Locked Out Musicians: Financial Toll Becoming Dire

Updated: 03/15/2013 7:05 AM KSTP.com By: Mark Saxenmeyer

The financial toll on Minnesota musicians in the midst of a lockout is now becoming dire.

The Twin Cities' top orchestras have been silent for nearly half a year now.

Some Minnesota and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra musicians say it's starting to cause them serious financial trouble. And if they can't make music here, they say they've got to make it somewhere else.

Alicia McQuerrey, for example.

Every day, single mom Alicia practices her flute inside her modest St. Paul home. Her dog Bella howls with delight--literally--as she tunes up. Her 18-month-old Lola smiles from ear to ear.

Alicia wants to be prepared for her return to the SPCO--or to another one. A pile of applications, cover letters, resumes and envelopes sits on her living room table. They're addressed to orchestras across the nation.

"San Diego, California," she said, reading off the list. "Omaha, Nebraska..."

Alicia has already auditioned for orchestras in Atlanta, Chicago, Nashville, Los Angeles and New York, flying in and staying there on her own dime.

"Life is very different," she said.

The SPCO has been Alicia's musical home since 2001, but she says she has to be willing to re-locate because right now, financially, "It's very tight. I took a loan from my retirement fund."

She's also traded in her SUV for a subcompact car, and reduced her health insurance coverage. "And I've been investigating renting my house out and moving back to my parents' house in West Virginia to save on the mortgage and the bills."

Alicia says she made about $70,000 a year under the last SPCO contract. She and the other locked out musicians estimate they've lost at least $30,000 each since last October.

Dobson West, the SPCO Society's interim president, spoke on behalf of orchestra management. "The SPCO cannot continue to run deficits. We ran a deficit of almost 900 thousand dollars last year," he said.

Orchestra management says its latest offer to musicians includes a 20 percent salary reduction.

Chris Brown, SPCO's principal bassist and a member of the orchestra sine 1978, said, "There's a lot of other issues than salary. I think some of it is personalized, I think there's a certain group of people that management wants to keep and a certain group of people they simply don't."

These days Brown teaches additional music lessons.to get by--an income "which kind of just barely covers the rent for me."

He rents because he says had to sell his house. At first he was in denial about the financial burden but now, "with each month it becomes more of a stressor," he said.

SPCO musicians and management currently have no scheduled dates to continue negotiations. Management has canceled concerts through at least April 21.

As for the Minnesota Orchestra and its lockout, concerts are currently canceled through April 7. Orchestra management says negotiations are at a standstill because the musicians have declined to either accept their contract offer or present a counter-proposal. The musicians, meantime, say they're waiting for the results of an independent audit of the orchestra's finances.

Some of the SPCO's most generous donors contribute to a fund that helps the musicians with their bills, but it's not a long-term solution. On that, all the parties involved agree.

"I want to play. I want to play. We need to get back to playing," Alicia said.

Mark Saxenmeyer can be reached at msaxenmeyer@kstp.com