What the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Must Do

What the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Must Do

It’s a tough pill to swallow for unionized musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO). But a necessary one:

A strike-ending five-year contract includes a 10.5 percent pay cut in the first year (whittled to 7.5 percent, thanks to an anonymous donor) and transitioning the unsustainable defined benefit pension plan to a defined contribution plan.

The new contract also features a pay freeze in the second year, a 3.3 percent increase year three, a 2 percent raise in the fourth year and restoration of this year’s base salary (about $107,000 annually) in year five.

But those wage concessions and the pension change (the latter of which should give younger musicians greater returns in the long run) will be for naught if the PSO doesn’t change the way it does business.

It’s clear the the symphony’s business model (as are many across the country) is broken. As Leon Botstein wrote in Peabody Magazine in the spring of 2012:

“The logic behind the traditional business model for classical music — an orchestra of full-time musicians that had a resident hall, toured to comparable halls in major cities and was an object of broad-based philanthropy — is no longer cogent.”

And this comes from the music director and principal conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra.

Continued Botstein:

“Yet an archaic business model is still in place … when the driving social realities have radically changed. Managements are still following an old formula to survive, narrowing the content of concerts to repetitions of works that seem popular, seeking box-office stars, avoiding risk, and trying to calculate the cost of labor and production against the price of tickets as the appeal of their institutions dwindle, particularly vis-a-vis philanthropy. If ticket prices were low, and the programs unusual and exciting, the halls would be full.”

Concluded Botstein:

“Classical music offers a mode of life that provides a viable, varied and powerful alternative to the standardization and trivialities of commercial entertainment, enjoyable as they may be. The sooner our symphony orchestras grasp this essential fact, the quicker they will see the vast opportunities that face them. We must do more than continue to be pale reproductions of an artificially selective fragment from our heritage, imitating and aping with a limited repertoire the great performances of the past.”

Here’s to much new thinking from PSO management.

From around the public policy horn:

Citing it as a route that has been “underperforming,” American Airlines early next year will scuttle daily non-stop flights between Pittsburgh and Los Angeles. The last flights will come in mid February. Nonstop service began in February 2013.

But the Allegheny County Airport Authority disputed the notion of underperformance. A spokesman cited Pittsburgh as a “strong” growth market.

“It’s unfortunate that American has chosen not to take advantage of the burgeoning and diversified economy as other carriers have,” the authority’s Bob Kerlik told the Tribune-Review.

But if that were the case, why would American Airlines bolt? Because, obviously, the market is speaking louder than the illusion the authority seeks to create.

It sounds altruistic but it is fraught with peril. “It” is a program that requires all buildings in Pittsburgh of a certain square footage — public and private — to report their water and energy usage.

The ordinance applies to nonresidential buildings of 50,000 square feet or larger. City-owned buildings must comply by June 2017. Private-sector buildings must comply by June 2018.

The stated goal, according to the Pittsburgh Business Times, is to “improve building performance.” And it quotes Aurora Sharrard, executive director of the Green Building Alliance, as saying that the government diktat means that “Pittsburgh is continuing to compete with the best cities in the nation to be economically, environmentally and socially competitive for our future workforce.”

Can you say government overreach and gobbledygook, class? And how soon will this “competitive” program turn into one of city government dictating how much energy and water can be used?

Those pushing such things would be well reminded of the words of great 19th-century social commentator Herbert Spencer:

“(T)he liberty which a citizen enjoys is to be measured, not by the nature of the government machinery he lives under, whether representative or not, but by the relative paucity of the restraints it imposes on him.”

Self-interest — the interest in a business making its physical plant as cost-effective as possible — should guide the use of energy and water, not government.

Not only did Allegheny County Council give itself a 21-percent retroactive pay raise last week (effective in 2020), it now will receive automatic raises every five years after that.

True, the council’s $9,000 annual stipend had not changed in 16 years.
And, true, the new stipend will be $10,939 a year. But thee council had prior opportunities, under existing rules, to raise those stipends and did not. And automatic raises? Well, in the spirit of good government, those should have been decided by a voter referendum.

At the same time, County Council adopted a 40 percent raise for the chief executive position, which has been set at $90,000 annually since Allegheny County adopted home rule in the late 1990s. That means that in 2020, the ACE could be paid around $140,000 a year.

Again, the raise likely is warranted, given the position. But taxpayers — and voters — are more likely to remember the percentage increases, which, coupled with how the raises were adopted, won’t leave a very good taste in their mouths.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).