Wednesday, July 22, 2009

I really hope this is my final post on those high BSO salaries . . .

My post regarding the salaries of the BSO's unionized players continues to generate as much misguided comment as my postings on Emily Glassberg Sands. So my apologies for repeating myself, but I felt I had to state once again, quite clearly, the issues at hand.

Many BSO supporters seem a little unclear on economic concepts - even though, in a rather foggy fashion, they imagine their debating points are actually based on economic concepts (I guess because that's the way people with college degrees think they should talk these days). Matthew Guerrieri, for instance, over at Soho the Dog, seems to imagine that the BSO is somehow competing for talent in an open market, with organizations like the Chicago Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But it's very hard to understand how this could be so, at least in any classical economic sense - even though, yes, the auditions themselves are competitions, and a better-than-average salary would have to be offered to attract applicants. (Guerrieri also imagines there's some sort of valid comparison between annual orchestral salaries and one-shot SAG commercial pay, but never mind about that!)

The difficulty in Guerreri's proposition is that all kinds of problematic conditions exist that prevent us from applying "free market" principles to comparing the salaries of major orchestras. The jobs available at these institutions, for instance, are often de facto life appointments - sometimes there's no opening available for a particular instrument for years (and years) at a time. This makes the wages involved very "sticky," in economic parlance - add to that the fact that many of these jobs are unionized, and you can pretty much throw free-market labor analysis out the window. Then there's the problem that in the end, something like 40% of these wages' cost is covered by donors, not customers.

Given these issues, the very fact that the wages at various major cities match so closely could well be evidence of price collusion, rather than free market equivalence. There is, as I pointed out above, very little labor movement between the major markets - and said markets could well reflect very different lifestyle preferences and costs. And yet somehow the wages match almost exactly? The most likely argument for how this could be so is that the wages are essentially "fixed" by management and donors - due to, yes, appreciation for talent, but also due to a funny mix of civic pride and the sense that to be considered high quality, an orchestra generally has to be as expensive as it is in New York or L.A.

And if we look at our own actual musical market, here in Boston (the one that truly counts), we find anomalies that would seem to back up that "collusion" argument. First, to be blunt, there are freelance musicians available within our own market, whom the BSO deems up to the job, who will do the job for less. Therefore it is quite correct to say, by that pesky dictionary definition, that the unionized BSO players are "overpaid": they get double (or triple) what other people are paid who can do the same job. Of course Matthew and his readers can protest all they like that there are mysterious conditions, like a secret pinch of extra talent, or more expensive instruments, or even "toughness" (as one commenter would have it), that justify that discrepancy; but they've got no proof, and of course I'd be happy to lay a bet that they couldn't tell, from a blind listen, whether or not they were listening to the BSO with freelancers or not. (Indeed, there are one or two reliable freelancers whom I personally prefer to the respective BSO player, who's being paid three times what they are.) And of course, if the freelancers ever got their act together and organized against the BSO, their wages would miraculously rise, while the wages of the unionized players would probably fall - with no change in anybody's talent or ability. Only the political component of the wage determination would have changed.

And that political component is precisely what I've been talking about. I've been struck by the sweet, but seemingly unconscious, snobbery of many of the commenters on this issue (including Guerrieri): it's rather clear that they hold the high cost of the BSO close to their hearts, as proof positive of its value (and therefore the value of their own taste). This, of course, is how much of the world has always run. But it's not an economic argument. And given the wild discrepancies between the wage rates of different performing artists, it's time we gave the political component of our arts spending a long, hard look.

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