Compensating Effort Instead Of Achievement Part 3

Today we continue to Part 3 of our examination of executive compensation.  We’ll be covering the salaries for executive directors and base musicians for 23 ROPA ensembles. The following chart details these figures:

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According to these figures, an average ROPA executive director earns approximately 644% more than a musician making base salary, that’s 350% more than how much executives make over base players at ICSOM ensembles.  The average ROPA base musician salary is only $1,561 more than the Federal Poverty Level for a household of two.  This is where we begin to walk down a bizarre path.  Why is there such a huge discrepancy between the salary of executives and musicians? 

To answer that question, we’ll need to cover some of the unique qualities pertaining to ROPA orchestras.  A typical ROPA orchestra is an evolution of a volunteer community based ensemble that has grown into an orchestra that compensates its players and hires full time administrators.  A peculiar situation that is common for all but the top ROPA ensembles is that they play between four and twelve concert series per year but the administrators must work throughout the year.  As a result, the administrators require a regular weekly salary while musicians are often paid for only a portion of the year.  Executive administrators are also offered health insurance and retirement benefits in addition to their regular salaries, where only a fraction of the musicians are offered equal benefits.

It is these ensembles that begin to suffer the most from the situation I wrote about on Wednesday; where executive compensation has grown exponentially faster than worker compensation.  If you add this to the additional issues I wrote about on March 9th regarding an artificial corporate ladder system propagated by the American Symphony Orchestra League, you’ll wind up with a negative result.  In that article I highlighted the increasing problem of when newer orchestra executives use these smaller orchestras primarily for the advancement of their own careers. And the best way to advance their career is to make the organization look as good on paper as possible, which usually means keeping the artistic expenses down (let me translate that for you: keep the musician salaries as low as possible).  Then they justify their own 644% higher salary by claiming “they are not to blame” since the board of directors determines their value to the organization.  Another popular line of reasoning is that since they are required to work in the office longer than musicians need to spend in the concert hall, they rightfully deserve their outrageously higher salary.

All of this conspires to create a synthetic environment where players are an “expendable” workforce and the managers are a “necessity” for the continuation of the organization.  This is a similar rationale outlined in Andrew Sum’s report that details how corporate executives justify their allotting a larger percentage of increased revenue toward their own compensation because they maintain a bottom line and distribute more profits to investors.   Granted, most orchestras in this position are going to enter several periods where the need to increase funding and create a stable administration will exceed the rate artistic growth.  But that period should only be provisional and for the sole purpose of facilitating a better artistic product; a product which is based equally on the desires of the musicians as well as the desires of the community.

Here’s where it all comes together.  The last detrimental piece to this puzzle is that many executives in ROPA orchestras have tenures of less than five years.   This heavy turnover is due more to the desire of executives to “maintain” an organization as opposed to facilitating its artistic growth and relevancy in the community.  The latter requires an awful lot of effort that is outside of the mainstream “fast track” for personal advancement.  So by maintaining status quo, many ROPA executives succeed with advancing their careers and move on, so in order to fill their vacancy an orchestra’s board determines that they need to offer a higher salary in order to attract a new candidate to fill the executive vacancy.  After all, they figure that they are merely keeping up with the increases taking place in the for-profit industry.  And now we’ve come full circle; all of these factors conspire to shift the provisional period of unbalanced compensation between musicians and administrators from provisional to permanent.

An afterthought: While writing this article I’ve received a fair share of email related to the previous two installments of this series.  Many readers keep asking me why I haven’t written about the huge salaries earned by music directors.   All I can say at this point is “don’t worry”, that’s a topic which is already waiting its turn.  I agree that it deserves equal attention since it affects the course of an orchestra as much as these issues related to executives, so stay tuned.  In the meantime, keep sending in those emails with your thoughts and observations.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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