A Gig Of Last Resort. Part 2

In Part 1, we discovered that there’s something not quite right at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) where frustration has given birth to disenfranchisement. The musicians feel the institution’s overall commitment to artistic integrity has slipped below acceptable levels whereas BSO president and CEO, Paul Meecham, feels that the group is making tremendous strides and is as competitive as ever for both salaried and substitute musicians.

Ultimately, the only people in a position to adequately assess the organization’s reputation and attractiveness are the orchestra musicians it courts.

As such, I reached out to several long time, well established, and first call Mid-Atlantic area freelance orchestra musicians to get their take.

Given the fact that none of these professionals are protected by the security of tenure and are hired purely at the discretion of both the BSO and its musicians, they have been provided the courtesy of remaining anonymous in order to avoid undue retribution.

The Imperial Tailor

Adaptistration People 128For the sake of perspective, since the turn of the century the BSO went from paying substitute musicians 100 percent parity with salaried musicians to having the worst substitute musician parity rate in the Mid-Atlantic area.

As of the 2013/14 season, the BSO paid substitute musicians 21.27 percent less per service than full time musicians and compared to regional peers, they paid $2.57/service more than Charlotte Symphony, $32.08/service more than Richmond Symphony, $38.74/service less than New Jersey Philharmonic, $6.50 less than a principal musician substitute in the Reading Symphony, and less than half of the Washington National Opera Orchestra base per service rate.*

Consequently, it isn’t difficult to see how the BSO has managed to cultivate a reputation among the area’s freelance musicians as being one of the lowest paying jobs in the area.

“I myself passed over a series of BSO performances in lieu of services with the Reading (PA) Symphony, whose per-service rate was higher and, the RSO paid mileage,” said one musician with nearly a decade of playing with the BSO. “For me it was a sad realization that a [regional] orchestra would have larger earning capacity than the Baltimore Symphony.”

Another musician focused on not only the pay but the work environment.

“I feel really terrible when I job hop but the BSO pay used to be so much better that anything else around it was tough to say no,” said a musician with nearly 15 years’ experience as a substitute with the BSO. “And it was a really existing [sic] group to play with, it gave you that musical high that makes this hand to mouth lifestyle worthwhile.”

Unfortunately, the BSO’s reputation has tarnished to the point where it is one of the least satisfying substitute jobs among their Mid-Atlantic peers. One freelance musician described the BSO as “a gig of last resort.”

“It’s an unhappy place to play, the regulars all seem beaten down and even when the music making is good you still leave feeling kind of empty,” said the substitute musician. “And when I can make more filling in at Reading – Reading – than I can in the BSO, it really becomes a gig of last resort.”

Another musician took exception to the way both stakeholders described the environment.

“I would love to know what they base their opinions on because no one ever asks me what I think after subbing there,” said one exasperated musician. “Sometimes it feels like you’re the only clothed person walking into a building full of naked emperors.”

Another long time substitute musician felt like both stakeholders have let down the orchestra.

“Some substitutes felt betrayed by the full-time members, like a slap in the face after years of bringing quality performances to the orchestra,” explained one musician. “Substitutes took a substantial financial hit, as the new compensation was only a percentage of an already-reduced base salary. It seemed that carrying the standard of a ’52-week orchestra’ had somewhat blinded the full-time musicians into protecting their personal interests and not the overall quality of the ensemble by letting the substitute pay slip below parity…For those substitutes who were once proud to bolster the BSO ranks it felt weird to see this decline. But as freelancers putting together careers with various orchestras, many understood the decline in substitute quality was because the BSO was no longer financially feasible.”

It is worth pointing out that since publishing Part 1, dozens of unsolicited emails arrived, all from freelance musicians who are verifiable current or former BSO substitutes. When combined with those interviewed for this article, it presents a clear pattern of accelerated institutional decline.

Looking Ahead

In the end, the BSO’s stakeholders seem to have a great deal of ground to cover in order to maximize artistic and fundraising potential for their centennial season.

Clearly, their position as a gravitational force capable of attracting the very best substitute musicians isn’t what it once was and could very well be a sign pointing to larger institutional identity crisis.

On one hand, the musicians may find their current compliment of 84 distasteful but without provisions in the agreement to return to previous numbers, the employer is under no obligation to gear strategic activity to accommodate those numbers; consequently, the burden to convince and inspire them to action is theirs and theirs alone. Moreover, they ultimately agreed to terms that created one of the lowest parity rates for substitute musicians among all ICSOM level ensembles so they can’t lay the entire blame for how that impacts the work environment and artistic standards at the feet of their employer.

At the same time, the BSO would be foolish to turn a blind eye toward concerns about artistic integrity and sharp drops in job satisfaction then feign surprise when the musicians go public in an effort to be treated as genuine stakeholders. Moreover, implicit threats that things will only get worse if they continue their public campaign of disenchantment only reinforces accusations of an indifferent attitude and caustic leadership style.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the musicians could wait until the upcoming bargaining cycle to lodge these complaints and use them as traditional leverage but given the recent outcomes in St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Atlanta, it seems like an odd choice for an orchestra’s board and executive leadership to embrace the increasingly hostile environment of contentious bargaining over less antagonistic options.

Ideally, recent events will help all stakeholders understand the value of earnest communication and honest self-evaluation while recommitting themselves to working with one another between bargaining cycles as opposed to working against each other a year from now.

* For an even greater perspective, here are some more comparisons from the 2013/14 season: the BSO paid substitute musicians $6.34/service more than Austin Symphony, $1.88/service more than California Symphony, and $2.12/service less than Oakland East Bay Symphony and $26.12 less than Columbus Symphony.

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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9 thoughts on “A Gig Of Last Resort. Part 2

  1. Well it seems the Bethesda audience is older, perhaps wealthier – and the Baltimore audience seems to be more diverse, perhaps more middle class – I’m looking at the GDP of the Baltimore area and it’s 19th. The base pay seems to reflect that last I checked – but maybe having 1 in 4 concerts in Bethesda means you can afford to aim a little higher. How much the mission centers on Strathmore is maybe an important question.
    The Bethesda audience has Washington Performing Arts Society concerts (guest orchestras) in their ears too – and as it seems they are paying full-time orchestra prices at Strathmore, one could argue that’s where the money should be going – at least for Strathmore.
    The educational programs BSO offers in Baltimore are also worthwhile. I think the musicians might feel better about those services if they were paid more to begin with – but what is an educational program if it shows that substitutes are a way of life, musicians don’t have ideal practice time or rest, and they aren’t being adequately compensated for their talent?
    So how to bridge the gap is the challenge.

  2. Thanks for the all the work put into this article. Could you clarify the group used as “regional peers” for the pay percentage stat? Is it just the ones mentioned or more (Philly, Harrisburg, Delaware). I’m also curious how issues of distance and paid milage play into this dynamic.

    Finally did you mean “exciting” in the second quote? I hope that all the orchestras mentioned are existing 🙂

  3. Thanks for the kind words and I really should add [sic] to that typo as it came in from an email communication. Thanks for pointing it out. And via regional peers, those are a sample of groups in the Mid Atlantic area that compete for freelance musicians. There are more of course but this group represents a good cross section of pay, budget size, and geographic parameters.

  4. I would like to briefly point out some of the outstanding programs that the Baltimore Symphony has done so well through the years. The BSO’s educational programs have long been outstanding and innovative. Their pops series (pops are always a controversial item among the musicians) is also excellent as is their “Orchkids” program. The BSO musicians also initiated a “BSO Music Camp” that has been successful. The Saturday morning “Casual” concert series that Zinman started in the mid 1980’s was a long time favorite. Current BSO Music Director Marin Alsop has continued that series, now called “Off the Cuff” I believe. There are other items that I could cite.

    Strathmore Hall as a second “home” for the Baltimore Symphony always seemed to me to be a brilliant idea with a very expensive execution. The BSO management made many mistakes in the original development of the hall and it became a bottomless pit of money in the early years. Who can blame the BSO musicians for not liking to travel to Strathmore every week while Meyerhoff Hall sits dark. Before Strathmore was opened the BSO management gave up their Saturday night concert series at Meyerhoff Hall in the hopes that that audience would “migrate” to the other concert nights. For most of the audience Saturday night was their ONLY night to attend the BSO and they weren’t going to go to Strathmore…..so you had an immediate loss of perhaps $250K in ticket sales as well as the dissolution of the entire Saturday night subscription series. Management never kept track of that audience, so they had no list of people to tempt back. The BSO chorus was also given up in the early 2000’s. That constitutes another loss of audience. The lack of strategic thinking on the part of board and management has brought them to the point that they are at now. The hiring of their present music director in the back room without the knowledge of the BSO musicians was also a terrible mistake.

    Contentiousness between the board, management and musicians continues as there is no trust between the sides. As for “Great strides”, I believe that the BSO has sunk far below the level it was at when David Zinman was the music director. No disrespect to Maestra Marin Alsop, the current Music Director, but the orchestra has lost personnel, salary and benefits since the late 90’s. Surely the BSO management is aware that morale is at an all time low. My guess is that management and board simply do not care. After all, this is the age of spin and pronouncements of greatness without proof.

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