Meaningful Discussions About Compensation Aren’t As Difficult As You Might Think

I was listening to a classical music podcast over the weekend and the host, a professional musician, was interviewing an orchestra CEO. At one point in the conversation, they started talking about manager vs. musician compensation.

Adaptistration People 163What ensued was the normal gnashing of teeth over it being difficult conversation (spoiler: it isn’t) and all the talking point unfolded along the same well-worn discussions on this topic.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the CEO felt that executives should be paid equal to music directors and the employer should invest more into key marketing and development staff in order to increase revenue. From there, orchestra musicians will get whatever is left over. I can only assume this included non-director/VP level staffers because those stakeholders were never mentioned.

The CEO lamented the lack of administrative talent and I wholeheartedly agree, this is one of the most pressing problems across all budget size orchestras.

Past that, the conversation was mostly benign. I came away with a message that executive and director level positions should be paid considerably more, music directors are overpaid, and everyone else in the organization should divvy up whatever is left over.

Parameters For Meaningful Conversation

If you’re interested in discussing stakeholder compensation, kudos! It’s a great topic and deserves as much attention as it can get. Here are a few key points to guide a meaningful discussion:

  • Budget size matters. There are precious few issues that apply equally across budget tiers. You must establish context using budget size before moving forward.
  • A lack of well-defined duties and responsibilities. One of the precious few universal applications you can embrace is the lack of quantifiable duties and responsibilities for artistic leadership positions; it’s rampant across all budget tiers. If you can’t manage it, you can’t measure it.
  • While administrative leaders have duties and responsibilities that are better defined than their artistic counterparts, actual oversight and accountability is spotty. As a result, underperforming executives tend to be rewarded as often as their more accomplished peers.
  • Salary inequality. While the rate of increase for average executive pay has accelerated at a healthy rate for nearly two decades, the same can’t be said for administrative staffers. This isn’t to say the executive increases aren’t deserving (see points #2 and #3), but the wage gap isn’t getting smaller and entry level and middle managers have been expected to do more for less over that same time frame.
  • Reference your sources. There are precious few resources available for comparing orchestra stakeholder compensation. While that makes meaningful conversations challenging, it doesn’t excuse stakeholders from spouting figures without citation. Avoid those types of conversations at all costs. When it comes to finding the numbers:
    • You’ll find the longest running resource right here via the annual orchestra compensation reports. It provides figures for music directors, executives, and concertmasters for orchestras in the $2 million annual budget range up through the largest budget orgs.
    • If you’re a member of the American Federation of Musicians, you can access historical data for professional symphonic, opera, and ballet orchestra musicians. To my knowledge, they do not provide any sort of comprehensive multi-year overview so expect to sharpen your spreadsheet skills. BTW: don’t forget to include substitute musicians in the conversation.
    • If you’re looking for entry to mid-management level staff compensation figures, you’re out of luck. This is perhaps one of the most debilitating #DataFails for the entire nonprofit performing arts field. There’s nothing stopping service organizations and member groups from creating a database, but I have yet to see the will to do so. Remember, you can’t manage what you can’t measure and in this instance, I don’t see much interest in owning these results. As a result, it’s easier to simply ignore it.

Now go off and have some meaningful conversations about stakeholder compensation. Get past the tawdry who-earns-what gossip level and really dig into systemic problems waiting for the will to enact solutions. Talk about genuine shared sacrifice, accountability, performance review, and transparency. Lastly, always cite your sources.

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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