Sometimes More Is Less

Fellow Arts Journal blogger Greg Sandow wrote to me the other week with a fascinating question…


Greg was wondering if there are many orchestra musicians out there earning less now than they did in the near, or not so near, past. That discussion eventually evolved to encompass and awkward condition where players find themselves earning less annually even though their weekly wages may remain unchanged or even increase.

Since this email exchange took place right before the launch of last week’s compensation reports, I already had plenty of figures floating around in my head to pull out a few examples. Nevertheless, floating figures for an email exchange and definitive data for an article are entirely different so I pulled up my spreadsheets full of base musician salary data for the past seven seasons and started tracking down instances of when more is less.

However, before launching into what I uncovered, it is important to understand a few guidelines for how musicians calculate annual compensation. To begin with, this is calculated differently between the average ICSOM and ROPA ensemble.

For average ICSOM groups it is a straightforward formula: musicians earn a base weekly wage that is multiplied by the number of weeks in their season. The product serves as the base annual salary: $800/wk x 38 weeks = $30,400 base annual salary.

For average ROPA ensembles the majority of musicians don’t earn a weekly wage. Instead, they are paid on a per-service scale (a service is typically defined as any time a musician is required to perform during a rehearsal or concert). Some orchestras offer a minimum service count via a tiered system which musicians use to calculate guaranteed annual earnings: $80.00/service x 75 guaranteed services = $6,000 annual earnings.

Now that we have that cleared up, here are some examples in recent history where musicians may have experienced an increase in base weekly wage or per-service scale but the result still produced lower annual salaries/earnings. Keep in mind these are not every example in recent history which conforms to this criteria, but only the first several I ran across during the time I had to conduct research:

  • In the 2000-2001 season the Boulder Philharmonic paid 22 “Level 1” and 71 “Level 2” musicians $59 per-service for 113 and 75 guaranteed services respectively. This resulted in “Level 1” musicians earning approximately $6,667 and “Level 2” musicians earning approximately $4,425 for that season. However, in the 2001-2002 season they increased the same 22 “Level 1” and 71 “Level 2” musicians’ per-service scale to $60 but reduced the guaranteed per-service count for both levels to 72. This resulted in “Level 1” and “Level 2” musicians earning approximately $4,320 for that season. That is a 35.20% drop for the “Level 1” musicians and a 2.37% drop for “Level 2” musicians.
  • In the Louisville Orchestra they are going to play out this scenario over the long term. Throughout their 2005-2006 season, the musicians were paid $875 per week over 39 weeks resulting in an annual salary of $34,125. However, the musicians accepted a plan which includes a large reduction in weekly pay in addition to decreasing their season length for the next three seasons. Nevertheless, by the 2009-2010 they hope to experience the first increase in their weekly wage since the 2005-2006 season.
    By the2009-2010 season the weekly wage is expected to be $900 per week but the season will only be 36 weeks in length, three less than the 2005-2006 season, resulting in an annual salary of $32,200 (still $1,725 less than they earned in the 2005-2006 season).
  • Here is an example of relative decrease. Throughout the 2002-2003 Alabama Symphony season, their musicians earned a base weekly wage of $734 over the course of a 40 week season. However, in 2003-2004 their weekly wage of $734 remained the same but their season decreased to 37 weeks. This resulted in the base annual salary dropping from $29,360 to $27,158, (a $2,202 difference).
  • A similar situation occurred at the Milwaukee Symphony a few seasons later where the weekly wage of $1,375 remained unchanged between the 2004-2005 and 2005-2006 seasons but the length of their season decreased from 43 weeks to 39 weeks. This resulted in the base annual salary dropping from $59,125 to $53,625 (a $5,500 difference).
  • another example of relative gain took place in the Charlotte Symphony. During the 2002-2003 season they paid their musicians the weekly wage of $780 for a 40 week season. However, jump ahead to the 2004-2005 season (they had a strike in 03-04) and even though the musicians received an increase in their weekly wage to $825 (an 5.76% increase) the season was only 38 weeks long. Therefore, the annual increase only amounted to $150. In this case an 5.45% increase in weekly wages only produced a 0.48% increase in annual salary.

  • Fortunately, I do not run across many organizations attempting to publicly spin a reduction in annual salary/earnings into something positive by focusing on an unchanged/increase in weekly/per-service compensation as opposed to annual salary/earnings. Nevertheless, I infrequently encounter an individual manager or board member who chooses to do exactly that in a private setting. In case you aren’t exactly certain how someone could spin a pay cut into a pay raise, here are some examples:

    “Even though we had to cut our annual budget, at least we managed to increase our per-service scale”.

    “The musicians here earn more per week now than ever before even though they don’t have to play as many weeks.”

    This is certainly a great topic for discussion and even though it is (fortunately) the exception and not the rule to musician compensation over the years it is still a worthwhile topic since most ensembles tend to gauge success by length of season and how much they pay their musicians.

    Unfortunately, I don’t have the compensation data to go back any further than the 1999-2000 season but I think it would be fascinating to see if there are any ensembles out there which pay their musicians less now than they did five, ten, or even 20 years ago. If you have some verifiable data out there dating back that far, I’m certain all of the readers would appreciate your taking the time to send in a comment detailing what you know.

    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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    2 thoughts on “Sometimes More Is Less

    1. Thanks for bringing the Boulder Phil to light. I play trumpet in the Boulder Phil, and would like to point out that we have never had a service guarantee. Management has always (and still does) had the right to cancel any services with 21 days notice, without anyone getting paid. This is how the Sinfonia of Colorado’s (a chamber orchestra version of the BPO, which accounted for about 40 services for those involved) season got canceled with very little notice in 2001. Our season has gotten progressively smaller: this year’s calendar has 38 services (of which 4 are a small, strings-only chamber orchestra), even though our per-service rate continues to climb. A big change in the number of services from six years ago.

    2. Mark: Thanks for pointing out the situation surrounding the no guarantee clause. It is certainly correct and is what the AFM reports as well. The service counts listed in the article for the Boulder Philharmonic are what the AFM reports BUT it is fair to mention that those are not guaranteed services. Given the description of minimum service guarantees at the top of the article I can certainly see how a reader might assume that applies to the Boulder Philharmonic’s situation.

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