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Solving the Symphony Crisis

The San Francisco Symphony has been on strike for over two weeks, demanding wages equal to similar caliber orchestras like the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony.

In Chicago, however, things may not be any better. Chicago had its own strike earlier this season and a 2.5% pay cut in 2009. How can the San Francisco Symphony demand Chicago’s wages, if Chicago can’t even afford Chicago’s wages?

San Francisco and Chicago are certainly not alone in their financial troubles. Just in the past year we’ve seen crises at the symphonies in Atlanta, Indianapolis, Minnesota, Cleveland, Baltimore, and others. More emergencies are certainly on the horizon.

So what’s the problem?

Both the musicians and the management of our major orchestras are overpaid. They have failed to adapt to a changing market. Over the past 30 years they have demanded higher and higher paychecks while ticket sales and recording revenues have continued to drop dramatically. There is no business in the world that can sustain a negative revenue model like that.

Furthermore, there are too many of them. There are 51 major ICSOM orchestras and 80 more part-time ROPA orchestras through the United States. Surely we can all agree that orchestral music deserves a permanent place in American culture, but if the market (or public/private funding) can’t support 131 professional orchestras, then we should have less of them.

Decline in attendance at symphony concerts in U.S.The numbers are clear: classical music recordings represented just 1.9% of the music purchased in 2012 (an overall decrease of 20.5% in total album sales from the previous year), a number that surely indicates a general lack of interest by the U.S. consumer. The League of American Orchestras have recorded a significant decrease in concert attendance (see chart) between 1967 and 2000, and studies have shown that 73% of major orchestras operate on a deficit.

2% of working musicians

Americans’ disinterest in classical music is not sign of decline in our culture or an anti-intellectual climate. It’s not a referendum on the importance of music in our country. It’s not even a comment on our regard for most working musicians – because we’re not talking about most working musicians.

The ICSOM orchestras employ 4,000 musicians in North America, a number that represents just 2% of the professional musicians in the United States (source: 2010 US Census). The high-end, “luxury” orchestras (such as Chicago) are making enormous sums of money (Chicago: $173,000 average salary, plus benefits) compared to the average, full-time American musician, who makes an average annual salary, without benefits, of $27,558.

Why? Often the argument is something like this: “Classical music is harder than other kinds of music, requires more training and, therefore, demands higher compensation.”

Putting aside the overt classism that an argument like that requires, the supporting evidence is wearing thin. Yes, there was a time when classical musicians were subject to a duration and expense of training that far exceeded that of non-classical musicians – but that is no longer true. Jazz musicians and pop musicians now begin their formal training at an early age and study at the same over-priced colleges and conservatories as classical musicians.

So, then, why are symphony musicians paid so much more than other musicians?

The American Federation of Musicians

The answer lies in the story of the union – in this case the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). The AFM, unable to cope with the rise of synthesized music starting in the 1980s, then also unable to adapt to the changing music distribution technology of the late 90s and 00s, has all but lost its grip on the American music scene. The AFM has spent the last 30 years retreating; falling back to what it feels are its most defensible positions: major symphonies, Broadway shows, and the last vestiges of the formal TV/film recording scene in North America.

These positions are important for the AFM, not just for its legitimacy as an organization, but for the financial solvency of its pension fund. The aging membership of the AFM has put increasing pressure on this fund, which has been artificially propped up by the revenues of these last remaining assets.

It’s no wonder that the major orchestras have seen an unrealistic rise in wages over the last 30 years. According to a study done by the Stanford Business School in 2008, “the salaries of symphony musicians increased more rapidly than the pay of most other groups of workers in the late 20th century.”

Well, how else would the union make up for the loss of pension revenue?

The fallout

Unfortunately, the major orchestras are now paying the price. After so many years of wage gains coupled with attendance decreases, they find themselves in a particularly untenable position. Their members (and the thousands of highly-trained, college-debt-saddled pros that audition for every open position) have come to expect the current level of compensation to continue to increase, and they will fight for it.

In fact, they will even fight the AFM itself. In 2011, “under the guise of bankruptcy,” the Philadelphia Symphony was allowed to leave the AFM pension fund and start its own private retirement plan. This, obviously, paves the way for the other 130 orchestras to follow suit.

Would that happen? Who knows. But if it does, don’t look to Broadway and LA’s decimated recording scene to make up the difference. They are having their own troubles.

So what do we do? I would like to propose a solution.

Adaptation and innovation

Above all, the United States symphonies must adapt. They must do the same thing that other businesses do when their revenue models have become obsolete: they innovate.

Let’s begin by listing the assets that each of the major orchestras possess:

  • They have a highly skilled and educated workforce. Most orchestral musicians have an education equal to a graduate degree or higher, plus decades of supplemental training and experience.
  • They have an abundance of time. Despite musician’s legitimate needs for outside-of-work practice time, most major orchestras take summers off and spend only 20 hours a week at work.
  • Large facilities. Most major orchestras have large performances spaces housed in enormous buildings.

What can we create with these assets?

Imagine a symphony center that is divided into multiple uses. One side of the facility houses a state-of-the-art museum, full of music history exhibits curated by the musicians themselves (they certainly have the training for the job), and the other side includes large and small performances spaces for these musicians to rehearse, run master classes, and perform. Downstairs includes a music library of sheet music and rare recordings, as well as small rooms filled with enough internet-enabled technology to allow the symphony musicians to teach lessons in person, or via teleconference, to anywhere in the world.

The mixed-use facility would open up revenue streams for museum fees, performance fees, lessons fees and rental fees. With an expanded cultural footprint that now includes performance, museum curation, and education, the symphony organizations would be able to apply for a much wider range of local and federal grants. They could cast a much wider net in their private fundraising. Most importantly, the symphonies would serve a much more active, relevant, and valuable role to their community.

Yes, the musicians would have to work more hours. Yes, they would have to teach lessons through the symphony organization; no, that is not customary. Yes, these increased hours would cut in to their practice time.

Their lives, as a result, would look a lot like the other 98% of musicians who work long hours every day, while still finding enough time to practice. As someone who spent many years of my life as one of these working musicians, I would be happy to welcome them to the community. It’s likely that they would still make a lot more money than the rest of us.

New ownership models

And why not consider new ownership models for our major symphonies? Haven’t we grown tired of the cat and mouse games of Management vs. Musicians that exemplifies our orchestras?

Why not explore other models – like co-operatives or collectives? Symphony musicians have more than enough education, intelligence, and expertise to run their own organizations.

The union must also adapt

And what would happen to the union? The American Federation of Musicians is quickly losing its grasp on its last strongholds. The AFM desperately needs two things:

    1. Instead of constant brinksmanship and intimidation, the AFM needs to find new ways to incentivize businesses and members to use their services. The drop in AFM membership over the last 30 years is not a result of musician’s laziness or business’ greed (as it is often portrayed). The AFM’s lack of market penetration is a result of systemic problems in the union&88217;s approach, and their near-complete irrelevence, to the modern musician industry. They are the ones that need find the solution.
    2. The AFM needs to attract young, educated and enthusiastic workers to fill its leadership positions. The current AFM management seems to be paralyzed by the expectations they formed during the music industry’s heyday (RIP 1940-2000) – which was, undoubtedly, an economic anomaly that will never repeat itself.

In conclusion

The major symphony orchestras in the United States are facing an increasingly dire financial situations – not just because of a decrease in consumer demand and a decade of economic recessions – but because of systemic, short-sighted and self-inflicted deficiencies in their current business models.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Symphonies deserve a permanent place in American culture, and if they can adapt to the modern music industry — using the suggestions offered above, or better ideas still to be found — it’s possible that they can turn the tide on their long decline.

References (1)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.

Reader Comments (25)

We'd like to help. What if symphonic players connected with the community through house concerts? What if all those dusty grand pianos sitting in pristine homes actually got tuned and heard... played by one of the area's top musicians?

We have the online infrastructure setup... we're looking for motivated partners.


founder of
now ready for

March 27 | Unregistered Commenterfran snyder

Well done!

Absolutely no one I went to school with (I'm a composer) landed or even seriously tried out for one of these tenured jobs. We all knew they were impossible - too late unfortunately, after years spent studying for that goal...

March 27 | Registered CommenterBen Sommer

Bravo!! New business models must be considered to protect the instrument of the orchestra and its musicians!

Musicians deserve more support.

What is missing in the debate is any perspective from a conductor. (not to mention any discussion about how conductors net income is only about 20% of their gross salaries- Not only musicians suffer, and most have the wrong opinion about conductor's salaries- not every conductor makes Maazel's fee nor does every violinist make the salary of a big 5 concertmaster)

Why have conductor's not gotten into the discussion? Because we are already sandwiched between the wars of music and management.

We cannot side with musicians because the board and managers are our employers.

We cannot side with the board and managers because it is we who make the music with the musicians and must have their confidence.

The last time a conductor did get in the middle of the debate, he was fired. So, its forbidden territory for conductors today. (Though it must be noted that Rostropovich joined his striking musicians of the National Symphony when he was Music Director, but few conductors have the stature of a Slava to avoid being sacked!)

But I recently wrote a book (in German) about the anthropology and culture of the orchestra that has generated its fair share of controversy. Indeed, our purpose is to develop not only audiences for classical music, but to bring audiences to hear the instrument that plays that music: The orchestra.

The book, Making Beautiful Music Together...Or Not! will be released this year as an ebook by Naxos in the original English. It offers some ideas that might compliment those of your own.

Let me be clear: Some may consider my writing to you a shameless act of self-promotion. It is actually a genuine, sincere effort on my part to contribute to the discussion to help protect the very musicians who make beautiful music. That is all.

As a conductor, I champion musicians whose virtuosity must be valued. The job of the musician is more than an oom-pah-pah. They are expected to be virtuosi every day and are judged to perform at the highest level in service of the composer and the public. That challenge is like playing a sport. Athletes are paid millions to be virtuosi whether they win or not. Orchestral musicians are paid peanuts by comparison yet have to play to perfection at every concert. There is a discrepancy between what is expected of a musician and how they are valued. Small wonder then they strike.

One can even compare their work to the well paid efforts of Felix Baumgartner who virtuosically jumped from the stratosphere to the earth. Musicians jump from the earth to reach the stars with every concert. The only difference is Baumgartner had Red Bull as the sponsor and a global audience. Classical music has a limited market share of less than 2.5%. When society and the media begin to value that musical virtuosity, perhaps there will be greater audiences attendance, and therefore greater sponsorship.

The problem, as you rightly pointed out, is our system can no longer sustain the business model of a symphony orchestra. That, not the salaries, is the greater issue. The paradigm of the 21st century orchestra must be reconsidered. An increase in funding and providing an artistic vision are paramount to the job description of any Music Director employed by boards of an orchestra. Both are inextricably linked to sustaining an orchestra's survival. But, inspiring musicians to continue to be virtuosi is the most important goal to protect the orchestra of the future. Good ideas are what we need. Not more online harassment.

Good luck!!!

March 27 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Axelrod

So.... Who are you, person or persons who wrote this article? It seems very one sided and not terribly well informed, given that I am in one of these big old orchestras of which you speak ( not SFS if that gives a clue). I'm also young so I haven't been around since the "old days" when work conditions and pay were horrible.

So. Your proposal of use of the big old buildings we have is already being done! In my orchestra there are two smaller halls which, in addition to having free public chamber music performances by members of the orchestra, are also rented out for events such as weddings and parties to create more revenue for the organization. There is a special 'museum' if you will of archives, operated by a full time employee in the administration, keeping track of the history of the organization through recordings, programs, writings etc.. There is a youth percussion program which takes over the backstage practice rooms on Saturdays and is geared toward music education of young people from rough areas of the city where they probably wouldn't be exposed to learning an instrument otherwise. We perform 4-5 orchestra concerts every week with different programs, we tour the world bringing our 'brand' to other countries, representing our great city with great success and acclaim. We win grammys, take part in numerous educational and community outreach programs, and we help train the next generation of orchestral musicians with an excellent training orchestra in conjunction with local universities, providing scholarships to music students. We don't have summers off as you seem to think. Rather, we have a busy summer season that is not at all optional and often is a fight even to get unpaid time off to go and play chamber music at another festival, as I try to do occasionally.
When the budget of the organization keeps going up astronomically, but musicians salaries and benefits are staying virtually stagnant, it's hard to see the justification in lowering or freezing musicians pay. They are spending the money, just not on the musicians. In our case, our ticket revenue accounts for a third of the annual budget. That's also how much of the annual budget the musicians salaries and benefits cost, I'd say that means the 'product' we are creating is paying for our livelihoods just fine. What are the other tens of millions of dollars going toward?

I feel very fortunate to have the job I have, but I also worked very hard for it, and when you are young, the idea of landing one of the 'big' jobs is like getting into MLB. You feel like you've made it. Now, with probably 30 years left in my career, I'm worried. I made it into one of the orchestras that everyone always said would never be in danger. And now, when I see what's happening all around me, I still feel fortunate but I worry about the future. I don't think it's fair to blame the musicians. We are doing our job. And I personally think the management of my orchestra is excellent, but still I can't help but feel there is this conspiracy among the corporate leaders of the orchestral world, equating the working musicians to factory workers in an assembly line. Replaceable and intchangeable. It scares me.

Ok that's enough. Sorry I'm not much of a writer. I've just been reading so many articles the last few months about Minnesota, St Paul and now SFS and I have so many friends in those orchestras, I just had to respond to something. I've been so disheartened reading many readers' comments and also with the one sidedness of so many articles. I hope all of the lock outs and strikes end soon and resolve fairly.

March 27 | Unregistered Commenterdachshunddad

Thank you for this thoughtful, serious commentary on the plight of the American symphony orchestra, and classical musicians in general. I would like to know who authored this article, I agree with much of what you wrote. I was that very high-level symphony orchestra musician with a great job, but left it for motherhood and the tricky balancing act of attempting to continue playing-teaching-yet trying something completely new with my "art" and life as a musician, whilst being a full-time mother. I started an ensemble, and am the Artistic-Executive Director and violinist of the ensemble, so it ends up being nearly full-time anyway, on top of motherhood.
Another great discussion forum--that all-too-familiar balancing act for mainly female, but some male musicians/parents.

March 27 | Unregistered CommenterB

People have been saying classical music is dead for over 100 years. Blah, Blah, Blah.

March 27 | Unregistered CommenterDouble Bass

Great article. I absolutely agree. However...

It's The Philadephia Orchestra, not The Philadelphia Symphony.

(Second paragraph under the heading "The Fallout")

March 28 | Unregistered Commenterreader

For 6 years I have been touting using live video streaming to bring in audiences. We have done a few on both our all-instrumental and our all-opera stations.

People watch on their phones, and they often turn into ticket buyers, according to the feedback I get from the venues. Classical musicians and venues are stuck in the 1980s in America, and the European orchestras continue to outstrip them in advancement of technology, because they don't have the union issues we have here.

Its frustrating to see, thats for sure.

You can't be serious - anonymous author of this egregious web of semi-truths and outright lies. You approve of a society in this economic climate where a fulltime musician makes a clean $27,000 per annum? While corporate end-of-year bonuses run well over $100,000? I wonder what interests you are actually fronting.

For shame.

March 28 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Erickson

Most of this is very interesting indeed. There is one part of this that is totally inaccurate, which blows part of the author's premise. Saying that these musicians have an abundance of time because they only work 20 hours a week is ridiculous, and wrong. There is an enormous amount of practice time each week to prepare for a new concert each week. They don't practice " a little" at home. They practice an enormous amount at home. Thats what it takes to perform at that high level.

"The high-end,'luxury' orchestras (such as Chicago) are making enormous sums of money (Chicago: $173,000 average salary, plus benefits) compared to the average, full-time American musician, who makes an average annual salary, without benefits, of $27,558."

So this is an enormous amount of money....FOR A MUSICIAN.
All righty then. Damn those musicians who make that much money in a major symphony orchestra.
Oh, right, it's the UNION'S FAULT. That too.

Well then, who SHOULD decide how much symphony musicians should earn? Certainly not them all, you say, and hire the thousands out there, or outsource to Sri Lanka....or put an ad in CraigsList, as the Louisville Symphony management did....

We play at the pleasure of the king, and if the king would rather build a monument to himself, or a bigger building, than tough for the musicians.....because after all, as my mother-in-law used to say, "Don't you just LOVE to play?" Why yes, I do....and I love to have nice health care coverage...., and shame on me for 'asking' for that compensation....I should be happy to have a job, because after all, I am a musician....

March 28 | Unregistered Commenterrem

While most observations are correct to a degree , the article does not touch on salient points
concerning the plight of the symphony orchestra ,one most important being supply , demand
and patronage ,there are a few others but for a start this will do . The symphony orchestra does
not deserve a place in any society unless that society finds the need for it . Most people could care
less about a symphony orchestra as a form of entertainment no matter how "classical" music lovers receive it as a high art form.
To those that do like the symphony let them dig deep into their pockets and subsidize this form
of entertainment and thus become patrons of a supposed "high art form " that speaks only
to a select group .Don't see that that on the horizon .The average hall holds a few thousand
so called music lovers let's see if each music lover will give a determined portion of money
so that the average symphony player can boast of a salary of $150,000 a year and thus
keep open the doors . San Francisco lead the way show the world you mean business.
As for the orchestra members to demand their high salaries when they are not bringing in \enough money from any sources to warrant their survival {outside the high art baloney )they
should not be given an sympathy for their plight .

March 28 | Unregistered Commenterariel

Wow--according to this article I am overpaid making way less than the median salary for my city as well as less than the weekly pay of all our orchestra musicians as a member of the orchestra staff? We are not even a major orchestra but one of the ones in the middle being squeezed the most and have had wage concessions, staff cutbacks, staff layoffs already. Really? That's nice to know we are all overpaid.

And please let's stop it with the "only 20 hours a week"--that may be the time the musicians put in on our stages (rehearsals/concerts) but trust me, no one can maintain top-flight artistic form/standards without near-constant practicing. Try it sometime yourself.

Let's not even talk about the hours staff puts in with no overtime/payment for the extra time over and above a normal work week--I put in easily 55 hours a week and hundreds more annually beyond that getting the job done. That is what it takes. And no, our orchestra cannot afford to add an assistant staff member to most of us who need it either.

March 28 | Unregistered CommenterCA

The ideas in this article lay the groundwork for a more constructive conversation about the management vs. musician dilemma. It's refreshing to read about adaptation and innovation, while also recognizing the relevancy of classical music as entertainment and as art. Thank you for taking the time to write about issues within the AFM and the realities of the market. These issues seem to be absent in most essays written by symphony musicians and their sympathizers. Furthermore, these essays tend to use passion and dedication to a profession as justification for higher pay. Although musicians deserve every penny they make, the market and the fiscal realities of the day are not determined by passion and dedication. A unionized group of workers should not put themselves in a position of demanding more philanthropic dollars for salary (ticket sales and earned revenue often only make up half of incoming revenue). The workers and the management should collaborate in creating a vision for a contemporary plan for orchestral administration.

You mention new ownership models in the article, and while there are ways to better structure an orchestral organization, a model in which musicians both perform for and run a multi-million dollar organization is not a secure plan for a prosperous future. To run an organization with a budget of this size, one must have training in business and legal matters. Skilled management and staff are essential to the sustainability of orchestras. These are organizations fueled by passion, but made secure and sustainable by business savvy planning and decision making. While musicians should have input, and while managers should be transparent, this division of labor is important for running an organization well and for capitalizing on the talents of the labor.

On another note, the pay of staff seems to be nonexistent from the bigger conversation: staff positions in symphonies are intensely competitive to “win” and are coveted once landed. They often require years of internships, and when one opens, hundreds of people apply. Staff members come from many backgrounds, some being experts in fundraising or marketing, others being former musicians who have pursued business or technical training. Staff positions are not rewarded with anything near musician's pay--in fact, full time staff entry level pay can be as low as one quarter of starting pay for musicians, minus the benefits. The management and staff leadership roles are often compensated with pay close to some tenured musicians, and these salaries are well deserved--they must have both the passion and dedication required to work for a symphony, while also possessing business skills and acumen.

For the American symphony orchestra to sustain and prosper, a compromise must be found. The musicians, unions, and administrators must be open to ideas and innovation that shake the time worn and tightly grasped beliefs and practices that they themselves can’t seem to move past.

This is garbage. The CEOs of the orchestras are overpaid the musicians are not. "A musician only spends 20 hours a week at work" He/She is practicing the music at home 4-6 hours a day you moron! You don't sit down and sight read! It costs $25k (minimum) just for an instrument to win an audition, not to mention $200k in college tuition. Totally uninformed article. The numbers sound big but the expenses are huge and it costs 10-20 years of your life just to get shot at a job. Moronic author. You can't compare the average american worker that has a few days of job training to earn $8/hour to someone who spends 10 years just to begin to make money.

March 28 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

There are many completely false assumptions made in this article. I'll take a minute and address a few really glaring ones.

You write: "Yes, there was a time when classical musicians were subject to a duration and expense of training that far exceeded that of non-classical musicians – but that is no longer true. Jazz musicians and pop musicians now begin their formal training at an early age and study at the same over-priced colleges and conservatories as classical musicians."

This is a gross oversimplification, to put it mildly. Yes, there are jazz studies programs at some top conservatories (not all by a long shot), but look at the ranks of the top jazz musicians (young ones included) and I think your assumption that they all studied at the same "over-priced colleges and conservatories" as classical musicians is clearly false.

Pop musicians? Really? Justin Bieber, Lil Wayne, Taylor Swift, Usher, JT....come on. The training and experience required to be good enough to win a job in a top orchestra merits the pay - these people are all, literally, virtuosi on their instruments. Instruments, which, BTW are astronomically expensive when compared to anything a jazz or pop musician would use. The low end for any string instrument played in one of your "luxury orchestras" would be around $30,000, and a great deal of musicians play instruments many times more expensive.

It also seems you are comparing concert attendance with pay - when anyone who spends 10 minutes researching the financial structure of any non profit realizes that tickets for admission would never cover the cost of operation. I spoke recently with a (former) member of the executive board of a major orchestra who said if an orchestra sold out all of its concerts, that would cover around 20% of their operations.

Talk to any musician in a 52-week orchestra and ask them if they have an "abundance of time". Our job is much more closely related to that of a professional athlete than someone with a desk job. It is physically and mentally exhausting, and the truly dedicated musicians in your "luxury orchestras" spend at least as much time practicing and preparing outside of rehearsal as they do at rehearsal.

I agree that orchestras and musicians need to be inventive on how to continue to connect with their communities, and that a more co-operative ownership model would be very helpful (the Louisiana Philharmonic actually is organized this way).

March 28 | Unregistered Commenterintotheblue

Mr. Hahn’s post has at times a noble intent that missses the mark. A number of points:

1. To say that ROPA orchestras are part time is equivalent to implying that teachers all across the country are part time if they don’t teach summer school. He completely leaves out the large number of functioning orchestras that are not ROPA members, whose musicians depend on orchestra salaries for the lion’s share of a frequently meager living.
2. Top tier orchestras are no different from major league sports teams. When you beat all the odds and possess superior talent, you deserve to be paid well. $174,000 a year is nowhere near the millions paid to the top professional athletes -- but then symphonic music does not have the broad-based appeal in the U.S. that it does in Europe or with top sports teams. When you consider that the median price for a single family home in San Francisco is over $617,000, the salary they are looking for suddenly makes sense.
3. Symphony musicians are paid more than other colleagues, and it may have something to do with the AFM. Because the AFM and the many right to work laws have put freelance musicians behind the eight ball, they have the same or maybe worse chances at a fair shake than workers at places like McDonalds or Wal-Mart.
4. Falling attendance is one small factor in the financial crisis in the music industry. Falling donations is the largest factor. Our country has been passing laws since Reagan that make less and less attractive to give money to charities. If you couple that with an ageing and dying donor base, it adds up to significantly decreased revenues. The underlying problem of course is the disdain that our country has for music education – everyone wants it no one wants to pay for it. When I was young every student in every elementary in Bloomington, MN went at least once every other year to a young people’s concert of the Minnesota Orchestra. This planted a seed, or at least respect for classical orchestra music. As my generation ages and dies the younger generation, who only were exposed to Rock etc., are never going to suddenly give classical music any support. Thus Mr. Hahn’s support of education is one answer for how we fix the situation.
5. Regarding a new ownership model – Several orchestras have attempted to become co-ops they have all failed. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra has a hybrid co-op model. We can all see how that is working out. There are basic hurdles that have not been surmounted in a cooperative orchestra venture. First, and I am sorry to have to say this – Musicians are not educated or trained as business people. A musician will unfortunately always look the other way when a decision teeters between quality and finances; they choose quality first and let the money take care of itself somehow. Second, the world of donors who support music are full of cronyism and as soon as a co-op creates a board -- all hell breaks loose. Ticket sales, even if they are always sold out houses, don’t even cover the basic costs of hall rental, music rental, performance rights, traffic control, advertising, stage hands, equipment rental, security, office rental, office expenses and much more; before one musician is paid a penny. So, the co-op must cater to donors.

Symphonies are a vital part of our culture and generate a large impact on the local economies that support them. A new way must be found to maintain them and solve the almost insurmountable problems they face.

Kurt Hagen

March 28 | Unregistered CommenterKurt Hagen

While there may certainly be some systemic issues within the business and a need for innovation, the decline in revenues and audience support cannot be overlooked as symptomatic of larger socio-economic issues at play:
1) a lack of funding in arts education so as to build a wider social demand/consumption of the arts, including live orchestral performances;
2) an erosion of the US middle class, labor and union membership over a broad spectrum of the economy (contributing to the decline of potential arts supporters);
3) a gross concentration of wealth at the top of society - leaving organizations to continually grovel after the benevolence of wealthy individuals rather than maintaining themselves at a minimum with a sustainable budget and providing decent salaries to it's artists (not to mention health benefits, unless of course this country could provide a single-payer coverage at a minimum).
So, in conclusion, i don't think top artists/symphonic musicians are overpaid. The top talent in every profession deserves to be rewarded, though CEO's making more than 200x average wages (not to mention their "golden parachutes"), hedge fund managers, and malevolent extracters of wealth may not deserve their excess. Rather than simply saying we have to do more with less and innovate, we need to demand and expect greater resources to cultivate and sustain a lively arts culture of both performers and audience members. Perhaps along with the restoration of the Glass-Stegall Act to restore our financial system, we could use a modern WPA to kick-start and/or stabilize things in the arts. I'm all for innovation, but no need to "throw the baby out with the bath water.". Until the citizenry understands they have been and are being fleeced (real wages have been stagnant for the last 30-40 years...) and everyone recognizes that hoarding of wealth in too few hands creates an unhealthy economy and society then they will accept premises of continued cuts and slashing of wages. Otherwise, perhaps it's best to just learn to play for peanuts and fulfill the mistaken percieved glory of the life of a starving artist!

March 28 | Unregistered CommenterC. Ford

This is the most ill-informed, biased article I have ever read.
What a disgrace that it was even published!...

March 28 | Unregistered CommenterMusician

One cannot but be amused by many of the responses - is it hubris or arrogance
or perhaps a sign of some serious mental imbalance that" symphony" musicians entertain the thought of the world owing them a living .
Who gives a rats behind that their instrument cost them 25,000 or
that they spent 200 K to learn the instrument - it was their choice . It didn't work out - tough !
Millions of people survive with dashed dreams but don't expect others to subsidize them
with a living style they might have had if only their stars were aligned correctly . It seems
only so called "classical " musicians have refined the con job of fooling the public that they are
something special to society and are to be taken care of at all costs. Symphony orchestras
are vital part of life only to a small minority of the populace and have at best in some cities
a minor impact to the local economy . The orchestra was in the Western world for a time a game of national one-up- man-ship to show" we are" civilized " then everyone took to building opera houses, and so on . A 150,000 thousand + a year for playing the same 100 or so works
over and over -plus extended vacations + other earnings ? . Since when in playing the same old same old works ad nauseam is it much different from assembly work ? The world is full
of wonderful artists who hoped to be the next Picasso , but alas life had other plans - one thing
I do know that if they made 100,00 a yr. minus benefits minus vacation they would be working
hard at their craft and happy to be so without the yowling that comes from the minimally
talented symphony players who create nothing.

March 28 | Unregistered Commenterariel

Why no byline? What's your "experience"? You say you spent "many years of your life as one of these working musicians". In what capacity? Your essay would have some weight to it if you put your name on it and cited your professional experience. As it stands, I would not bother rebutting your points. You could be a management person, or an anti union activist, or a shill for either, or a regular person with experiences which have led to your opinions. If we don't know, then you have just self published a book and called yourself a published author. Just because I can do backflips in my yard doesn't make me an acrobat.

March 29 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Kilbride

I'm the author of the article; my name is David J. Hahn. The original article is here and includes my byline and bio:

I am a union musician, a member of AFM Local 802 in NYC. I was the Associate Conductor for two Broadway shows, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and Priscilla Queen of the Desert. I have performed with the Virginia Symphony and played for tours, regional theaters and 18 years of other gigs.

March 30 | Unregistered CommenterDave Hahn

Dear Mr. Hahn and all commentators:

The original article by Dave Hahn is interesting and well-written. I don't agree with everything he says and I don't think all of his suggestions would work, but good for him for suggesting that the orchestra world needs a new business model and trying to explore what it might look like.

As for the rest of the comments, I find it sad that there are so many who demonize Mr. Hahn, who did not cause the reality we find ourselves in but is merely writing about it. He is not saying musicians don't deserve to be paid well but only stating the simple truth that when audiences decline and expenses go up your business model will eventually be unsustainable -- exactly what we see happening all over the place. When that happens, you either innovate or you go out of business, period.

Calling Dave a moron or other names will not change any of this. Full disclosure: I manage a part-time, per-service professional orchestra (Tacoma Symphony Orchestra). We are trying every day to reinvent our business model in order to make what we do finanically sustainable over the long haul. It is not easy even for a small shop like ours, let alone one of the big ones. Turning on each other with contempt and name calling doesn't help.

April 4 | Unregistered CommenterAndy Buelow

Thanks Andy. I knew I'd take some heat for this article, but I've wants to write it for many years.

I understand my fellow musician's frustrations - but what I can't understand is the undercurrent of entitlement that so many of the comments have. I hear two themes very clearly:

"Musicians deserve to make salaries this high, or higher. They have devoted their lives to the art."

There was an analogy made above to the wages of CEOs or professional athletes. The analogy is ridiculous. Major league baseball made $7.5 billion in 2012. Overpaid CEOs are given their egregious salaries from the money that their companies have earned during their tenure. Symphony musicians, on the other hand, are not creating a product that creates enough revenue to fulfill the salaries the union demands for them. They don't earn it, so they shouldn't be paid it.

Whether or not they deserve it is another discussion altogether. I think symphony musicians should be paid much more than they are. I believe all musicians should be paid much more (let's remember that symphony musicians are not the only musicians that have dedicated their lives to music, and practice many hours a day to keep up their skills). But it doesn't matter. Workers are not paid the wages that they feel that deserve, they are paid the wages they earn. That is how money works.

"We, musicians, refuse to change anything. It is management, public education, and our culture that must be changed - not us."

Well. That is a particularly untenable position. Please play something nice while the Titanic sinks.

How can we not see that our situation has changed? How can we, musicians, not take any responsibility for it? How can we continue to point fingers while the industry dissolves? Who do we think is going to fix this? Management? I certainly hope not. They (management) has skills they can use in any industry. Our skills are music - and this is our industry to fix.

I love classical music and I love symphonies. Some of my fondest memories are going to see the local ROPA orchestra in my home town as I grew up. My love for my local symphony inspired me to become a working musician as an adult. Many, many of my closest friends are orchestral musicians.

So I don't take such a deep dig at the U.S. symphonies because I don't like them. I take a swing because if we don't work this out - the symphonies will continue their decline and eventually dissolve. And that would be a national tragedy.

But also, if the decline continues, 10,000 out-of-work ROPA and ICSOM musicians will, over time, flood the job market. And you will all be looking for the jobs in the other parts of the musician industry - Broadway, recording, touring, etc. Well, look, we don't have jobs for you over here. We have barely enough for ourselves. So don't get greedy, screw up your sweet deal and think that you can take one of our jobs. If the symphonies dissolve over the next 25-50 years, it will be an economic catastrophe for the entire musician food chain.

So work it out.

April 5 | Unregistered CommenterDave Hahn

This debate has been going round for a long time now. The question of innovation is the correct one, but the incremental steps that many orchestras are attempting to take are unlikely to effect the radical leap required in time to prevent many of their business models from collapse. Basically, if you work in a past-oriented industry, selling the past over and over again with very little variation, you attract past-oriented workers who aren't comfortable seeing the future in a different way. I don't use this as a criticism, but simply a diagnosis of the culture within the industry. Repeating the past is risk-averse until that model becomes more risky than its worth, and the right people are seldom in place to take the necessary risks for the future.
I think it's also worth saying that we generalise in order to understand important trends, but each town also has its own special conditions which radically affect local business models. Picking up from John Axelrod, one particularly toxic problem is the way in which Managements defer to Music Directors and their egotistical/career oriented programming and soloist choices, which endanger the bottom line and the potential for change. One sometimes sees Music Director jobs advertised that look for an innovative and education oriented MD, but when you see what they're season is normally doing, you realise they don't want to shoulder any real risk.
Heck, the talent is out there to change wisely, but so are the embedded expectations, and if truly innovative conductors keep getting passed over for "a safe pair of hands" then quite frankly, why should they waste their time on an industry that doesn't deserve them?

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