This blog post by Anthony Alfidi is attracting a lot of attention – most of it virulently negative – from professional musicians. Alfidi, CEO of Alfidi Capital (an investment firm based in San Francisco) describes himself as “founding genius” of Alfidi Capital and says that he provides “commentary that is totally free, totally honest, and sometimes totally funny.” So you know right away the guy has both a healthy ego and at least a self-described sense of humor.
That sense of humor didn’t help him, though, when he described the striking musicians of the San Francisco Symphony as “union thugs in tuxedos unsatisfied with a base salary of $141,700.” He went on to say that no musician deserved more than the national average of musician’s pay for doing “something that a reasonably talented high school student would do for free.” He praises the Symphony’s board of directors, because it has business people who “live in the real world free from collective bargaining” and thus, presumably, the only ones who can do the math necessary to save this organization from itself.
While much of the vitriol on Alfidi’s Facebook page comes from professional musicians who are understandably upset at being compared to high school musicians (Alfidi also offered to be a scab tambourine player because it really didn’t look that hard), there has been to this point relatively little blowback from other arts professionals. To me, the gaping holes in Alfidi’s knowledge are evidenced not only by his lack of understanding of music, but his stunning lack of understanding about the differences between a for-profit business and a not-for-profit arts organization.
Setting aside for a moment the irony of an investment counselor trying to accuse musicians of being greedy, I think the biggest problem with Alfidi’s analysis is that he, like many others, assumes that the arts industry (and especially the not-for-profit arts industry) acts the same way as other industries and is subject to the same market forces. As any reasonably talented arts management student could tell you, the not-for-profit arts have unique characteristics and management challenges. One of those challenges is working within a stodgy (some say broken) system where, in order to keep their 501(c)3 status, arts organizations must annually prove to the IRS that they are using their revenues to accomplish the mission that gave them tax-exempt status in the first place, while at the same time trying to explain to their business-oriented boards how they are being cost-efficient and market driven.
An arts organization’s mission usually revolves around providing their community with activities and programs designed to enliven, enrich and educate. In this context, performing music that will “sell” is not as important — ticket sales are not the bottom line, artistic mission is. But because the arts live in the real world – yes, Virginia, we do – musicians and artists and actors and filmmakers still have to go to the grocery store and pay rent and send their kids to college. It is in the organization’s best interest to have a stable artistic roster of well-paid, happy employees. Unionizing symphonies in the 80s was one of the ways this happened, and unions are also strong in the theater and film industries (those who want to demonize unions would do well to remember that we union thugs at the lower levels have some powerful friends in Hollywood and in the ranks of professional athletes. And you probably shouldn’t call an NFL player a thug).
Arts organizations also have stakeholders beyond the ticket buyers. Cities count on the reputations of their premiere arts organizations for tourist dollars, image enhancement, and auxiliary spending. That’s a lot of pressure to put on arts organizations who seldom get much, if any, government support for providing all of those community benefits other than the afore-mentioned tax exempt status.
Yes, contemporary arts organizations face many challenges. So do a lot of other businesses. But it won’t do any good for people outside the industry to take cheap shots at something they know nothing about. It would be much better for those of us inside the industry to help people like Anthony Alfidi understand the difference between a not-for-profit arts business and a for-profit arts business. While we’re at it, we might also be able to explain to him why music education is needed in the schools – so he could learn to tell the difference between a high school band and an orchestra composed of the world’s finest musicians.