Letter from Bill Harrison

I fervently hope that the current discussions between management and musicians can resolve the DSO strike. However, I’m pessimistic that they can resolve the long term problems of the organization. The acrimony and trash talking, most of it on the part of management, has created bitter feelings that will be hard to overcome. As a fan of the orchestra for over 50 years, I’m thoroughly offended and disgusted by some of the missives I’ve received from management over the past months. They’ve offended me by making negative comments about the musicians who have thrilled me over the years with their performances and by attacking the AFM, a union that I belonged to for over a quarter of a century. Is their perspective so warped and narrow that they expect anyone who ever bought a ticket to also buy their ridiculous rhetoric?

I’m also deeply disturbed whenever the bosses and their minions refer to their bureaucracy as the “DSO.” In my mind, the DSO is a group of dedicated, world-class professional musicians. Without the players, there is no DSO. Yet, as the musicians themselves have demonstrated with their own concerts, they can make beautiful music without any help from management, thank you very much. When I hear management or the media, refer to a conflict between the DSO and the musicians, I’m deeply disturbed and confused. From where I sit, I see only a conflict that involves misguided managers on one side and a great group of artists on the other. The ultimate victims will be those of us who cherish great music and the greater Detroit community as whole which stands to lose another of our remaining cultural treasures.

It seems to me that the future of DSO can only be secured by following a few basic and simple rules of good business. First and foremost, the organization needs a change at the top. That’s basic business logic. Whether or not you believe, as I do, that Anne Parsons is guilty of gross mismanagement, she has become a lighting rod and an iconic symbol of the short-sighted thinking that is responsible for the current crises. If the DSO was a publicly-held company, the shareholders would have demanded her head on a platter long ago. When things were going south at Ford, Bill Ford had the guts and the insight to remove himself as CEO and recruit Alan Mulally to turn the company around. In contrast to Mr. Ford – whose name is, after all, on the door – Ms. Parsons has no real investment in our community or the long term future of the DSO. She is simply a hired gun who arrived with great fanfare and then failed miserably at her job. If she was General Manager of the Red Wings,
she would have been lynched long ago.

The second simple rule — one that current management has consistently failed to follow — is that you can’t cost-cut your way to long term profitability. Yet, this is exactly the course that the DSO has been following and the basis of their “solution” to the current problems that the organization faces. Ancillary to that is another rule DSO management has ignored – product is everything. Great success in business is always driven by a great products. The most successful and sustainable organizations understand this. Whenever great brands have stumbled, it’s because they took their eyes off their products. The greatest turnarounds in everything from packaged goods to cars to finance to sports, have always been driven by a laser focus on great products. For the DSO, the product is not a beautiful lobby…or a bar…or a gift shop. It is music. Great music can only be made by skilled and passionate musicians with a connection to their audience. Tied to that is the a fi
nal rule of business, which is that the customer always comes first. Frankly, as a long time customer of the DSO, I can’t say that I’ve been feeling the love lately. The recent focus on a handful of extremely wealthy, but overburdened donors has cut the symphony’s core base of support by 80% in terms of head count. This lack of focus on ordinary supporters, coupled with the inability to maintain a stable staff of talented fund raisers, has seriously degraded the relationship between the DSO and the broader community. With the ever expanding number of cost-effective new media and technology tools available, it’s hard to understand why the DSO isn’t aggressively expanding its donor base instead of letting it shrink.

Take care of the musicians and let them make great music. Take care of the customers and make them feel connected. Take care of the community and serve it with a sense of humility and respect. Financial stability and fiscal success will follow. Is this the long term plan of the current DSO leadership? I fear not.


Comments: 2

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  • Eugene Zenzen

    Absolutely well said.

  • Christa Grix

    Bill, this is a wonderful letter that perfectly states the issues, and how to solve them. Your vision is 20/20!

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