An Extended Look At Top-Tier Musician Compensation

As several of the larger budget orchestras have successfully completed collective bargaining agreement negotiations, it is high time to take a look at how the minimum base musician compensation in those ensembles has evolved over the past several years. When examining compensation data as far back as 1999-2000 season is examined, some intriguing patterns begin to take shape…


For this exercise, the larger budget orchestras consist of the “Big 5+2”; the traditional “Big 5” ensembles in that group are Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, and Philadelphia Orchestra. The “+2” ensembles are the Los Angeles Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony.

Keep in mind the salary figures for these ensembles do not represent what the vast majority of professional orchestra musicians earn. Instead, these ensembles occupy the seven highest paid symphonic orchestra ensembles in the business.

Traditionally, these ensembles have maintained a very tight salary peer group but that started to change in the 2002-2003 season when the Los Angeles Philharmonic shot ahead of their peers only to move right back to the middle of the pack in the following season. Following that event, in the 2004-2005 season, these ensembles started to drift apart at a faster rate than previously experienced.

This trend continued to such a degree that by the current season, the ensembles have almost formed three distinct mini-groupings, with Boston and Los Angeles residing in the top layer, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco occupying the middle, and Cleveland on the bottom.

Since professional orchestras negotiate base salary figures years in advance, albeit at different times and for different lengths, it is possible to see how these trends will continue to evolve. According to available data, the difference between the “Big 5+2” salary parameters will grow to $9,360 by the 2008-2009 season; its largest gap since the 1999-2000 season where that figure was only $3,640.

The following charts illustrate how the shifts in base salary have progressed in three distinct stages since the 1999-2000 season:

Stage 1: (click to enlarge)

Stage 2: (click to enlarge)

Stage 3: (click to enlarge)

Finally, the following chart (click to enlarge) illustrates the entire pattern from 1999-2000 through the furthest known projected salary figure in 2010-2011. Note how the pattern resembles something of a shotgun blast with all of the orchestras tightly bound in the beginning but growing apart over time:

It is valuable to maintain a record of this data as one of the enduring positions among professional musicians is that staying as close to the top of the salary scale as possible allows them to be ideally suited to attract the “best of the best” players available. As the distance between the base compensation levels for the “Big 5+2” continues to grow, it will be interesting to see how those salary levels influence potential candidates.

Postscript: Thanks to the info below from Galen Brown, here’s a revised version of the cumulative chart which now includes the New York Philharmonic data through the end of their new collective bargaining agreement.

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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1 thought on “An Extended Look At Top-Tier Musician Compensation”

  1. The NY Phil released its figures today:

    2006-07: $113,360
    2007-08: $118,560
    2008-09: $123,760
    2009-10: $129,740
    2010-11: $134,940
    2011-12: $140.400

    (Note the discrepancy between your 2007 figure and the press release. I’m not sure what accounts for it.)

    Assuming that the NEw York numbers map onto your chart the way it looks like they should, NY remains in the top clump and the apparent shotgun effect starts to look more like Cleveland is simply falling out of the group and now the remaining 6 are returning to something resembling the grouping at the beginning of the decade.

    On the other hand, if the reason for the discrepancy is that you’re calling 2007-08 what NY is calling 2006-07, then there’s definitely a spreading out going on.

    Thanks for posting those figures Galen. I’m not entirely certain where the discrepancy comes in either, according to the ICSOM Settlement Bulletin filed by the NYPhil players, the $112,060 is the figure they reported. However, that same bulletin includes the following statement: “If the benefit level does not reach $60,000 by Sept. 21, 2006, the orchestra will receive the following salary increases: 9/21/06-3/20/07: $2,280 3/21/07-9/20/07: $2,330”
    I haven’t taken the time to add those up and see if it matches the revised figure but these sort of discrepancies are not uncommon since annual salary figures are reported before they are actually paid out. As such, I’m sure the new settlement bulletin will have some additional details shedding light on the change. ~ Drew McManus

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