More Trouble for America’s Orchestras

Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune

The recent fervor over NFL replacement referees has come to a boil, and in a similar manner, American orchestras are facing labor disputes of their own. Fortunately, the Louisville and Philadelphia Orchestras have (partially) resolved their issues from last year, but the latest news of trouble with the Minnesota and Chicago Symphony Orchestras is alarming.

Here is an excellent article about the Minnesota Orchestra, featuring Steve Campbell, principal tubist. It tells of the players side of the story from one of the more common trends of major orchestras cutting back during troubled financial times.

Orchestra musicians have a big public relations task in this contract fight; justifying their salaries to the public. The state’s median household income is almost $57,000. The average Minnesota Orchestra musician makes $135,000 a year; the guaranteed minimum for the SPCO is almost $74,000.

Steve explains our side of the story; the years of training, the expense, the stress, the disappointment and the dedication required. I understand that the average players pay may be above the state’s median income, but compared to other professions, such as lawyers, doctors, and politicians, I think that the $135K is reasonable – and appropriate to attract and retain world-class musicians.

Here is a follow-up article from September 25th. It speaks of a possible lock-0ut on September 30th. The players are facing a significant pay cut. The chair of the negotiating committee said: “We are having a difficult time understanding a proposal of a 30 to 50 percent pay cut for musicians, while at the same time, building a $50 million lobby (at Orchestra Hall),” I sincerely hope that the situation resolves itself. The last time I heard that orchestra, it was an amazing experience (read about it on the post “Hammer Time!“)

In a few weeks I will return to Louisville KY for the Klezmerfest. Last year the Louisville Symphony went on strike and have come up with at least a one-year solution. I hope that Minnesota doesn’t get to that point. In related news, I was shocked to learn that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra went on strike this past Saturday.

Many things simply boil down to the issue of money, and in the current economic troubles, it is no surprise that organizations are having significant trouble maintaining a bottom line. N0 profession is recession-proof, and musicians have always been told to “have a backup plan”, but to hear that some of the nations top orchestras are having trouble is ominous. I hope the best for these orchestras and their audiences and sincerely wish them luck in resolving their differences. I would hate to see the orchestral version of “replacement refs”.

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3 Responses to More Trouble for America’s Orchestras

  1. David says:

    It is a very difficult situation. On one hand, non-profits are notorious for ill-handling money. This can make things tough when revenue is scarce. On the other hand, artist compensation can make organizations unsustainable, as is the case in Minnesota. Undoubtedly, the musicians in major orchestras are extremely talented and also have the additional expenses of education and instruments to consider. As we both know, there is nothing cheap about a professional instrument.

    I can only speak well for the what has happened in Minnesota. The agreement there has been that the musicians can only consider a cut if the staff takes on first. To date, the staff has taken many cuts, leaving them well below their own market value, while the musicians have yet to take one. I can get much deeper into the just how deep it has gotten and the personally-experienced laissez attitude that many of the musicians carry over cuts and layoffs, but I will exclude that.

    With their current salaries, the organization can not actually survive even in better economic times. In both fairness and with consideration to a common sense approach to sustainability, the musicians need to take a cut. I just hope that something can be reached sooner than later, as there are many good people that are affected.

  2. Jim Leff says:

    John,

    ————-
    “…. the years of training, the expense, the stress, the disappointment and the dedication required. I understand that the average players pay may be above the state’s median income, but compared to other professions, such as lawyers, doctors, and politicians, I think that the $135K is reasonable – and appropriate to attract and retain world-class musicians.”
    ————-

    I think that’s the wrong argument. It’s complicated, and the public doesn’t buy complicated explanations. And it’s a bit mamby-pamby. And, worst of all, the “appropriate to attract and retain…” line of argument is the same one used to justify the pay of the fattest of fat cats – corporate CEOs. It’s a mistake to use the language of fat cat defense if you’re trying to appear less fat-catty!

    I think the best way to justify these salaries to the general public would be to note that a position in a major orchestra is like major league baseball for musicians. It’s the top of the field; these are not working stiff musicians.
    There are X number of classical musicians in the country, and (what, something like 1500?) positions in major orchestras, no more than a handful of which are open in a given year. So, for most instrumentalists (oboists and bass trombonists don’t become stars), this is as high as they can ever dream of going. A mere $130,000 represents the very pinnacle of success. From that vantage point, the pay’s not only reasonable, it’s modest.

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