Lower Ticket Prices = Jail Time

There was an interesting article in the 11/23/05 edition of the L.A. Times by AP writer, Rhea Wessel, about an event which recently transpired in France. Apparently, Volker Hartung, the Cologne New Philharmonic conductor and executive administrator, was put in jail for two days while being quested over the charge that he violated French labor law by underpaying his musicians. According to Hartung, that was necessary in order to charge lower than average ticket prices…

The article (update: 3/9/2010: the original article is no longer available online, but you can find similar details here) reports that Hartung organized the orchestra and hired young freelance musicians who get to travel and perform live, which allows the ensemble to charge a lower than average flat fee for concerts. The article goes on to describe that Hartung claims he is a target for government scrutiny because the French and German musicians unions are upset that he has “managed to fill houses with lower-than-usual prices on their home turf.”

Apparently, the Cologne New Philharmonic also refuses to chase government sponsorship; therefore, it becomes easy to see why the orchestra musicians aren’t paid very much. Earned income through ticket sales doesn’t even come close to covering the expenses for orchestra concerts in the U.S. and that ratio is even worse in most European countries.

If the Cologne New Philharmonic doesn’t have any government sponsorship and they charge lower than average ticket prices then it’s highly unlikely that they would be able to pay their musicians very much. So where was the orchestra able to find musicians willing to play for such low wages? According to the article, representatives from French and German musicians unions claim Hartung hires mostly Eastern Europeans.

One German Musicians Union official was quoted saying Hartung has paid his musicians as little as $35 per day when the typical union scale for equal work is $120-$180. If this is accurate, then it’s not very difficult to see why the orchestra is able to operate on ticket revenue alone, a 76% reduction in artistic expenses will do that for your bottom line.

The problem here is someone took a good idea of lowering ticket prices in order to attract larger audiences but they did so by not paying the musicians a living wage. In the end, it doesn’t do any more good than if a doctor kills their patient in order to cure their disease.

Here in the U.S., orchestras face the very same problems: in order to boost revenue streams, they raise ticket prices. But the higher ticket prices contribute to a lower average audience, in turn; ticket prices continue to increase until the organization finds a small group of core listeners willing to pay the inflated ticket prices.

At the same time, managers and musicians fight over lowered wages and benefits to help offset lowered income and to subsidize increased administrative costs. Musicians grow to hate managers and managers loathe musicians; hence, it’s a destructive cycle that occurs far too much.

All the same, in the case of the Cologne New Philharmonic both sides are correct: ticket prices need to be lowered, but not at the risk of denying the musicians an opportunity to earn a living wage. What the Cologne New Philharmonic should have done, and what all orchestras need to do, is start growing endowments to cover the ever increasing income gap.

This is a topic which gets a great deal of attention here at Adaptistration and the recent events in Europe only go to prove that things are tough all over. A few months ago, I published an article entitled “It’s More About Ticket Prices than You Think” which examined the issues reported in the AP article but it also presents some solutions which will keep those problems from spinning out of contro

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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3 thoughts on “Lower Ticket Prices = Jail Time

  1. Are you really sure that these musicians are not being paid a lower wage? Continental Europe has a significantly lower cost of living than does the United States, and due to government sponsorship, musicians’ wages in Germany are unnaturally high, at least to American standards. (Perhaps American musicians should be paid more.) A case in point is in Stuttgart, where their good, but not world-class (like the Berlin Phil or the BRO), orchestra, the SWR Orchestra, plays only 1/4 of a season, and the musicians go on to collect full salaries at the local opera company, ballet company and the chamber orchestra. It speaks to problems in both the American and the European systems of orchestra funding.

  2. Thanks for your comment Dan. Quite a few US orchestras operate in similar fashion to what you describe at the SWR in that the players earn portions of their income from orchestra, ballet, opera, and other pit related work. The differences are that sometimes those engagements are contracted by the orchestra and sometimes each individual performing arts organization contracts the musicians separately, even though the players are nearly identical in each group. Even middle budget size orchestras rely on a portion of their revenue from contracted work such as Nutcracker performances around the Christmas season.

  3. Having stumbled across this site, my only wish is to correct the above posting of its factual errors. The SWR orchestra in Stuttgart is a completely independent entity from the Stuttgart Opera. The former is a symphony orchestra only and the Opera orchestra plays opera (of course) and symphony concerts. The SWR is employed by the Radio and the Opera by the State. Both receive full salaries etc. Amongst the other independent Stuttgart orchestras is the Phil which is run and managed by the Phil.

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