Monday, August 30, 2010

If the cellist's salary declines in Detroit, does the music sound less sweet in Portland?

By Barry Johnson

Whenever management/musician negotiations break down at symphony orchestras around the country, I immediately think about the Oregon Symphony and its problems. Last year, faced with another large deficit, the symphony cut staff and musician salaries and benefits significantly. It's a credit to the trust between management and musicians here that they reached this painful outcome together, without acrimony.

Things aren't so happy in Detroit. The protracted struggle between the management of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and its musicians reached a critical point Saturday night when orchestra members authorized a strike, according to the Detroit Free Press. We know that the DSO has been losing money at a phenomenal rate (by Portland standards, anyway) for years -- a projected $9 million in 2010.  The only place to cut substantially into deficits of this magnitude is in the wages paid to the musicians, which the musicians themselves acknowledge.

Management wants to cut the base salary of veteran players from around $104,650 per year to $73,800, which is around 29 percent. By year three of this proposed contract, base pay would rise to nearly $80,000.  The players proposed a cut to $80,000 the first year and rising steeply back to $96,600 by the third year.  So unless someone budges, the musicians will go on strike Sept. 24.

In addition to resisting their own personal financial whack, the musicians are arguing that a cut of this magnitude will knock it out of the elite of American orchestras, if not immediately then over time. The Free Press account quotes cellist Haden McKay: "That top sliver of talent, the ones who can truly thrill the audience, will not come here."  And just in salary terms, Detroit will drop from #10 in the nation to around #18, below the Seattle Symphony, for example, according to a study by Nancy Malitz, if the management proposal is adopted. 

It's hard to know exactly to take news such as this, really. We know the difficulties that Detroit and Michigan have had during the past couple of decades as the Big Three automakers have struggled financially. We wouldn't expect its symphony to go unscathed -- or for that matter any public service.  Except that other Rust Belt cities are still in the Top 10: Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and also Philadelphia, which isn't exactly Rust Belt, but is no longer a great American economic dynamo. These are symphonies with great legacies, and though they've all had some financial issues, especially Philadelphia, they've maintained their standing. This is cultural:  If Houston or Atlanta or even Denver really decided it wanted a Top 10 symphony, they all have the resources to displace the great Rust Belt orchestras.
The Oregon Symphony does not make Malitz's Top 10 list. It also doesn't make the Next 10. The last of these is the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, which will pay a base salary of around $69,000 for the 2010-2011 season. (The Minneapolis Orchestra is #10, making Minneapolis metro the only one with two orchestras in the Top 20 by salary.)  After cuts negotiated last year, the base salary at the Oregon Symphony is around $42,000 -- Malitz's list doesn't go down that far. 
But Portland has never been a major national financial force nor does it have a legacy as a major musical center. (For a good idea of the Oregon Symphony's history, I'd suggest reading Genevieve J. Long's account in the Oregon Historical Quarterly of the stormy tenure of musical director Jacques Singer, who led the symphony from 1962-1971. Under Singer the orchestra's budget and attendance soared, but his personal style led to a revolt among the musicians, according to Long.)

I find myself resisting the mathematics here, though, the equation of musician salary or symphony budget (another popular method of ranking symphonies) with musical experience. Can only the "top sliver" of musicians "truly thrill an audience," as Detroit cellist McKay asserts? And are those musicians confined to the top-paying orchestras? Is the experience at the Los Angeles Philharmonic (#1 on Malitz's list), which will pay its musicians a base salary of $136,500 this year more than three times more thrilling than the one we can get at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall? How could I possibly make this sort of measurement? 
Then again, what are the long-term consequences to classical music if the carrot of large salaries at the top end orchestras was removed?  I'm not sure we want to find out.  Indirectly, the great salaries in L.A. and San Francisco probably help the overall quality of musicianship in Portland and Spokane because they attract more talented musicians to stay in the profession (or art form, if you prefer). If we think of things in this way, the salary decline in Detroit will have some consequences over time in the rest of the country, unless maybe Houston or Atlanta or San Diego step it up.
I don't think musical quality is the central issue right now for symphony orchestras, though. I think it's about their ability to insinuate themselves into their local cultures, to make the case for the music they love, to help us understand and appreciate it more deeply, to influence our thoughts and feelings, and then to exert some influence on our culture as a whole. Quality is important to that end, but you can't have a sublime orchestra playing to empty halls. It just doesn't work that way here and now.
For those interested in a more detailed account of orchestra pay in the Oregon Symphony's modern era, Jonathan Dubay gives a great timeline of our orchestra's salary negotiations since 1982, when it was constituted as full-time orchestra.  


Charles Noble said...

Ultimately, the correlation between salary level and talent level is tenuous at best, but all other things being equal, musicians will gravitate up the ladder of salary (and commensurately, quality) through their careers (unless they're in love with their city, like me), thus making a higher salary equivalent to higher artistic quality. However, as the numbers of great players coming out of music schools continues to increase every year, while the number of jobs stays steady or decreases slightly, the cream of the crop gets pushed down from the top and fills the lower tier orchestras as a result. Thus, we have a world-class orchestra here in Portland at a fraction of the labor cost of a place like Detroit or Los Angeles.

Barry Johnson said...

Thanks, Charles. Yes, "tenuous at best" describes it well, I think. Over a longer time horizon, though, I'm wondering if music schools will continue to generate the highest quality musicians for symphonies if the pay structure starts to collapse at regional orchestras. Maybe they'll head for more lucrative jobs outside the classical world?

Charles Noble said...

That's possible, Barry. If you look at an ensemble such as A Far Cry (a self-run and non-conducted chamber orchestra based in Boston), that may well be where the best and brightest go in the future - a place where they hold the reins of their destiny and the keys to their future.

Thomas Lloyd said...

There are so few orchestra positions paying over $80K, and so little turn-over in those positions - anyone currently in a conservatory primarily for the money has to be seriously delusional. While individual motivations vary widely, passion for the repertoire and the drive to compete at a very demanding craft are probably most prevalent.

My sense is that the current delusion is that in a capitalist economy your earnings will or should correspond directly to your level of skill and achievement in your field instead of to the level of capital your work generates. But there are many highly-skilled and socially critical jobs in our society that pay much less than jobs that happen to tie in directly to making money. Does it take more skill and preparation be an average middle-reliever on a major league baseball team or b-level movie actor than it does to play violin in a top orchestra? Does it take more preparation and skill to be a top commodities trader or to be an inspiring 2nd grade teacher?

Classical musicians who perform at a high level should reasonably hope to be able to earn the opportunity to make a decent living wage, but salaries in the top orchestras have gone past the point of sustainability for a field that simply cannot support itself through earned income alone. Orchestra unions were historically important in making it possible for skilled musicians to earn a living wage and thereby create the magnificent orchestra culture we have had, but now risk losing that same culture by expecting wages to continue to rise well past the point of sustainability. The historically well-founded fear of being taken advantage of by management needs to give way to a self-interested desire to make it possible for themselves and those now in conservatories to continue to make a living performing music that is both uniquely challenging and fulfilling.

Barry Johnson said...

Charles, Now don't get me started on my "democracy" rant! That leads to the barricades...

Thomas, An excellent point. We've been taught that capitalism is a "rational" system, a true meritocracy. So we would expect the best in any particular field to be better paid than anyone else. Even a cursory glance indicates otherwise (which doesn't even begin to take into account this whole "best" business -- how we could judge such things and the fact that I don't need the best mechanic, just one good enough to fix my car.)

Frank Almond said...

Thanks to Barry Johnson for this thought-provoking piece. Mr. Lloyd makes some great points, as does Charles Noble. As far as the salary/talent level notion goes, “tenuous” is a good description, but “doubtful” might be more accurate (past a certain level, of course). I think it depends on your perspective, enthusiasm, and knowledge base regarding classical music. That is to say that unfortunately for many of us in the music field, these days the average listener generally cannot tell much of a difference between almost any orchestra, whether it pays $100K or $50K. Many could probably discern a very mediocre community/amateur ensemble back to back with the pros, but probably not much beyond that. I play in an orchestra that is most definitely not in the top 10 highest-paying, but artistically we’re known for playing way past our pay grade, to the point that many of my professional colleagues are genuinely shocked (in a good way) when they hear us live or in our national broadcasts. So in the court of public opinion this is a tough discussion. That doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant, though. I mean, most people also can’t tell the difference between two really great bottles of wine, but it might interest them to eventually learn. Many in our audience are incredibly sophisticated and literate from a musical standpoint, but we’re really playing for everyone, aren’t we?

Mr. Lloyd is correct regarding why people enter the field in the first place- individual motivations vary, and passion and a desire for excellence are subjective from a salary standpoint. The musicians, having spent their entire lives devoted to this rarefied craft, understandably want the best deal they can possibly get. But for many outside observers the community role of major cultural institutions is also subjective, and (sadly) a bigger target during an economic downturn.

FA, Concertmaster, Milwaukee Symphony

Marjorie Talvi said...

Thank you for this wonderful, thought-provoking article. Money talks, of course, but it's not everything. As Charles Noble wrote, one may fall in love with their city/community, and have every intention of dropping anchor, no matter the all-mighty paycheck. And, I don't believe that high wages go hand in hand with standard. Often, the orchestras trying to "prove themselves" work harder and sound better from sheer effort and will.

In all probability, as orchestra jobs become less cushy, more talented musicians will wander into other fields, and seek more lucrative careers.

There is an imbalance of skilled players emerging from conservatories with fewer and fewer opportunities. We're witnessing a recalibration period, as far as I can tell.

Marjorie Talvi said...


Thank you for including a link to Oregon Historical Society's feature of Jacques Singer. I remember the talented Singer family from student years in NYC, and have been curious about Oregon Symphony under his leadership. Very helpful to reflect upon past, to help prepare for future, and recognize the cyclical tendencies.

Andy Buelow said...

A really fine column on a very difficult issue. I think the point that Detroit will lose its top 10 standing and no longer be able to attract the very best players may be valid. However, the claim that only a major orchestra can produce artistically excellent, exciting concerts is absolutely spurious. I have worked for major, community and regional orchestras and transcendent musical experiences come in all shapes and sizes.

Ultimately for Detroit musicians and audiences, this is all unfortunately a moot point. The Detroit that led to the creation of the Detroit Symphony no longer exists, and it's hard to foresee it coming back or ever being the way it was. Like nearly every other nonprofit, DSO exists to serve its community, and if its community can or will no longer sustain it, it must change or die.

By the way, I'm surprised that you would hold up Cleveland and Philadelphia as examples of top tier orchestras that have successfully maintained their status. I would say the jury is definitely out on that, on both counts.

Barry Johnson said...

Marjorie, I've been meaning to link to that Long's historical essay on Singer and the Oregon Symphony, and finally had a good excuse! Glad you liked it.

Andy, Thank you. It does seem likely that the rise and decline of cities will have an impact on their cultural institutions, doesn't it. And so I think you're right about Cleveland and Philadelphia. For now, they are both in the top 10 in salaries and budgets, which was the measure I was using. Cleveland isn't a top 10 city economically or by population these days, but it continues to support its orchestra at a Top 10 level, which I find interesting. (I wrote about the Cleveland Plain Dealer/Donald Rosenberg case last month, by the way.)

Anonymous said...

One of the reasons musicians are so resistant to lose their wages is the overwhelming amount of money it costs to get to the point where you are worthy of being in of the top-tier orchestras. Your instrument, summer festivals, workshops, private lessons, college, on and on and on. It's not unlike a lot of the current job market in that respect, but the current job market doesn't require you to maintain an instrument that can sometimes cost 7 figures.

Having said that...the Oregon Symphony's base salary is insane. They make almost $15,000 more than that here in Kansas City, in a city that is significantly less expensive.

Of course, Portland can do that because of folks like Mr. Noble, who know how awesome Portland is.

Úna O'Riordan said...

I am a cellist in Detroit--who happened to be a cellist in the Oregon Symphony until 3 years ago. To the shock of many Portlanders, I left the fair city for gritty Detroit. I'm not going to measure the difference in quality between the two orchestras. I will say this: the attractive salary in Detroit was one of the reasons I took the audition. Another was low turnover. I wanted to be part of an ensemble that didn't have constant auditions advertised in the union paper. In this business, it is hard to build and maintain a distinctive musical tradition with a revolving stage door.

In just the last 2 seasons, the DSO has lost 6 musicians to other major orchestras. That's very high for an orchestra of this caliber. And as my colleague Mark Abbott writes, turnout for our most recent auditions has been extremely low. So higher turnover, low audition turnout, and lower talent pool is a real concern. The lush DSO sound which I loved hearing on radio broadcasts as a kid will become less recognizable as it becomes a stop along the way for the best of the best.

I don't think the music will sound less sweet (and is very sweet) in Portland if my salary goes down. However, there are a number of non-compensatory issues which DO hold repercussions for future negotiations at the OSO and other orchestras. Our management's threatening and punitive negotiation tactics have done nothing for fostering a respectful and collaborative spirit in dealing with our current fiscal problems. They've gone after a multitude of basic working conditions which ALL of our orchestral colleagues take for granted (such as service conversion, elimination of tenure, and not playing in direct sunlight or excessive heat, among others). If we were to agree to such changes, and set a precedent, it would most definitely affect my talented colleagues in Portland in future contract negotiations.

Barry Johnson said...

CrackLaden, I'm with you -- the expenses associated with learning the instrument and then maintaining a good one, not to mention launching a career, are enormous for musicians (and their families). When that's considered, those 6-figure salaries don't seem so high, especially because most of them are in expensive cities. And yes, Portland is a sort of trap for the unwary musician: Once you get here, it's very difficult to leave.

Barry Johnson said...

Una, Thank you so much for joining the conversation -- you're in the perfect spot for this. I'm I right in assuming you are from Michigan originally? (Or were you hearing radio broadcasts of Detroit from somewhere else?)

I hadn't thought about the turnover issue at all. But now I get it: the orchestra that stays together, blends better together. And an "unsettled" orchestra is going to have a harder time attracting musicians to its auditions. Thanks for pointing this out.

I'm wondering what you and your colleagues think about the general proposition: A diminished Detroit will be able to support a diminished orchestra, by some sort of iron law of economics or something. If you agree with that general principle, then you must think that the board is setting that level too low? I'd be interested in hearing that argument, because lots of orchestras are having the discussion right now.

It seems to me that some of those work rule issues are even more important than salary considerations, something else I didn't know from the Free Press account. Thanks for fill us in.

Finally, I wish you all the best luck in negotiating this difficult time in the history of the orchestra. I know it must be quite painful for everyone, financially of course, but in other psychological and emotional ways, too.

Anonymous said...

If I am not familiar with orchestras and read this article, I might assume that upward mobility is truly possible within the ranks of the top-paying orchestras. This is hardly the case. In a good year, two or three top openings may occur in the wind, brass, percussion and harp positions across the country. There are exceptional musicians who belong in the "top sliver" in all orchestras. One should exercise caution when implying that compensation equates with higher performance standards.

Barry Johnson said...

Excellent point, anonymous. It's not as though there's a lot of shuffling going on, especially these days when a lot of seats are left vacant. So the idea that people are scrambling up the ladder or tumbling down according to their ability is wrong. Again, assuming we have a good idea what "ability" is when the differences are so slight and subjective.

Charles Noble said...

Una makes an excellent point that I'd overlooked about turnover. That is absolutely correct, and that might be the single greatest argument (and most valid one) for higher salaries and linking them to artistic quality. Retention of the best players is indeed a prerequisite for achieving and maintaining a high level, and you've no doubt noticed that we just lost our principal flute to the Los Angeles Philharmonic - a group that makes more than double our base salary.

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