Thinking About Salary Levels In Five-Quarter Time

Yesterday’s article exploring the highest paid seven orchestras generated a great deal of private email, most of which focused on whether or not there were any other salary peer groups among professional orchestras…

Since I maintain a database of musician, executive, music director, and concertmaster compensation levels dating back to the 1999/2000 season for both ICSOM and ROPA ensembles, putting together a chart is fairly straightforward. Unfortunately, creating a chart with 41 different entries (such as all the ICSOM symphonic ensembles) can get pretty crowded.

At the same time, even a crowded chart can open your eyes to evolving patterns. For example, Since the 1999/2000 season, ICSOM musician base pay levels have been steadily growing into five distinct pay levels. On the top are the Big “5+2” ensembles examined in yesterday’s article. After that is a collection of four orchestras in the $85,000-$97,000 range, seven orchestras in the $70,000-$80,000 range, five orchestras in the $50,000-$62,000 range, and the remaining 18 orchestras are spread out evenly throughout the $25,000-$45,000 range.

The following chart illustrates these groupings; displayed in alternating solid and dashed lines (click to enlarge).

ICSOM salary trends

It is worth noting the few ensembles which have crossed from one pay strata to another since the beginning of the timeline. On the positive side of that trend is the Fort Worth Symphony while the St. Louis Symphony and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra have failed to keep up with their peer groups.

Although the sheer number of ensembles included in the above chart makes it difficult to distinguish all 41 ensembles, what does this chart tell you?

Postscript: For all the detail geeks out there, like me, wondering where on earth the title for today’s article came from; I was listening to the live version of Dave Brubeck playing “Take Five” at the same time I noticed the five distinct pay levels.

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 “Thinking About Salary Levels In Five-Quarter Time”

  1. Very interesting but IMO you paint an incomplete picture of the musician salary structure in the orchestral world without including the relevant opera and ballet orchestars in the database.

    Thank you for your comment, but could you give an example of what you mean and which ballet and opera orchestras do you consider “relevant”? Given the fact that all symphonic ensembles are included in the list, why would some ballet and opera ensembles not be included? Finally, what exactly is incomplete about the picture? I think this could be a useful discussion but without some more parameters it is difficult to assume what you are referring to. ~ Drew McManus

  2. Drew,

    I think he’s referring to the opera/ballet orchestras that are in ICSOM (Met, NYC Opera, NYC Ballet, Kennedy Center, Chicago Lyric, SF Opera, SF Ballet.)
    Although only one (Met) comes near the big 5+2 in terms of salary.

    Bob and I exchanged a few emails since his comment and it seems that his thoughts were leaning more toward how much influence the base pay at ISCOM opera/ballet orchestras had on their symphonic counterparts.

    My observations tend to lead me to believe that it’s mostly a one-way street. I know of opera/ballet orchestras where the musicians compare their weekly salary to their orchestra peers in the same city, but I don’t see many symphonic musicians looking at annual salaries as a factor in determining what they ask for at the bargaining table.

    Another point is one you mentioned, the only opera/ballet orchestra to come close to top level annual pay is the MET opera orchestra, as such, there simply aren’t enough groups earning the same level of annual salary as their symphonic peers to really impact the overall picture. ~ Drew McManus

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