Double Dipping

Throughout this series of articles there has been an ongoing discussion about music directors not having to spend as much time performing as compared to the musicians.  So what exactly do music directors do with all of this down time?  Well, you’ll find them doing everything from guest conducting appearances at other orchestras to serving as another full time music director in a completely different orchestra.

While there certainly isn’t anything wrong with making guest conducting appearances in other cities, you do run into a number of problems when you find a conductor that is serving as music director in multiple ensembles. Or, what I like to call Double Dipping.

Conductors Double Dip by simultaneously serving as the music director in multiple ensembles.  In addition to Double Dipping, many conductors also serve as  resident guest conductors (a title that sounds a little too much like an oxymoron to me) associate conductors, and conductor laureate in addition to their music director positions.  Here are some of the problems you run into:

Problem 1 A double standard
The most significant argument against this practice is that it’s a double standard when compared to musicians.  You won’t find players as resident members between multiple orchestras in different cities – which means the assistant principal trumpet in the Chicago Symphony won’t hold an additional trumpet section position with the Indianapolis Symphony.  But for some reason it’s acceptable for conductors to follow this practice.

Problem 2 You’re not getting your money’s worth
Consider the argument that if the music director is being paid at 641% – 741% more than the base musicians, then why isn’t the orchestra and the community it serves getting as much out of the music director as it is the musicians?  In the initial article from this series, I talked about the New England Patriot’s quarterback, Tom Brady.  If Tom only played in 40% of the season his team and their community would never stand for it.  There’s no reason why music directors shouldn’t be held to the same standards.

Problem 3 Artistic Imbalance
Then there’s the imbalance between musicians and music director over the sense of artistic fulfillment.  Granted, there is nothing inherently degrading or unfulfilling about playing pops concerts – they can be a great deal of fun.  But if you gave professional orchestra musicians the choice between playing Mahler or Mickey Mouse, the vast majority are going to want to play the Mahler.  Choosing between those options is what most music directors are allowed to do while musicians are not.  So while the music director jets off from one orchestra to the next conducting Mahler, Prokofiev, and Strauss, the musicians don’t even have an option.

Problem 4 Undue administrative burden
The additional burden placed on the administrative staff by having to “share” a music director with another ensemble is unjustified.  Administrators and staffers have to coordinate performances with a completely separate orchestra so as not to overlap the maestro’s time.  Development personnel have significantly less opportunity to utilize the conductor’s time for fundraising events, marketing personnel have greater restrictions on time to present the conductor to the community, and artistic staff and music librarians have reduced time to plan for each concert not to mention the increased expenses associated with restrictions on programming due to the overlapping issue mentioned previously.

Problem 5 – Why do we need to recycle?
If there is such an overproduction of conductors on the market today (as discussed in the initial article of this series) then why is there such a need to recycle conductors to serve as music director between ensembles?  I don’t believe there is a reasonable answer to that question.  I doubt that there are so few conductors out there that we need to recycle the ones which currently exist.

Problem 6 It’s all about the money
We saved the biggest problem for last: money.  Music directors do not command any less of a salary simply because their time is divided between two separate orchestras.  They make every bit as much as their counterparts who only serve as the music director at a single orchestra. Let’s look at a few conductors and their combined salaries along with the salaries of the base musicians:


Keep in mind that these figures are based on information reported in each ensemble’s 2002 IRS form 990 so some changes have occurred.  Nor does it include any of the lucrative income from guest conducting and other related work.

If these music directors take on additional music director positions in order to provide for an expanded artistic outlet, then why not simply work more with their initial ensemble?  I think it has much more to do with wanting to only conduct the masterwork level pieces, getting a larger paycheck, and furthering their careers.

Look at the case of Ms. Falletta; if you took the average base salary from the two orchestras she leads then compared that to her cumulative salary you would discover that she earns 1,083% more than a base musician.  Think that’s bad?  Well, if you aren’t sitting then you had better find a chair.  With his cumulative salary, David Wiley earns 4,589% more over the average musician base salary for the two orchestras he leads.

In case you’re wondering if that’s a fair comparison or not, consider that the amount of raw time a conductor spends leading two ensembles still falls a little short of the amount of time a musician in only one of those orchestras expends to prepare for a regular season.   At least in the case of professional football teams, the quarterback is out there working as long and as hard as every other player on the team.

So what can be done about this situation?  Not much until orchestra boards collectively decide to institute an industry ban on the practice of hiring a music director that is already serving in the same role at another orchestra.  Beyond that, the only people capable of putting a stop to this imbalance are the music directors themselves.

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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