Reassessing The Music Director Part 2

Today we continue with part 2 of our examination of music director compensation.  In particular, we’ll explore the salaries for music directors and base musicians for 29 ROPA ensembles.  The following chart details these figures:


According to this information, and average ROPA ensemble music director earns 741% more than a musician earning an average base salary.  That’s an additional 100% more than ICSOM music directors earn over base musicians.

This enormous difference comes to life when you compare the salaries in graphic form:

This situation is entirely unacceptable.  The majority of ROPA ensembles have significantly shorter seasons when compared to ICSOM orchestras.  A few of the larger budget ROPA ensembles measure their season in terms of weeks; the average is about 36 weeks, or nine months.  About 20% of ROPA ensembles measure their length of season by service count, meaning each rehearsal or concert is considered one service.  The remaining orchestras have no weekly or service guarantees for any of the base musicians.  These orchestras only perform between 6 – 20 concerts per year.

Since so many of these orchestras have limited seasons, why are the music directors paid an annual salary that easily allows them to raise a family, while most of the musicians earn a salary that puts them below the federal poverty level?  Is it because the music directors are so gifted and famous that their mere presence can draw capacity crowds and prompt patrons to fill the organization’s coffers with donations? 

I doubt that’s the case.  It all comes down to the same reasons that were covered in the previous articles; this salary discrepancy exists simply due to the traditional image of a music director.  Or the good old, “That’s the way we do it because we’ve always done it that way” mentality.

If you could identify a group of orchestras that would be ideal for introducing a change in the role of a music director and how they are compensated, then many of the ROPA orchestras would be perfect candidates.  A preferable individual to serve as a principal conductor would be an accomplished soloist who is also a capable conductor. 

But that person would share artistic control with a committee of musicians in such a way than no single individual or group would have overriding influence.  Ideally a mix of players, the conductor, and managers (yes, you need managers and marketing professionals to help plan performances) would plan the season’s concerts.

The reduced expenditures toward music director compensation could be used to increase musician pay through extended concert seasons.  This in turn provides more of an artistic product to deliver to their community, which in turn increases public exposure and attention, i.e. donations, community support, etc.  Do you see where this is going?

This situation doesn’t have to exist as it current does.  There could be a much better future just around the corner and all an orchestra has to do is want to make it that way.  It’s just that simple.

I have to take a moment to add that without the service provided by Guidestar, the effort required to research orchestra finances would make writing a series of articles like these prohibitive.

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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