Monday, November 30, 2009

Perks and Benefits

A major part of an organization’s expenses is providing health insurance and pension benefits. While employed, we don’t think about the money spent by the employer and blindly think that we are covered and taken care of no matter what.

This, of course, is wishful or illusory thinking. Most Chapter 7 bankruptcies are caused by medical bills as a result of a major illness or accident. And yet the majority of those filing have initially been insured. Insurance companies routinely deny payment for any reason they see fit and it takes numerous letters and/or threat of a lawsuit to take the patient seriously. An illiterate nation as we are, writing the first letter is a major undertaking and even the thought of having to produce subsequent letters is simply too much for many, if not most. A lawyer will of course be happy to help, but good luck trying to cover those enormous fees from the insurer even if they change their minds. Chemotherapy in a hospital may be covered, but God help you if you have to take a new drug in pill form and pay thousands of dollars out-of-pocket monthly, as the treatment will fall under prescription benefits.

We are in the middle of a heated health reform discussion but so far none of the solutions proposed would really remedy the situation. Perhaps the one sixth of the population, which presently has no insurance and costs the taxpayer an arm and a leg since they get treated through an emergency room, will be better off and have some kind of coverage. But for the average Joe the Fiddler matters are not going to improve.

Since this country is involved in two war fronts, one of which, Afghanistan, will take a a decade or longer, our government needs more money. One of the ways I see as certain is taxing health and other benefits. This is when the employees will realize how insanely much their policies, which blindly cover everyone with pre-existing conditions, actually costs. Pressure by healthy young individuals will emerge to have the insurance money added to their salary and make them be responsible for getting their own deal. Anyone who has had to deal with a Cobra payment knows how exorbitant the premiums are. Why would a twenty-something single healthy person volunteer to pay $1,200-1,500 per month for their employers plan if, on their own, they could find coverage for one-tenth of it? Granted, it would probably come with a large deductible and a lousy prescription plan, if any. However, people in that age group tend to be healthy and might even gamble and opt for no insurance at all, unless it would be mandated by law.

Our tax laws differ from most other Western countries. For instance lottery winnings here are taxed, over there not. But any kind of a benefit is generally regarded as hidden income and tacked into your tax bill. If your employer provides you with a car (it may well be necessary for your job), not to mention a house or apartment (that you may need for company parties or a high-tech home office), all that is carefully calculated by the tax officials and added to your income. In many countries you don’t even fill a tax form: the Big Brother has all the data on you, other than what you might have made under the table, in the gray economy.

We cannot print new money endlessly. We are already charging our wars to China which in essence owns the once-mighty United States. It is sort of ironic that we try to force our style of democracy on third world countries which are used to doing things their way and by no means desire to have an American lifestyle. Yes, perhaps they would enjoy our cars and relatively cheap gasoline, but just imagine the chaos India and China would be in if every household had one or two cars. Traffic there already is a nightmarish mess. We feared another political system than the Soviet Union was promoting, often forcefully, to the point that we almost started a nuclear war because of their relations with Cuba. Yet it is the communist China that we presently depend on, a country whose system is the opposite of our beliefs.

So, taxes will have to rise. Most likely some people in the congress will eventually become brave and suggest that the rich pay more, as the regular wage earners cannot be milked disproportionately. It is impossible to squeeze blood out of a turnip. Yet, the tax burden will surely go up for all and those states, our Washington included, that presently don’t have state tax, must eventually change their course in this matter.

Let’s go back to arts organizations which I wrote about in my previous post. What, if instead of providing expensive health insurance, they would include a certain amount in every paycheck and have their employees, musicians, dancers and actors take care of their own package. They should still offer an insurance policy for those who don’t qualify for individual coverage due to pre-existing conditions. Obviously such a health plan, where most participants were actually sick, would cost a lot more, but the orchestra, ballet or theater would contribute the same sum everyone is getting and the employee the significant balance. Would this be unfair? Of course it would if you have a socialist view of life, but not so if you firmly believe in capitalism and the American way. A young and healthy musician would happily pocket an extra $12k a year and might be willing to take a sizable pay cut, thus helping the suffering organization.

Also, instead of money going into a pension fund, such contributions could and should be given directly to the worker, to invest in a way he/she sees fit. In thirty years such an investment would yield much more than the measly pension many presently provide. It would also free the “artist” from having to work for X number of years for the same employer to be fully vested, often the reason why people put up with intolerable bosses and work conditions in general. In many European countries pension contributions go directly to the state and upon your retirement (usually at a mandated age around 65) you will be paid according to the total earned for various employers.

Above should make anybody realize that having a young orchestra would be a lot cheaper than our present way where seniors seem to have seniority as long as they can breathe. To every person in a field who is holding a high-paying job with all the perks and is horrified by my money-saving ideas: what gives you the right to feel more entitled to your privileged lifestyle than a capable young person currently un- or underemployed? Are they all doomed to wait around for you to croak? You believe in a socialist model with almighty unions; the rest of us are stuck with good old-fashioned American capitalism, unless one works for Wall Street or some other Big Business which Capitol Hill has deemed too big to fail.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Reinventing the Wheel

Let’s face it: the current, or past, form of classical music business is no longer viable. There are many reasons for it, from grossly inflated expenses to general diminished interest in the art form. We were never intended to have 52-week seasons for orchestras or such fat paychecks for musicians, some of whom only work a few hours per month.

Shrink the size of an orchestra to about 60, large enough to play the classics we love, and hire extras when needed. Of course a contrabassoonist or other such instrumentalist will complain, but when it comes to making money, you’d be surprised for how little people are willing to play. Perhaps an individual chose such an instrument in the first place knowing what an easy life it would be after getting into a group.

Reduce salaries and change the pay scale, similar to what people earn in many other professions. How about a base salary of $30k, plus then a per-service fee? The more you work, the more you earn. Obviously the per-service compensation would be slightly higher for an extra musician. Get rid of doubling and cartage. And what prevents a musician from grabbing a chair and a stand, freeing the need for so many stage hands, expensive as the latter are due to union contracts?

No one could imagine a ballet company where most of the dancers are well past their prime or weigh 300 pounds. The company, in order to be competitive, wants to have new young blood continuously. Everyone knows that a dancer’s career is short. Injuries set in and the body at 45 isn’t as flexible as it was at 20. Unions representing ballet dancers can’t promote seniority and prevent new fresh talent from coming in.

The same should be true for orchestras. Just because an up-in-years flautist brags that he has never played as well in his life doesn’t mean much. Maybe he’s truthful and his skills were lousier before. I bet  there are hundreds or perhaps thousands of younger ones without a  job who can play circles around this old man. An elderly brass player’s lips cannot possibly be in the same shape as someone else’s who just graduated from Curtis or Juilliard. Yes, the experience may be lacking with the youngsters, but as instrumentalists they are far superior and learn fast on the job.

In the past model a string  player gets a position and receives his/her tenure, which simply means there is not real reason to keep in shape. Playing in a large section makes intonation become nontonation as orchestritis rapidly sets in. Yet there are an enormous number of young violinists, violists, cellist and bassists who play remarkably well but who don’t have a chance to show their stuff as the old fuddy-duddies refuse to step aside.

When you go to a game, you expect to find the fastest and most skilled players on the field. Yes, in professional sports some are paid fortunes but they also have tens of thousands of paying spectators, willing to make the circus possible. To a sports fan and an audience member in the arts, entertainment value is the only criteria that matters. Leave all out the nonsense about “artists”: someone sawing away on the violin is nothing but a worker bee, a slave to the organization. An instrumentalist has to accept the ideas of the conductor, no matter how much they go against his own.

Many ballet companies take care that their dancers have something to fall back on, by schooling them in another profession. Why don’t orchestras follow suit? Make every personal contract a short one and at the end of the initial five years, have the individual compete for the job with outsiders, behind a screen, in other words re-audition. This could take place in, let’s say, two-year intervals after the first period. In the meantime the orchestra will have sent the musician to a community  or other college to prepare for “real” life. That would be money well spent.

The President of the country is elected for four years, with a possibility of another term if people agree. Why should we treat music directors or principal conductors any differently? There is a lot of deserving talent out there who never get a chance in our present system. And how much does the President earn annually? Isn’t running the country more demanding than waving a stick in front of a half full, gray-haired hall? Tie the salary to that of a public servant. Orchestras are non-profits, after all. With a lot of new openings a capable baton wielder should have no problem finding a new gig, at least for a while. How would the audience benefit from all this? There would be a lot of new and interesting interpretations for one.  And wouldn’t seeing new faces and hearing fresh musical voices be exciting to an audience? I have always envied the audiences in the Big Apple, not because they have their boring same–old–same–old resident orchestra, but because new ones visit the city every week. Old man Heifetz played well indeed, but never hearing other violinists would have kept people away in no time. And Heifetz was unique, our orchestras are not.

I shall continue reinventing the wheel so keep tuned in. Make the pitch a bright 442, a nice compromise between the Europeans and us.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Yes, even I know there is a hip-hop artist in Los Angeles by that name, but this story isn’t about him, in spite of the picture below. Sorry, fans.

This past summer we learned about the New York Times selling their well-respected classical music radio station WQXR to Univision. Off the air went a powerful transmitter at 96.3 on the dial, to move far to the right, to 105.9 and to a much weaker signal. The station’s AM transmitter had been leased to Disney a decade prior. Most listeners prefer looking for stations in the mid-range of the dial so fewer people searching for serious content will accidentally tune into the station. Also, the coverage of the new transmitter is about half the area of the old one. Naturally, this doesn’t translate into half the listeners because population gets denser near Manhattan, but the drop is significant nonetheless.

When I first arrived here as a student in the late sixties, there were numerous stations offering classical fare on both coasts where I lived. FM radio was still rather new and most people depended on AM, along with their eight-track. The combination of the latter two was standard equipment in most cars. People were not demanding high fidelity. FM or UKW (Ultrakurzwellen) had become popular in Germany which had severe restriction with a possible propaganda weapon as a result of their defeat in the war. They were forced to go in the direction of frequency modulation, to the delight of music fans. The Soviet Union didn’t want Finland to have AM stations of any significance and thus my home country was in the “ULA” ( Finnish for ultra short wave) camp early on. We had only one powerful long wave station situated in Lahti, operating until 1993, and very weak AM transmitters in a couple cities, with instructions to dampen their transmissions toward Karelia and Leningrad in the east and Estonia in the south. The Soviet FM system used a different spectrum so their radios couldn’t pick up Finnish stations without illegal modifications. Even when the Finns obeyed the restriction, the Russians would transmit static on the same AM frequencies, to prevent their population from being “corrupted”.

The other morning I was driving our daughter to her school near the Seattle Center. I was taking a different route from the usual and passed a boarded-up business at a street corner. There were big signs saying the that space was for lease. Something about the location seemed familiar and on my way back I drove around that block again. Sure enough, one could see the text “KING-FM” over the plywood. At some point, this station had been a source of pride for the city, operating from the top floor of the big KING-5 building on Dexter Avenue. Later it was given to a non-profit group which in turn was linked to some of the local arts organizations. Frankly, I had forgotten about the existence of said station, as it mainly broadcasted musical wallpaper or mediocre recordings of local groups ad nauseam. My car has twelve presets for FM and it hasn’t been one of them for a long time. I did some digging on the web and indeed the station has been hit by the same economy that is affecting most of us. Jobs have been terminated and obviously the station itself has had to relocate to a less expensive space somewhere.

The waning interest in classical music is not just an American phenomena. A couple days ago I got an email from the Finnish Soloists Association, asking all members to contact the state-owned Finnish Broadcasting Corporation, regarding their planned major cuts in both production of classical music as a form of recordings, and broadcasting itself. Much of the latter would take place during the night hours according to the plans. The savings for the company would be minimal but clearly someone there doesn’t appreciate this variety of music. Perhaps the idea of sending it during the night is a suggestion that such music will put anyone to sleep. I used to do a lot a recordings for YLE so I can understand how my colleagues back home feel.

My country had an independent classical station but the head of the company got involved in criminal activity with messy finances. Today they send classical music only via the web at Wouldn’t it figure that even in Finland one would find crooks among those who try to influence culture. Russia I could understand and the U.S. as well, but my homeland is known for its honesty.

Thank goodness for NPR with its informative programs and all that vintage jazz many of their stations send. When it comes to classical, I like to be in charge of what reaches my ears. That is exactly why I have a CD-changer in my car.  Personally I don’t find classical relaxing but rather the opposite, a source of anxiety. No wonder many businesses purposely blast this type of music through speakers on their parking lots, to keep drug dealers and other unwanted away. A fast food joint downtown pipes classical to rid the premises of homeless people. Why does this music have such an effect? Perhaps these unfortunates associate this genre with arrogant elitist oppressors, the ones who caused their jobs to disappear in the first place and put them on a slippery slope. Canter's Deli on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles would suffer if they force-fed Wagner to their elderly Jewish Shoah survivors.

When I have been put on hold and yet another version of the Four Seasons is piped through the telephone, I tend to hang up. Modern Jazz Quartet and Bachianas Brasileiras number 5 would be another story.