Comparing the financial numbers of symphony orchestras is tedious business. You have to go to GuideStar and look up each symphony's IRS 990 form, scroll through the form and find the right row. Those 990s have lots of good information, but they don't have base musician salaries. For those you need to go to the American Federation of Musicians and the International Guild of Symphony, Opera and Ballet Musicians. It's a pain, especially if you want to be comprehensive. And the 990s are always a couple of years behind -- the 2008/2009 numbers are now available for just about everyone.
I'm happy to report that Drew McManus at his Adaptistration blog has done all that work for you! You can compare and contrast to your heart's content. Want to know how much Michael Tilson-Thomas makes conducting the San Francisco Symphony? It's there ($1,588,816). How much does a fulltime percussionist without tenure or title make at the Boston Symphony? That's there, too ($128,180).
Of course, McManus can't speak to the actual numbers -- just the ones the symphonies reported to the IRS. And remember, this is a slice of data from two years ago. We know that a lot has changed in the symphony world since then. Nonetheless, the numbers are fascinating, if you're trying to make sense of how symphonies operate, though many of them beg for more explanation (for example, severance packages swelled the compensation numbers of some of the music directors).
Below, I've collected a few of McManus's numbers into my own chart. I'm in Portland, so the Oregon Symphony is in my first line. I've compared it to some geographically pertinent orchestras and others that have a similar overall budget.
Symphony Orchestra Salary Comparison/2008/2009
It's easy to start drawing conclusions from just the bare numbers. And the numbers are all over the place. For example, both Houston and Indianapolis paid their musicians about the same base salary in 2008-2009, even though the budget at Indianapolis was far larger. Seattle paid its music director more than double what Houston paid, even though their budgets are roughly equal. These are local decisions, even personal decisions, and they are made from different financial circumstances -- total expenditure isn't necessarily a good barometer of the economic condition of an orchestra. Without knowing the specific background and history of those decisions, it's unfair to comment. On the other hand, the numbers do suggest questions and in some cases should require some explanations from the symphony orchestras themselves. By the way, I suspect that Michael Tilson-Thomas is worth every penny.