2021 Orchestra Compensation Reports: Music Directors

Much like their executive counterparts, Music Directors saw a large artificial decrease in average compensation thanks to several high paying positions being filled for only part of the season. Nonetheless, even a down season, it’s good to be the king, maestro, music director.

The Information

In order to provide information that is as accurate as possible, info from the 2018/19 season is gathered from the following sources:

  • Music Director compensation figures were obtained from their respective orchestra’s IRS Form 990 for the 2018/19 concert season.
  • Total Expenditures were also obtained from each respective orchestra’s IRS Form 990 for the 2018/19 concert season.

Adaptistration makes no claim to the accuracy of information from documents compiled or reported by external sources. If you have reason to believe any of the information is inaccurate or has changed since reported in any of the above sources and you can provide documentation to such effect, please feel free to use this form to submit a notice.

Did you know? Direct links to most of the orchestra’s financial disclosure documents at guidestar.org are available in the Orchestra Financial Reports.

What The Numbers Don’t Show

It is important to remember that the numbers shown do not always convey a complete compensation picture. For example, a music director may have had a large increase in salary because they were leaving a position and per terms of their contract, they may have received a sizeable severance or deferred compensation package. As such, the cumulative compensation may artificially inflate annual earnings. Furthermore, these figures may not reflect bonuses or other incentive payments, therefore underreporting what conductors may actually earn.

Also missing from the figures are expense accounts, lodging expenses, and other perks; as such, the cumulative compensation for music directors may or may not be more than what is listed. Additionally, the documents used to gather figures do not indicate how much of the season an individual received a salary. As such, excessive adjustments in the percentage change from the previous season’s compensation may be artificially adjusted. Although the music director compensation figures include the combined amounts reported as what the IRS classifies as Base Compensation, Bonus & Incentive Compensation, Other Reportable Compensation, Retirement And Other Deferred Compensation, and Nontaxable Benefits, each orchestra does not always report figures for the latter categories if paying the music director as an independent contractor.

How Employment Status Impacts Compensation

Unlike executives, concertmasters, and musicians, music directors are sometimes employed as independent contractors. In these cases, orchestras will list the music director among the five highest paid independent contractors as opposed to sections devoted to employee compensation. In most of these instances, no information about benefits or deferred compensation is available.

Likewise, some music directors receive separate payments for duties associated with their position. For example, for several fiscal years the Seattle Symphony Orchestra paid former music director Gerard Schwarz via two separate private contractor listings: once for music director duties and the other for principal conducting duties. At the Baltimore Symphony, music director Marin Alsop is paid a fee for conducting services as an independent contractor and as an employee for non-conducting music director related duties and responsibilities.

In instances such as these, those figures have been combined into a single figure in the table below. For details about each individual conductor’s compensation, please consult the respective orchestra’s IRS Form 990.

2018/19 Season Music Director Compensation

* Due to their relationship within a larger performing arts structure, Total Expenditure figures for these organizations are not as readily available.

Top 10 Earners

  1. Chicago Symphony: $3,420,804
  2. Los Angeles Philharmonic: $2,857,103
  3. San Francisco Symphony: $2,139,720
  4. Boston Symphony: $1,787,000
  5. Philadelphia Orchestra: $1,672,167
  6. Cleveland Orchestra: $1,485,371
  7. Minnesota Orchestra: $1,036,622
  8. Dallas Symphony: $911,024
  9. New York Philharmonic: $816,375
  10. Baltimore Symphony: $756,911

The “Not Reporteds”

Typically, whenever an organization’s 990 is missing compensation figures for one or more stakeholder and the reason isn’t something easily verified, I reach out to inquire. In most cases, the organization promptly responds, confirms the oversight, and provides the information along with any corresponding clarification.

The 2017 reports tried something new: each article was published with notes indicating any unreported figures and the respective organization was contacted for the missing information afterward.

The goal was to provide a more realistic sense of how often information is missing and confirm an organization’s commitment to the spirit of compensation transparency. It turned out to be an enormously effective approach and will remain in play this year.

Once each group can provide requested information and provide the missing figures, the respective articles will be updated accordingly.

Missing information is labeled as “Not Reported” inside each respective report. Speaking of groups with “Not Reported” labels, the Colorado Springs Philharmonic Orchestra (CSPO) receives the dubious distinction of being the only orchestra to earn that designation. On one hand, it wasn’t surprising to see an uptick in the number of orchestras that didn’t have any 990 show up in the initial searches.

The pandemic has left the IRS short-staffed and over-worked and as a result, I had to reach out to five different groups to request a copy of their public inspection filing: Colorado Springs Philharmonic, Dayton Philharmonic, National Symphony, Rochester Philharmonic, and the Toledo Symphony. With the exception of the CSPO, each and every group responded quickly and provided the requested content. That’s exactly the sort of transparency that helps the field as a whole build a positive reputation. But it only takes one or two groups to tarnish an otherwise good rep.

Items Of Note

  • Even though it was a 3% drop from 2017/18, Riccardo Muti managed to maintain his leapfrog increase in compensation from 2016/17. That small drop still put him a solid half-mil over his previous highs and continued to cement his place in the No. 1 earner spot.
  • After a few seasons of lows following a transitional period, Boston symphony’s MD came roaring back with a 48.93% increase, the largest of any MD in the bunch for that season.
  • One of the biggest reasons why this year’s numbers are off is thanks to Jaap van Zweden. He simultaneously caused artificially lower total compensation numbers for Dallas (where he was leaving) and New York (where he was going) thanks to working lighter schedules at both. But don’t worry about the maestro, when combined, he still managed to pull in as much as he earned the previous season at Dallas.

Looking Ahead

While this year’s reports do not include any of the time impacted by the pandemic, next year will be a very different story. To that end, one of the larger questions that came up during the pandemic is how groups that furloughed staff and/or negotiated pay cuts with musicians handled music director compensation. Simply put, there’s no clear-cut approach that works for each organization but it’s true that without concert activity, there isn’t as much conducting work to do. But that doesn’t mean the music director is useless.

If nothing else, all of this reinforces why the field needs to adopt a universal approach to creating quantifiable music director roles that separate and distinguish artistic and non-artistic responsibilities.

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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