The French Are Not As Forgiving

Dan Wakin’s article in the 3/3/2010 edition of the New York Times does an excellent job at reporting on the Moscow State Radio Symphony Orchestra’s working conditions. According to his report, the musicians earn $40 per concert with no per diems and a number of the musicians go on record talking about unsatisfactory working and travel conditions. If this doesn’t sound familiar, it should. At the end of 2005, conductor Volker Hartung and his Cologne New Philharmonic made international news after French authorities arrested and jailed him for two days as a result of breaking French labor law…

Ultimately, Volker was convicted of “clandestine work” and sentenced to three months in jail and a 10,000 Euros fine by a court in Strasbourg on 10/3/08. An article from that time by Frank Cadenhead reports the Strasbourg court determined Hartung had “fraudulent intentions” and “a logic of profit” in employing “foreign workers in unreasonable working conditions” and “avoiding social legislation.” There are four articles about Hartung and this situation here at Adaptistration and a quick Google news search will turn up dozens more from sources across the globe.

It doesn’t take long to see a laundry list of comparable items between the Cologne New Philharmonic activity on French soil in 2005 and the Moscow State Radio Symphony Orchestra’s current US tour. However, one noticeable difference is no one within US law enforcement agencies seems to care as much as their French counterparts.

Wakin’s article reports that Moscow State Radio Symphony Orchestra’s artistic director declined to discuss musician payments and phone and email messages to the tour’s producer, Andrew S. Grossman of Columbia Artists Management, went unanswered. However, Wakin did get in touch with Columbia Artists chairman, Ronald A. Wilford.

The Columbia Artists chairman, Ronald A. Wilford, said he was not familiar with the details of the contract. But he said that typically Columbia Artists, as a producer, receives fees from the presenters, who keep the box office receipts. Columbia Artists arranges travel inside the country and lodging, and guarantees the orchestra a set fee. “We have no idea what they’re paying their orchestra,” Mr. Wilford said of Moscow State Radio Symphony’s management.

What do you think, is any of this a big deal? Was the French government overreacting when they arrested Hartung or should the US stand up and take notice? Do working conditions and compensation levels of foreign orchestras touring the US matter? Should US based artist management firms insist on the right to inspect artist payment records for orchestras and other ensembles involved in tours they produce?

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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8 thoughts on “The French Are Not As Forgiving”

  1. The Moscow State Radio Symphony tour conditions are inexcusable to me not so much for the performance fees offered as to the lack of coverage for expenses.

    The fee of $40 per concert one might consider “take home pay”, and in some countries this is a large number. For example, when I conducted the Tianjin Symphony Orchestra in 2006 the typical take home salary of an orchestral musician was about $200/month. The musician salaries in Bulgaria a decade ago were similar.

    But if this fee must then be used to feed oneself in a totally different economy, that is where the issue of fairness resides. A young musician from someplace else who thinks $40 is a lot may not know how much it costs to eat in the USA when signing on for a tour.

    It would seem to be possible for the management firm arranging the tour not only to provide appropriate transportation and housing but also a minimum per-diem allotment for meals within the fees they charge the presenters. This is a change the industry might consider.

    I don’t see the need for tour management to examine an orchestra’s books, if they simply do the right thing about ensuring appropriate living conditions while on tour.

    • That really sums it up nicely Chris, thank you for that. Given the amount of time they are here, cleaning concert dresses and tuxedos alone will eat up what’s left of that pay after they buy what little food they can afford.

      I’m also curious to know if they are paid after the production run. As for the right to inspect books, it’s not as uncommon or as difficult as some might think. We’re not talking about a full blown audit so much as verifying items such as pay levels and disbursement.

      It does become easy for producers to turn a blind eye and legitimately say they negotiated overall fees in good faith and if the organization then pays the talent sub-standard wages, that’s not something they can get involved in.

      this is another area where industry standards and practices could (and should) be hammered out in some form of written ethical conduct codes. Granted, these aren’t enforceable by law but it demonstrates a different attitude.

      After all, if there are those inside the business willing to eat their own (so to speak), why should governments or communities care about arts funding? Ultimately, if we don’t find ourselves important, no one else will.

  2. I didn’t read anything about the musician union in the NYT article. Why aren’t they saying anything about this? It seems hypocritical that they would complain about their salary and work rules but not mention anything about this (or are they?).

  3. What should be of more interest to the paying public is the orchestra’s quality, which, at least in the Birmingham performance, was deplorable (see links here: Not to mention the pre-concert publicity, which hyped 160 performers; we got half that. I’m not saying this was a $40-per-gig/no-per-diem orchestra — no musician hired for a lengthy foreign tour deserves that kind of treatment — but this tour seems to have been a boondoggle from the start. Presenters beware.

  4. Drew,
    Don’t want to make a misinformed comment but it is my understanding that the process for foreign artists performing in the U.S. in terms of securing a VISA includes a step whereby the AFM in some capacity has to sign off on the application of the artist applying. The Symphony I work for no longer hires foreign artists if we would be required to secure the VISA, but leave that requirement to the agent in question. But several years ago when we did secure a VISA there was a step where the AFM had to approve the application.

    Would be a worthwhile follow-up that if that is a necessary step, then what does the AFM do for applications of foreign orchestras like that to insure that the musicians involved are getting adequate treatment and compensation?
    Symphony Manager

    • That’s my understanding as well but I’m not entirely certain what and where (and even if with all the changes) the AFM’s role is in that process. I sent this article to a few folks I know in the AFM encouraging them to post a comment but have not heard anything as of yet. Hopefully, your note will inspire increased interest.

  5. I can also agree that taking home 2,000 after 2 months of work is not a bad deal for most Russians. However, eating for $10 a day alone would take up almost 2/5th of that total. Also the musicians are not payed amortization fees, which, I would expect, cost a significant amount in the end. Plus other miscellaneous expenses. In the end they would be lucky to take home half of what they earned. This would be OK by them, if they at least got to see the country and did not have a schedule like they have right now.

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