So-La-Ti-Dough

According to Norman Lebrecht, the world of classical music soloists and conductors is all about the money. Norman takes aim at the issue of artist fees in the October 5th edition of his weekly La Scena column…


In true Norman Lebrecht fashion he examines the issue by squaring up his sights on a representative individual, in this case it is violin soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter. Although a good bit of the article is consumed by discussion of Ms. Mutter, I came away with the overall point being more about soloist fees, price controls, and managerial common sense.

If you ever find yourself in a bar surrounded by artistic administrators and executive directors and you’re in the mood for some spirited conversation, just bring up the topic of guest artists. Assuming the managers have all had a few drinks, you’re bound to get an earful,

“They’re expensive…they cancel on short notice…we have to work just as hard to sell the hall with them as we do without them…their managers bust our balls…”

Norman’s article examines most of these issues in the setting of his native U.K. but they are nearly identical here in the U.S. I’m particularly intrigued by Norman’s suggestion that skyrocketing fees have become so out of hand that he suggests the U.K. government should step in and institute price controls (apparently, they are the only power with legal authority to take such action).

Of course, here in the U.S. that solution is nothing more than a pipe dream and regardless of how much managers may enjoy bitching about soloists nearly all of them are content with giving them what they ask for.

How much dough are we talking about? To get an idea, pull up an orchestra’s IRS Form 990 (available at GuideStar) and scroll down to page 7. Once there, look under Part II – Compensation of the Five Highest Paid Independent Contractors or Professional Services (paid over $50,000). Depending on which orchestra 990 you’re looking at you find a couple of possible entries.

Sometimes you’ll find an individual name listed, such as the 2002-2003 990 from the New Jersey Symphony, they paid Andre Watts $55,000 that season. Most of the time you’ll find listings for payments made to artists management firms such as the 2002-2003 990 from the Dallas Symphony, they paid $518,890 to IMG for guest artists. In the 2002-2003 season the Seattle Symphony paid the William Morris Agency $135,000 and CAMI $100,000 for guest artists.

Don’t think this is just a game for bigger budget orchestras, in the 2002-2003 season the Phoenix Symphony spent $814,095 in “artists fees & expenses” and the Dayton Philharmonic paid ICM $129,000 in the 2002-2003 season and IMG $102,800 in the 2003-2004 season for guest artists.

Remember, with the exception of Phoenix who reported cumulative expenses for guest artist fees and expenses, the figures quotes above are for only the top five highest paid contractors or independent services. At the bottom of that section you can see how many more recipients of expenditures over $50,000 each orchestra paid out (although it’s highly unlikely that all those expenditures are related to guest artists). If you dig through enough Form 990’s you’ll uncover some of the biggest of the big name soloists and conductors.

A Solution Borrowed From Government
So how do orchestras know if their investments in guest soloists are paying off in the box office? According to Norm, he’s witnessing big names like Ms. Mutter playing to 60% capacity halls in London. I’ve attended similar concerts myself here in the U.S. featuring soloists that are arguably of equal caliber to Ms. Mutter.

I think a fascinating experiment would be for a dozen mid to large budget orchestras to rescale their ticket prices to exclude all fees and related expenses to guest artists. Then, add those fees back into each ticket for every respective concert which features a guest artist based on the cumulative guest artist expenses.

This way, the orchestras can let the audience decide whether or not they feel a guest artist is worth the additional cost added to their ticket over the regular price of going to the orchestra. This isn’t exactly a new idea; federal, state, and local governments do this all the time when they mandate a targeted tax on specific goods such as gasoline and cigarettes.

Of course, there’s nothing stopping orchestra managers in the U.S. from banding together in a coalition with the goal of instituting guest artist price caps but ego and envy maintained by clever artist managers keep that solution neatly under wraps. As such, I’m not going to hold my breath for an artist-fee-based ticket price structure, but it’s fun to talk about it.

Postscript:I hope you take the time to go read Norman’s article. True to form, he wields a mean pen and delivers some great one-liners. My favorite from this article is when he described Ms. Mutter’s perceived ability to sell out a hall,

“The lady has no more pulling power than a one-armed dentist with a manual drill.”

Less witty but still full of impact value is Norman’s analogy to help his readers understand just how much a top tier guest artist can earn,

“At 42 [Ms. Mutter] makes well over three million dollars a year from sixty performances, which is more than the combined income of players in a symphony orchestra in Britain or Scandinavia.”

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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