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’.”