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The great orchestra debate

I, and evidently many other people, have been enjoying following the discussion about orchestras that developed in the wake of this post about Michael Kaiser. Since the post is about to scroll off the main page, I thought I’d summarize a few of the main points that emerged: call it a Cliff's Notes version for the casual reader.
(read more after the jump)

The original question was about new models for orchestras (and newspapers), but the discussion, as I read it, came to center primarily on musicians’ salaries. Are musicians paid too much, or too little? Do orchestras exist mainly to make great art, or mainly to provide a decent living for highly-trained and deserving artists? Are the unions blocking change through their demands? Will every community be able to maintain a full-time orchestra? Are regional orchestras exploiting musicians by paying such low wages*[see note below]? Isn’t it really administrators, rather than musicians, who earn the ridiculously high salaries? Isn’t the problem really the current economic model that places such a demand on ever-cheaper labor costs, with lamentable results in many fields, including classical music?

I phrase these as questions, because they are all food for productive debate, and because a new model will have to come up with answers to a lot of them in order to work.

But there were not many concrete suggestions in response to the very first comment, asking for actual examples of a viable alternate model.
Some of the concrete ideas that commenters did offer:
- Orchestras may need to get smaller.
- Cut staffing, and streamline administration.
- Perhaps musicians can form self-governing ensembles, though this may be more difficult than they think.
- Nobody ever comes up with actual suggestions for new models.
- The current model of full-time musicians in full-time jobs is of relatively recent vintage.
- When ticket prices are lower, more people come to concerts. This supports the idea that more subsidies actually increase the audiences for orchestras, and therefore the health of the field.
- We would all love government funding for the arts, but this will never happen. Well, actually, it might. No, it won’t. Yes, it will.
- Running orchestras like a business is a mistake, because they aren’t businesses.
[My own two cents: this is a good point; but I’d add that there’s a lot of flab and mismanagement in many not-for-profit organizations. Michael Kaiser has gotten striking results by going in to arts organizations and creating a better business model -- while, as he so pithily stresses, keeping the organization’s main focus on exciting artistic projects. The term “business” may be loaded because of its connotations of economic profit; is the term “administration” more acceptable? The point is some of these organizations could be run better.]
-Taking a more commercial approach may not be as bad as people think.

My own suggestions of places to look for elements of a new model were met with strong resistance. My idea was not, as some people took it, that professional orchestras should run out and model themselves to the letter on the New World Symphony nor, when I asked whether orchestras could redefine themselves as educational institutions, was that a sign that I was unaware of orchestras’ extensive activities in that direction. Rather, I was curious about whether these could be incorporated even more actively into orchestras’ functions: could they become a source of revenue, for instance?
(As for the Orchestra of St. Luke’s; I’ve already had my say in an earlier article.)

In the spirit of citizen journalism, and since there are obviously such strong feelings on this topic, I am considering taking some of the issues and questions raised by commenters to some orchestra administrators (those, at least, who haven’t already weighed in) and asking for their points of view. What would be the question along these lines that you’d most like to see answered by the field’s top brass?

[*Note: In the regional orchestra debate, I’d raise the sports parallel one commenter invoked: the salary inequity between baseball’s major and minor leagues is perhaps comparable to that between, say, the New York Philharmonic and the South Dakota Symphony. Not that I’m defending it.
I’d also back up the observation made on an offshoot of this discussion that some top-tier European orchestras pay less than some top-tier American ones. I believe -- without, I confess, having done chapter-and-verse research into the matter -- that this is particularly true of English orchestras, which is one reason the players tend to be younger on average than those in some other countries.

By Anne Midgette  |  November 18, 2009; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  national , random musings  
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Next: In performance: Zukerman Chamber Players


Please, absolutely do seek out orchestra administrators, from a wide range of budget sizes. But keep everyone on task - there is no end to the lists of everything wrong with orchestras but it is past time for substantive proposals for this "new model."

I'd love to see this topic become a full-blown round table including industry observors like Michael Kaiser, Andrew Taylor, Henry Fogel; practicing orchestra administrators; AFM reps (we shouldn't discuss the future of orchestras without the musicians); and the League. If the League has made a substantive response to Kaiser's initial post, I have yet to find it (to be fair, I got depressed and stopped looking). If someone thinks the for-profit sector has better solutions (but there is plenty of "flab" and "mismanagement" in THAT sector), who would realistically contribute to a dialogue? Someone who knows the business of Broadway production, perhaps?

Can someone please make this happen? We love this music and need implementable solutions, NOW.

Posted by: sdeec | November 18, 2009 1:02 PM | Report abuse

Cut staffing? Except for the largest of our orchestras, most have small staffs with overworked and underpaid employees who are doing their best to change models - as a working arts administrator I'd say that this is one of the base roots of the problem with orchestras. Staff simply do not have the time or energy to implement new models. At the end of the day, sour relationships between musicians and management (for MANY reasons) also severely hinder orchestras' ability to change.

Posted by: gmusicchic | November 19, 2009 9:22 AM | Report abuse

You may also be interested in pursuing the work already done by the Mellon Foundation, which initiated a 10 year long program to study this very thing.

Of particular interest may be the report by The Elephant Task Force of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Orchestra Program: A Journey Toward New Visions For Orchestras.

Posted by: gmusicchic | November 19, 2009 10:07 AM | Report abuse

The pay of the British orchestras is notoriously low and one hears all sorts of stories. One is that an instrumentist in a leading orchestra, don't remember which, re-trained as a plumber and now makes 2-3 times as much money. Don't know whether the story is true, but just the fact that it circulates shows that something is fishy.

Here are two articles about pay in the London Symphony; admittedly, they were written by Norman Lebrecht who has been on occasions shaky with the facts.

Even these two articles contain apparently contradictory information. One suggests that Ian Bousfield, the principal trombone player, made 40,000 (I assume pounds) a year in London, the other article says that the rank-and-file strings make this amount. The fact that these articles were written a few years apart, time in which salaries may have increased, could explain this apparent contradiction.

Yes, 40,000 pounds is not a lot; my experience with the prices in England is: whatever costs something here in dollars, that's the price there in pounds (just to give an idea, but should not be taken as a rule.)

So we arrive at the Vienna State Opera / Vienna Philharmonic, where Bousfield is now playing. It is known that the VPO musicians earn a lot of money and that the pay is notoriously equal among its members, but how about the Vienna State Opera? One should remember that not all the musicians in the Vienna State Opera orchestra belong to the Philharmonic, although the reverse is true.

So the article gives Ian Bousfield's State Opera pay as the equivalent of 40,000 pounds (it certainly increased since the article was written, so let's say 50,000.) Vienna is somewhat cheaper than London, but not much. And again, one should keep in mind that Bousfield is a section leader. So I would be curious how much rank-and-file State Opera musicians make only from the opera employment. Does the State Opera have the same equal pay for all system as well? I somehow doubt it.

One thing that even the casual tourist observes in Vienna is that State Opera musicians perform a lot of extra gigs. For example, the Sunday morning performances along the Vienna Choir Boys. I doubt that many, if any, of them are also Philharmonic members. Of course, Philharmonic members have their extra gigs as well: the Küchl or the Steude Quartets for example.

One last point that Lebrecht makes is that the State Opera Orchestra musicians only work 39 hours a month? Surely that's a typo. After all the Staatsoper has a show every night - even though it's notoriously stingy with rehearsals (and it often shows), something that Ioan Holender tried unsuccessfully to change.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | November 19, 2009 10:50 AM | Report abuse

Father Guido Sarducci had it right. In his now-legendary “Five Minute University,” he said, “Economics. Supply and Demand. That’s it.”

Simple but true. Unfortunately, this is a truism that has escaped most professional American orchestras. For the recent decades, most American orchestras were supply driven, irrespective of demand. If you have a 52 week union contract, you need to play 35 to 40 weeks of concerts whether the demand is there or not. And, as the demand has dropped, in all but the largest markets the economic holes have gotten worse.

If you’re in one of the very largest cities (NY, Chicago) or have a legitimate summer home (think Tanglewood, Ravinia, Hollywood Bowl or Blossom), you might be able to afford to pay musicians for 52 weeks. Otherwise, it’s just not possible. The Saint Louis Symphony discovered this some years ago and made the adjustment. I don’t think the world thinks less of them as a result.

Supply and Demand. It’s simple. But, until American orchestras realize they need to be demand driven and produce the number of concerts their audience wants to attend, this hole can’t be closed.

Posted by: newcriticalcritic | November 20, 2009 11:59 AM | Report abuse

Ok. Here’s the solution, using health care reform as the model that finally will put us on a par with enlightened Europeans: the government will reform music. Right-wing, anti-union neocons still deluded by the “sly nonsense” of a market economy will object, but our society is finally dealing with such parochial obstructionism in health care, so why not in music?

(By “government” people who want government intervention seem to mean the Federal government, as if we only had one level of government. This makes sense because a central government is so much more efficient than local government if you want to tell people what’s good for them. What we really need is a Politburo, but that is further in the future.)

Under music reform, the government will require every legal resident to purchase season tickets to a symphony orchestra, opera or ballet. Those unable to afford the price will receive a government subsidy. Everyone will have to provide evidence of having purchased season tickets on their annual tax return; people found to not have purchased tickets will be fined, on a progressive scale (it’s important to be progressive) proportional to their gross adjusted income. There will be a government symphony in case there are not sufficient “private” orchestras hiring musicians (if there are not enough musicians, there can be a uniformed services organization, the Repertory Orchestra Training Corps – ROTC – to be funded by the NEA at selected university campuses). The program will be paid for by eliminating wasteful spending (such as purchase of imported musical instruments), increasing copyright fees and union dues, raising ticket prices on audience members earning more than $250,000 per year, and eliminating unnecessary music (there will be a standard repertory that all orchestras will share).

If you don’t like this solution, you are stuck with some kind of market mechanism and you have to start thinking about the customer. In that case, there are some structural limitations you have to take into account, for example, the number of people who can attend a concert and still have it be a classical music concert. The main attraction of listening to an orchestra is the opportunity to hear music unmediated by electronics. As a customer, if I had to listen to music at a stadium, amplified for 100,000 people, I wouldn’t go. It’s bad enough to go to a concert with 2,000 people, all of whom seem to believe they need to have an opinion.

To make a back-of-the-envelope calculation, assume there are 100 musicians playing at a concert. Then about 20 tickets are sold for each musician’s performance. If the orchestra overhead is 50%, that makes it 10 tickets who pay for each musician, each performance. If the average price of a ticket is $50, and the musician plays 4 times per week, a musician’s income is approximately $2,000 per week on the average, during a season, give or take a factor of 2. This is a fundamental limitation.

This is not such a bad income, but there are other occupations that pay better. (Don’t think of prostitution – most musicians don’t have the kind of body that would fetch a lot of money for its rental, and the working environment is so depressing. Think plumbing.) However, you become a musician instead of a plumber (although I wonder about trombonists) because music, as an art, means something to you beyond its economic reward. During the Middle Ages, in Spain, rabbis were not supposed to earn a living by teaching religion; they were supposed to have a day job (some became shoemakers, some became physicians – I don’t think any became plumbers).

Finally, do we really need perfection in musical performances, every time? (Anybody likes Heifetz?) Maybe what we ought to do is for everyone to learn to play an instrument and enjoy making music. We already have garage bands, what we need is to promote garage symphonies. They might not all sound as good, but maybe we would enjoy them more. Then we could have resident orchestras at universities (there already are some), museums, and churches (Bach didn’t do so badly). Maybe a better business model for classic music is to do away with professional performing, make it BYOM (be your own Mozart) rather than TGIF (thank the government it’s free)?

Posted by: gauthier310 | November 20, 2009 2:13 PM | Report abuse

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