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Cost of DSO too rich for Detroit

Like other Michigan institutions before it — think bankruptcy-scarred automakers — the beginning of the end of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra as we’ve known it probably will have a date: Monday, Oct. 4, 2010.

Not because the striking musicians are wrong that management's proffered 33 percent cut in their base wage of $104,650 would gut the quality of an ensemble desperately trying to stay in the top tier of American orchestras. And not because the DSO, beset with declining revenue, weakened charitable giving, accelerating cash burn, punishing debt and an awful economy, is wrong in saying there's nothing more to give.

It’s because they’re both right.

The financial realities bearing down on one of the state’s premier cultural gems are forcing a leveling that doesn’t respect artistic accomplishment, salary scales at rival orchestras or the outsized expectations of patrons who can’t — or won’t — accept the implications of a decade of economic decline and corporate retrenchment.

There are lots of numbers here, like there are in just about any labor dispute. But, at base, there are only two metrics that truly matter in the first DSO walkout since 1987 — changing consumer demand and the 21.3 percent decline in Michigan’s median income between 2000 and 2009.

That nation-leading collapse, a sickening number for the ripple effect it delivers to everything from home values and wage levels to public tax revenues and, yes, support for the local orchestra, goes further than just about anything else in describing what’s happening to the DSO. It’s also what will affect public and private institutions, businesses and communities, here for years to come.

Orchestra musicians can walk picket lines for the next year and it won’t change the fact that the economic profile of their geographic home has changed dramatically, if not irreversibly, in ways that peers in New York, Boston, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco simply haven’t seen and probably won’t.

Nor will striking change the fact that people making more than $100,000 a year don’t make a particularly sympathetic proletariat in a state where the median income is less than half that, the unemployment rate remains stubbornly north of 13 percent, and cities and towns are teetering near financial collapse.

It’s not too radical to say we’re past the economic point of asking whether Detroit as it’s traditionally defined can afford a world-class orchestra. Absent the emergence of a gullible Sugar Daddy willing to fund the DSO’s broken business model, the more salient question is whether Michigan can afford one — and whether it might be willing to support it.

Unpopular? Sure. But it’s recognition of the economic reality pressuring the DSO now and well into the future. (313) 222-2106 Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays