The Difference Between Per-Service and Salary-Based Musicians

Following yesterday’s article that referenced per-service and salary-based musician employment, a number of readers reached out asking about the difference.

To that end, I’m certainly guilty of assuming too much from time to time and this is decidedly one of those issues that can be very confusing if you aren’t already familiar with the distinction.

What’s A Service?

Within the context of professional orchestras, a service typically consists of one rehearsal or one performance. Service length is determined by each orchestra’s collective bargaining agreement, but they are usually in the neighborhood of three hours.

Think of services as the standard unit of measurement for billable time that determines a musician’s workload and cost.

Both per-service and salaried orchestras use services to determine workplace conditions. For example, in salary-based orchestras, work weeks have a maximum number of services that can be scheduled in any given week.

Per-Service Orchestras

Per-service orchestras only pay musicians when they take part in a service. For example, if a per-service orchestra’s tuba player is used one week but not the next, that musician is only paid for the first week of services.

Musicians are paid a fixed rate for each service. Some orchestras pay musicians the same rate for rehearsals and performances while others pay a higher rate for performances. Some per-service orchestras offer benefits, the lion’s share don’t.

There are two basic distinctions between per-service orchestras: those with minimum service guarantees and those without.

Minimum Service Guarantee Orchestras

This sub-set of per-service orchestras agree to hire musicians in the collective bargaining agreement for a minimum number of services per season. The actual number varies between groups and orchestras can offer the same guarantee to all musicians or create tiers of guarantees. If the employer schedules less services than the minimum guarantee, they are required to pay musicians for unused services by the end of season.

No Minimum Service Guarantee Orchestras

These orchestras only pay musicians when they are used, and they have no obligation to offer any work over the course of a season. In essence, these are more right-of-first-refusal employment agreements where musicians who are part of the collective bargaining agreement are guaranteed to be offered work before any other musician, but only when it is available.

Salary-Based Orchestras

These ensembles employ all the musicians in the collective bargaining agreement at a minimum weekly wage. It doesn’t matter if a musician plays zero or 100 percent of all services in a week, they are still paid their weekly minimum.

Salaried musicians can be employed up to 52 weeks per year. Some salary orchestras employ musicians for as few as 21 weeks per season. It is also common for salary-based musicians to receive health care and retirement benefits.

Salary-based orchestras have the highest degree of predictable labor costs.

Service measurements are still particularly important in that they help determine the maximum amount of time musicians work per week and they help determine how substitute and extra musicians are paid. In those instances, sub/extra musicians function more like per-service musicians with no minimum service guarantee.

Hybrid Models

There are orchestras that employ a combination of salaried and per-service musicians. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they tend to fall in budget ranges that straddle all per-service and all salary-based orchestras.

In those ensembles, a small portion of musicians are salary while the majority of their colleagues work under a minimum service guarantee structure.

In Summary

Now that you have all this shiny new knowledge, you’re better equipped to understand what employers and musicians are saying to one another when you encounter them talking about their employment.

More importantly, you no longer have to assume a service = a church gig!

I kid.

In all seriousness, you have more knowledge than some orchestra board members. I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the number of times I’ve included this overview in board development projects.

Perhaps more importantly, you also see why traditional terms like full-time and part-time aren’t more than ill-fitting suits when it comes to musician employment statuses.

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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