On Trend but Out of Luck: The Problem With Orchestras

On Trend but Out of Luck: The Problem With Orchestras

If I had to think of an industry prone to poisonous industrial relations battles I would probably think first or the auto sector, or maybe even something like education or health. The battles in those industries, however, are apparently being matched by orchestras (can I say ‘in the orchestra industry’?) across North America.  Like many people, I tend to think of the music industry as full of a few superstars and many starving artists, but as it turns out that is not quite the full picture. Orchestras, as it turns out, have long been a unionized sector, and like other unionized sectors they are facing changing times a tumultuous period of restructuring.

Orchestras are actually a fascinating sector, albeit fascinating like watching a train wreck. Over the past few years, a host of North American symphonies have faced bankruptcies and closures (those in Louisville, Honolulu and London, Ontario are examples), long strikes and lockouts (notably affecting orchestras in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh this year) and deficits (the New York Philharmonic and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra come to mind but there are actually too many to list). They play pretty music, but they are actually going through ugly times.

Not surprisingly, much of the source of strife in the orchestra sector is happening because of money issues. Like firefighters and autoworkers, orchestras are finding that the non-profits that have long employed them no longer have the means or the desire to pay for what had been long-held contracts. In Pittsburgh, for example, players have been making a base rate of $107,000, which is something over $51 an hour not including benefits, which is in contrast to an what the Bureau of Labor Statistics says was an average wage in Pittsburgh of little over $22 an hour as of 2015. The current dispute centers around a plan to cut musicians’ salaries by 15 percent, and as well to freeze their pensions and to reduce the size of the ensemble.

Some argue that the market for musicians is intrinsically different than say the market for retail workers. If you ‘let the market decide’ on the level of salaries, goes the argument, you would not get you the best musicians. That is, the salaries for retail workers might be low since there are so many people willing to do the work, and since the job is simple enough that there is no shortage of qualified people. There may be lots of unemployed musicians, but if you let them outbid each other to work cheap, you might not get the ‘best’ ones.  And $100,000 there is a different pool available than there might be at $30,000, or at a ‘pay by the gig’ agreement.

There is some merit to this view. For one thing, I would argue that at the higher salary, you are not only choosing different workers, but as well guarding against the turnover that would inevitably happen if you hired at a lower or a gig rate. It would only make economic sense for musicians to migrate towards better paying short term gigs if they did not have security and a decent salary. Whether that decent salary should be above what a nurse gets paid (which in Pittsburgh is $25.84 an hour according to payscale.com) is up for debate, however.  And, the overriding trend in the labor market is to ‘gigify’ even the most traditional of jobs, which means the musicians are fighting a bit of a losing battle.

The bigger question really is what the correct industry model should be for orchestras. Should they be considered a public good, and therefore pretty much paid for by the state as they are in Europe? Or should they be left to sell tickets to pay their costs? That one is a bit of a non-starter if you want orchestras to survive, since virtually none are able to do so without outside support. According to a report by the League of American Orchestras, detailed in this story from The New York Times, as of 2013 (the last year for which data is available) orchestras had reached a ‘tipping point’ where they now rely more on philanthropy than ticket sales to generate revenue. Of course, private sector philanthropy rather than government grants could theoretically work, although there are far more demands for revenue from arts organizations than there is money to go around.

In my reading of it, orchestras actually should be a growth industry and the well managed ones could face a bright period ahead. Think about the major changes we are seeing as an economy and as a society. One of the biggest ones, to me, is the retirement of the baby boomers which will give a lot of people nothing but time – and those with time have time for music.

orchestraBoomers, retired or not, are now searching for ways to give their lives more meaning. Getting involved in hobbies, and in particular in music is a natural way for them to do that.  Baby boomers also want to be on boards or to do meaningful volunteer work, and to have some input into organizations that interest them. If orchestras can help them to do that, then the the next step for them is to get them to write checks. Rich boomers can write big checks and poorer ones can write small ones or buy tickets.  The trick is to tell them what is available and make it accessible to them. Savvy orchestras have already increased the size of their marketing departments and community outreach programs in order to reach this market.

The existence of cultural institutions is also an important consideration as baby boomers think about where they want to live once they retire. When listing what they want close to them, many cite proximity to cultural and entertainment venues as a consideration.  Florida, the haven for many pre-boomer retirees and in a way of model of how many communities will evolve, is actually a hub of small orchestras. Communities that want to attract or retain boomers would do well to retain their orchestras as well.

Even with higher demand ahead, the path for orchestra musicians is unlikely to be a smooth one. The economic future we are facing is one where many will go from gig to gig, and where job security is not a given for anyone. Musicians outside of the orchestra sector know what that career path looks like better than anyone. Perhaps they could give some coping lessons both to their colleagues and to the labor force at large.


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