The Cleveland strike, and the rapidly-ensuing settlement, were the subject of more coverage in the media since… the last round of Big Five orchestra strikes. And the coverage was pretty much the same; talk of how the strike was symptomatic of fundamental issues with the health of orchestras (it wasn’t), talk about how the musicians are underpaid, and talk about how the musicians should quit their whining:
It looks like a clear-cut case of all-hands-to-the-pump to support the musicians against the management, as the nefarious mandarins use the recession to trim back yet further the pay and conditions of their poor musicians. But it’s not that simple. It’s hard to have immediate sympathy for the orchestral players when their average salary is $115,400 (£71,000), about double that of British orchestras, and the seventh highest in the States. Cleveland, long one of the Big Five orchestras in America, is better than the seventh-best band in the country, and would top some people’s lists of American orchestras. Even so, and despite the face they have already agreed a pay freeze, it’s hard to argue that the Cleveland musicians are under-paid.
It’s worth noting that this kind of thing is said when any orchestra is in a labor dispute, regardless of how much they get paid. Go look at local coverage of any such dispute; you’ll find plenty of comments from readers about how the musicians should be thankful that they’re getting paid at all, or that they’re really only part-time anyway (the 20 hours per week thing), or that there are plenty of young musicians out there who would be glad to replace them for what management is offering.
Assuming there are no major changes in base musician compensation levels in extended peer groups, the Cleveland Orchestra will be in the middle of a new tier immediately below that group consisting of the National Symphony Orchestra and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (and possibly Detroit, but that won’t be known until that group concludes their current labor negotiations).
There is a much bigger issue implicit in this discussion, which is this: what does an orchestra like Cleveland need to pay as base salary in order to be as good as Cleveland is now? Or, to put it another way, is an orchestra like LA or National on track to become a better orchestra than Cleveland because their base salaries are now higher?
To the best of my knowledge, no one has really studied how great orchestras are built with any degree of rigor, or even what attracts musicians to particular orchestras. Obviously compensation is important; no one doubts that, on average, the best orchestras on the planet make more money than orchestras that are clearly less good.
But there’s a lot more that goes into what attracts musicians to orchestras than that. Getting a job in Cleveland will remain a really big deal. Living in Cleveland will remain just as problematic as compared to, say, San Francisco or Seattle or Boston or Minneapolis. And there will be just as many unemployed musicians, or musicians wanting to move up, as there were before this settlement.
That’s not to say that moving Cleveland into a second tier of compensation won’t matter. I suspect it will matter, especially over the long haul. I think the Cleveland musicians are absolutely correct to believe that there is a real danger that paying less than top-tier salaries is going to erode the stature of the orchestra over time. And I think their characterization of the strike as a “wake up call” was spot-on (as well as very reminiscent of how we characterized our mini-strike in 1994 over similar concerns.) But it won’t be the only thing that will matter.