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.
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?
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:
- 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’s approach, and their near-complete irrelevence, to the modern musician industry. They are the ones that need find the solution.
- 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.
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.