Can PSO Maintain Status If Salaries Don’t Hit High Note?

Or so goes the headline for Andrew Druckenbrod’s article in the 8/22/08 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In the article, Andrew examines the current Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO) collective bargaining agreement negotiations, the orchestra’s finances, and how well (or not so well) the organization has done keeping up base musician salary compared to its peers. The short answer to Andrew’s headline question is simple: no.

At least that answer is simple if you take other compensation benchmarks from the same field and apply it to musician base salary levels. When compared to average increases among all International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) symphonic orchestra CEOs, Music Directors (MD), and Concertmasters (CM), average musician base salary increases are the lowest by anywhere from half a percent to one-and-a-half percent.

If you believe the fundamental argument behind compensation increases for CEOs, MDs, and CMs that in order to attract better talent, you have to pay competitive wages, then that philosophy should permeate the entire organization. The alternative is to risk having an outfit look like a nonprofit purveyor of executive golden parachutes.

The PSO isn’t alone peering over the precipice of moving down a level in comparative quality, peer groups like St. Louis and Detroit have flirted with similar issues over the past decade and based on improvements to musician base compensation, Detroit appears to be enjoying more success with regard to backing away from the cliff.

Also of note in Andrew’s article with regard to negotiations is the phrase “…defining [the new music director’s] scope of decision-making power with the orchestra” which is code for “can the music director fire whichever players he wants” and/or “does the music director get a majority vote in the final round of auditions.” Although these are critical issues in any orchestra, conductors have a wildly varying degree of positions from head-in-the-sand to manically proactive. Consequently, depending on the PSOs position (not to mention what his contract already provides) these issues might end up becoming more contentious than those related to salary.

Ultimately, the PSO negotiations are worth watching and here’s hoping that they’ll find a way to stabilize the critical issues of musician compensation, minimum number of players, and pension in such a way as to release them from the frenzied results of past negotiations (and reopened reopeners).

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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