Disposable Labor?

Following yesterday’s introduction which foreshadowed some issues which will impact how some orchestras function, today’s article will examine how recent events in Europe may help U.S. orchestras avoid some potential problems…

The Issues
On a fairly regular basis, the numbers of quality conservatory trained musicians available in the U.S. rise and fall. The most recent boom cycle in available musicians occurred shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union as a flood of orchestra musicians (especially string players) emigrated to the U.S. (as well as Western European countries). That event subsequently triggered an increase in the number of quality private teachers available which helped contribute to record numbers of students enrolling in conservatory programs since that time.

20 years later, those graduates are rapidly filling the ranks of smaller budget orchestras; contributing to an overall increase in the quality of American orchestras. The intriguing aspect of these issues is that it’s not a supply and demand problem; as a matter of fact, it’s not a problem at all so much as a series of opportunities for more musicians to move into becoming cultural entrepreneurs (such as the ranks of the musicians who belong to Chamber Music America).

Unfortunately, negative outcomes in the guise of exploitation are just as likely. Instead of seeing greater numbers of musicians as a benefit to the business, too many people may consider this as an “oversupply problem” and attempt to force established musicians into accepting lower wages or, even worse, begin to establish new ensembles bent on taking advantage of inexperienced, yet highly trained, labor for personal or organizational gain.

Volker Hartung
Volker Hartung

This problem has apparently begun to manifest in Europe. Recently, the Cologne New Philharmonic conductor and executive administrator, Volker Hartung (pictured to your right), was put in jail by French authorities for two days while being questioned over the charge that he violated French labor law by underpaying his musicians. I published an article on 12/01/05 which examined some of the issues and posed some questions related to that incident as to whether or not Mr. Hartung was deliberately underpaying his musicians in order to charge lower ticket prices. That article elicited a response from Mr. Hartung which he requested be published,

“Dear Sir, I read your very interesting article. Please understand and correct this: We have paid our musicians between 80 and 120 Euros for this concert. We do not refuse sponsorship at all and would definitely be able and willing to pay more to the musicians- but it is almost impossible to obtain subsidies!

Our musicians are well paid, otherwise they would not play! And they are Eastern Europeans living in Germany, as you have many Jewish Russians playing for the L.A. Orchestras.

It its all an incredible intrigue by some very jealous people, who try to turn the world opinion against us in order to force us from the market, because we are independent and free and were until now, very successful.

Independent artist like me are not any more supported in Europe- that is the problem!”

Mr. Hartung’s response brings up an interesting series of follow-up questions; such as, if he claims the players in his orchestra are well paid but the French and German musicians’ unions (which Mr. Hartung clarified in an email as being the “very jealous people” he was referring to) claim otherwise, then there must be  substantiated reasons behind both opinions.

At the heart of the issue lay the musicians who comprise Mr. Volker’s orchestra. French and German union representatives claim he is paying them far below acceptable wages, even compared to other Eastern European orchestras who tour through their respective countries. Mr. Volker claims that if he wasn’t employing the musicians for the wages he pays, they would be without work and “on the streets”.

I asked Mr. Hartung to expand on his initial email statement regarding the issues of compensation. Mr. Hartung responded via email with the following message,

“The French and German unions are seemingly both unwilling to concede that a payment between 80 to 120 Euros for a member of an internationally mixed orchestra of freelancing students is no scandal at all and far from modern slavery…I wish I could bring my message through to [the unions], that there is no need of fear or hate against me, since I am definitely providing work for musicians who would be otherwise sitting on the street. I am actually working in their interests!”

Gerald Mertens

In order discover more behind the position from the French and German musicians’ unions I contacted representatives from both organizations. The German Orchestra Musicians’ Union, the Deutsche Orchestervereinigung (commonly referred to in Germany as the DOV), and their director, Gerald Mertens (pictured to your right), had this to say when I asked him via email if Mr. Hartung’s above comments about his union were accurate and to elaborate more on the DOV’s position regarding how it determines a living wage,

“Mr. Hartung is not a scapegoat for the French or German musicians’ unions. As far as we know Mr. Hartung engages professional musicians directly from countries of the Eastern and South Eastern part of Europe, where the common wages (not only for musicians) are very low (about 200 to 300 Euros a month, [for example] in Romania),” wrote Mr. Mertens. “We don’t know if the musicians which he engaged for his last tours were really students ([if so,] what are their names, where do they live and study, who are their teachers?).”

I followed up by asking Mr. Mertens if Mr. Hartung’s assessment of what constitutes a fair wage holds true for German orchestral musicians by the DOV standards,

“A musician from the States Philharmonic Orchestra in Warsaw gets about 600 Euros a month, a musician in Germany about 2.000 Euros in a “normal” orchestra,” wrote Mr. Mertens. “When Mr. Hartung was imprisoned for the first time in Nice he said that his musicians from Russia, Romania, etc. got about 30 Euros day, which is of course a lot for them. But if you see the travel allowances for German or French musicians in an orchestra (they will get about 24 Euros a day), the daily wage for the Eastern musician of Mr. Hartung is reduced to only 6 Euros. The normal fee for a Central European musician would be about 100 to 150 Euros a day plus travel allowances. Mr. Hartung said on TV, that he never would dare to engage a German musician for this low fee of 30 Euro.”

When asked whether or not they have ever verified Mr. Hartung’s claims of paying his musicians 80 to 120 Euros Mr. Mertens said,

“We don’t know and Mr. Hartung never proved that he has paid between 80 to 120 Euros. I really don’t believe this, because originally he was talking about 30 Euros a day. After the first imprisonment this amount has probably been increased, but for 400%?”

In order to respond to the assertions from the DOV representative, Mr. Hartung was sent a list of questions asking him what method he used to determine that his method of compensation is a fair wage to pay a professional musician and if he could verify what his musicians were paid and if they were students or professionals. I also asked him what he pays the musicians for rehearsals and travel days while on tour and if they receive a per diem for meals. Unfortunately, Mr. Hartung declined to respond, even after several attempts asking for clarification.

Of course, the above information alone does not adequately demonstrate exploitative behavior on the part of any individual or organization. Tomorrow’s installment will continue to examine these issues and we’ll hear more from Messer’s Hartung and Mertens as well as a representative from the French Musicians’ Union (commonly referred to as SNAM).

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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9 thoughts on “Disposable Labor?”

  1. I agree with the growing problem of musician exploitation and that the conflicts in Europe could manifest themselves in American orchestras if we are not diligent in the protection of our musicians. But I do argue that part of the problem is related to supply and demand. You state that there is a “series of opportunities for more musicians to move into becoming cultural entrepreneurs.” But what about the oboist who only wishes to be a principal in an orchestra? They would not be content with just a teaching position or a membership in a chamber ensemble. And while there may be an increase in the number of performers in, for example, Chamber Music America, does that really convert to the growth of musician as “cultural entrepreneurs?” Many of these musicians do not have the ability nor the desire to find novel performing experiences, they simply wish to perform and by forming chamber groups they are doing just that. I do not feel it is out of a movement toward other performance opportunities, rather it is an act of desperation since orchestra jobs are becoming scare. Therefore, the trouble partly hinges on the supply of musicians (those who seek out traditional versus non-traditional ensembles) and the demand for their services (created either by organizations currently formed or new ones emerging daily).

  2. Hi Brandon, many thanks for your comment. I don’t know if I agree with your point that classically trained musicians moving into the field of chamber music is an act of desperation and service organizations like CMA are quite dedicated to helping musicians become self sufficient in the field of chamber music performance just like the American Symphony Orchestra League is dedicated to helping promote and improve traditional symphonic orchestra ensembles.

    Musicians who wish to perform in full symphonic ensembles will undoubtedly pursue that goal and that, in all likelihood, will lead to positive results. One of the primary components responsible for the increase in quality and quantity among American symphonic orchestras is the direct participation of the musicians in setting the strategic goals of their respective institutions through the collective bargaining process. The more highly trained musicians there are in smaller budget orchestras who have to take a larger stake in the success of the organization, the better.

    I see no reason to believe that those individuals wouldn’t be able to continue serving as a positive force for enhancement within their respective ensembles. I also think that many musicians are quite capable of learning how to develop their entrepreneurial skills, to think otherwise may be construed as having a very low opinion of musicians.

    Another positive sign that things are improving is the trend among conservatories establishing classes to better equip their students to become cultural entrepreneurs, like the Eastman Institute for Music Leadership http://www.esm.rochester.edu/IML/

    As such, the whole “supply and demand” argument from a one-dimensional, static viewpoint doesn’t really fit these circumstances except perhaps by the type of individuals who could use that one-dimensional argument to use that for their own exploitative gain.

  3. Drew –
    Thank you for your insight and reply. I, too, believe the power and success behind the orchestra of tomorrow lies in highly trained musicians becoming greater stakeholders in their organizations and their art form.

    Classes like the one you referred to at Eastman and others at Julliard and Cincinnati begin to prepare a performer to face a career in classical music today, but an educational revolution must begin to enhance a performer’s view that their career is static and predictable. Enhancing a student’s view on how an orchestra operates, involve them in discussion about the future of classical music in America needs to be viewed on the level of importance of preparing for an audition.

    You call the “supply and demand” argument one-dimensional and to an extent that is true. There will always been opportunities to perform, to create, to express oneself in music. But I see the argument as a one-dimensional mirror where musicians, managers and lovers of music must examine our industry and begin to discuss problems and purpose solutions.

  4. “…as a matter of fact, it’s not a problem at all so much as a series of opportunities for more musicians to move into becoming cultural entrepreneurs (such as the ranks of the musicians who belong to Chamber Music America).”

    Drew, I have to think you’re being a little optimistic with this comment. Cultural entrepreneurship more often than not involves INVESTING money, not making it, and many musicians are so saddled with debt from school that they are hardly in a position to make any investments at all. There is a very limited pot of money out there for new projects that don’t have an institutional infrastructure already set up, and a lot of competition for that money. Also, you seem to suggest that musicians who don’t “make it” can move into other sectors of the industry, but you ignore the fact that the competition for those industry jobs is also fierce. When I was applying for arts administration jobs out of college, I frequently had organizations tell me that they had received dozens if not hundreds of applications–even for entry-level administrative assistant jobs at tiny start-up organizations. I can’t imagine all that much has changed in the three years or so since then.

  5. Thank you for your comment Ian and thank you for pegging me as an optimist, I don’t usually get to enjoy that moniker. Nevertheless, you have some intriguing points; I don’t think I’ve ever come across anyone in either the for profit or nonprofit fields refer to entrepreneurship in that way.

    I would say that compared to the audition circuit, the candidate pool for orchestra management positions is still much smaller. I know that for the largest budget orchestras as well as those who are doing very well right now, the number of applicants for middle management positions is thick, but that’s still a minority of overall positions available.

    In the end, I still have a great deal of faith in the fact that we’ll see more and more musicians creating their own opportunities without doing so on the backs of others. In many cases, the fact that they may not have institutional infrastructures is actually a blessing, not a burden.

  6. Hi Drew –

    creating opportunities is one thing, and musicians will probably always find a way to play. But being able to make a living exclusively as a performer is something else. Entrepreneurship, if it’s going to lead to employment, does, in fact, require substantial financial investment. And I don’t know (having worked in adminstration for years) whether funneling players into management is inherently good, as your article implies. Supply and demand is a central issue for the future, not of classical music itself, but of musicians having careers in music that pay the rent and bills.

  7. Thanks for the comment Andrea; you’re the second reader to mention the musician moving to management point. I’m not sure exactly why that was coming across until another reader pointed out that the AJ leader could be interpreted in that way.

    I’d like to say that I certainly don’t endorse management as a place for failed musicians to flock, however, I have often pointed out that there are several positions within management which should require a musical background and/or training; executive, artistic, marketing, education, and components of operations.

    Regarding the issues of substantial revenue needed to invest in cultural opportunities, I still don’t think it’s a universal point. I published an article at The Partial Observer awhile back about a tuba soloist, Pat Sheridan (http://www.partialobserver.com/article.cfm?id=1384). Part of the article examines how Pat decided to take the plunge (and talk about risk, he was and is the first ever professional tuba soloist!)

    How a musician becomes entrepreneurially inclined is generally no different than how other endeavors in the for profit sector operate. Like all things there are risks and investments, some fail, others succeed. People rarely go into business for themselves out of desperation or because they are lousy with disposable cash.

  8. >From my own experience, the oversupply of musicians in the UK is meaning more musicians giving up and becoming postmen, accountants, classroom teachers, etc. They are not bringing art to communities instead. The growth in school workshops involving nothing more artistic than clapping games is not a worthy substitute and funding bodies need to wake up to this fact.

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