Reassessing the Music Director Part 1

In yesterday’s article, I wrote about the large discrepancy between the average music director and base musicians.  The following chart lists those discrepancies in detail:

Sorry, but this chart will only be available in the Adaptistration Compensation Report publication – coming soon!

Keep in mind that these figures are from tax forms filed mostly in 2002.  Since that time, several ensembles have undergone a change in music director leadership, such as Minnesota, Boston, Cleveland, and Philadelphia.  Whenever there is a change in this level of leadership, it is common for the incoming individual to command a higher salary than their predecessor.  So it’s fair to assume that these salaries have, on average, increased. 

It’s standard practice for music directors to typically conduct only a portion of a season’s performances.  Therefore, many of the education, family, and pops concerts are handled by the assistant conductor.  This creates a significant discrepancy between how much actual “face time” a music director spends in front of an audience as compared to the musicians. It also means the musicians have less of an opportunity to rest and pursue additional artistic projects.  Yet, on average, ICSOM music directors are still paid 794% more than a base musician

Are music directors 794% better musicians than the average orchestra player, do they have 794% more training?  Do music directors contribute 794% more toward the positive impact an orchestra has on the community?  No, they don’t.  This salary discrepancy exists merely due to the traditional image of a music director, but that image has grown out of date, as discussed in yesterday’s article.

Then let’s include the average concert master salary into this comparison (we’ll detail concert master salaries in a future article).
Music directors even manage to earn 167% over the concert master the highest paid musician.  You would think that an orchestra would want their highest paid talent to get as much time in front of the audience as possible; after all, they’re being paid so much more than the rest of the musicians. 

Instead, you’ll find the inverse of that situation at orchestras.  Music directors (and most concert masters) are contractually exempt from participating in many the non masterwork concerts.  Could you imagine if Tom Brady, the New England Patriot’s quarterback and 2003 Superbowl MVP, only played in 40% of the team’s regular season games?  So why are orchestras essentially wasting their highest paid talent by allowing them to opt out of concerts that don’t feature “serious” classical music?

You won’t find a very satisfying answer, because one doesn’t exist.  Yes, conductors do spend a great deal of time preparing for concerts, but not so much that they are unable to have time to also conduct family and pops programs.  If the music director is going to be presented as the “face” and “soul” of the orchestra (a mistake in my opinion) then they had better well be there more often than not.  Otherwise, there is no reasonable justification for such a large salary compared to the musicians.

Recently, the newly appointed music director for the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Jeffrey Kahane has been quoted in local Denver newspapers as saying he plans to lead the orchestra in more than just the masterworks concerts.  He wants to be there conducting the CSO for family and pops concerts and to be able to interact with the audience and share his love for music through face to face contact along with conducting and performing.  Essentially, he wants to function as a leader as a music director.

The situation in Colorado is worth keeping an eye on.  In Denver, perhaps we’ll find someone who is working for that 794% over base musician pay.

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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