Conductor and musician salaries- show we the money

From the archives-

Written for O-list in 2004 for a discussion about music director salaries. The debate was sparked by a NY Times piece on top music director salaries (everyone else was in agreement that they were overpaid), and I decided to take the devil’s advocate point of view and make the argument that, in the context of our times, even the top conductors, and orchestra musicians, are underpaid.
Finally have time to put in my very brief two cents on this rather contentious issue…
 
Before we get too bent out of shape looking at Barenboim and Maazel’s salaries, maybe we should look at what the top paid members of other professions make. How would their salary compare to the top lawyer, banker, real estate broker, basketball player, football coach, college football coach, stock broker, Enron execuctive, etc? Before we say that those comparisons aren’t valid because orchestras are non-profit, remember that most business and all athletic endeavors receive their own forms of government subsidy and tax exemption as well. Most professional sports teams play in multi-hundred million dollar stadiums financed by tax payers, and most big corporations receive huge tax breaks from state and federal governments to encourage them to locate in the communities where they are based.

Finally have time to put in my very brief two cents on this rather contentious issue… Before we get too bent out of shape looking at Barenboim and Maazel’s salaries, maybe we should look at what the top paid members of other professions make. How would their salary compare to the top lawyer, banker, real estate broker, basketball player, football coach, college football coach, stock broker, Enron execuctive, etc? Before we say that those comparisons aren’t valid because orchestras are non-profit, remember that most business and all athletic endeavors receive their own forms of government subsidy and tax exemption as well. Most professional sports teams play in multi-hundred million dollar stadiums financed by tax payers, and most big corporations receive huge tax breaks from state and federal governments to encourage them to locate in the communities where they are based.I’ve often said that money is the most important and tangible way in which our modern society measures value, whether we like it or not. Right now, as a society we think that bench warmer or a basketball team is worth at least five times what the best paid orchestra musician in the country is. We’ve decided that an exotic dancer is worth more than a public school teacher, and that a lawyer for a tobacco company is worth more than a Nobel laureate at a major research university. I think we can make a good case that conductors should be paid a hell of a lot more.

I also think orchestra musicians should be paid a hell of a lot more, not because they are being treated unfairly relative to conductors and administrators, but because their contribution to society is worth more. If you look at the difference in salary between a music director and a section player and compare that with the difference between a corporate executive and a front line employee in almost any other field, you’ll see that in music the gap is very, very small (this is not a moral point- I believe that it would be better that all business reduced that range, but in our society, the large gap is the norm, and failing to reflect that norm infers that our leaders are worth less than those in other fields). Especially when you take NY and Chicago out of the equation, American MDs look almost suspiciously generous. Poor Robert Spano, making only five times ASO base pay! Can you imagine that happening at GE or Ford????????

Of course, orchestras could move away from their current rather corporate structures and instead move to a model more like a sports team- after all, in professional sports leagues, players often earn more than their coaches. On the other hand, they have no long-term job security, and have to negotiate their contracts as free agents. Do musicians want that level of permanent insecurity? If musicians want to make the case for a new model to the business leaders who make up boards, we’d need to really present it as a whole different way of doing business, because most board members have spent their professional lives working in traditional, hierarchical organizations

No, I would contend that society ought to pay us all, players and conductors, even critics, a lot more, but that realistically we ought to be in line way behind teachers, nurses, medical technicians, university professors, agricultural workers and the people who clean and maintain our workplaces.

At least top US orchestra musicians can take comfort in being paid almost twice what many British musicians make for about half the work. Hopefully instead of fighting among ourselves, we can be more effective in convincing people to think about how the ways in which they spend their money expresses society’s values, and that we need them to vote for he importance of music and culture.

c. 2004 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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1 comment on “Conductor and musician salaries- show we the money”

  1. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Mahler was underpaid?

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