Orchestra Musician Compensation Resources For Audition Candidates

Yesterday’s post on improving the audition process generated a good round of discussion but one comment in particular about the lack of pay information provided in audition announcements among smaller and mid-size budget orchestras stood out.

Great list of suggestions! There’s just one other thing from Vu Le’s list that I’d love to see given greater emphasis in the audition world – salary disclosure. Legendary orchestras that are known to pay well don’t need to provide specific compensation figures, but orchestras hovering around the poverty line need to be clear about what’s on offer.

I once flew across the continent to audition for an AFM orchestra in a second woodwind position. The ad did not specify pay or indicate whether the position was salaried or per-service. My online search found only compensation info for the principals ($30k/yr) and I didn’t want to call and hassle the proctor. I went and discovered at the audition that the orchestra had a full-time core, and the rest of the orchestra was per-service and making about 10% of the figure I expected. The committee and I ended up very angry with one another – I felt my time and money had been wasted, and they thought I’d shown up solely to take an “easy audition” for an ego boost.

Recently, my own orchestra has been posting audition ads without compensation data. I asked a friend a while back if she was coming to try for a vacancy and she responded that she wasn’t sure – there were two auditions that week, and she had no idea what our orchestra was offering in terms of pay, whereas the other orchestra had clearly stated it in the audition ad.

Adaptistration People 138You shouldn’t expect employers to begin listing compensation info for per-service level orchestras anytime soon but that doesn’t mean musicians considering the position are out of options. It may take some leg work, but the info is available. Those options include:

  • Ask the employer what the position pays. In most cases, you’ll want to contact the Personnel Manager or other senior manager in the operations department. Keep in mind, for some per-service level orchestras, this is not always a cut and dry answer. For instance, a per-service group that provides no minimum service guarantee won’t be able to provide a firm number so it isn’t as though they are being cagey (although it certainly happens), there really isn’t a clear number. At the same time, they should be able to tell you what average annual pay is like for musicians in the same section where the opening exists.
  • Ask the employer for a copy of their master agreement. For salaried orchestras, this document will spell out terms related to base weekly wage and number of season weeks. For per-service orchestras, it will provide per-service rates plus any minimum service guarantees for per-service ensembles. You’ll also want to look up info on whether or not they provide financial items such as travel pay and/or parking reimbursement as these items can have a large impact on actual take-home pay.
  • Contact the respective Local AFM (American Federation of Musicians) office and ask for a copy of the master agreement (in some cases, your respective Local may have to request a copy from the other Local).
  • Contact the orchestra’s respective players’ committee. Having said, you should keep in mind that cooperation is not guaranteed. You’ll have to do some Google sleuthing to see if they have a website with contact info. You can also search for a Facebook page or Twitter account.
  • Contact ICSOM/ROPA/OCSM for a copy of the orchestra’s most recent “settlement bulletin,” a document that provides an overview of key items in the most recent master agreement, including compensation info.
  • Contact the AFM’s Symphonic Services Department, which exists to “offer advice, assistance and support with all symphony-related questions.” You can ask for access to the current season’s “Wage Scales and Conditions in the Symphony Orchestra” document (available in hard copy, pdf, and online spreadsheet).


In order to help you on your way, here are online resources for some of the above suggestions. Keep in mind, if you aren’t a member of the AFM, you can pretty much cross off all but the final option, but you won’t know if you don’t ask; just make sure you go in eyes wide open.

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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2 thoughts on “Orchestra Musician Compensation Resources For Audition Candidates”

    • Sometimes, but not always. For instance, per-service groups may list a per-service rate but not list guaranteed minimum number of services. In groups where there is a tiered structure of salaried and per-service musicians, a position listed may not indicate which of those tiers it belongs.

      For groups where musicians are all salary employees, it’s far more consistent and straightforward and I can’t recall an ad in recent years for one of those groups where the info wasn’t listed.

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