Jason Hurwitz

The Future of American Orchestras

May 8, 2011 10:31

On May 3, 2011, I watched an interesting webcast hosted by 105.9fm WQXR titled “American Orchestras: Endangered Species?” The panel included:

Anne Parsons, President and Executive Director of the Detroit Symphony
Alan Pierson, Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic
Eric Jacobsen, Co-Artistic Director of The Knights
Tony Woodcock, President of the New England Conservatory
Raymond M. Hair, Jr., President of the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada
Graham Parker, Vice President of WQXR, was the moderator.

The webcast was OK, but I felt that it veered off topic relatively quickly. I had been hoping for a more thorough discussion/debate over the future of American orchestras from the perspective of labor agreements or the lack thereof, especially consider the people making up the panel! If you’d like to watch the webcast in its entirety, click here and scroll about halfway down the page. (I was going to embed the video, but because it’s .flv format, I can’t).

Anyway, post-webcast, I’ve been following some of the chat on Twitter (#orchestratalk) regarding the comments made by the various parties involved in the discussion. In particular, there have been some very interesting comments made about Tony Woodcock, the President of the New England Conservatory, that allude to the fact that he is, basically, trying to undermine the successes of NEC graduates. I didn’t really pick up on any of that during the webcast, so I decided to look further into these allegations.

I immediately came across this blog post, written by Mr. Woodcock, which I found to be extremely well written, insightful, and only slightly provacative. It is WELL worth the 10 minutes required to read it. After reading the post, I started reading through the comments left by readers; not surprisingly, most were anti-Tony’s opinion. However, I came across one woman — MegaSheilaE, a donor and long-time supporter — who agreed with Tony’s blog post. Almost immediately, her comment was angrily replied to by “Bill Anderson.” The transaction took place as follows:

http://0.gravatar.com/avatar/4778e2607e5ef919d4c9138a935bbd83?s=40&d=identicon&r=GMegaSheilaE says:
May 5, 2011 at 7:51 am

Right on Tony! As a major donor and leader, I applaud your willingness to speak truth to power. What would we do without the New England Conservatory–willing to step far, far outside its traditional educator role for today’s young musicians (tomorrow’s buskers).

 http://0.gravatar.com/avatar/e866bf0db3e73b5878e592513c751ed7?s=40&d=identicon&r=G Bill Anderson says:

May 5, 2011 at 8:04 pm

As the first comment on the side of supposed donors, your comment seems rather insulting. First of all, why would you say “Tomorrows buskers”? If that’s what you see as the future and you are a donor (I notice you didn’t say symphony lover, music lover, or even subscriber), you should get to know the musicians instead of the board. They are talented, complex, intelligent, driven, thick-skinned (by need) artists who deserve to be well paid in accordance with the level of orchestra they are in. Because they want to protect their incomes doesn’t make them bad people.
Also, Tony speaking “truth to power” is difficult for me to understand, considering the musicians have very little control over so many things. If wealthy patrons are annoyed with them, as happened in The Florida Philharmonic, I believe, several years ago, they can withdraw all support and torpedo the careers of a hundred people in a tantrum, as happened when the money that could have saved The Florida Phil went to Cleveland instead.
As a graduate of NEC who has played with orchestras in many cities and seen the problems with boards attitudes as well as problems with musicians attitudes, I think the “telling it like it is” tough guy stance needs to be tamped down, and those who really love orchestras and classical music, as well as musicians, should step forward. There are answers that don’t have to oppose groups; when that happens, everybody loses.

 http://0.gravatar.com/avatar/4778e2607e5ef919d4c9138a935bbd83?s=40&d=identicon&r=GMegaSheilaE says:

May 6, 2011 at 10:43 am

I’m with you 100% Bill, this unfortunately was just a poorly executed sarcastic comment. -Sheila

Well, I got pretty annoyed by Bill’s comments. Yes, Sheila shouldn’t have made the snarky quip about “tomorrow’s buskers,” but that was, IMHO, small apples compared to what Bill then wrote. So, I wrote a reply to him, and posted it to the blog — it was not approved by the blog’s moderator. I’ve just reposted it in the hopes that it will be accepted; in the meantime, however, I’m now going to post it here so that at least it gets out there. Hopefully, Bill Anderson will see it, and at least take a moment to think about what I write.

So, without further ado, my reply to Bill’s reply to Sheila’s reply to Tony Woodcock’s blog post:

I have two questions that are intended to provoke thought, not defensiveness, so here we go:


1) You write that “They [the musicians] are talented, complex, intelligent, driven, thick-skinned (by need) artists who deserve to be well paid in accordance with the level of orchestra they are in.” Now, I haven’t heard anyone state or imply that musicians are not talented or complex or intelligent or driven or even thick-skinned (BTW, I’m taking as an obvious truth that Detroit is one of the 10 ten orchestras in the country [pic], so we don’t need to argue whether the musicians are talented, smart, extraordinary, etc.). What I have read, heard, and discovered on my own is that the level of compensation received by top-tier orchestra musicians is, in the current orchestral system, unsustainable.

Consider this: According to Tony, and this is confirmed by several sources that I have read recently, “Today nearly all orchestras are in the 30th percentile” when it comes to earned income; this, of course, means that the other 70% of income necessary for the continuance of the orchestras must come from donors and/or grants. The generation of donors who give large sums of money to the arts is dying (literally) and the up-and-coming donors tend to give smaller amounts to a greater variety of causes. Further, many grant-awarding institutions have cut back on their giving, both because of consolidation out of communities and because of, again, a more diverse array of causes to which they can donate.

To reiterate: orchestras (and, actually, almost all arts organizations) need to find ~70% of their incomes from donors and granting organizations. Taking this fact into consideration as we move forward:

Prior to the labor strike, the starting salary for a musician in the Detroit Symphony was $104,650 and there were 96 full-time musicians. This means that, at a minimum, the DSO was paying $10,046,400 in salaries annually. Post-settlement, the new starting salary will be $79,000 and go up to $82,900 in the third and final year of the contract. With a decrease to 81 full-time musicians, this coming season, the DSO will pay, minimum, $6,399,000 – and of course, this is lower than what will actually be paid since most musicians in the DSO are not just starting in the organization. Add to this that the musicians are contracted for only 40 weeks of the year (keep in mind that the working week is eighteen hours with a maximum of eight services) and will also have 4 weeks of paid vacation time.

So, back to my quote of what you wrote: the musicians are “artists who deserve to be well paid in accordance with the level of orchestra they are in.” I TOTALLY, TOTALLY, TOTALLY AGREE. However, I’m struggling to find any other employees of any other industry who are paid so incredibly well — this coming season, starting musicians in the DSO who work 18 hours per week for 40 weeks at $79,000 will make $109.72 per hour. $109.72 PER HOUR?!? I am not convinced that they are being underpaid! (Source of contract information)


2) You write that “…considering the musicians have very little control over so many things.”

Other than keeping the workweek to 18 hours with a maximum of 8 services, being the ones who, if they don’t show up, can cancel a concert, and produce the sound and quality that is the magic of every orchestra, you’re right … what control do musicians have? I’m willing to bet that if any musician were to go to his/her orchestra’s board to volunteer his/her time and services to help with the development efforts, that board would gladly accept and get him/her started right away. Having a hand in finding that 70% of income that pays one’s salary – now THAT is control! How about going into the community to help sell tickets to an upcoming performance? How about volunteering your time before or after shows to go into schools to talk with students about what they’ll be hearing on Friday night or what they heard this past weekend? There are so many ways to give yourself more control; it just requires giving of yourself as well as expecting compensation.


3) You write that “If wealthy patrons are annoyed with them [the musicians], as happened in [sic] The Florida Philharmonic, I believe, several years ago, they can withdraw all support and torpedo the careers of a hundred people in a tantrum, as happened when the money that could have saved The Florida Phil went to Cleveland instead.”

Where is it written that a donor must, year after year, give to the same charity? Where has it been decreed that donors who fall out of love with an organization must continue blindly giving just because that’s what they’ve done in the past? A donor becoming annoyed with an organization and deciding to give elsewhere is not only NOT “a tantrum,” as you so inflammatorily exclaimed, it is their absolute right. It is their money to give where they feel is appropriate, or to not give at all. If the actions of the musicians cause a donor to withhold his/her money, for whatever reason, then it is not the donor who has “torpedo[ed] the careers of  a hundred people in a tantrum,” but rather the actions of the musicians in – forgive the cliché – biting the hand that feeds them. To think that donors, literally the lifeblood of the arts world, are solely responsible – while the participants in the organization are free of any guilt – for the continued survival of an organization is simply conceited, close-minded, and scary.

If you’re still reading at this point, my views are my own and I have come to them through a very interesting path. I started as a music educator, then became a professional violinist and toured internationally 40+ weeks per year as an AFM member under an AFM collective bargaining agreement, and now am pursuing a dual MBA & MA in Arts Administration degree at the University of Cincinnati (College-Conservatory of Music and College of Business).

There is no doubt in my mind that orchestras will survive long into the future; however, this survival is going to take communication, cooperation, and – yes – sacrifices by all stakeholders.

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