Making Sense Of The Salary Issue

Upon returning from vacation this week I was very pleased to find a few articles about orchestra executive and music director compensation.  One was from last Sunday’s New York Times by Blair Tindall, the other by fellow AJ blogger Andrew Taylor.

In Blair’s original article, she went into many of the topics that have been covered here regarding the disparity in pay between musicians, music directors, and orchestra executives.*

In Andrew’s article, he responded to Blair’s piece in the times by suggesting that we should spend some more time examining

“The core importance of a conductor in the mix of a great orchestra, or the low perceived value of its musicians. It might be more productive to explore those odd beliefs and unbundle their source and sustenance than to wag a finger at the symptoms.”

I was a little confused by the point Andrew was making so I asked him about it in an email. He promptly responded with:

“I was trying to suggest that the salary problem is a symptom, not the disease, and we can’t expect to fix it by just complaining about the disparity. It’s all about the way boards and managers and communities and donors perceive value in the system they’re dealing with. Clearly, they perceive a very high value for the conductor, and a lesser value for the musicians. One reason seems to be scarcity; there are a TON of extremely talented and competent musicians out there, and seem to be fewer political/artistic/creative/fundraising/schmoozeable conductors.”

I was able to see Andrew’s point much easier after that, and as a matter of fact I have written about the causes as opposed to only the effects in the both the executive director and music director compensation series of articles (which you can easily find by going to the Archives By Topic section to your right).

Unfortunately, I’ve heard orchestra administrators cite the overproduction of musicians as one of the reasons they try to keep their base pay down.  It’s despicable, but unfortunately it happens more often than not.

But here’s the really interesting part I haven’t seen discussed anywhere online yet.  The vast majority of conductors are from similar social and economic backgrounds as most musicians.  So why then are they perceived to be the better at the (as Andrew puts it) political/artistic/creative/fundraising/schmoozeable aspect than players?

The answer is obvious; they aren’t.  Or, at least, they have no more ability than do the average musician in the orchestra.  So the next question is, why do orchestras take the time to “refine” the product of a music director to make them seem like they were born into high society?

The “Blue Clay” Story

During the mid 1800’s, gold was being discovered in Nevada and a rush of miners entered the state looking to make their fortune.  At first, miners had a hell of a time separating their gold from really tenacious blue clay. 

The miners used to simply throw the annoying clay away.  Later, it was revealed that the blue color was due to its unusually high silver content – worth many times more than that of the comparatively smaller gold content! 

Why are our orchestras throwing away their blue clay to get at the tiny amount of perceived gold in the music director?  Why not take the time to cultivate the musicians that demonstrate they have an equal aptitude for such political/artistic/creative/fundraising/schmoozeable events? 

Why do orchestras focus all of their efforts entirely on refining the music director, isn’t that wasting the immense amount of human assets available in the ranks of the orchestra members?

I think these are some good questions for the industry to ask itself. Hopefully, some of the orchestras out there will take the time to stop assuming that the way it’s always been done is the way it should be done and start to think outside of the box a bit.

*Truth be told, I even exchanged a few emails with Blair about the topic before she wrote the article and I’m glad to see the NY Times thought it was a worthwhile topic.  The more it’s discussed the more it will hopefully begin to change for the better!

She said that some of these issues were in her original article but they were edited out for length.  I’m happy to say that here at Arts Journal that’s never an issue.  Thank you, thank you, thank you to Doug McLennan for providing such a wonderful place for discussing the arts!

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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