Getting Real About Transparency: The Compensation Double Standard

There’s an intriguing article by Eleanor Turney in the 1/2/14 Guardian Culture Professionals Network blog (h/t Thomas Cott) where she discusses the need for realistic changes within the arts field during 2014. One of her points is on transparency and the need to talk about money openly and honestly; I couldn’t agree more and to that end, there’s one area within the orchestra field that would benefit by adopting this post haste: artist fees and overscale payments.

ADAPTISTRATION-GUY-042Anyone with time inside the business knows that it is highly unusual for an orchestra to release information about what it pays specific guest artists (soloists, conductors, pops shows, etc.), the only exception is when an artist is paid enough to be listed on the orchestra’s IRS Form 990. Yet that same rule isn’t applicable when it comes to musician compensation in the form of individually negotiated overscale payments bargained outside the auspice of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Those compensation payments are suddenly fair game in the sense that they are wrapped up into average or median figures.

More often than not, these figures don’t see the light of day until a labor dispute rolls around and the employer pulls them into the mix as a way to inflate cumulative musician employee earnings. The typical PR statement goes something like this:

Our average musician salary is [INSERT FIGURE HERE] per year but many musicians earn much more, up to [INSERT FIGURE HERE] per year.

Incorporating overscale payments in this way inflates employee earnings because the terms in most CBAs don’t impact the compensation figures highlighted in those sorts of statements.

Having said all of that, there are exceptions to this rule in that some orchestras have specific minimum overscale benefits spelled out in the CBA, such as principal musicians earn a fixed percentage over the base musician compensation. In those cases, it is far less likely to see musicians with individual agreements so adding overscale payments to average or median figures is fair game; but in the field-wide perspective, those types of orchestras comprise the minority of overscale dollars that float around the business.

For those unaware of what overscale is, you can find a detailed explanation in a post here at Adaptistration from 11/1/2012, but here are the relevant points as applied to this topic:

  1. The employer is under no obligation to pay overscale via an individual agreement nor are they required to include/exclude any specific terms; likewise, there’s nothing requiring overscale formulas to be applied equally from one musician to the next (unless specified in the CBA). So just like guest artist fees, these expenses are voluntary and therefore comparably easier to control next to base musician compensation.
  2. Overscale terms don’t always parallel CBA expiration dates. The most common type of individual contracts function more like an evergreen agreement in that the terms simply continue unless either side initiates negotiations to make changes.

In the end, if an orchestra decides that guest artist compensation is not fair game for public review, not to mention specific monetary terms within artistic and administrative executive contracts, then that same policy should apply to everyone benefitting from terms detailed in individual agreements. Anything less is, at best, and oversight and at worst, hypocrisy.

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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