder in the organization (Madison Square Garden is the parent company of the Christmas show, owned by Jim Dolan). He was an eager MBA student, and was preaching the gospel of cutting labor costs. This argument typically makes me cringe and loathe its respective supporter. He said that “labor” accounts for %40 of the total operating budget, and if they could just cut the labor costs by, oh, half, that the organization would thrive and have a surplus for bonuses and other non necessary expenditures. And, he would look good to his superiors in the process.
My response to him was ” By ‘labor’, do you mean people? “.
He said …… yes…..
“So, the people who make the show happen, the artists, crew, the Rockettes, account for %40 of the total operating budget of ‘Madison Square Garden enterprises’ ? “
Reticence, uncertainty, and a general cloud of confusion entered our conversation. It seems I stumped him. “Well, no, but the budget for the Christmas show is, well, you know, it’s huge, and it’s …….”
We we’re interrupted, and the topic changed. I left with a sense of fascination at the idea that “Labor” isn’t considered “Human” in business speak.
From an administrative perspective, there are some distinct advantages to calling humans “labor”. It lessens the psychological guilt of cost cutting initiatives that affect people’s lives, for one. It also streamlines the way an organization can cut costs when the need arises; it’s natural – and encouraged – business practice to consolidate and analyze streams of expenditures, making cuts to the largest section of an organization to ensure its growth.
I believe that this can be necessary and helpful. Kind of like pruning an overgrown plant - it needs to be cut in order to grow better and more fully next season. And sometimes, you have a bad branch that is eating up the health of the entire plant. In a theoretical, non human world, this makes great sense.
But music non-profits are not purely capitalistic entities. I think we wade into dangerous waters when we apply free market, capitalistic principles to artistic organizations that depend on the quality of their “labor” to survive and thrive.
Pruning may not be the answer here.
However, some type of cut on the part of the music makers could be accepted as a good faith gesture – albeit a sacrifice – for the overall growth and blossoming for future seasons. That gesture would be wonderfully human; sacrificing for the good of the whole is one of the noblest choices we can make as human beings.
Like all cuts, balance can and should prevail in order to ensure healthy future growth. And cuts can come from many different sides in an organization like the Metropolitan Opera. For instance:
1) less extravagant and superfluous production values – People want an experience based on what they hear, not what they see. Opera is a sound world, not just a visual world.
2) less wasteful marketing expenses -it’s really not having an impact, sorry Mr. Gelb. No one in my generation knows what you’re trying to accomplish with your branding here…. or how your marketing sets the Met apart from anything else in society. There’s only one Hollywood.
3) lower administrative salaries – which has already happened a few times, a good faith gesture on the part of administration.
4) Mr. Gelb could even take a deeper pay cut – perhaps he could sacrifice enough to cut his salary to an even million….. as a good faith gesture….
Any cut that significantly affects “labor” (in this case human beings who are remarkably talented and are some of the best in their field) should be approached with extreme care or should not be taken at all. You risk lowering the quality of your labor (the musicians and singers find better jobs elsewhere and turn down the Met) and subsequently the quality of the product ( discerning listeners are already going elsewhere for great opera, which undermines the argument that there’s a lack of popular interest in seeing opera at the Met- it might be that people aren’t moved by what they’re hearing and feeling at a Met performance).
*And as a side note, I highly resent the argument of overpaid musicians with indulgent salaries. Last time I checked, an industry wide ceiling of $200,000 annual income is significantly lower than other specialized competitive labor sectors. But that’s a topic for another day, with it’s own thorns attached….*
In light of recent global conflicts – Ukraine and the Malaysian airlines plane crash, bitter, acrimonious violence in Palestine, and all hateful, stubborn fighting we are seeing in the world today – some good faith gestures would go a long way. Maybe we can all make “labor” human again.