Is Philly Still Competitive? Let's Examine Some Numbers

Among the largest budget orchestras, one of the most competitive issues is the ability to attract and retain the very best talent and perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the primary components in that equation is base wages. So I thought it would be helpful to take a look at what sort of impact the recent Philadelphia Orchestra concessionary agreement has on the big budget orchestra competition landscape.

In order to put together a reasonable peer group, orchestras had to offer a minimum base musician annual [sws_css_tooltip position=”left” colorscheme=”rosewood” width=”450″ url=”javascript:void(0);” trigger=”wage” fontSize=”12″]Figures were gathered from ICSOM settlement bulletins and a few inside sources; many thanks to those folks, you know who you are! [/sws_css_tooltip] of $100,000 as of the 2009-2010 season. From there, figures were plotted for each ensemble through the 2013-2014 season for as long as information was available. Simply put, the data paints a profound picture (the Philadelphia Orchestra plot, in dark red, has been highlighted):

click to enlarge


  • Philadelphia Orchestra’s recent agreement places it firmly below traditional peers, including the Cleveland Orchestra.
  • For the first time in the history of the organizations included in this examination, the Philadelphia Orchestra will be surpassed by the National Symphony and the Minnesota Orchestra.
  • The Detroit Symphony Orchestra wages fell to such a [sws_css_tooltip_image position=”center” colorscheme=”rosewood” makeOverflowVisible=”1″ url=”” src=”” image_width=”900″ image_height=”726″]level [/sws_css_tooltip_image] that it can no longer be considered competitive with this peer group.
  • If the National Symphony continues its recent trend, it may supplant Boston and become the newest member to break into the “Big 5” since Los Angeles and San Francisco.
  • The Pittsburgh Symphony came close to surpassing Philadelphia but their agreement from earlier in the season contained enough concessions that they are now on the bottom of this peer group.

Which Negotiations To Watch & Why

  • Boston Symphony: They’ve slipped a tiny bit in recent seasons and given the rate of increase of the groups at the top of the pack, their new agreement could allow them to continue running with that pack or see them falling behind.
  • National Symphony: Among all the ensembles in this peer group, they’ve been growing at the fastest rate. If Kennedy Center CEO Michael Kaiser can continue to fund that trend, he may not only pull away from the groups that aren’t keeping pace but firmly plant the orchestra as a fierce competitor for the best talent.
  • Minnesota Orchestra: the giddy thrill of seeing Philadelphia in their rear view mirror may be short lived if, at the very least, the organization doesn’t manage to produce a series of wage freezes and small gains in their upcoming negotiation.

Sadly, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is clearly out of the running when it comes to this peer group and if there’s a lesson to be learned it is this: competition for top talent not only exists, it’s alive and well. All of those voices during the Detroit strike declaring that those musicians would have nowhere to go have fallen steadily quiet in light of the orchestra hemorrhaging not only its [sws_css_tooltip position=”left” colorscheme=”rosewood” width=”450″ url=”” trigger=”principal” fontSize=”12″]The latest being the Detroit Symphony’s Principal Bass who recently won a position in the Minnesota Orchestra. [/sws_css_tooltip] and fixed chair musicians but a host of section musicians as well.

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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0 thoughts on “Is Philly Still Competitive? Let's Examine Some Numbers”

  1. Putting aside the $131,000 PO musicians were supposed to receive but didn’t in the last year of their expired contract, subs and emeritus musicians who play a whole year will now only receive $87,500 compared to the approx. $125,000 they did get – a whopping 30% cut. Then there’s the pension boondoggle on top of this. Did you say “competitive?”

  2. Given that wages and benefits at Philadelphia are now being reduced below peers, the Orchestra will have to rely on non-momentary incentives to convince musicians to come to Philadelphia over an orchestra like Boston, accepting lower pay. Or in other words, make the case that the Philadelphia Orchestra is the best possible place to work.

    But given the way the board and administration have treated the musicians, it seems like musicians would rather accept lower pay at an orchestra like Pittsburgh and work there instead. Since the 1996 strike labor negotiations between the the musicians and administration have been heated. And this time around, there were no negotiations — the administration used the hammer of bankruptcy court to force the musicians out their pension program and to take wage cuts. Who would want to work for that kind of organization?

  3. The board seems determined to have a mid-level regional orchestra. The cutbacks will continue. Fewer musicians, slashed benefits, and so on. The contract and strategic plan are designed to drive away any musicians of stature and standards.
    The board and management can’t tell the difference between a mediocre ensemble and a great one, so they assume there is no difference, or that the public is similarly ignorant. They also believe there are “plenty of wonderful musicians out there” who “would kill” to play here. They will learn the hard way they are mistaken. The numbers of players at the top level are dwindling.
    Great musicians want to play with the best. That used to be in Philly. People left Boston, NY, Cleveland, St. Louis, Minnesota, etc. to play here. No more. The current is flowing the other way now.

    • There are a few comments that I take exception to here, but the one that stands out most to me is that “the number of players at the top level are dwindling.”

      You would have been more accurate to state that “the number of seasoned, established top level players are dwindling.” Observing audition results from orchestras east to west coast, there doesn’t appear to be any shortage of exceptionally talented young people winning positions (both section and title roles). Isn’t your own tubist a 20 something fresh out of school? I would have a hard time being convinced that the level of playing in today’s auditions don’t equal or surpass those held 20, 30 or 40 years ago.

      Even with (regrettable) cut backs – as it currently stands, the PO is still one of the most attractive ensembles in the world for 99.9% of exceptional top level auditioning talent.

  4. Implicit in every word and action of the board and management is the desire to downsize and downgrade the artistic level and standing of the Philadelphia Orchestra. They will not stop until the destruction is complete. The natural conclusion to this strategy is the end of the orchestra as a musical entity, with just the board and management remaining.
    Specifically, restoring the board to it’s “rightful place” as the most desirable board in Philadelphia shouldn’t even be in the strategic plan.
    Lowering “fixed costs” means lowering musician compensation. Lower salaries and benefits mean lower quality players. Players have already left, and many more will try. Morale, already near death, will drop further. All of this turns the orchestra from a “destination” into a stepping stone.
    Lowering costs also means second rate soloists and conductors, more runouts, bus rides, and so on. Good conductors are expensive, and soloists of stature, like Yo-Yo Ma, are also priced accordingly. The public knows the difference, and they vote with their feet.
    “Sowing seeds” and other slogans just scares people. The message musicians get from this is that there is no plan, just a desire and willingness to demean the musicians and strip them of their dignity.
    The long term effects of these actions are too numerous to mention, but an orchestra full of angry, demeaned musicians for whom just going to work makes them depressed will never recover any of its “former glory.” Ultimately Philadelphians will find another way to get high quality concerts. New York is just an hour away.

  5. Drew, your article and the financial info included is most thought provoking. Using your caveat that scale wages are a primary, but not sole component of the ability to attract and maintain talent ….
    Is Philly still competitive?
    If you are in Detroit, which I have often heard previously described as a “destination” orchestra, the scale wages in Philly are still higher than they have ever been in Detroit. So what does that mean actually? Is Philly now a destination orchestra for them and others, even if some of Philly’s current members may be attracted to NY, Chicago, LA or elsewhere?
    Rather than who the “new” Top 10 Orchestras are going to be, I wonder within that group and other full time orchestras what we are going to see about membership reductions and what the total number of musicians being employed at the end of this year as compared to 2 or 3 years ago might be.

    • My apologies for replying to your note lat Phillip but let me do my best to answer your questions on a limited time budget:

      Is Philly still competitive?

      By traditional measures, not as much. And one of those is going to be compensation; if that didn’t’ matter we likely wouldn’t be seeing executive compensation rising at rates 3x-9x faster than other stakeholders.

      So what does [destination orchestra] mean actually?

      Good question and I doubt there’s one solid definition but I called Detroit a destination orchestra in my radio interview with WRCJ’s Chris Felcyn on January 2010. When I use the term, it’s usually in the context of musicians and from that perspective, it will be an ensemble that a musician is more likely than not to spend the bulk of their career without any burning desire to audition elsewhere.

      So from that point of view, the old Detroit was a destination orchestra as was Philly; but there was still a substantive difference between the two in that Philly would always be in a much stronger position to pull away any of Detroit’s musicians should those individuals benefit and fit with the ensemble. Seeing that transfer in the opposite direction would have been far, far less likely. The impact this can have on artistic excellence is profound, especially for principal musicians.

      Whether Philly will remain in that exclusive territory following the concessionary agreement is something time will tell.

      I’m not sure I follow the direction of your final paragraph, could you expand on that?

      • Drew, thanks for your further comments. I hope the following better frames my question:
        Even as some orchestras appear to be moving forward economically and that may create a new Top 10, if any of those orchestras are reduced in size or sub pay is reduced, it has real impact on the number of individual musicians who can make a living as performers in a community. Include as well those other orchestras, further down the chain, where similar economic changes have occurred. Do you or others have any sense about the total number of musicians who may be making a living wage based on orchestral performance come Jan 1, 2012 as compared to say, Jan 1, 2010 or 5 years ago? Thanks

      • Thanks for the clarity but unfortunately, I don’t see any way to predict the numbers of positions available with any real certainty since there are plenty that are currently unfilled due to auditions that don’t produce winners, spots that are frozen due to mutual agreement, etc. I also know of some institutions that are looking at expanding the numbers of positions but even then, that’s an unknown variable since those negotiations are either in play or have yet to unfold.

  6. I’m sorry to post again, but I feel a discussion is warranted regarding the public outcry amongst those within the orchestra who, fearing the loss of artistic integrity, use words like “destruction”, “downgrade” and other rhetoric which negates the future abilities of the orchestra (of course, I’m speaking beyond Philadelphia).

    People buy into perception. Whether or not the product is “the top” (something that is completely subjective, by the way) is irrelevent to some degree. When people feel as though they’re coming to an especially fun or exciting party, more than likely, they will enjoy themselves and have a positive experience. But when the people throwing the party let everyone know beforehand that “a lot of things didn’t go right, and it’s not looking like this thing is going to be as good as we hoped”, those (still) attending are going to be influenced.

    • The outcry is not entirely from within the orchestras-

      When the public is served dumbed down programs, indifferent or hostile customer service, rising ticket prices for second tier soloists and conductors and reduced seasons the words destruction and downgrade are pretty accurate; I’ve heard this expressed by members of our audience.

      No musician that I know, after the thrill of winning a job, starts out as jaded and cynical. But there are plenty of things over the course of a career that can bring a person to that point. It’s hard to remain upbeat and positive when you see your orchestra being destroyed by decisions in which you have had little or no say, I also know that most musicians will go out and still give their best they regardless of the %^&* going on around them. That is the essence of being a professional. At the same time it’s our responsibility to stand and defend our profession from attack by some (not all ) managements. Sometimes that means telling it like it is……

      • I can absolutely understand how frustration brews over time when you have control over only one of many moving parts. I think it’s remarkable that performance rarely suffers during difficult financial times. It’s a true testament to your passion for the art.

        However, don’t forget that although your moving part is undoubtedly the most important for the community, it can be completely controlled from within. External economic or social elements typically don’t directly affect your abilty to perform. Just as there’s no musician that begins their career jaded, there’s no orchestra manager or board member that begins their tenure looking to destroy or degrade a cultural icon of the city. The word “attack” points towards malicious intent. Although there are many instances where bad or misguided decisions are made with bad results, this field is also prone to experiencing bad results from good decisions. This is where the outside factors come in.

        I wouldn’t be so quick to assume that the public as a whole (or those few but critical major donors) perceive programs as dumbed down, unless there’s evidence (not a few anecdotal comments) that indicate such. And equally, reduced seasons don’t happen when concert halls are filled. They are a consequence of having too much product, and very arguably could be considered good management (at least as long as capacity is a problem). Again – when the party feels full and exciting – it is. Even if it happens less frequently.

      • It becomes all too easy to let this topic degrade into a zero sum structure such as supply and demand. Solutions, especially creative ones, are fostered in an environment of expanding the pie as opposed to setting artificial parameters. As it turns out, this is exactly the approach League CEO Jesse Rosen took on a WQXR podcast recently on the topic of arts funding, which was good to see since so much coming out of the League has been about putting artificial limits in place as opposed to identifying opportunities to grow.

      • Will, your statement that:

        “…reduced seasons don’t happen when concert halls are filled. They are a consequence of having too much product, and very arguably could be considered good management…”

        would be considered anathema in the business world. If one is having trouble selling a product the answer lies in changing the product to make it more attractive to the customer, or convincing the customer that the product is attractive as it stands. Reducing inventory (in this case number of concerts) quickly becomes a downward spiral.

    • I agree with Will that it is important for an institution or event to have positive ‘buzz’. Having a reputation for excellence predisposes the customer (in this case listener) to react favorably to the product.

      However that reputation must ultimately be backed up by reality. It is no good to pretend that everything is fine when it isn’t. And it is unfair to criticize critics or ask them to simply keep their mouth shut. In the long run, such an attitude will not serve the institution well.

      That said, standing on the sidelines and throwing stones is not helpful either. Working together while facing reality is probably the best way to move forward after surviving a contentious labor dispute as Detroit and Philadelphia have.

  7. Going through this sort of thing is one of the most devastating things any organization can go through. After going through this last season and wondering what the future of our own Beloved Detroit Symphony was going to be, coming back to work this season was a beautiful experience. The charge in the room of support from our audience, the music making on stage and a sense of hope that our future can be brighter made for a wonderful experience for everyone there.
    There is a lot of work to do to rebuild trust and forge the necessary relationships needed to ensure we never end up “there” again.
    I would like to encourage anyone who is quick to say destructive comments about an organization that they consider the ramifications of those words. I would also encourage them to find a way to being a constructive part of the solution. If one truly cares about the future of either the Philadelphia Orchestra or the Detroit Symphony Orchestra it takes blood sweat and tears to do the healing work necessary to get to a point of true health. And we have to do that work with our hearts, minds and ears open.

    • When you speak of ramifications Kim, what sorts of examples are you thinking about here? There is enough flexibility behind the notion of what does and does not constitute what you’ve referenced as being a constructive part of the solution that having a conversation about these topics is certainly worthwhile, but it is most beneficial when everyone has the same frame of reference. Likewise, defining notions such as true health and rebuilding trust can be construed in a number of different ways so the more detail here the better. I’d love to have more details about what you’re thinking with all of this.

  8. I fail to see how “rhetoric” negates “future abilities” of an orchestra. The public buys into reality, not just perception. Great orchestras are built over decades, but they can be torn apart quickly. In the 1980s, the Philadelphia Orchestra sold out 100% of concerts, 3000 people, every concert. They held back tickets to have something for the walk-in traffic. This was in the Academy of Music, uncomfortable and acoustically dry as it was. The orchestra was great, the Music Director (Muti) was strong, and the concerts were excellent.
    The musicians were seasoned, experienced and highly skilled. Attrition was two or three positions per year. Continuity and consistency was the norm.
    Currently, people are leaving as fast as they can. Many new members will play the “standards” for the first time with the Philadelphia Orchestra, turning music that needed little or no rehearsal into adventurous programming.
    High level performance is not subjective. These musicians are athletes/artists who reach incredible capabilities and sustain and improve these qualities over decades. They don’t “play” music, the work, and damn hard.
    Whether the talent pool is dwindling or not, the best players will go where the institutions have the strongest commitment to excellence. Not just on stage, but throughout the organization. That is why the orchestras in Chicago, NY, Boston, and LA are moving forward with positive action, while Philly and Detroit are collapsing under the weight of incompetent boards and managers.
    It’s not the music, or the hall, bad as it is. The people furthest from the music have done this.

  9. First let me say I have the utmost respect for Ms. Kennedy, her talent and opinion. My congratulations on her appointment as acting concertmaster of the DSO.

    It is not my intent to make destructive comments. I simply gave my opinion on the current status of the DSO. I do not mean to imply that the musicians of the DSO have become 2 nd rate. The orchestra that management currently has on stage however is assembled, performing and is paid like a very good regional orchestra.

    There is no doubt that a lot of healing has to occupied – among other things – if the DSO is to regain a place among its former peers. Has management demonstrated anything that indicates a desire to heal- other than lip service?

  10. Doug,

    I too have the utmost respect for Detroit Symphony Orchestra Acting Concertmaster Kim Kennedy. Also for Acting Principal Second Violin Adam Stepniewski, Acting Principal Flute Sharon Sparrow, Acting Principal Percussion Eric Shin, Acting Principal Timpanist Eric Schweikert and Acting Principal Trumpet Steve Anderson.

    What concerns and saddens me is that the DSO, an orchestra whose concerts I have attended regularly since the days of Antal Dorati in the 1970’s, finds itself in a position where it has 6 Principal positions open. (To be fair, Steve Anderson has held the trumpet position for several years. The other 5 positions have opened up since the resolution of last year’s labor dispute)

    I must agree with you – to pretend that this does not impact the sound and quality of the performances is not realistic.

    It is my fervent hope that the DSO can regain some stability in its ranks and does not continue losing its talent. I hope that the current situation does not keep top quality musicians from auditioning for the DSO and that it can rebuild its roster. I trust that DSO leadership is working towards the same goal.

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