Keeping Their Heads Above Water

There’s been a great deal of national attention devoted to contract negotiations and musician salary these past several weeks – from this column and many others across the country.  And the majority of those discussions focus on how much players earn in the “Big 5” as well as examining other types of benchmarks used to differentiate an international orchestra from a regional ensemble.


Fellow AJ blogger, Greg Sandow touched on both of these issues the other day in the context of how Indianapolis musicians used to make a living back in the mid 60’s.  In order to pay the bills and put food on the table, the vast majority of musicians found it necessary to maintain a non performance income in addition to their orchestra income.


Since that time, the average salary for a professional orchestra musician has grown to approximately $33,000 (combined ICSOM & ROPA salaries).  And that figure doesn’t get as much media attention as the six figure salaries the musicians in the “Big 5” orchestras earn, but let’s keep some perspective here.  Those big salaries are exceptions to the rule and are at the very top of the salary ladder.


If those top players are forced to accept salary cuts, it’s certainly not a good thing, but they’ll still be able to pay their bills and send their kids to college.


But when players closer to the industry average of $33,000 have to consider pay cuts that means they must also consider adding non performance income as a necessary source of revenue just to make ends meat.


Look at some recent examples of musicians that now have to consider non performance income just to get by:



  • Honolulu Symphony musicians went from earning approximately $30,000 to $24,000 per year, or a 20% reduction.

  • Charlotte Symphony musicians went from earning $31,200 to $26,520 per year, or a 15% reduction.

  • Charleston Symphony musicians went from earning approximately $26,000 to $17,000 per year, or a 15% reduction.

  • Louisville Symphony musicians went from earning $33,600 to $31,200 per year, or an 8% reduction.

Even though the national attention may be focused on Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and New York, we also need to keep our collective eyes on the host of orchestras closer to or below that national average salary of $33,000. 


It’s those ensembles that employ the majority of professional orchestra musicians and bring classical music to that largest segment of the population.  If those musicians begin to slip below the waterline of financial sustenance, they’ll need to find a life-preserver of non performance income just to keep from drowning.  And if we see that come to pass then it’s a sure sign that the industry is devouring itself from the inside out.

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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