Melbourne Symphony Orchestra stands down all musicians without pay

The musicians' union had negotiated a 50 per cent pay cut instead

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra has made the shock decision to stand down all of its musicians without pay from next week, The Age reports.

MSO chair Michael Ullmer said they would only keep “essential” employees during the coronavirus lockdown with a 20 per cent pay cut, citing fears they could not financially survive, in a letter sent to staff on Tuesday (April 14).

“Without the ability to give live orchestral concerts, we have lost a significant portion of our revenue, being ticket sales, as well as flow on effects to donations and corporate sponsorship,” Ullmer wrote.

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“Our overriding objective is to preserve this great organisation so that it can prosper into the future…It is critical that when we recommence normal operations, the MSO is not in an irreparable and depleted state.”

MSO musicians told The Age they felt “blindsided” by the announcement, as they expected a settlement of a 50 per cent pay cut coordinated by the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance.

“Disappointment is not strong enough,” MEAA Musicians director Paul Davies said.

“There is dissatisfaction, dismay at the way this has been handled, by the rejection of an offer to work with them on a cost-neutral basis that would have maintained trust. The way it has been conducted is incredibly bad…. we believe there is a legal case, certainly a moral case for bad-faith bargaining, though we won’t go down that route.”

Musicians that did not wish to be named in the report also claimed the orchestra may actually record a surplus for the year, following their redundancies. In 2018, the organisation received $14million in government arts funding. $18million was spent on their employees.

The Australian government announced $27million relief package for the arts last week, which included $10million for music crisis charity Support Act. The Australia Council for the Arts has also revised its Four Year Funding for Organisations program to provide relief to arts organisations during the coronavirus pandemic, but received criticism over perceived funding snubs.

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The embattled orchestra was one of the first to engage in the Australian livestream space during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March, replacing programmed performances with livestreams, supported by a hired film crew and an audio team from ABC Classic FM. They accrued tens of thousands of views from around the world, but as gathering restrictions tightened, even the livestreams became impossible.

MSO continues to release archival performances on YouTube alongside a plea for online donations to the organisation.

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