…What someone is willing to pay for orchestral musicians in this country has changed radically in recent weeks.
Yes, a brief strike last month by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra resulted in stasis - a deal that asks musicians to apportion more income for health care, but grants them a 4.5 percent raise over three years, starting with an annual base salary of $145,860.
But lockout at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra ended in reverse sticker shock. The size of the ensemble will shrink to 88 from 93. Players will take a steep pay cut and will no longer be paid their full salaries year-round.
Not every American orchestra is in crisis, but so many are buckling under fiscal stress that a long-expected implosion of the business model seems at hand. Shrinking compensation could set off a reordering of the admittedly subjective hierarchy, which takes into account not only ensemble quality, but also ambition (touring, recording) and budget size. Some orchestras will bleed their best talent, who will leave for better-paying posts or for teaching.
Consider the magnitude of the market correction playing out.
Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra have rejected a base-pay cut from $135,000 to $89,000; management instituted a lockout Monday, and concerts have been canceled through at least Nov. 25. Musicians continue to play without a contract at the Cleveland Orchestra, but concerts of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra have been called off while talks continue. Members of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra are being pressured to accept a nearly 20 percent cut in total compensation, and those in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra have given back 27 percent of base pay in recent years under management threat of bankruptcy…
You can be sure the troubles visiting these cities will rumble through Philadelphia - again. The highly concessionary contract signed under supervision of U.S. Bankruptcy Court during the orchestra’s 15½-month Chapter 11 case left deep resentment.
The Philadelphia Orchestra has the curious honor of book-ending the era of modern orchestra labor relations with two portentous events: in 1963 becoming the first American orchestra with a 52-week contract, and, in a perhaps-related development five decades later, achieving ignoble status as the first major orchestra to file for bankruptcy…
After 1963, other orchestras aspired to year-round employment. These contracts lured top talent, but also meant finding more concerts and venues to fill out players’ schedules. Bigger budgets required larger staffs - marketers, fund-raisers, administrators to ensure that management was complying with complex work rules. Orchestras grew.
Audiences grew, too. Until they didn’t.
With ticket revenue now down in many cities, and endowments too meager to underwrite operating deficits, many managers are turning to cuts in musician salaries.
It’s important to remember that for the vast majority of American orchestral players, a spot in an orchestra does not bring a six-figure salary, or even, in many cases, a living wage. When the contract of the 53 members of the Alabama Symphony reaches maturation in 2014, players will earn $39,485.90 annually. At the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra that season, base pay will be $43,134. (Modest sweeteners are given for seniority and rank.)
It’s not at all clear at the end of this shaking out how many U.S. orchestral musicians will be able to make a living in the trade. Atlanta’s fading from full-time status leaves 17 U.S. orchestras out of hundreds with 52-week seasons, according to the League of American Orchestras.
What will it say about a country of 313 million if it can’t find a way for a little more than 2,000 musicians to make enough money to exist without moonlighting? The free-market system may or may not be wise, but it is so far deaf to this question…
It’s strange to say this about orchestras, so often criticized as being out of step with the rest of the country culturally, but at the moment, they embody the upheaval in other arenas: changing demographics (see the U.S. electorate); the squeeze that ensues when something requiring widespread participation no longer draws widespread participation (see newspapers, department stores, major TV networks); class warfare and resentment of talented workers’ earning good livings (see organized labor, subsection teachers); and the alarming realization that no institution, no matter how critical, has a guaranteed future (see the U.S. Postal Service).
Great things happen when a broad spectrum works toward a common interest, but we’ve become a nation of small-minded individualists. This sort of relevance may be cold comfort, but for once, the nation can look to the symphony orchestra as the perfect emblem of our time.