Colorado Springs Philharmonic Orchestra hornists (from right): Chandler Spoon, Michael Yopp and Jenny Doersch

Famed musician Joe Strummer once sang, “If you have to get the honey, then you don’t go killing all the bees.” The lyrics of pro-union English punk icons like Strummer and Billy Bragg are coming back into style as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to strain the economy. The connection between labor and music, common themes in genres like folk and punk, is a new motif for symphonic music. An ongoing contract dispute between the Colorado Springs Philharmonic Orchestra (CSPO) and its musicians, represented in bargaining by the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), will proceed to an arbitration process, according to Sarah Wilson, CSPO cellist and president of the local AFM chapter. 

The dispute began after CSPO canceled its contract with musicians in July, citing COVID-19 restrictions and a force-majeure, or an unforeseeable circumstance, clause in the contract. The musicians disagreed with the use of force-majeure and filed a grievance. Subsequent attempts at negotiation and mediation have been unsuccessful, so now the matter will go before a judge, who will potentially decide the fate of southern Colorado’s only professional orchestra.

Professional musicians, along with restaurant, retail, health care and education workers — as well as other working-class, wage employees — have been profoundly impacted economically by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to restrictions on public gatherings and events in the interest of public health. The fallout from the pandemic has led to a renewed interest in organized labor across industries. In October, restaurant workers at the Wild Goose Meeting House and Good Neighbors Meeting House formed a union to address a range of grievances related to working conditions and compensation. In December, UCHealth workers announced plans to unionize over working conditions affected by COVID-19. Teachers, who have long been represented by professional associations and unions, have been vocally opposed to what they consider unsafe practices surrounding in-person learning during the pandemic. 

Like teachers, professional musicians have a longstanding relationship with unions and collective bargaining. 

As a nonprofit, CSPO secures most of its funding from grants, charitable donations and the audience’s support. According to Natalie Sosa, a deputy public information officer for El Paso County, the CSPO received $30,000 in 2019 and again in 2020 as part of the county’s Community Investment Program, which provides organizations located in El Paso County with an opportunity to apply for support for activities and initiatives that offer economic benefits to the community and enhance the quality of life for El Paso County citizens. Due to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic and the subsequent labor dispute, CSPO has not been able to offer any activities or initiatives to the community.

CSPO also received a $40,000 donation from the Colorado Springs Philharmonic Orchestra Guild, a social club committed to fostering an appreciation of symphonic music, according to CSPO’s April 24, 2020, board meeting minutes. Joy Maples, co-president of the guild, says the pandemic has had an impact on fundraising efforts. “This year, without any live events, is very difficult,” she says.

According to 2017 tax documents, CSPO reported $1.5 million in contributions and grants that year. In addition to grants and donations, the CSPO also has funds managed by the Colorado Springs Philharmonic Orchestra Foundation, which reported $132,728 in contributions and grants, and $58,433 in investment income in 2018, with nearly $1.3 million in net assets.

The rest of CSPO’s regular income comes from ticket sales and live performances, which have been impacted by COVID-19. For 2017, CSPO reported $2.1 million in program service revenue. However, CSPO musicians say ticket sales are not as vital to the organization’s financial success as one would think.

“In our industry, concerts are never a profit-making endeavor,” Wilson says. “The philharmonic always operates with about half its revenue from ticket sales. We are a nonprofit institution. Our role is to serve the community the best we can with the resources available to us. We operate because generous, civic-minded and music-loving people, foundations and corporations give, support and sponsor the Philharmonic. Ticket sales alone never keep the door open.”

Jeremy Van Hoy, bass trombonist and a member of the players’ committee, a body of elected representatives who engage in the collective bargaining process on behalf of the musicians, agrees with Wilson. “Ticket sales account for something like 40 percent of our operating budget,” he says, “and the rest is made up by philanthropy and patrons and people in the area who just donate to make the budget balance.”

Musicians like Wilson and Van Hoy make a modest income from their work for CSPO. “The orchestra is not full-time,” says Van Hoy. “It’s a part-time orchestra, and the average salary is around $12,000 per year, which is not a living wage. We’re all expected to have other work. A lot of people teach, freelance, join other part-time orchestras on the Front Range. I have contracts with the Boulder Philharmonic [Orchestra] and Opera Colorado in Denver. I teach privately and I teach part-time at Colorado College. That’s a typical thing, where musicians string together freelance work [and] part-time contracts to try to get to something approaching full-time, but CSPO has never been a full-time orchestra.”

In comparison, Nathan Newbrough made $155,642 in 2017 as the CEO of CSPO.

“That’s a big bone of contention,” says Van Hoy. “His salary had gotten up to about $150,000 a year, which is quite high for an orchestra of our size, and considering that most musicians make $10,000 to $14,000 a year. Around the time of these cancellations in July he announced that he had laid off a handful of the staff, and that he had voluntarily taken a 25 percent pay cut, which still puts him at six figures.” Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers makes $114,159 per year.

However, the dispute between CSPO and its musicians is less about compensation or working conditions than the interpretation of the contract. Van Hoy and Wilson argue that despite the pandemic, and the resulting loss of ticket revenue, the use of the force-majeure clause is inappropriate. The musicians’ contract, which was signed by Newbrough on April 2, 2020, weeks into the pandemic, states, “In the event the employer cannot continue the series of concerts and rehearsals provided for under the terms of this Master Agreement by reason of an Act of God such as fire, flood, or pestilence; or because of any rules or regulations promulgated by Federal, State, Municipal authorities, or of a civil or military nature; then the Employer will have the right to cancel this Master Agreement upon payment of stipulated compensation to the date of such cancellation.”

While the pandemic and public health orders did render traditional public performances nearly impossible to pull off, many orchestras across the country, including the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, have adapted to virtual and outdoor performances. Shortly after canceling their contract due to claimed force-majeure, CSPO offered musicians work.

“They sent emails to musicians in the orchestra saying they wanted to do these programs,” says Van Hoy, “Gold Hill Mesa, smaller venues around town. So here we are, saying the contract is canceled because we can’t do rehearsals and concerts, but would you like to do rehearsals and concerts? It was a big slap in the face. If they want to do rehearsals and concerts we should have a contract in place. Sept. 21 was the day the cancellation went into effect, and Sept. 22 they offered us work.”

The musicians filed a second grievance and attempted mediation. “We ended up being very conciliatory and offered huge flexibility to get us through this season,” claims Van Hoy. “Basically, we were willing to have no salary and work on a per-service basis, but our stipulation was that this contract would return. When the pandemic is over, and things are back to normal, our contract would resume. That was our big stipulation and they did not entertain that one iota in mediation.”

Due to the ongoing arbitration process, CSPO declined to comment on the contract dispute for this story. Catherine Creppon, vice president of advancement for CSPO, did say via email, “the Colorado Springs Philharmonic is utterly determined to bring live concerts back to the Pikes Peak region just as soon as it’s possible to do so. Our musicians and patrons are foremost in our minds, and our board is focused on taking responsible action to ensure that the Philharmonic remains a cultural gem for Colorado Springs for our neighbors today, and for future generations. When the pandemic began, the Philharmonic took the remarkable (and non-required) step of paying regular wages to its contracted musicians from March thru July 2020. Administrative layoffs and partial furloughs began in May in an effort to scale back and preserve resources for the future. And last fall, we established the Philharmonic Musician Assistance Fund, which makes direct cash grants to musicians based on need.“

According to Wilson and Van Hoy, CSPO received Paycheck Protection Program Loan funds to cover salaries, and according to Sosa, CSPO received a $20,000 grant from the Regional Business Relief Fund Program.

Arbitration will finally settle the dispute. “That’s a multi-month process of selecting the judge, having a hearing and getting the decision,” says Van Hoy. “We wouldn’t expect to have a decision until maybe March.”