Orchestras all across America are dying, or they’re doing fine. The current budget crises are unprecedented, or we’ve seen issues like these for 150 years. We must have a dramatic overhaul of the way arts organizations are managed, or we can sustain the current model through simple community outreach.
What is the truth? It depends on who and where you ask. The answer you would receive in Philadelphia or Syracuse is not the same as the one you would receive in San Francisco or Nashville. Every organization has its own problems, its own solutions and plenty of questions. How do we increase interest? How do we create a sustainable model? How in God’s name are we going to have the money for these pensions? But it also entails a much deeper philosophical question about whether an orchestra should be a business designed to generate profits (or non-catastrophic losses as the case may be)?
Many compelling arguments can be made for the notion of orchestras being a cultural institution that serves the greater good of the community, and I would be first in line trumpeting (or second violining) this idea in theory. But it seems like a dangerous precedent to set; is it fair to promote the use of taxpayer resources toward the local symphony orchestra and not a promising alt-rock group who routinely packs small venues but could use financial help recording an album or touring around the region? An orchestra is ultimately a form of entertainment, and while I might prefer Beethoven to Arcade Fire, it would be cultural elitism of the highest order to heavily subsidize one and not the other, at least in the “free market” capitalistic society in which we live.
The market, of course, rules everything, so much so that I just used an action verb for something that doesn’t exist in the physical dimensions of time and space. It sees unemployment figures go down and raises oil prices because people will be driving to their new jobs. It says that Alex Rodriguez is roughly 500 times more valuable than a teacher. It freaks out about rumors of quarterly earnings reports that won’t be released for another three days. It’s stupid is what I’m saying, and fickle as well. But it is the boss of you and me, and that gallon of milk that cost you $4 agrees.
It is in the world of free market principles, Lady Gaga, iTunes, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average that orchestras must operate, and the common cry from orchestra management is one of uncontrollable costs. The Philadelphia Orchestra even declared bankruptcy despite having a pretty healthy endowment, declaring “the seats of Verizon Hall shall run red with the ink of ballooning deficits!” although their statement might have included more legal terminology. With more and more organizations on the brink, a desperate search for ways to get back in the black is on. Orchestras are trying everything, from splitting concerts with DJs to trying to force teaching and community outreach work into standard contracts, all in the hopes of generating wider audiences and increasing donations and ticket sales. Trying to get out of the red surely requires additional revenue, but doesn’t it also require cutting some spending?
The concept of sacrifice is alien to many of us, and one look at the economic projections for the United States over the next 30 years or so affirms this. Give us everything, but don’t raise our taxes; we’ll just get up to go the bathroom when the bill comes and let someone else pay it until they finally decide to break our kneecaps. We want to “balance the budget,” but we refuse to cut military spending or entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security, even though those three areas account for almost 17% of the entire deficit by themselves. The financial precariousness of orchestras lies in this same mindset. The biggest expense in an orchestra’s budget is the salaries and benefits paid to the musicians (and staff), but salary cuts are viewed as Draconian measures. It all comes down to a simple question: are orchestra musicians overpaid?
There are two answers.
The first, theoretically: hell no. We’re talking about the mastery of a musical instrument, thousands of hours of practice time, college education maintenance on an instrument of the highest quality, all in the service of an art form that (in my admittedly biased opinion) reflects mankind at its most beautiful and inspirational. I would happily endorse a switch of salaries between athletes and orchestra musicians, and I love sports.
The second, realistically: it sure seems like it. I made a spreadsheet with information on it detailing a few bits of info that can be downloaded here. I took the orchestras on icsom.org who had 2010-11 budget information and listed the base salary. For comparison’s sake, I went to payscale.com and found three jobs that would require something close to an equal amount of education or specialized skill (and occasionally something different like a nurse or graphic designer for the hell of it) and listed their median salaries in the respective cities. Finally, I went to Sperling’s Best Places to find out the cost-of-living of the respective cities relative to the United States average (cost-of-living is a major factor, in my opinion, and one that is not always considered enough).
A few basic observations from the spreadsheet:
- Oh my Lord is San Francisco expensive. When considering the insane cost-of-living and their artistic excellence, the San Francisco Symphony seems wildly underpaid.
- With a cost-of-living almost 13% below the national average and a base salary of $110,764, the Pittsburgh Symphony gets a lot of buck for their bang
- The difference between a 52-week orchestra and a 38-42 week orchestra is significant
- Lawyers don’t make as much as I assumed
In addition to my ape-like spreadsheet, the indispensable Adaptistration has a chart of the salaries of concertmasters (this one is from June 2010) that is illuminating and a tad jarring. Obviously the leader of the orchestra is going to make much more than the base salary, but I had no idea it was as drastic as it is (5x as much or more in some cases). I needn’t even mention the salaries of conductors, which can be multiple millions for a 12-week commitment in the top-tier ensembles.
To use the example du jour, the Philadelphia Orchestra has a base salary of $130,780. The cost-of-living in Philadelphia is approximately 4.6% above the national average. The median salary for an attorney in Philadelphia is $81,198, and for a “senior” software developer/programmer it is $88,402. Taking a cue from from Dick the Butcher, I suppose the first thing we could do is kill all the lawyers…and pay the band with that. And while I understand that people are not always fond of practitioners of the law…should they really be making almost $50,000 less than the base salary of an orchestra? If you were to cut the base salary of the orchestra down to the median salary of an attorney and cut the concertmaster and conductor salaries accordingly, you would save about $4.5 million.
Let me be perfectly clear: these numbers are rough, I’m not exactly a math whiz, and I fully understand that it’s all significantly more complicated than this. For example, it’s obvious that these types of cuts would have to be scaled in over an extended period of time; people make decisions about home purchases, children, etc. based on their income, and it is obviously reasonable (to say nothing of decent) to allow PLENTY of time to adjust. But the overall point remains the same: perhaps keeping salaries in check is a way to ensure the long-term health of these organizations.
Is there actually a crisis? Ultimately, I don’t think it hurts to think and act like there is.
There are still millions of people who believe that global warming is a hoax, and the argument about science that no one except really smart scientists understands ends up distorting the potential opportunities. Why not just pretend it’s legit? We’d rely less on bipolar petrodictatorships for resources, we’d begin transitioning our workforce to “green” jobs and perhaps lead the world in innovation again, we’d walk or bike more places and maybe knock the obesity rates down a little bit…the benefits are remarkable, but we’ll just be over here making stupid jokes about how it’s going to be 57 degrees in May so that disproves Al Gore’s crazy global warming theory.
Likewise with orchestras. When “we ended the year with only a $600,000 deficit” is a success story, perhaps it’s worth it to investigate making some changes. There are so many gifted musicians at the start of their careers, still in college, or first picking up the violin, and they deserve an opportunity to ply their trade the way their instrumental forefathers did. But if the tenuous financing of orchestras continues to get stretched thinner and thinner, more and more of them will never get the chance.
*****Really late at night update*****
You can download a PDF of orchestra salaries in 1976-77 here (taken from ICSOM; look on the second page for the chart). Using the inflation calculator at westegg.com, you can see that the salaries have skyrocketed relative to inflation (for example, Philadelphia’s base salary was $22,880 in 1977, which is $81,350.78 in 2010 dollars; Boston’s 1977 salary was $21,840, which is $77,653.02 in 2010 dollars…their actual base salary is $128,180). Artistic quality has certainly improved, but wow.