The Data Behind Substitute Pay Rates

Throughout the series of posts about the substitute musician pay disparity at the Minnesota Orchestra Association there were a number of reader comments asserting anecdotal evidence over how common the practice was among professional orchestras. Since then, I’ve taken the time to evaluate the data and have uncovered some fascinating information.

Adaptistration People 177Before diving into the figures, it is important to understand how they were processed. For instance, most orchestras pay substitute and extra musicians via a per-service rate, with a service typically defined as a standard rehearsal or concert event.

But for the purpose of this evaluation, all of the included orchestras employ their contracted musicians on a full time rather than per-service basis, or to be more precise, the musicians are paid a weekly salary for a set number of weeks per year regardless of how many services they are used in a given week (although maximum service restrictions are quite common).

Moreover, not every orchestra has the same number of min/max services scheduled per week so an orchestra that pays a weekly salary of $1,000 with an average of nine services per week would have a different per-service rate than an orchestra that pays an identical weekly salary with an average of seven services per week. In this example, the latter ensemble would have a higher per-service rate.

But wait, there’s more. Orchestras do not follow a standardized method for calculating or reporting substitute rates. In an ideal situation, the rate would be defined as a percentage of the base weekly salary per-service scale but orchestra data is rarely that convenient, and this particular topic is no exception.

For example, some orchestras pay substitutes one rate for a rehearsal service and another for a concert service while others adjust the rate based on the actual number of services scheduled in the respective work week. Then there are those which simply cut to the chase and offer a single flat rate regardless of the type of service or number scheduled in the given week.

Consequently, you can begin to see where making an apples to apples comparison isn’t always cut and dry.

Nonetheless, you should be aware that even though the data is not designed to produce solid, indisputable comparisons the following results are based on calculations that make those efforts as reliable as possible. As a final point of order, please note that the data used for this comparison is from the 2012-13 season.

Orchestras that compensate substitute musicians at the same rate of pay per-service as contracted musicians:

  • Chicago Symphony
  • Dallas Symphony
  • Detroit Symphony
  • Fort Worth Symphony
  • Nashville Symphony
  • New Jersey Symphony
  • New York Philharmonic
  • Rochester Philharmonic
  • St. Louis Symphony
  • San Francisco Symphony
  • Utah Symphony & Opera
  • Virginia Symphony (they are a few percentage points shy)

Orchestras that do not compensate substitute musicians at the same rate of pay per-service as contracted musicians:

  • Alabama Symphony
  • Atlanta Symphony
  • Baltimore Symphony
  • Boston Symphony
  • Cincinnati Symphony
  • Cleveland Orchestra
  • Colorado Symphony
  • Columbus Symphony
  • Houston Symphony
  • Indianapolis Symphony
  • Kansas City Symphony
  • Los Angeles Philharmonic
  • Milwaukee Symphony
  • Minnesota Orchestra
  • National Symphony
  • North Carolina
  • Oregon Symphony
  • Philadelphia Orchestra
  • Phoenix Symphony
  • Pittsburgh Symphony
  • San Antonio Symphony

Approximately one third of orchestras in this list do not maintain substitute pay parity.
Approximately one third of salaried orchestras maintain substitute pay parity.

Getting Back To Minnesota

At the time this article was written, there has been no communication from the Minnesota Orchestra musicians on whether or not they are considering the substitute musician disparity mitigation fund proposed last month; likewise there is no response to the three questions related to how the disparity was addressed in negotiations.

For now, there are plenty of questions and next to no answers. But I’m curious to know what you think about all of this and I invite you to take a moment and share your thoughts in a comment.

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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22 thoughts on “The Data Behind Substitute Pay Rates”

  1. As part of cutbacks here in St. Louis in the early part of the millenium, our substitute pay was cut below that of regular musicians. That discrepancy was gradually erased over the course of our last contract. In other words, these discrepancies may not be permanent parts of the various orchestras’ contracts.

    • Many thanks for the perspective Mike and therein lies the conundrum. The first hurdle is how to address the issue of disparity at the bargaining table. Does it rise to the level of deal-breaker for the rank and file musicians to the point where any sacrifices must be shared equally? If not (which is an equally fascinating discussion), what happens during the interim? The substitute musician disparity mitigation fund is a way around the Catch-22 of picking and choosing negotiation battles without having to justify forcing colleagues to shoulder larger financial scarifies.

  2. As a colleague of mine just put it, this is a “very black-and-white way of interpreting something that is very grey.” In the orchestra at which I am an administrator, which is on your “naughty” list above, extra players are paid either the regular-member weekly salary or the per-service rate, whichever is less (the per-service rate being calculating by dividing weekly salary by quota services for the week, although slightly pro-rated according to rehearsal vs. concert).

    So in a week where we go over the service quota, regular members will make more, but in a normal week with normal services, extra players and regular members make exactly the same. (I hasten to add that going over quota services for the week is a rare occurrence.)

    I have always felt that this is very fair to the extra players, but while also maintaining a distinction between those who have won a job in the orchestra and those who have not.

    • Thanks for the input N., and if you’re talking about the orchestra I believe you’re referencing, there are two separate rates for rehearsal and performances, 50% to be precise, so that final tally would also depend on the ratio between the two. But I’m most interested in your final sentence regarding maintaining a distinction between contracted and substitute musicians. In what way do you think it is appropriate and/or justified to have any difference?

      • To your first point: the way things are set up here (and as a disclaimer, I am not in the Personnel Office, so not an expert reader of the CBA), each subscription series week is usually going to have the same number of rehearsals and concerts, so the “ratio” is almost always going to lead to a calculation that adds up to the weekly salary. There may be anomalous weeks, but my guess is that the majority of the time, the extra players are going to take home the same weekly salary as the regular members.

        To your second point, which is more controversial (and now you see my need to post anonymously)….

        Not to get too Marxist here, but there is a class structure built into orchestras, isn’t there? Principal players make more than section members, second chair players make more than third, there is such a thing as move-up pay, etc. This disparity in pay between different chairs is based on ability, i.e. principal players have earned the right to be paid more by winning that seat with their talent. It’s the same as in any business where people on the higher rung make more money. And so one might argue that this hierarchical distinction might extend to regular members vs. extra players.

        Now this is not necessarily my point of view (again, not a musician — just an interested observer), but it stands to reason that this is the point of view of many, given the statistics you cite above.

      • The discussions related to duties and responsibilities is a good one, and one we have covered a bit in previous posts on this topic (here and here). Ultimately, substitutes are subject to the same expectations as contracted peers but receive fewer protections (for example, no peer review and no ability to vote on the master agreement) and if they aren’t held to the same base artistic standards, why do orchestras charge the same ticket price when the ensemble is using substitutes?

        I wholeheartedly agree that these can be difficult discussions but the variable quality scale is a slippery slope. For example, if it is reasonable to pay a substitute musician less based on the lesser artistic value perspective, shouldn’t ticket buyers pay a lower rate if the ensemble is comprised of one or more substitute musicians? I can see it now, tickets are discounted at a percentage equal to the number of substitutes on stage and subscribers can purchase quality control insurance that will refund a portion of their subscription price should contracted musicians need to bow out due to illness or injury. 🙂

      • One point to this, and then I should watch my tongue…

        I’m not talking about “variable quality” here. Extra players can be as good or better than regular members for the sake of this argument. I am talking about “variable status.”

      • Let me see if I can parse this status v. quality thing, as much for my in-progress thinking on the matter as for our debate….

        Status: Measurable. You are a member of the orchestra or you are not. You sit in a principal chair or you don’t. Etc.

        Quality: Harder to measure, at least on an institutional basis. In a perfect world, status and quality would be commensurate, but…. This is where your slippery slope comes in. Is the 40-year veteran of the oboe section losing her skill, and so should her pay be cut? That trumpet player missed a few notes — should we dock his pay? Does the fact that there are subs on stage mean we should charge less for tickets? We see that this leads us onto almost nonsensical paths, not to mention into a discussion of the vagaries of audition and tenure processes.

        So if one is to set policy, say, as regards pay scale, and one WANTS to make distinctions (and defend them), one can most CLEANLY make them on the basis of status, as clearly some (most) orchestras do. So the question might not be: “Do extra players need to perform as well as regular members?” It’s moot, or at least part of a larger and more complex discussion that goes to the very foundation of how orchestra govern themselves artistically.

        Perhaps CBAs reflect a bureaucracy in this regard, rather than a meritocracy. Don’t know who is right and who is wrong here. Just trying to reason it all out.

      • Thanks for the clarification, that’s very helpful. I’m not certain that the distinction you’ve defined serves to cleanly (regardless the percentage) justify a disparity, especially in ensembles that hold substitute auditions. Moreover, I’d assert that the status issue as you’ve defined it has a critical limitation as the majority of orchestra musicians occupy section positions where every musician is equal by those sorts of status metrics. I’ve certainly heard similar positions over the years but in the end, they work better as a comfortable way to avoid difficult, yet inextricable, discussions about parity.

      • N, as to the second point, you note that the distinction in pay based on proven ability, but it seems that the substitute are not in a position to compete for better pay based on ability even though they seem to be informally regarded as permanent subs. They are never in a position to show that they are any better than “good enough.” This distinction is morale busting, and over time, it may very well result in division within the union membership. Point–management.

        In Minnesota, there is a huge speed bump to get over between management and everyone else, and this may be the only way over it. But it’s best if the disparity can be evened out a bit.

      • Okay, now I am just playing devil’s advocate…

        I know of cases of subs auditioning for permanent spots and winning them. Is this not how they compete for better pay and prove that they are better than “good enough”?

        I’m not saying this “caste system” is a good thing — surely it strains extra-player morale. But it seems a fact of orchestral life. Even if there is parity in pay, there is not going to be parity in benefits, right? (Drew: do you have data on orchestras that extend benefits to extra players?)

      • Sure, we can play Devil’s Advocate, but it is typically works best when used to promote open minded skepticism and not to justify untenable positions 🙂 Having said that, the only way to adequately measure the quality of substitutes is to have them compete alongside contracted members in blind auditions over an continuing basis; meaning, regular performances reviews should replace tenure.

        Moreover, this isn’t a fact of orchestral life at all; for instance, it is clear that Canadian orchestra musicians have a very different outlook on this since more than two thirds of their orchestras maintain parity (more on this in the post from 2/26/2014). And it is worth pointing out that Canadian and US orchestra musicians both belong to the same musicians’ union (the American Federation of Musicians) so there’s no issues related to varying fundamental tenets of unionism. Likewise, the figures I gathered are from a single season’s data based on CBA’s that were active during that time; in order to have a broader view, an examination would need to extend to at least a decade prior to the economic downturn (so from 1998 forward).

        I’m not aware of any orchestras that extend benefits to substitute musicians outside of instances where there is a fixed, one or more year temporary appointment. If anyone has evidence otherwise, I’d love to hear about it. As for parity in benefits, it depends on which benefits; health care, pension, peer review, per-diems etc.

      • N., You may have a point in that subs can audition for permanent spots. I’m just not sure how typical that is, and I’d guess that a sub faces more barriers than advantages simply by being a sub. Maybe not. Not sure.

        We agree, though, that the two-tiered pay/benefit package, at best, strains the morale of the subs. That the two-tiered system is a “fact?” Well, it’s not an immutable fact. It can be changed in whole or in part, for better or worse, through negotiation.

        My further point is that a two tiered system may eventually affect the morale of the entire orchestra, as contention is bound to show up in a thousand seemingly innocuous ways. And then when the negotiating committee shows up at the table, there may be a palpable weakness in the ranks.

        The situation here in Minnesota was desperate, and what’s done is done. At the moment, everyone seems just happy to be working again, and I’m certainly happy to hear them play again. But it’s my hope that when negotiations come up, the musicians will take very seriously the opportunity to correct as many disparities in pay and benefits as possible.

  3. Another question that is important to understand is “do substitutes do the same WORK as full-time musicians?” In any particular service the answer is obviously yes. But, full-time musicians have much longer-term responsibilities. The overall sound of an orchestra is created largely by long-term musicians over time, Also, orchestras use musicians in marketing and fundraising. In these cases, the total work is not the same. Therefore, is it responsible to compensate them differently?

    • Those are interesting points and non-artistic duties and responsibilities are not typically listed in the CBA or Job Description as something all musicians are accountable for and with regard to the long term artistic identity, that is addressed with seniority pay scales, which substitute musicians aren’t eligible for. Consequently, contracted musicians are awarded additional compensation for those items which substitute musicians do not receive. Musicians who participate and are effective in marketing and developments efforts also have the ability to negotiate payments for that work by means of an individual agreement (typically used for overscale but often includes items such as these).

  4. Drew- your premise in this inquiry is that it is unjust for different musicians to receive unequal compensation for doing he same work. But what about seniority overscale? You could easily have 2 section string players of the same age, experience and background sharing a stand and receiving different salaries because one joined the orchestra at age 21 and the other at 36. Does this differ qualitatively from different scales for subs and regular members?

    • Intriguing thoughts Henry but I’m not sure that age and potential for earning seniority are comparable in by way of your description. For example, in the scenario you described, both musicians receive the same compensation scale applied equally (assuming the orchestra doesn’t institute varying seniority scales where members are grandfathered into a more lucrative payment schedule- another dubious practice I’m seeing pop up here and there since the downturn, but that’s a different discussion). As one of the other readers pointed out that I expanded on, seniority recognizes the time a musician has contributed to the ensemble’s long term, and hopefully unique, musicality along with recognition of skills that are only developed over time.

  5. Drew, Perhaps a solution to sub pay would be similar to what the AFM does with media; negotiate a minimum scale for subs and extras nation-wide, based on orchestra budget size. Then at least subs and extras would have pay parity with other subs and extras. But your argument for pay parity for subs and extras with regular orchestra members is tricky. The truth is that substitute and extra musicians can never achieve true parity with musicians who hold positions in an orchestra because they are missing something very basic: job security. Unfortunately, musicians weight that very simple distinction much more heavily than they should. Until we can stop inferring that someone is a good musician simply because he or she has won an orchestral audition and someone who hasn’t one an audition is somehow “less than” or “not good enough” as a musician, parity is not even a discussion that can be on the horizon. There are many reasons why a musician might not have won an audition, and usually if they are the caliber of musician that is being hired to play with the likes of the Minnesota Orchestra, it’s not for lack of talent or skill. If we as musicians can ever start judging each other solely on our abilities and talents and NOT on positions we hold or “who you know,” then the issue of whether we get paid more than the person sitting next to us won’t even be an issue.

    • an intriguing idea but I don’t believe creating a national pay scale is possible, however, each Local has the ability to negotiate sub pay as a mutually exclusive agreement from the CBA. From that direction, it would be easier to implement parity across the entire field.

      But I think you hit the nail on the head with regard to why this is such a sensitive issue for musicians and managers alike; the unwritten rule of hierarchy is very much a double edged sword. I would be very interested to see a discussion panel comprised of Canadian and US orchestra musicians (contracted alongside freelance) and managers discussing this issue; first among themselves and then together as one large group.

      I have a hunch it would be a revealing discussion.

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