Examining Coronavirus Orchestra News

For the most part, it’s genuinely heartening to see the degree of care and accuracy of news related to Coronavirus related news about the orchestra field. Having said that, there have been a few small exceptions worth examining.

One that would benefit from some added clarity was from an article in the 3/23/2020 edition of Vulture.com examining the New York Philharmonic’s labor decision to reduce musician pay over the summer.

Beginning April 1, all musicians, regardless of seniority, will be paid the basic minimum salary of $2,952 per week ($153,504 per year). Although newly hired rank-and-file orchestra members won’t see their pay decrease, that represents a big cut for senior players, whose compensation can be much more. The most recent available figures show that in the 2016-17 season, concertmaster Frank Huang earned $622,421.

The bit that’s unclear here is potential confusion over seniority pay and minimum overscale vs. compensation provided via individual agreement.

In a nutshell, seniority page and minimum overscale are financial benefits given to all musicians and spelled out in the collective bargaining agreement (CBA). For example, seniority pay is a formula that provides a musician with an increase in weekly base wages for each set number of years they are employed. Minimum overscale is what musicians in specific positions, such as assistant principal trumpet, are guaranteed to earn regardless if they have an individual agreement that provides more pay.

Any pay dictated by an individual agreement is mutually exclusive of the CBA. New York Phil concertmaster, Frank Huang, didn’t earn $622,421 thanks to language in the CBA. He earned it as a result of the terms in his individual agreement.

Consequently, the only way the basic minimum salary of $2,952 per week could apply to 100% of musicians is if:

  1. The NYPhil re-opened all individual musician agreement and managed to secure 100% buy-in.
  2. The NYPhil and the union agreed to language in their side letter that expressly prohibited any individual agreement from providing a musician with extra pay beyond the terms in that document.

Both options are entirely feasible but they each have their own unique set of challenges.

Since we’re examining this article, it’s worth pointing out that assuming 100% of musicians agreed to pay cut, regardless which method was used to get there, it would confirm a tiered level of sacrifice where musicians earning more were willing to give up more in order to equalize financial sacrifice.

If so, that’s genuinely heartening news.

In the grand scheme of things, this bit of fuzziness is deep in the weeds but it’s better for all involved as it helps clarify similar measures for measuring shared sacrifice among even larger earners.

Case in point, notice that the article also references music director Jaap van Zweden’s compensation. While the NYPhil’s musicians have been happy to release details about their financial sacrifice, it’s nothing but crickets when it comes to MD compensation.

Today, fees for visiting artists and full-time musicians represent $26 million of the Philharmonic’s $87 million budget. (A sizable chunk of that figure goes to music director Jaap van Zweden: Although his precise compensation hasn’t been made public, he earned $3.6 million in his previous post as music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.)

Moving forward, we’re sure to see more news about austerity measures in the weeks ahead. News will almost certainly fly fast and furious and the more details like these are clarified, the better. Kudos to outlets like Vulture that realize the value these topics have and to devote time and resources to coverage.

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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