Substitute Musician Pay In The Age Of COVID

An article in the 1/10/22 edition of by Kimberly Adams caught my attention because it reported on growing tensions between salaried and traveling nurses. Nutshell: due to labor shortages, traveling nurses are earning 4x the pay of their salary counterparts for doing the same work in the same location.

All of this got me thinking about the long-standing issue of pay disparity between core and substitute musician pay.

And yes, I know the labor market between nurses and orchestra musicians is anything but a 1=1 comparison. At the same time, that doesn’t undercut the reality that without substitute musicians, all but a few professional orchestras would fail to operate under the structure of their existing collective bargaining agreements.

That’s a five-dollar word way to say that without substitutes, orchestras are screwed.

I have yet to review the slew of modifications, side letters, and renegotiated agreements with an eye toward substitute pay.

The primary reason is the desire for things to stabilize long enough to see most professional orchestras replace temporary agreements with something longer term. Once we cross that threshold, we can see what might have changed on the issue of substitute pay.

But we can’t wait forever and based on the conversations I have with operations professionals; musician shortages are a big problem…that’s only getting larger.

For now, I’m especially interested in hearing about details from musicians and admins alike. Have you noticed any changes to the way orchestras compete and/or treat substitute musicians?

Take a moment to weigh in with a comment or on social media.

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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