“Culture Palaces For Air-Kiss Orgies Among The Superrich”

Or so goes the vivid imagery from Matt Smith’s 11/18/2008 article in the San Francisco Weekly about what he categorizes as excessive compensation for individuals like Michael Tilson Thomas who he describes as the “baton-waving tycoon at the head of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.” Smith doesn’t hold back as he rails against what he sees as organizations that receive public funds but “consistently failed in their mission”…

Barbed rhetoric aside, the issues at the heart of Smith’s article have been plaguing the business on and off for the past few years. A few years ago, music director compensation caught the attention of the Internal Revenue Service after congressional leaders cracked down on abusive philanthropic giving.

If nothing else, Smith’s article zeros in on the “Maestro Mystique” syndrome that seems to grow steadily each year and why it might be worth considering that this may not be the healthiest course of action for the business. He sums up a big-budget orchestra strategy like this: “Promote the music director so that he becomes an even bigger star, then shovel ever more cash and perks to the self-created celebrity to keep him aboard.”

It doesn’t take an insider to point out that CD covers, print ads, and multimedia projects featuring the music director in increasing amounts over and above the musicians who actually reside in the city for much longer tenures than most music directors may not be the best tactic when looking for city support. The more individuals like Smith make their case with such abandon, the more the orchestra business might want to consider taking a hard look at the way it does business.

Then there’s the actual dollars involved. The latest figures for music director compensation from the Orchestra Compensation Reports (2005/06 season) list seven music directors who earn over $1 million (compensation figures for all music directors is available here):

  • New York Philharmonic    $2,189,455
  • Chicago Symphony $1,910,997
  • Philadelphia Orchestra $1,586,000
  • San Francisco Symphony $1,576,874
  • Los Angeles Philharmonic $1,576,285
  • Boston Symphony $1,536,768
  • Cleveland Orchestra $1,226,197

Wouldn’t it be fascinating if conductors in the highest tier of compensation gave back a significant portion of their income (50 percent or more) for the next season or two? They likely don’t need the money and in most cases, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that individual fans would subsidize some of the perks they’ve likely become accustomed. No, I’m not a socialist; quite the contrary. This perspective has the potential for generating real gains (in the capitalist sense). Granted, $600,000 to $1,000,000 might seem like a drop in the bucket for an organization with an annual budget in excess of $40 million, but look at what that might be able to accomplish:

  • With an average ticket price of $35, a 2,000 seat hall could give 14 free concerts.
  • Create a free outdoor summer concert series.
  • Provide free parking vouchers to everyone in the audience for 100-150 concert events.
  • Schedule 15-20 run out concerts to underserved areas as far as 120 miles away from the primary venue.
  • Entirely offset increased costs of borrowing funds needed during normal periods of tight cash flow.

I’m sure every orchestra manager out there would have no trouble adding a few more items to the list, most of which would go a long way toward audience development and extend their organization’s reach into the community in meaningful ways. But ultimately, every conductor negotiates his/her own fees and they have every right to do so. Nevertheless, wouldn’t it be intriguing to see one of the biggest earners in the above list take advantage of giving back at these levels, even for just one season?

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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