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August 27, 2010

Orchestra wages show vitality and volatility

I've been working on a spreadsheet to track wage patterns in U.S. orchestras, mainly to find a context for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's headline-grabbing news as its Sunday night contract deadline looms. The highest offer on the table, from the Detroit musicians themselves, puts their 2010-11 salary at $22,650 less than they made in 2009-10. That's a cut of 22 percent. The lowest offer, from management, drops salary by $34,450, a cut of 33 percent in this automobile manufacturing capital blasted by international economic trends.

The Detroit orchestra's downturn, combined with recent salary concessions at most orchestras in response to the Great Recession, might suggest the possibility of a historic decline for orchestras generally. 

But that's not all there is to see. While we wait to plug in numbers from Detroit, Houston, Fort Worth and other orchestras still negotiating, we might note other intriguing story lines:

1. There will be 10 orchestras in the $100,000-plus group this year, with the top six -- in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston -- well ahead of the pack. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and New York Philharmonic are also pouring money into television, web subscriptions and HD broadcasts to strengthen their appeal to global audiences. (Click charts to enlarge.)

Top 10 as of Sept 7.png
2. The first among peers in the $100,000-plus group enjoy not only higher pay, but also higher growth rates, than the others in this category. Thus salary gaps within this echelon will continue to widen. Here's more on that: 
In base pay Minnesota Orchestra musicians will earn 75% of what LA Philharmonic musicians make in the 2011-12 season, and they are likely to lose another percentage point or two by the end of the decade. The separation within these elite orchestras is even more apparent when one compares the LA Philharmonic with the smaller Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, whose musicians will earn base pay that's 56% of the LA Philharmonic in 2011-12. They will be down to 45.3% of LA by the end of the decade, assuming current trends continue.  (In the following charts, if a field is blank, the current contract does not extend to that year.)

LA MINN SL as of Sept. 7.png
3. Volatility is huge in the second echelon, a group of 10 orchestras earning $68,000-$100,000 in base pay annually. Some jobs come with alarming uncertainty. 

Here's an example of two orchestras in flux. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra would seem to offer similar opportunity, given their comparable salaries in 2010-11. But both have their upsides and their issues. (Dallas' contract ends in 2010-11, Cincinnati's in 2011-12.)

Cincinnati Dallas as of Sept 7.png
Cincinnati has a rich tradition that any musician would want to be a part of.  But its recent past is troubled. Salaries plummeted in 2007-08, down to $84,480 from a high of $95,260.  However, in late 2009, longtime Cincinnati arts patron Louise Nippert endowed the orchestra with $85 million to help stabilize annual operations. The musicians will be at $88,000 this season, and by 2011-12 the recovery will reach $91,520, which is where they were before the 2007-08 plummet.  Meanwhile, the popular music director Paavo Järvi is leaving at the end of the season. For the anxious cellist, it's a shaky status quo.

By contrast, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra moved upward from $79,924 to $82,524 in 2008-09 and is now at $83,274. Dallas musicians enjoy an additional $6,760 in electronic media guarantees (for recording and broadcasting), an amount much higher than the industry norm. If you combine base salary and the EMG, Dallas musicians will make $90,034 in 2010-11. Cincinnati musicians, whose EMG is $750, will make $88,750.

Dallas is in the middle of a love affair with its Dutch music director, Jaap van Zweden. But D Magazine reports that the Dallas Symphony is sweating out its own financial crunch, as major donors are feeling overburdened. The community has $30 million to go on its ambitious $354 million capital campaign to finance the AT&T Performing Arts Center, which opened in October 2009 as a venue for the Dallas Opera and other performing arts institutions. The CEOs of both the Dallas Symphony and the AT&T Performing Arts Center have recently resigned. 

Which audition -- Cincinnati or Dallas -- is the young musician to choose? 

Here's a look at this entire second echelon, the $68,000-$100,000 group, with year-over-year gain-loss comparisons. The instability is apparent. 

Echelon 2 Orchestras as of Sept. 7.png

And the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, if and when there is a settlement, will give a whole new meaning to volatility at this pay level.

Please note: The second echelon spreadsheet, above, has been updated to reflect a second drop in Baltimore Symphony base salary levels that occurred in March 2010. Thanks to the musicians who alerted me to this additional information.

5. Tangential surprise: While surfing the web to fill in a few blanks in the chart, I stumbled across this trend-watching article on American orchestras from Time magazine projecting the End of an Era. I got through quite a bit of it before I realized it was written in 1969.

Source information: Compiled by Nancy Malitz from information posted on (the site of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians), orchestra websites and documents. 
August 27, 2010 11:00 AM | | Comments (4)


Why do these kinds of articles always ignore the cost of living factor? When I use's cost of living comparison tool ( and I plug in the Cincinnati SO's 11-12 salary and ask to convert it to Los Angeles dollars, I get $137,944 - which vaults Cincy near to the top. If I'm looking to relocate in my personal job hunt, I don't just look at the salary offered. I look to see if it will have the same buying power as my current location. If I get a 10% raise in salary dollars but housing, food, and transportation are an average 20% more, then I've taken a step backward in pay. That's why I've all but stopped looking to move to Boston or NYC. Sure, those cities are exciting, but that's a different argument. Whenever I hear orchestra musicians complaining about contracts, they only talk about straight dollars, which is a very simplistic argument that won't resonate with any donor with any amount of business sense.

What about the MET orchestra? You should include them. They make a ton, definitely in the top 10 of your list.

These are interesting comparisons. However, it appears that at least one orchestra has renegotiated salaries which are not yet reflected on the ICSOM site.

According to the Baltimore Sun, March 26, 2010, "Players accepted a freeze for the 2010-2011 season and a 16.6 percent reduction for the two seasons after that...By the 2012-2013 season, BSO members will earn $67,600 in base pay -
essentially the same as in 2001."

Volatility indeed.

Cost of living is important, but not as important as in other industries. For example, many string players buy instruments that have costs comparable to houses, and of course, the market for these top instruments is international.

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