What should great music cost?

DSO Strike


I’ve been reading a lot about the ongoing strike involving the Detroit Symphony, an impasse that has wiped out the season so far and doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon.  At issue is a significant pay cut, as well as a controversial provision put forth by the DSO management to include chamber music, teaching, and other musical activities as requirements in musicians’ contracts.  Many observers believe that this situation may prove to be a bellwether for other orchestras in the coming years as the budget deficits around the country continue to rise.

It’s never popular to side with management in these types of disputes, and I’m not necessarily certain that I do.  I’m fairly uncomfortable with the “service conversion” concept, if for no other reason than the fact that some people are horrible, horrible teachers and shouldn’t be required to do something they’re horrible at (teaching others to play music) when they can stick to something they’re good at (just doing it themselves).  I’m generally supportive of the musicians’ position of wanting to maintain the current structure, especially because it would open (?) up a giant “ball of worms” for other orchestras down the road.

But the broader question, to me, is the salaries.  I’ve heard enough stupid questions like “shouldn’t you play for free because you love doing it?” over the course of my life to become fairly militant about musicians getting paid appropriately (by that logic, I wouldn’t get paid anything for another thing I love doing, which is having sex).  But the key word in there, besides sex, is appropriately.

The contempt for the money made by athletes and movie stars and rock bands knows no bounds.  The current economic situation in America has started adding people like college professors and doctors to these discussions.  But aside from the fact that hardly anyone cares about classical music, no one seems to mention orchestra musicians in the same way.  Should they?

Here’s what I know: even with some of the recovery of the automotive industry taken into account, Detroit is still a hollowed-out shell of what it was.  People want to be there only slightly more than they want to be stabbed in the face (attention everyone…they do that in Detroit!).  Classical music in America fights a battle that could best be described as “uphill”, and worst be described as “wildly successful and only getting better!”  The minimum salary in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra last year was $104,650.  Whoa.

One of the arguments the musicians have been steadily repeating is that a drop in pay will result in a corresponding drop in quality because they will be unable to retain and attract the best musicians.  In theory, I agree with them.  In practice, I don’t know anyone who considers the Detroit Symphony to be a first-tier American orchestra, and I’m not entirely sure I know anyone who considers them a second-tier orchestra, either (depends on how you like your tiers, for sure, but if groups like Minnesota, Seattle, and Pittsburgh are in the second tier, then Detroit is somewhere else).  It is somewhat staggering, therefore, to read that the musicians are still holding out for a rise back up to a base salary of $96,600 in 2012-13.  Consider that in that season, the musicians in Seattle will have a base salary of $80,896.50, and in St. Louis their base will be $81,892.50.  It’s hard to justify those kinds of salaries, in my opinion, given the orchestral landscape around them, given that Detroit is bombed out and depleted, and given the continually diminishing ticket sales around the country.

In a larger context, I’ve been wondering lately whether musicians make too much money all around.  As much as I find myself surprised by my own reaction, I really feel like they do.  Now, they aren’t as astronomical as athletes’ or movie stars’ salaries, but for the money they generate they seem extravagant.  Instruments are expensive, yes.  Mastering a musical instrument to the point of being able to perform at that high a level is one of the most difficult things in the world to accomplish, absolutely.  And being completely biased, the benefit to humanity is unquantifiable; the survival of the greatest music ever to be brought into the world depends on the people who bring it to life.

But with musician salaries accounting for such a significant portion of yearly orchestra budgets, and with story after story after story of orchestras swimming in a sea of red ink (DO SHARKS KNOW THE DIFFERENCE?!) and plowing through endowments like me at the Annual Deviled Eggs Festival, it’s hard not to see the obvious.  No matter how you slice it, orchestras simply aren’t what they were 30-40 years ago.  The playing is better: there are more great musicians now than ever, with more constantly in the pipeline, meaning the standard of playing all the way down to regional orchestras is very, very good.  But culturally, we’ve moved on.  It’s our loss, and we frankly ought to go fuck ourselves for not having the patience to experience something truly beautiful without the aid of a God damn laser light show or 12 pounds of makeup and an expensive set of implants, but it’s the reality.

What if every orchestras musician agreed to take a 30% pay cut from their salary, across the country?  Obviously each situation is unique and would require a different response, but let’s just use it as an example.  The highest-paid orchestra this year is the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with a salary of $136,500.  A 30% pay cut puts their pay at $95,550.  That’s a hefty chunk of money, but can you still live a pretty decent lifestyle in LA on that, plus all the other income orchestra musicians generate from coachings, lessons, etc.?  I gotta say…yeah, you can.  How about in Atlanta, whose base salary this year is $78,260.00.  Cut it by 30% and the salary becomes $54,782.  Will they ask you to be on Real Housewives on that salary?  No, but it’s still pretty decent money.

This is not to suggest that everyone should be forced to accept a 30% gash in their paycheck, but the savings from a significant cut is impossible to deny.  It sure seems like a lot of musicians are holding on to the idea that they’re massively important to the culture of their communities and should be paid handsomely for it, and the first part of that sentence simply isn’t true anymore.  Would we be better off if musicians had more modest salaries as a general rule?  I think so.  The overwhelming amount of money to be saved would probably mean that the board wouldn’t be staring at $7 million in deficits every summer, and the long-term stability that orchestras with honest-to-God-functional budgets would be a benefit to the musicians in the end.

Doing something just because it’s always been done that way is the surest and quickest way to plunge right into disaster.  Accepting that the reality in which we currently live is not like it was before us is the only to come to grips with what life is in this day and age (for example, I don’t know anyone my age who thinks they will have Social Security or Medicare, even though we’ve all been paying into them for years now, but what can we do?  It is what it is.).  Orchestra musicians should absolutely be compensated fairly and reasonably, and the incredible talents they have should be rewarded.  But musicians, just like doctors, lawyers, engineers, and mechanics, have to come to terms with the world in the 21st century.  Bob Dylan was right when he said, back when orchestras were culturally relevant: “The times they are a-changin’.”


21 thoughts on “What should great music cost?

  1. You (as always) make some brilliant points. Detroit, at one point in time, was a pretty decent orchestra. Back in the day when GM had lots of money to throw at it, they could afford decent conductors and musicians. For years, they were on national radio.

    Given GM’s fortunes over the past decade and the fact that Detroit has fallen from the 4th or 5th largest city to somewhere out of the top ten, the DSO has also suffered. Another problem is Michigan’s unemployment rate as one of the highest in the nation. Unemployed people don’t usually splurge for tickets to the symphony. It also might be noted hip hop is at the top of most of the urbanite’s cultural scale. (I know that sounds a bit racist, but truth is truth)

    All this boils down to the fact that maybe Detroit doesn’t really deserve to have much more than a regional orchestra at this time. It’s not that I hate Detroit (OK, I do, but that has nothing to do with the DSO), but maybe the time has come to make some hard decisions about what we in any city or community can afford.

    When times are good, we can afford to have the best of everything, but when times are lean, we sometimes have to downsize. It might be painful, but I bet all those guys in the factories around Detroit also found it painful when their jobs went away.

    If you can’t afford a Cadillac, you may have to drive a Chevy.

  2. The argument about Detroit is moot.

    The metro area of Detroit is 4-5 million and contains some of the richest suburbs in the United States even in this poor economy. These are the people that have always supported the Detroit Symphony-not the city itself.

    One only has to look south to Cleveland (can you say 120k+ salary)-recently rated the worst US city to understand this.

    Fact is the Clevelander’s (and that includes the metro area) understand the importance of having a world class orchestra.

    Could be that the Detroiter’s (including the metro area) do not.

    How Detroit…

  3. “Would we be better off if musicians had more modest salaries as a general rule? I think so.”

    Do you have any idea how small the number of musicians that make this kind of money is of all working musicians? We are talking about a tiny percentage. What is wrong with paying the best there is a decent salary? Just try buying a house in LA, or New York, or San Francisco on a salary of 96K, let alone 136K.

    It’s really sad that so many these days see others with more, and instead of trying to do better and raise themselves up, would rather take away from those more fortunate.

    When people agree to work for less, it lowers the pay for all.

  4. If the Detroit musicians are now considered 3rd or 4th or whatever rank your “experienced ear” places them in, then the CEO and Maestro should also match the same salary. Get real. Who are you trying to kid??? Pretty obvious that you haven’t attended very many DSO shows or other significant orchestral performances.

  5. Have you been to Bloomfield Hills or Grosse Pointe? These suburbs are where Detroit Symphony patrons live. Besides, many management proposals have nothing to do with money–teaching indigent students is not a money-maker.
    Current societal trends seem to be that investment bankers “deserve” to make a great living and everyone else should be satisfied with just enough to put food on the table (no health care–you haven’t “earned” it). If orchestras as a whole pay less, you can be sure the overall quality will decline, just as rising salaries have meant an overall improvement in orchestras, as you point out.

  6. Sorry, you really have absolutely no clue what you are talking about- seems to me the real paycuts should be for columnists who write about things they have no knowledge about.

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  8. “Sorry, you really have absolutely no clue what you are talking about- seems to me the real paycuts should be for columnists who write about things they have no knowledge about.”

    Pretty hard to cut free, although if I have to start paying people I guess that’s the move…

  9. All these comments about wealthy patrons are moot. Even though they may continue to attend concerts, clearly they aren’t the only audience that the DSO has. Again, let’s remember that there’s an $8.8 million deficit. I’m not going to jump to conclusions that it’s entirely due to a loss in audience, but it has to be partially if not primarily due to that. Should the musicians pay for the deficit? If the market is down, then yes, they should. Could there be some irresponsibility in the administration of funds? Absolutely. And if that’s the case, then the appropriate actions should be taken against those who mis-handled the funds.

    A base salary of $105,000 in Detroit is equivalent to $280,000 in San Francisco. What was the actual base salary for the San Francisco Symphony for 2010-2011? $135,450. You could make this same comparison to any number of cities with world-class orchestras, and you’d come to the same conclusion: In the case of the DSO, they are unequivocally overpaid. Their market does not justify their salary. How can you argue otherwise?

    Furthermore, in our capitalist society, market-dependent industries shouldn’t only reap the rewards of success, but take the hits from a down market. Or are orchestral musicians somehow exempted from this? As a musician who loves attending concerts (full disclosure: I am *not* wealthy!), I find it unfortunate that classical music is less and less valued. The popular music industry seems to be doing wonderfully, so they get paid for it. The sports industry seems to be doing just fine, so they get paid for it. Can we actually say that attending orchestra concerts is as popular as it ever was in our current economic climate? No, it isn’t. Of course, anyone could take the time to find the statistics for audience attendance to try to disprove that. Please, feel free.

    As an aside, I’d like to note that I get paid around the same in higher education as the base salary of our 42-week orchestra (Kansas City). I doubt educators in Detroit get paid $105,000/year.

  10. Hashing the problems of Detroit, salaries of sports figures vs. musicians, the need of or desire for in editorials, comments and other media venues is sad. These comments will accomplish nothing. The “bottom line” is that the management team and Board of Directors have not competently done their respective jobs; the musicians have performed with first-rate quality. Does the leadership team have no shame?

  11. “Sorry, you really have absolutely no clue what you are talking about- seems to me the real paycuts should be for columnists who write about things they have no knowledge about.”

    Pretty hard to cut free, although if I have to start paying people I guess that’s the move…

    Many would agree with me- at free- you’re still being paid too much.

  12. First of all, the argument that Detroit has a lower cost of living than San Fransisco, while relatively true, is exaggerated because most players in the orchestra live in the ritzy SUBURBS, with $400,000+ mortgages and shun a $3 loaf of Homepride for the $5 Great Harvest multigrain. “Cost of living” is really “whatever standard you become used to”.

    Second, not only does the orchestra play great concerts, tours, broadcasts and recordings that represent Detroit very well indeed, but we inspire professionals of ALL stripes with our performances. Wouldn’t you prefer to hire a doctor, a lawyer, or a CEO that made $300,000 a year over one that made only $75,000? Wouldn’t that appear to you as a sign of their success?

    Third, $105,000 was the ANNUALIZED salary of our last contract, which was concessionary, as has been almost every contract we’ve had since I joined DSO 21 years ago. We saw only 6 months of that. The first half year was, I believe, about $96,000.

    Fourth, when you remove peer review (tenure essentially), the clause that prevents us from having to play our expensive instruments in direct sunlight, and make incoming musicians subject to a lessor scale and benefits, every OTHER orchestra INSTANTLY becomes a better job than DSO! Who would COME or STAY to Detroit (if they could leave) without very substantial incentive?

    I know it’s difficult for us to refrain from judging people who earn more than us. But is it really necesary for us to INSIST that musicians make LESS than six figures unless they’re superstars?

  13. @Brenda Freedland Pangborn:
    You said, “The ‘bottom line’ is that the management team and Board of Directors have not competently done their respective jobs; the musicians have performed with first-rate quality.”

    I’m not arguing the quality of the musicians’ performances. But is it a fact that management and the Board have failed at their jobs? What should they have done? Cut musicians salaries years ago to be more in line with ticket sales and other comparable orchestras (again, I emphasize how much more DSO musicans are paid compared to other orchestras in cost-of-living comparisons? Extraordinary marketing to increase concert attendance?

    “Foundation and corporate contributions, particularly from the automakers, dried up after the financial crash. Ticket sales dropped more than 17 percent in fiscal year 2010 to $6.95 million from $8.4 million in 2008.”–From The Detroit News (http://detnews.com/article/20101210/ENT01/12100385/DSO-reports-$8.8M-deficit-for-2010#ixzz180kdCfK9)

    Look, we’ve all taken hits in this economy. Some of us were fortunate to retain our jobs; others, have received pay decreases or have had to take furloughs (see California’s education system). Yet somehow, these top-notch musicians (I acknowledge that they’re amazing) deserve special exemption from the economic downturn? What’s the reasoning? I’m not blaming the musicians. But there is a reality to this situation that you can’t ignore. The market is not as good as it once was in Detroit. That is a fact. Who should be affected? Everyone receiving a salary through the organization (that includes management). Also, let’s face it: no matter how good you are, being a musician is not a secure profession.

  14. A five minute conversation with anyone who has the job of recruiting top professionals to Detroit–medical doctors, law professors, upper-level managers–will reveal that, far from being able to offer half of the salary in other major cities, they need to offer a “Detroit premium” to attract people to the city. Detroit’s negative image is a major hurdle to overcome in bringing in top talent in many fields.

    Interestingly, the Music Director, the President, and the senior management team of the DSO do not believe in paying themselves less because they live in an inexpensive city. The management’s road map for 2011-2013 includes the statements “address issue of competitiveness in salaries” and “achieve competitive salary structure” for “Music Director, President, senior management team”. No such goal is stated for the musicians of the orchestra.

    It is true that the compensation package is not the sole reason for candidates to audition for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The other major reason has always been the artistic quality and reputation of the orchestra. As that quality drops through management’s lack of commitment and vision, the best musicians will be tempted to leave and the best new ones will not choose to come to Detroit.

  15. @reed8: Thank you for clarifying the situation. It’s hard to support these kinds of unilateral decisions. So I suppose the question is: Can the city of Detroit continue to sustain a high-caliber orchestra? The answer doesn’t seem like a positive one…not considering the current reality.

    I would also like to clarify my statements about the salary of DSO. I still believe they are paid disproportionately to comparable orchestras in the U.S. The fact that extra compensation is necessary to attract musicians to Detroit is sad, but speaks volumes about the real- or perceived- state of affairs. I don’t, however, support cuts that target and single-out one group (the musicians, in this case) without exploring all possible options.

  16. I appreciate all the comments…who knew that writing something topical would lead people to read something?

    A few points of clarification in response to the comments, in no particular order:

    1) I agree wholeheartedly with commenter srod and others who say that the cuts shouldn’t be solely at the musician’s expense…the music directors, board, executive directors, everyone should be included.

    2) While many people may feel that I am overpaid at free, I would like to first experience drawing a ridiculously inflated salary for this before saying definitively that yes, I am making too much at $0.

    3) This post was not in any way meant to disparage the musicianship of the Detroit Symphony…if that was unclear, I apologize. The DSO has certainly proven itself to be a worthy and talented ensemble. But there is absolutely no way to disguise the appearance that the salary is not in line with the national reputation.

    4) I think it goes without saying that I think investment bankers and other power players on Wall Street should experience pay cuts, and after the last few years, they probably deserve some regular cuts, like from scissors or a particularly stiff manila envelope.

    5) I’ve heard dozens of the world’s finest orchestras in concerts all across America, and more recordings and broadcasts than I really should have. That I have a wonderful girlfriend is beyond me…that I know what the sun feels like is equally vexing.

    6) Rick Robinson’s comment is particularly interesting, and it’s pretty nice to have the perspective of someone in the orchestra. Thank you for stopping in. I certainly understand the point about living standards…it’s easy to move on up to the East side, but it’s much more difficult to scale back and readjust your lifestyle. In many respects, the question of a premier orchestra in Detroit is not unlike the very questions that we asked about banks being “too big to fail”…and I’m not sure I know the answer to either, but certainly at a glance it seems like the thought process is the same, not just in Detroit but around the country.

    7) I’m not trying to take anything from those who are more fortunate. I’m simply wondering what to do about orchestras being assaulted by budget deficits, and the pay scale seems like an awfully large culprit.

    To me, it becomes a question of sustainability. We can ask this question about virtually anything in American life now, and I don’t think orchestras are any exception. Ultimately, all of these sustainability questions end the same way: with the generation behind us not having a chair when the music stops. It’s easy to be short-sighted and focus solely on ourselves, especially financially. As the Wu-Tang Clan tells us: “C.R.E.A.M. get the money. Dollar dollar bill ya’ll.” C.R.E.A.M., by the way, stands for “cash rules everything around me.” I’m not any better. But the model we are employing now is destined for a grand explosion, whether it’s climate change, or oil, or orchestra budgets.

    The consequence of the salaries staying at these levels surely will be continuing deficits as more and more people grow indifferent and miss the beauty a concert ticket away. And the result of endless deficitis will be downsizing, and ultimately destruction. That, to me, is the saddest possible outcome. We’ve seen it already with dozens of orchestras all across America, and there will undoubtedly be more. And left with their hats in their hands will be a new generation of supremely gifted musicians with nowhere to display their skills. And then what? Hopefully I’m long dead by then.

  17. I totally disagree with Achillaman. I would pay a least $1.23 to read your shit. Anymore than that, though, is probably too much.

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