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U.S. Orchestras Are Not Greedy and They Are Not Overpaid

Laurie Niles

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Published: October 14, 2013 at 7:43 PM [UTC]

A lot of absurd and ridiculous things are happening in the world, but this article in The (U.K.-based) Telegraph, "US orchestras are greedy and overpaid," surely takes the cake.

Basically, the author, Ivan Hewett, argues that reasonable pay for classical musicians is actually exorbitant pay, and that after all, classical musicians are "doing what they love," why do they need to be paid for that anyway?

He seems to be inspired by the unfortunate, year-long lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra musicians, who have been fighting a proposed 33 percent cut in their pay. The author seems to be on the side of lowering the musicians' pay as much as possible, so they can be on par with their miserably underpaid British counterparts.

Most egregious in his eyes, seems to be the Los Angeles Philharmonic, "richest of the lot," with its players earning an average of $122,000 a year. Well, I live in Los Angeles, and $122,000, while it's a good wage, is no astonishing sum for a top professional of any kind around these parts -- and in a country, which, unlike Britain, has no universal healthcare. (Even if health insurance is part of someone's "compensation," one still has to pay high out-of-pocket costs for care, up to thousands of dollars a year. This make a huge difference.) And $122,000 a year certainly wouldn't buy a person a median-priced home in any decent LA-area neighborhood, without resorting to a risky, non-traditional mortgage.

Los Angeles Philharmonic
There's nothing wrong with paying well for the world's best, whether they are in the United States (photo by Vern Evans)...

Barclay's Premier League
...or England (photo from Wikimedia Commons).

Hewett compares LA Phil compensation (a top orchestra that is currently enjoying top popularity) to the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, which "advertised for string players at salaries ... around the £30,000 mark." (That's about US$50,000 a year).

What he does not mention is that Hallé Orchestra is one of the most infamous examples of an underpaid orchestra; in fact British journalists have cited the Hallé in articles about how abjectly miserable British musicians are, due in part to their awful salaries that require them to do so much "on the side" to make a living. I can personally attest to their misery; "The situation is awful here for musicians," is something I hear in pretty much every conversation I have with my British working-musician friends.

I don't agree that a "Race to the Bottom" is in order, to equalize all musicians' misery. Instead, I would argue that the fine and hard-working musicians of the Hallé Orchestra should earn quite a lot more.

The author reveals his true nature mid-way through the piece when he states: "Why does a musician need to be 'compensated' for doing what he/she loves?" (He feels that the American word 'compensation' is ridiculous; the word is used because we have to talk about more than 'salary' if our employer is to help at all with health care benefits.)

To that I would ask: Why should any professional of any kind, who entered his or her profession via a feeling of calling ("love"), should be paid for his or her work? Why should a newspaper writer, for example this gentleman at the Telegraph, get paid for doing what he loves, too?

Average American salaries are falling due to a decline in union representation. Orchestras are one of the few industries that have retained unions, and that's why they're fighting to hold the line against the ongoing flow of income from workers to managers in the American economy. That's a good thing, deserving our support.

We only hurts ourselves when we turn on other workers who are fighting to keep their pay. Imagine that there are 12 cookies on a table, in front of a wealthy manager and two workers, one in a union and one not. The manager takes 11 of the cookies, then turns to the non-union worker and says, "Hey, you'd better watch out. That union guy next to you is going to take your cookie!"

The situation in Minnesota came about through gross mismanagement, not musicians' greed; it has been covered so extensively by the media that this is clear. And yes, when you lock out workers for a year, or succeed in cutting their pay, it is true that talented people will go where they are well-compensated, if they possibly can. For a counter-example that might resonate with our English readers, what would happen if we cut the compensation for the average Premier League football player (average: US$1.5 million a year) to that of a player in America's Major League Soccer, where the average player earns around $100,000 a year? How many top soccer players would England lose if they were to be paid only as much as their American counterparts, and how long would it take before fans abandoned the Premier League, as a result? In the last year, many of the locked-out musicians in the Minnesota Orchestra took flight -- they left for very fine orchestras, and Minnesota lost their talent.

It is possible to pay classical musicians well and to have a successful and popular orchestra, it's working very well in Los Angeles, and it is a wonderful thing for the city in myriad ways. While the Minnesota Orchestra is a bad example at the moment, there are successful orchestras in the U.S. that could lead the way. I say we look to examples of success and aim to emulate those, rather than holding up the idea that musicians should suffer for "doing what they love."

From Richard Watson
Posted on October 14, 2013 at 8:15 PM
The Telegraph is a Tory Rag which loves all things Thatcherite. It would be as futile to expect Fox News to promote major revenue increases.
From Lawrence Franko
Posted on October 14, 2013 at 9:21 PM
I would love to agree with you, Laurie, but, unfortunately, I was trained not only as a violinist, but as an economist. The law of Supply and Demand is relentless. The pressure on muscians' wages is not due to a lack of unions, it is due to a lack of Demand (and an irrationally promoted, 'tho in many ways laudable, increase in Supply of fine young classical musicians). But the demand side is the real problem. Our educational system (read sclerotic public schools) has been dumbed down for decades now, not least in music. The 'culture' in general thinks 'rap' is music. The classical music world has utterly failed to build new audiences for its product, and the worship of the same top ten Mozart tunes, plus ugly 'modern' stuff (sorry Thomas Ades and the BSO, but that stuff Saturday evening was ugly) hardly helps.
From Sean Gillia
Posted on October 14, 2013 at 10:06 PM
Thank you, Laurie. I also would love to agree with you -- and I do.

Re the above post, the situation in Minnesota is about much more than the law of supply and demand (I recommend Emily Hogstad's extensive coverage of the situation); with some noteworthy exceptions, our education system does a disservice to the arts (and it's not limited to public schools); hip hop is music; to state the obvious, what is deemed "ugly" is purely subjective and always changing; Thomas Ades is a fantastic composer; and (in my opinion) the programming of new music, bringing new music to new venues and new audiences, is the antidote to dwindling white-haired audiences and programs with the same ten Mozart tunes (no disrespect to Mozart), and the only hope for keeping classical music a living tradition and recital halls vital, relevant and more than museums.

From Eugenia Fielding
Posted on October 14, 2013 at 10:26 PM

From Robert Niles
Posted on October 14, 2013 at 10:47 PM
Actually, Lawrence, as someone who's taken his fair share of economics classes, too, I'll disagree.

Demand for classical music, like any other form of entertainment, is almost completely elastic. That is, changes in price (or quality) have a huge effect on how much people want it.

If the quality of the local orchestra goes into the tank, it's easy for people in the community to choose to spend their money elsewhere, on different forms of entertainment, or for recordings or touring performances of other ensembles, if they must stay with classical music. This isn't like food, or gas, where people are going to continue to pay for more expensive or lesser-quality stuff (lower return for cost, either way) because they need it.

Managers who demand lower pay for their musicians initiate an often-self-fulfilling process. Lower pay leads to lower quality, which leads to fewer ticket sales and less income, which leads to the need for more cuts. And repeat.

And yet... orchestras that choose wisely in leadership, management, and personnel, and that invest in keeping them, such as the LA Phil, are doing spectacularly well. Top orchestras, Broadway shows, movies, and books (hello, JK Rowling!) are raking in money like never before. So there is demand for high-quality art and entertainment out there. It just has to be of the highest quality.

Laurie cited the Premier League and the MLS for a reason. Even in the world's largest economy, the MLS is struggling in many markets because the quality of its play stinks when compared with the alternative of watching the Premiership on cable TV. (Which then allows the Premier League to sign record TV deals.)

Let's put aside a couple of other tired arguments, too. When you hold constant family income, public school test scores in America have been rising for a generation. While that's progress come at the expense of many public school music programs (if it's not tested, it's not taught in many lower-income districts), the top public school music programs are better than ever. Really, the quality of stuff you see at top high school programs is amazing. (And I say this as the graduate of a high school that's a two-time national champion in marching band.)

I don't agree that the classical world has failed to build an audience for its product. I will agree that it's not done nearly enough, however. But the Butchers of Minnesota are part of that problem, not its solution.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on October 15, 2013 at 12:18 AM
Eugenia, The answer for most is hypergamy and daddy.
From Lawrence Franko
Posted on October 15, 2013 at 1:38 AM
Corwin, I think you have left our commentators speechless. I am surprised that you haven't been (virtually) lynched, yet. Alas, you are right, for the most part. Another way of 'doing it,' is to have another career besides music. In any case, as I've said before: Great Art requires Great Wealth. Musicians, especially, should study some economics, business, and technology. And find a Patron. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, & Wagner didn't find that beneath them, why should we?
From Corwin Slack
Posted on October 15, 2013 at 1:55 AM
Lawrence, I was not worried. members are intelligent and reasonable people and recognize reality.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on October 15, 2013 at 3:11 AM
Corwin, that's not "reality" for most people. Most musicians (even "well-paid" ones) do a lot of teaching or other work, and they live a very modest lifestyle.
From Patrick Tinney
Posted on October 15, 2013 at 3:27 AM
There is a very insidious side of the "Why does a musician need to be 'compensatedfor doing what he/she loves?" idea.

Until recently I was the “Music Resource Person” from my former parish. Mainly an administrative position to care for the needs of seven choirs. I also worked with organ and piano technicians and can honestly put piano washer on my resume. I was formerly a choir director at the same parish.

Some months ago we were assigned a new administrator who has recently been advanced to Pastor.

I was the one who briefed this man (Priest) on the structure and finances of the music program at our Parish. At one of the early meetings of all the choirs he announced 'we want to get to the point that we do not pay for music'. I felt sorry for the organist that I had helped secure a position with the parish. She was in the church at the time. He also made this comment on a couple of other occasions.

I would love to say that I saw the writing on the wall but I was really more concerned about opportunities for my children when I registered at another parish. It was two weeks after I registered at the other parish that I received my last stipend check from the parish.

My pastor was not aware that I was in the process of transitioning out of the parish when he sent the notification of the ending of my stipend. Here is a quote from that notification letter. “I cannot justify ongoing monthly payments for what should be a volunteer's ministry.”

This made my transition easier, but given that the organist has recently secured another position I do worry about the two choirs that organist worked with. Last Sunday was that organist last day. My wife is still with one of those choirs, so we will see.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on October 15, 2013 at 4:07 AM
Patrick, that is so disheartening. It sounds like the pastor "doesn't know the difference," so of course no one else will notice, right? He takes for granted that the church has seven choirs. Too big to fail, right? Wrong.

My prediction: without any true musicians at the helm, the choirs will go seriously lacking in inspiration and seriously lacking in trust in their leadership. They will dwindle in quality, then in numbers, then in quality, then in more numbers. It will be a cycle. It will happen slowly and the pastor will not notice. He will not notice other people noticing. As the quality and inspiration for the music dies, so will go people's experience of church. A sizeable chunk of people, not feeling very fulfilled, will stop going here and there, then altogether. The pastor will blame it on modern times and people's general disinterest in church. But it will be a direct result of losing the quality of one of the most important assets any church has, its live music.

It's a downhill road, cutting out the good music at a church.

From John Saunders
Posted on October 15, 2013 at 5:48 AM
Hey! Yes Laurie, absurd and takes the cake. Not just hard on musicians but orchestras overall. The world has a lot of entertainment choices. Lawrence Franko said it, supply and demand. Orchestras were formed when there was a high demand(like in 1700) because there was one form of music. Musicians didn't have many choices either. Today orchestras have given musicians regular work and a way to have a normal life, like raising children. Can the orchestra as a whole be popular and profitable? By an ideal, yes! But finding and creating music that draws an audience is a challenge. Not just finding an audience but coming up with something that works, grabs people and makes going to the orchestra irresistible. Creating a supply that makes it in high demand.
From Bill Palmer
Posted on October 15, 2013 at 7:42 AM
Seems like if anyone should be doing the job out of "the goodness of their heart" it should be the priest, no? Called by God and all of that?
From Bill Palmer
Posted on October 15, 2013 at 7:46 AM
To comment on the assertion that orchestral musicians are paid more than the demand supports, and that it is their fault for not boosting the demand: which orchestra is it where the players have any important role in the programming, or marketing? That's like blaming the waiters that the restaurant is failing when the chef won't put the dishes the public wants on the menu!
From Thessa Tang
Posted on October 15, 2013 at 9:08 AM
Laurie, what you state is the case in London, too. Professional orchestral musicians have to teach a lot to supplement their (low) income. Even the orchestra leaders and principals teach privately and at conservatories. [For many their costly instruments have to be financed somehow.]

Ivan Hewett certainly sounds like a convinced communist who seeks "equality to the lowest" level.

By the way, has anyone seen this yet? Re. an adverse ripple effect of Osmo Vanska's resignation:

From Eugenia Fielding
Posted on October 15, 2013 at 12:54 PM

From marjory lange
Posted on October 15, 2013 at 1:14 PM
@Patrick, that's really twisted. I would assume the PASTOR expects to be paid for HIS work, although serving the congregation ought to give him loving satisfaction. But even Jesus understood economics, and said the laborer is worthy of his hire...glad you and organist have escaped to greener pastures. My guess is many in the congregation will, too.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on October 15, 2013 at 1:25 PM
With regard to the specific situation, the Minnesota Orchestra, most of what I know about it comes from Emily Hogstad’s excellent coverage on this site. It seems clear to me from reading those blogs, that there is much more to the story than what Mr. Hewitt has written about. I think that the orchestra management has overreached and is largely responsible for the sad situation. Further, I don’t agree with Mr. Hewitt’s headine, and I think his (or his editor’s) choice of language was inappropriate—it was childish and insulting and doesn’t belong in a serious newspaper.

But that said, I think many of these counterarguments miss the point or, at least, do nothing to address the underlying issues. The argument that I find most problematic in this situation is the notion that a certain type of quality—being “the very finest,” or “the very best”--is both something that everyone can agree on, and is all that really matters in music. Furthermore, “quality” according to this definition, seems to be essentially binary, either an orchestra is world-class or in the tank, there is no middle ground worth having, supporting, or even bothering to consider.

One of the comments on Mr. Hewett’s article said that 10-15 years ago the Minnesota Orchestra was a “second tier” or “feeder” orchestra for the orchestras in major metropolitan areas, with correspondingly lower salaries. The commenter’s point was that the Orchestra had tried to increase its quality in recent years, to compete with the very best orchestras in major metropolitan areas like New York and Los Angeles, and it wasn’t able to. The building of the new hall, the increase in salaries, were all part of this ambitious larger plan. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say there is a difference between the markets in New York and Los Angeles, and in Minnesota. Larger markets are going to be more able to support world class orchestras, not just the salaries needed for a world class orchestra but also the facilities, the fundraising, the administration, and everything else that goes into putting on a full concert season. Smaller markets may only be able to support “second tier” or “feeder” orchestras, but I’m not sure what’s so bad about that.

In my experience, “second tier” and “feeder” orchestras do a lot of great things. They provide high quality live musical concerts in accessible venues at reasonable prices. They serve markets where the top 5 world class orchestras don’t have time to go. Their members are highly involved and visible in the community. They are committed to education and outreach. They might even have an adult amateur or non-conservatory-bound kid or two in their teaching studio. This attitude that these smaller, regional, less well-compensated, orchestral players are somehow less valuable to the community and to society because they aren’t the very, very best on the level of what they have in New York or Los Angeles does seem elitist and a trifle offensive to me.

In my experience, when an organization tries to go world class in a situation that doesn’t warrant it or need it, the outcome leaves a lot of bitterness in its wake. Close to my home in the Boston area, we just had a great and historic community music school, Longy, close its doors to kids and adult amateurs in order to focus on training more professionals in its conservatory. Indeed Longy was a “second tier” conservatory, not on a par with the world class institutions in the area like NEC. But as a quality community music school, it was the best around. The amateurs and kids it trained in its preparatory programs grew the audience and fed the demand for conservatory-trained professional musicians at all levels, at all tiers. Now, all that is gone: 100 years of history, and the founder’s vision of what a community music school is for. All gone, in the pursuit of a narrow definition of excellence.

Since church music was brought up, I want to address that issue as well. I think the pastor’s attitude described above, that a church shouldn’t have to pay for music, is incredibly short-sighted. I think music directors should be paid and that the positions of music director and organist (or pianist, or whatever instrument a church has) should be professional positions—just as the position of pastor should pay a living wage. But I also don’t think that a church’s mission in music should be to be “world class” or to strive for the kind of “quality” that throws amateurs and ordinary congregants under the bus. If a church starts holding selective auditions for choirs and hiring professional solo performers for Sunday services while turning musically inclined members of the congregation away, then the experience becomes about performance rather than about worship. It becomes yet another place where most people are relegated to watching and applauding, rather than participating. And that’s not right, no matter how high the “quality” of the music. People will also stop coming to a church (or a concert hall) where they don’t feel appreciated or loved.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on October 15, 2013 at 4:23 PM
I love the way my church does it: They've hired a fantastic pianist/organist/vocalist/choir leader/genius, who runs the program. In the choir, they hire four "section leaders."

This set-up makes it possible to have a nice choir of amateurs; everyone has the assurance of those section leaders, who can read the music well and help everyone through. The leaders know this is their job, to be helpful (and with a positive attitude).

Having a well-trained and truly collaborative pianist/organist means that any amateur musician will be able to sing or play at church and be well-supported from the piano.

If you have an amateur pianist attempting to accompany an amateur musician, or an amateur choir leader leading a choir of amateurs, this is just stressful all around!

If you wrangle a professionally trained pianist or choir leader to work at the church for free, then that's just morally corrupt.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on October 15, 2013 at 6:19 PM
That's similar to how my church does it too, except my current church is smaller than I remember your church being when I used to go there (17 years ago when I lived in Pasadena). We have a professional music director who leads the adult and youth choirs and chooses the other music. And we have a professional pianist/accompanist who is also a professor of piano at a local college. (Our church doesn't have an organ). The choir is small (20-25 people depending on the season) and there aren't any professionals in it, but it's about the right size for the church and anyone who wants to can join. The pianist is also awesome; I played the Bloch Simchat Torah with him last year, I've played Fantasia on Greensleeves, and other similar lighter stuff.

But I have to say, over the summer I led a lay service and I played a Shaker Hymn Fantasy and Ashokan Farewell with an amateur friend pianist and he was pretty great too.

One thing that I've noticed in churches also is that the director needs to be open to diversity of music. Our previous music director was more strictly Western European classical oriented (although very high quality in that narrow field), and that turned some people off and made them feel unwelcome. The new music director consciously programs more world music, folk music, modern UU religious music, in addition to classical. Some of this music would not pass muster with classical purists (or the previous music director), but I think it's still important, and still of high quality, as long as you have an inclusive definition of high quality.

From Thessa Tang
Posted on October 16, 2013 at 12:10 PM
If you wrangle a professionally trained pianist or choir leader to work at the church for free, then that's just morally corrupt.

This is what I've just been asked to do for next year by a festival chair. No reason was given. We cannot expect our [professionally trained] pianist to be paid in the festival? (Was it because one of its many aims happen to be fundraising for charity? No matter.) Initially, I felt so upset when I read the email. Then I re-boot mentally - drew a slow, deep breath and decided there & then that all our musicians (both professionals and under/post-graduate students alike) will not play for the festival altogether if that remains the case.

The labourer is worthy of his wages. "Morally corrupt" is well put.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on October 16, 2013 at 8:10 PM
Thessa, I'm sorry you've been put in that position!
From Mark Roberts
Posted on October 19, 2013 at 3:29 AM
Supply and demand comes into it: if one gets 300 applicants for a job why pay the winner well, one can always choose another. In defence of Ivan Hewett he does sometimes write good articles, I think that he was the person who pointed out that many musicians were not being paid to play at the olympics, if anyone wants examples I have some on my currently offline webpage and can look them up. The paper that he works for might be the most right wing of the four broadsheets, but it was the only one that used to carry adverts for music jobs before musical chairs took over.
From James Wall
Posted on October 19, 2013 at 3:56 PM
I feel like people are forgetting the fact that most professional musicians practice at least 20-30 hours outside of rehearsal time. That can bring the amount of hours in one work week up to 50 to even 60 hours a week for most professional musicians.
From Thessa Tang
Posted on October 19, 2013 at 6:43 PM
Thanks, Laurie, I had actually used your argument when turning down our invitation to the Chair. I felt sad within as some of our undergraduates would love to play for the networking & performing experience but would not be able to do so if we as co-trustees withdraw from the festival.

We stated that we cannot organise any concert for them as we regard it "immoral" not to pay and abuse our professionals.

Today we received a written assurance from the festival that our pros will be paid [the market rate] by the festival. Phew.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on October 22, 2013 at 9:41 PM
Thessa, good for you for standing up for this in a situation where it was not easy to stand up and do the right thing. Thanks to you, the professionals you use will be paid in the future. I think you can feel extremely good about that.

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