On concertmasters and center fielders


Over the last few weeks, two major American orchestras have been publicly facing the budget crunch. In Atlanta, the board locked the musicians out of the facility and stopped paying them. In Minnesota, the board is proposing pay cuts by as much as $40,000 per year. The debate about the role of the arts and culture in a community and their value to the population has once again been stirred up, and with it come the two common and ultimately retarded arguments that re-surface in each and every one of these situations. In fact, I touched on this before when the Detroit Symphony was going through their own situation. But I’d like to dive a little deeper into these two arguments because I feel strangely qualified to weigh in, and if you know me at all, you’ll know why.

Argument no. 1: That’s a lot of money to play the trombone!

 “Who cars? I went to a thrift store and purchased a LP record of Baytoven. He sounds a lot better than the crap they play. Actually, the festive music at the Vikings games are better and you get to watch the cheerleaders!” 

“I thought that this may be a huge pay cut, but 78G to play a trumpet? How many members are in the Orchestra? Thats a bunch of loot for a country going down the tubes. It sounds as if the cuts are well justified based on the MILLIONS in loses this outfit bilks. Get more people in the seats, and your pay doesnt get cut!!! Join the rest of us who have had to deal with this economy!”

A few weeks ago I was at a dinner with co-workers and there was a musician and entertainer named Lonnie McFadden performing – he played trumpet and sang (both were spectacular), but also tap danced and he had enough charisma to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. At some point in the conversation it was noted how wonderful it would be to do something that you love and get paid for it, which is a common refrain when dealing with artists. But I’ve learned something over the years, including during my time as a musician: a job is a job is a job. I don’t know Lonnie McFadden, and I have no intention of playing amateur psychologist, but regardless of how much joy he does or does not take from performing, that night while we were enjoying dinner and drinks he was at work. I sometimes complain about working nights because it doesn’t allow for socializing with friends who work traditional schedules; McFadden and others in his line of work are essentially at work during virtually any prime socializing time. It sounds like a really simple concept to say “he plays trumpet and sings and dances and has a good time and that’s so much better than digging ditches or working in a cubicle,” but it isn’t. He possesses a set of skills that allow him to perform a job in the same way that a coal miner and a brain surgeon have specific sets of skills.

Orchestral musicians are the same. It’s tempting to assume that “they get to play beautiful music so it must be great,” but it’s work. The same way that one can find themselves on autopilot at work when their job is to handle bank deposits, a cellist can also find themselves on autopilot when they’re trudging through Beethoven 5 for the 80th time in their lives. Being an orchestral musician is no different than being a fireman or a CEO or a flight attendant with one exception (and this is true for all the arts): no one puts out fires or runs companies or serves drinks at cruising altitudes in their spare time. The arts will constantly fight an uphill battle in the minds of the general public because someone’s kid plays trumpet in the marching band or someone’s sister performed a song in the church talent show and it was really good and she could have been famous if she didn’t want to start a family. Calling for 40% pay cuts for musicians doesn’t sound that bad to people who answer phones all day or work for the water department because fuck musicians, man. But the reaction would be quite a bit different if they were calling for 40% pay cuts for postal workers – I don’t deliver mail for my own edification sometimes so that’s an ACTUAL job. I’ll say it again: a job is a job is a job.

Argument no. 2: …but look at how much baseball players make!

“Top tier musicians spend at least as much time honing their craft as top doctors, lawyers, financiers and the like. Put it this way, it takes about 10,000 hours of practice at something to master it. These musicians have achieved that and more. Meanwhile, athletes are making multi-millions a year, and have stadiums built for them by taxpayers.”

“I think this is digusting. If professional sports players can make millions in 1 year, Professional musicians should be able to keep their measely $135,000 per year. Shame on you, MInnesota. Be a leader, not a follower.”

The first of these two quotes is something resembling factually accurate. If you’re going to be at the pinnacle of any field that requires unique skills, it’s going to take a shit load of practice, in or around 10,000 hours (it seems like everyone has read Outliers at this point). And athletes do generally make millions of dollars per year and have stadiums paid for by taxpayers. The reason that this argument doesn’t hold any water is the comparison itself: it’s less apples to oranges and more apples to diamond-encrusted filet mignon.

I have no intention of exploring the depths of capitalism or the very concept of a free market, but if nothing else I would hope that reasonable people (which I will grant there are fewer and fewer of) would agree that professional sports teams tend to operate strongly in the black and orchestras do not. It’s not really a question of financial commitment on the part of the consumer. For example this week and next week the citizens of San Francisco are presented with the following option (let’s pretend they must choose one or the other):

Option 1 – Semyon Bychkov, one of the premier Shostakovich interpreters of our generation, conducting the San Francisco Symphony, arguably the best orchestra in the United States right now, in Shostakovich’s amazing Symphony no. 11. Tickets range from $15-$150 for approximately 2 hours of entertainment.

Option 2 – Madison Bumgarner, one of the best pitchers in all of baseball and still only 23 years old, and Buster Posey, potential MVP winner and the best catcher in the game, lead the San Francisco Giants, on track to win their division and be in the playoffs again this season, against the Colorado Rockies. Tickets range from $10-$83.50 for approximately 3 hours of entertainment.

The cold, hard fact of the situation is that somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000-2,500 people will choose option 1. 40,000-45,000 will choose option 2. And yes, I made the example in San Francisco so I could pimp my Giants.

This doesn’t even take into account things like television and radio deals for sports teams, which can be astronomical in some cases and lead to an improved product (look no further than the money the Texas Rangers are spending now). And, as the above comment points out, in many cases the taxpayers supply the money for the stadium, but that’s only because they’re banking on the fact that the presence of the sports team and a luxurious stadium will drive money into the local economy over the long term. The nebulous entity known as the “market” has essentially made this argument irrelevant before it can even get started. Baseball players make more because they generate more, and that’s just cold, inhuman logic.

Now then, this is where it gets subjective. I’ve said in the past that pay cuts are unfortunately going to be necessary if orchestras have any intention of existing over the next several decades. Re-calibrating oneself to a new standard of living is unpleasant, and there’s nothing to say to try and deflect that – it would be shitty. But even if they cut the pay of the Minnesota Orchestra musicians down to $65,000 in base salary, that is still enough to live pretty well in Minneapolis, which is just a tick above the national average in cost of living (it’s well above a tick in terms of awesomeness, though – God dammit do I love that place). I wouldn’t expect anyone to take it well, because I sure as hell wouldn’t take it well if someone cut my pay by 40% either. But if the group has any intention of surviving into the future, it’s likely going to have to come at some point. And let me finish this paragraph by saying that the same should go for the board, the conductor, the executive director, and everyone else associated with the Minnesota Orchestra as business.

There is a deeper cultural question that exists here as well that I touched on at the beginning: what is the value of the arts in a community? It’s a question that unfortunately can only really be answered with intangible things like “civic pride” or “moving experiences,” which is why it is so cavalierly dismissed by most people. Could Minneapolis survive without the Minnesota Orchestra? Of course. But would it be the same place? That’s much trickier to determine.

Here in Kansas City, it’s quickly established in your mind that there is a real commitment to the arts and you essentially start taking it for granted the moment that realization sets in. There is a terrific orchestra that performs in a beautiful new venue, an opera company that does the same, a ballet, quite literally dozens of theaters, tons of art galleries and two FREE museums that are both pretty damn good, and the “performing arts campus” of the University of Missouri system (plus the Kansas City Art Institute). If the symphony were to disappear, that entire fabric quickly starts unraveling in a way that undermines the entire “vibe” of the city. The city would survive, yes, because there would still be businesses and sports teams and citizens and all that shit. But it would indescribably different.

But the intrinsic value of the music is ultimately the core issue for me, and that can never be quantified by any human being. Music remains one of life’s great experiences, and the opportunity to hear something truly special trumps everything else that I do for pleasure. Matt Cain, who is my boy, threw a perfect game this year. It was the first in the history of the Giants, and lo was it awesome. But I don’t know that I’ll remember it with the fondness that I remember Dave McIntire introducing me to Poul Ruders’ Corpus cum figuris. Sports are important to me, and I don’t mean in a “drinking beers with the bros” way, I mean in a “I am legitimately passionate about the ebbs and flows of following a sports team” way. Music, though, means more to me personally.

Unfortunately, for the general populace that’s not the case. And until we miracle our way into a generation of kids who are obsessed with classical music, this is the hand we’ve been dealt by culture and society. I think it’s largely a reflection of the stupidity of humankind that we can’t even bring ourselves to have the patience and focus to be moved by something that has altered the lives of people for generations now. But that’s who we are now, a horde of dipshits with 10-second attention spans. It’s our loss. Fuck us, I guess.


4 thoughts on “On concertmasters and center fielders

  1. I dunno… I play in a college orchestra as a volunteer and I really love it. I admire the skills of professional classical musicians and agree they deserve to be paid commensurate with their skill level. Capitalism works on supply and demand and right now there are too many good musicians out there.

    But the assertion that the decline of the symphony orchestra somehow equates to the abandonment of the arts by society seems a bit strained. Where is it written that a 19th century form is the holy grail of musical art? Why should I pay $50 to hear a Beethoven symphony that has been recorded a hundred times and is available on CD?

    When you go to the ball park you are witnessing history – the outcome is not determined. It may be dull or it may be exciting but it is all new. The music of the symphony is nothing like that – rather it is comfortable in its predictability.

    Going to the symphony is like going to a museum – interesting, informative – but seldom exciting. The failure of our culture is that we value music from another time and place above our own.

  2. Hi Paul

    You raise a few interesting points, one of which I disagree with but the others that I think generally coincide with the overall point. IMO you are right on the money as far as supply and demand is concerned – them’s the breaks as someone probably said once.

    And I agree wholeheartedly with your assertion that we do not value the music of our own time and place enough. That’s a topic for another day (or thousands of other days – the abject fear of orchestral programming is disappointing and lazy).

    Where I disagree is that the outcome is predetermined in a live performance. I certainly cannot speak for others, but for myself the live concert experience can generate an excitement and experience that a recording, no matter how pristine and wonderful, can match. For example, I’ve got a copy of the Kansas City Symphony’s well-received disc of Britten orchestral works on my shelf, and I’ve listened to it several times over, but it was a completely different experience hearing the performance that preceded the recording sessions. That concert, especially the Sinfonia da Requiem, was remarkable and I still remember details about it vividly. The music is the same as it’s been for 70 years now, but the journey through it felt far from foreordained.

    Can I presume you’re a sports fan? Got a favorite team? Not to get off topic…

  3. Thanks for the response to my comment.

    Well I’m not as much of a sports fan now that my son is married and gone, but we used to talk about the Dodgers and Lakers quite a bit – still do. A lot of young people know a whole lot more than me about teams and players – their attention span would seem to be sufficient for that :)

    Well it takes close listening to hear the differences in a live performance of Beethoven’s 5th, for example, when played by the Chicago Symphony or, say, the LA Phil. Most of those going to concerts don’t have the listening skills to pick up the nuances, so it might seem the same. In any case, why should I care how maestro A interprets a 200 year-old piece of music as compared to maestro B? It is still the same piece.

    Look at the resources used to perform 19th century symphonies and opera – what could we do with that for new music?

  4. Hi Erik, Hi Paul–
    Enjoyed both of your viewpoints. As a professional musician, insert , my biggest complaint with professional symphonies is they play the same stuff over and over and over and over again and again and again. I would like to experience a variety of music, thematically programmed. While I do not have a lot of call to play classical music (I’m a piano player–not a concert pianist), I would suggest the following in no particular order: How about an Autumnal Program? It could include: Vivaldi’s Fall/Autumn piece, Les Feuilles Morts (Autumn Leaves), Lullaby of the Leaves, Glasinov’s music about the seasons, Chadwick’s Hob Goblins, Symphony Fantastique, etc.

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