A dilemma of orchestral proportions

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.

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About Ellen Rosewall

I am Professor and Chair of Arts Management and author of Arts Management: Uniting Arts and Audiences in the 21st Century (Oxford University Press, 2013). I believe that arts and culture are undergoing a profound change in the 21st century, and I love talking with people about how we continue to bring arts to our communities and individuals give the brave new world of social media, technology and economic changes. Join the conversation!
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28 Responses to A dilemma of orchestral proportions

  1. Nelson Harper says:

    This is excellent, Ellen, and far more sanely put than I could bear to write….:)

  2. blazer bloggs says:

    I have a high school student who would be happy to do some dental work on Mr. Alfidi. When I watch my dentist, he makes it look really easy.

  3. Jennifer says:

    Brilliant! The last sentence is my favorite….

  4. Very thoughtful response, Ellen!

  5. charlie123 says:

    Thank You!!! I posted a similar sentiment on FB yesterday, but that will only reach my FB friends…Thank you for blogging this so it will be more far-reaching. Let’s remind musicians (and all Artists) that the focus should not be on Alfidi but on dwindling or non-existent music/arts education. Screaming about what “musicians deserve” is not going to reach the musically uneducated. A kinder, gentler approach to bridge this unfortunate gap is what all Artists need to do if we want the masses to understand our passions….

  6. Seeing this is really quite frustrating and I get it a lot when I mention that I want to promote the arts an work with not for profits. People who are outside the nfp world tend to jump straight to the money questions. It is hard to handle.

    The two biggest problems for the arts are probably promoting the arts themselves and explaining that sometimes, making money is not the primary goal.

  7. Andy Buelow says:

    Nicely written, Ellen… as an arts management professional (ED of Tacoma Symphony), I will consider blogging about Alfidi’s column, as you have urged. (BTW, I grew up in Appleton… say hello to the ‘hood.)

  8. Robert Simonds says:

    Good article. For a working musician, there is nothing more “real world” than collective bargaining. We are musicians first and union members second; but we would be nowhere as professional artists without the CBA and its bargaining power. Yes, our employers are non-profits and we are a non-profit’s employees, but we are primarily professionals in search of the best compensation for our skills. That basic economic motive is unrelated to tax status.

    This may not align with some people’s idea of what a non-profit employee should look like. Similarly, some folks can’t imagine a union member in a tux, even if we are a natural fit for organizing.

    Ultimately the level of antagonism demonstrates that all stakeholders have not adequately told their story before the crisis comes. Lockouts and strikes have empowered people to reveal deep resentments that should never have festered to that point. Much easier said than done of course. We all need a firmer understanding of the nuts and bolts of our institutions to help steer them away from danger or help rescue them from failure.

    Yet in cases like Mr. Alfidi’s, a voice governed by ideology rather than service appears. If he doesn’t acknowledge the existence of professionalism beyond the high school level and hates all unions, it might be fair to ask why he even cares enough to write a blog post. Our business is too pressing to spare another second on his type of distraction.

    Rob Simonds

    • “Ultimately the level of antagonism demonstrates that all stakeholders have not adequately told their story before the crisis comes.” This is so true, Rob. For so many years, we took it for granted that people understood the value and arts (and arts education) bring to communities and individuals. Same is true for collective bargaining — it’s been a staple of American society for so long that we weren’t prepared for the attacks when they came.

      And, although I tend to agree with you that people like Mr. Alfidi aren’t worth wasting too much time on, the fact is that this gives us an opportunity to share that story, which is as good for us as it is for others who need to hear it.

  9. Angie Larsen says:

    Love the last sentence!

  10. Derrick Jaramillo says:

    Wow, did this guy just say that “He would be a scab tambourine player”, His words. So let me get this right, if you were to try and perform the Four Sea Interludes by Benjamin Brittin, would you be able to do all the thumb roll at the required dynamics which is from really soft to loud, My tush that scab would do it right, and a lesson from his words needs to be made. Let’s see how Humiliated he would feel by trying to play the Tambourine part in DANSE RESSE TREPAK from the nutcracker, and also the super soft part in Danse Arabe, And even more salt would even be put on his wounds when he tries to attempt to try and play the Tambourine part on the Dvorak Carnival Overture, specifically Let him figure out the majority of the piece, and squirm himself from measure 472 to the end. Those excerpts are but a fraction to what it takes to play with the big dogs, or your that tiny little dog that sleeps on the porch that is doing nothing but talk from your rear like Mr Alfidi is doing here. Mind you anyone can do this, but it takes a true learning musician to become a professional, and how to do this is learn, and master the proper skills of being a true musician. This is something Anthony Alfidi will never acquire in his life. And I, as a professional percussionist am insulted that he would say the words of being a scab tambourine player, you can’t just be a scab tambourine player, You become a percussionist. In your words Mr Alfidi congratulations on your attempt at becoming a Drummer, oh if you don’t know when your called that, it means your don’t know how to read percussion music. Final note, its seeing people with this mentality that make me glad that we the people can always read what is the latest that he/she said. Such a pity.
    This was an awesome article Ms Rosewall, thank you for sharing this. Can’t wait to hear more.
    Cheers
    Derrick Jaramillo

  11. earl buys says:

    I fetch the gauntlet: an NFL player’s a thug. there.

  12. Bruce Hembd says:

    All arguments of sanity and un-informed opinion aside, an element I see missing from this discussion is “why?” All I see are musicians tearing apart trolls like Mr. Alfidi without asking deeper questions.

    Namely: why does this sort of opinion exist? How did this guy feel that it was OK to trash the SFS like this? Even deeper – is this perhaps a more common sentiment than we musicians realize? If so, what can we do besides belittle and dismiss this kind of opinion?

    Is there a way to turn this event into an opportunity? Or do we wish to push this aside as crap, call it ignorant, and thus perpetuate the perception (right or wrong) that musicians are elitist and out-of-touch?

    Is shouting down ignorance the way to resolve this sentiment? (For goodness sake, some of us are still uppity about people clapping between movements of a Beethoven symphony.)

    II do not think that shouting down ignorance plays very well into the grand scheme of public perception. Some people obviously feel that classical musicians think themselves superior to white and blue collar workers. Right or wrong, this is what THIS is the issue that we musicians need to pay attention to – very closely in fact. Ignoring this sentiment is akin to burying one’s head in the sand and praying for better weather. Not a great strategy.

    • I agree with you, Bruce, and I too think that we in the arts should look upon this as an opportunity. It’s hard not to just shout back when people say you don’t deserve to make a good living for doing what you do, which I why I chose to take a different tack than many of the musicians who had responded to Mr. Alfidi. The “do you REALIZE how much I paid for my instrument?” argument doesn’t get us any further down the road if what comes out of that instrument isn’t valued.

      Since I’m a college professor, I will use an educational analogy: teaching has completely changed since most of us went to school. With the internet, anyone can find out any information without needing a teacher to tell them. We are not the keepers of knowledge. However, people still need teachers to help sort, evaluate and process knowledge. We are no longer the keepers, we are the curators. I really feel as though some musicians (and artists, and actors) seem out of touch because they have not yet realized that their role has changed. The arts need to fit into society in a different way than we did before people could turn on their computers and click on a YouTube video of Maria Callas. It’s not the same thing, you say? Of course it’s not! But if a person has a transcendent experience by watching a YouTube video, who are we to say that it isn’t valid?

      Just scattered thoughts for now, but you’ve definitely gotten me thinking. How can we turn this into an opportunity? I’ll write more.

      • Bruce Hembd says:

        Right. In my mind these vitriolic comments are symptoms of a number of things: the advent of the Digital Age, the concept of “trolling,” the connection between terminated music programs in schools and this sentiment, the idea that musicians are elitist and overpaid, etc. etc.

        This is really what concerns me personally. While I can take or leave the misinformed opinion, that klaxon of anger and injustice sticks like files on sh*t.. And as someone who works in PR/web/graphic design and dabbles in social media, I can tell you that this kind of animus may only be the first warning signs of bigger things to come. The internet is a big place and just about anyone can be a rock star critic / overnight sensation.

  13. Debby Nitka Hicks says:

    I would like to see Mr. Alfidi play an instrument other than percussion (not that percussion instruments are easy!).

  14. Derrick Jaramillo says:

    Sir Bruce and Ms Rosewall, both of you have hit the nail flat on the head, and it presents the common problems that the way society (i.e. The world) perceives a professional musician. Whether its high and mighty, or humble, or whatever it is. Or whether the musician is um how to say this nicely without offending, um surrounded in ones own personal Aura, opinions have always been misconceived by everyone and we, as humans, are never satisfied with just being told “I am like this”, for saying this the common retort to it is “so if your like this then are you….. “. Bruce you brought a great point as to why does this sort of opinion exist; it happens due to many factors it could be just bitterness due to possibly failing in band in Middle school, or high school, While yes we know it generates the spark it did from the musicians, this opinion will happen and nothing will change the naysayers negativity. I like the notion you said what we could do to turn this event into an opportunity, this would be great PR on both sides if, and I reiterate on “if”, say a major professional Symphony orchestra offer Mr Alfidi a work swap job for him and let him see the pay rate portion so he can see what the average musician at non principal pay makes and has to live off of compared to his large salary. During this process he would for be offered a temporary contract as a concert percussionist for 13 days, in those 13 days the final day he has a performance, let’s designate this as a benefit concert on behalf of the making classical music available to all people who wanted to follow the calling or something more creative then I can come up with. But it will be a benefit none the less. So his twelve days would consist of Mr Alfidi preparing for his debut as a classical percussionist, playing his parts that the principal would tell him he is playing, in other words he would learn from this what’s in the day in a life of a classical percussionist consists of. I have to do this as a percussionist / timpanist daily and personally I feel this would be a great learning experience for him,and the rest of the others who would think/agree/ or repeat Mr Alfidi’s words that anyone with talent can do this for free. Well i hope this helps in adding in on the how to solve this, I hope the bashing can reduce from both sides. If we talk it out a solution can be made.
    Cheers and thank you for keeping the attention in the wonderful world of classical music
    Derrick Jaramillo

  15. Susan Raccoli says:

    I too am from Wisconsin, but I have also lived in Michigan. A dark moment in that state was when the state legislature complained about the lack of African American musicians in the Detroit Symphony. But music had been taken out of many Michigan schools, and often schools are where African American musicians get their start in music. Those legislatures could not see that disconnect.
    But people are right that we cannot dismiss all opinions that we find ridiculous. We must find a way to reach these people and promote the arts and arts education. I used to say that people remember Beethoven but they don’t remember who was mayor during Beethoven’s time. But that argument doesn’t work today. We have to start where people are and move forward, and I admit I have shown naivete at times. When I taught one year in a mixed-race school here in Indianapolis, I brought in a video of an Andre Watts piano recital, thinking that everyone would have heard of Andre Watts, because when I lived in Chicago, everyone I knew had heard of Andre Watts. Imagine my surprise when I found out that none of the students had heard of Andre Watts!

  16. Veda Zuponcic says:

    I think it would be a good idea for board members to do a side-by-side for a day, beginning with the practice time before rehearsals, rehearsals, practice time after rehearsals, concerts, just to see what is involved. A lot of this anti-musician rhetoric is just a result of their not knowing–so if we can share our organizations with kids, for examples, how much more important to share our professional lives with the people entrusted to find the money to pay us. The comment about talented high school students is so limited–again, just pure ignorance. There are marvelous, hugely gifted young musicians out there, who take a year to master a couple of works–and are not even slightly ready to take on the demands of a major orchestra job. But how would someone like Mr. Alfidi know this? The orchestra should make it a plank in their contract that all board members participate in the kind of workshop I suggest above. It is getting urgent, wouldn’t you say?

  17. How can I contact this idiot?

  18. robert mandresh says:

    I realize this comment will not be well taken, but perhaps we can consider this fellow’s response from the financial point of view too. My son has aspirations toward a career in music( I suspect he would love to be a choral, or symphonic conductor). I hope he will make 141000 dolars a year(plus benefits). I am a board certified surgeon. Would the board of this orchestra consider giving me this salary and benefits? I will give them any overage( if any) from my practice . Of course, first all my yearly office supplies, rent, and other expenses would be taken into account. If I was sure of the 141000 thousand dollars a year(plus benefits) as my net, I think I would take the deal. I do not have a problem with the musicians asking for more. This is part of what makes our country great. But the market place has a way of eventually finding the correct pay scale. I do not profess to know what is the correct pay scale. I can not begin to see how a professionsl musican can survive on some of the lousy employment terms mentioned above. But in these difficult financial times, the fact that the board is being tight with salary levels is not surprising. And in attempting to do so, this does not make them the phillistines they are being portrayed as. I suspect this is what Mr. Alfidi was mmeaning to say.

    • Thank you for your comment, Robert. Remember that musicians have net income too…not only office supplies and sometimes studio rent, but instrument costs, repairs, travel, etc. Most musicians I work with are not so blind as to demand extra pay when there is none to be had, but many striking musicians at orchestras (San Francisco is not the only one to go through this) protest that they are the ones making sacrifices while administrative staff and costs are held steady. I think what most musicians are saying is, our work is what makes or breaks this organization, and it is a short-sighted move to mess with musician pay and expecting the same results.

      That being said, I will repeat what I’ve said before, that it’s not just about the marketplace. The not-for-profit marketplace is different. NFP arts organizations like the San Francisco Symphony meet their budgets with earned income like ticket sales and contributed income in the form of donations, grants and sponsorships. Those are two separate, and very different, market forces. What is needed to attract donations and grants is different than what is needed to attract ticket sales. Arts organizations must balance all of these forces in order to be successful — and it’s not easy, obviously.

  19. Pingback: The World is filled with Anthony Alfidis - Tacoma Symphony Orchestra

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