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