Friday, July 17, 2009

Why is the BSO so overpaid?

I was amused by Geoff Edgers's post in his Exhibitionist "blog" about the conclusion of the BSO's salary negotiations (conductor James Levine, at left, screaming "Show me the money!"). Edgers seemed to be expressing relief that the BSO's contract with its players would remain unchanged, despite our turbulent economic times. Salaries were frozen in this negotiation, but not cut.

So score one for the working artist, right? Well, maybe. But succinctly enough, Geoff left out any mention of what the terms of the BSO contract actually are.

So here's the scoop: according to the Berkshire Eagle, a BSO player makes an average weekly minimum of $2,465, or $128,180 a year.

I repeat: that's the bottom of the scale: $128,180. Senior BSO players make more - often quite a bit more. And they perform only about half the year - there are 191 concerts scheduled annually between Symphony Hall and Tanglewood. And many, if not most, players don't make quite all those performances. Session players are routinely called in, often at the last minute, at rates far below those of the unionized players. So even if you think you're listening to the fully-unionized BSO, you're probably not.

And I'm just wondering why Geoff never writes about that. I don't mean to begrudge the BSO players their hard-earned dollars, but when you add in to their take the fact that most of them land plum local teaching assignments at local music schools because of their BSO connection, you're looking at total annual pay that can clear $200,000 a year.

Again, not that there's anything wrong with that - except that, to be blunt, no other artists in the city of Boston have it so good. No other classical musicians, certainly - even though many of them are session players with the BSO! And when it comes to actors - don't make me laugh! Our best, most senior local actors would count themselves wildly lucky to make a third of a BSO senior salary, if they really scrambled to make industrials and voiceovers. (The Equity base line isn't even a quarter of the BSO baseline.) And as for dancers - fuhgeddaboudit!

So you know, life ain't fair. And I suppose if your organization buys a lot of ads in the Globe, suddenly Geoff Edgers cares about your salary not being cut! And the rest of you performers can go hang.

[Correction: Please note Geoff Edgers has let me know that he wrote about the discrepancy between the pay scales of unionized BSO players and freelancers some three years ago, at the last salary negotiation. But to my mind, there's no time like the present. - T.G.]


  1. Shoot, don't begrudge the BSO players because they're paid so well. It sets a good tone for the rest of the arts community to show that this is how it could/should be done. If first year lawyers can make this, why not a first year viola player?

  2. See my comment above. I don't "begrudge" the BSO players their good fortune, but I think it's important to always remember that there are many musicians in this town who are not paid nearly as well as the BSO - and I feel donations should flow to them. There's simply no reason for people to be donating to be keeping the BSO players in so much clover. And I really don't think other musicians in the area feel the BSO "sets a good tone." Quiet resentment is more like the dominant attitude toward them, I'd say.

  3. I'll just cut-n-paste this from Matthew Guerrieri's Soho the Dog:

    New York Phil: $129,740
    San Francisco SO: $129,740
    Los Angeles Phil: $129,585
    Boston SO: 128,180
    Chicago SO: $127,637
    Philadelphia Orchestra: $124,800
    Cleveland Orchestra: $115,440

    As someone who's been going to Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts since the early 70's and has heard dozens of San Francisco SO concerts as well, I guarantee you that the Boston players are *underpaid* in comparison to those two orchestras. The BSO is an incredible orchestra and they get what they pay for.

    As for the "but...but....what about the actors!" false comparison, why does Kevin Garnett get paid $18 million a year for putting in 48 minutes of work less than 100 times a year and whose ability to be an elite basketball player is largely based on the fact that he is tall (i.e. genetics), because if he was as tall as I am (5'7"), he'd be at best a $20K/year ball/towel guy, no matter how good his low-post moves were.

  4. Okay, Henry - you got me. All the major symphony orchestras are overpaid.

    But just btw, when you're accusing someone of making "a false comparison," you shouldn't do it by making your own false comparison. I wasn't comparing BSO salaries to those of Lang Lang, just as I wasn't comparing local actors' salaries to those of Meryl Streep. So spare me your posturing, okay?

    One of my other points seems to have sailed over your head - at the BSO, you're often listening to players who are in fact NOT making that salary. They're making less than half of it. With no benefits. Indeed, in this and the last salary negotiations, the unionized players screwed the freelancers, whose fees got cut. So stick that in Matthew Guerrieri's pipe and smoke it. And get out a little more, huh, Henry? Because you can hear those BSO freelancers for much less money in any number of area orchestras and chamber groups.

  5. …I think it's important to always remember that there are many musicians in this town who are not paid nearly as well as the BSO - and I feel donations should flow to them. There's simply no reason for people to be donating to be keeping the BSO players in so much clover.

    This observation seems to miss the point about the classical music economy. Whether you like it or not, this economy (at least in the United States, it's quite different elsewhere) functions on a combination of earned income such as ticket sales, some grant money, and a good portion of income from donations. [I'm sure Thomas knows all this.]

    Despite the non-profit "charitable" status of an orchestra like the BSO, it isn't a charity in the classical sense. No one gives to the BSO because it's poor and impoverished or in desperate need and therefore more "deserving" (in the way you might, say, sponsor an African child or give to an organisation that helps the homeless). People give to the BSO because they value what it is and enjoy it enough that they want to help keep it around and play a part in supporting it at the level at which it operates.

    Some of those people may have ulterior motives for giving to the BSO, I'm sure, but then so do some people who give to charities. The point is, the philosophical basis on which you give to an orchestra isn't to do with neediness or any of the usual charitable motivations. You're simply choosing to pay more than the base ticket price to ensure that the orchestra sticks around, because ticket prices don’t cover the costs of maintaining it and presenting the concerts.

    On these grounds, donations aren't keeping the BSO "in clover", they are part of the basic pasture, they are part of the base economics on which the orchestra operates. Its reputation and quality, as well as its administrative investment in fundraising, ensures that it attracts those donated contributions within its larger pool of income.

  6. Yvonne, I really don't understand what point, exactly, you're trying to make, because this idea that "people are donating money to people who make more money than they do to ensure that they stick around" could be applied to any organization, any time, anywhere. And like Matthew Guerrieri and other posters, you seem confused about a lot of economic concepts. I don't doubt your love of classical music, of course, and I realize that what I advocate on the Hub Review is a strange, destabilizingly new way to think about local arts institutions. Sigh. I can see I'm going to have to post about this issue again.

  7. I agree my point hasn't been made so clearly, and it may not yet be. But I was taking issue with your suggestion that "donations should flow to musicians who are not paid nearly as well as the BSO".

    Perhaps you didn't intend it as such, but it came across as if the very fact that these other musicians weren't paid so well was a sensible reason for donating to their organisations. (I would hope there were sounder, more compelling reasons for donating to them.)

    And there's a flawed logic in the proposal that no one should to donate to the BSO because the musicians are already highly paid.

  8. Okay, but what's the flaw in the logic, exactly? The BSO musicians are talented. And all of them are economically comfortable, most of them are well-off, and some of them are quite wealthy. Their conductor is a jet-setting multi-millionaire. There is no reason whatsover for you or I to give them another penny. Meanwhile there is a whole class of freelance musicians in Boston who are, actually, good enough to play for the BSO (and do so, regularly), who also play for other, struggling outfits. I recommend giving money to those outfits to support more opportunities for those musicians. Yes, there are still ways that money might not reach those players. But my advice makes a hell of a lot more sense than handing a check to James Levine.

  9. Whatever you think of the economic model, the BSO players have won one of the most competitive jobs anywhere in the world. I am speaking in broader terms than just the classical music business. Each player selected and then getting tenure a few years later is entrusted with upholding a tradition for one of the most respected arts institutions on the planet.
    The orchestra does not work a half a year. I don't know where you get that. They have more vacation than most americans but they work 6 days a week for forty two or more weeks.
    The "session" musicians as you call them do make less than the players under contract. However, they have never won an audition for the orchestra. At least not a national one. Do the players who come up for a few games from Pawtucket make as much as the BoSox?
    Every musician you see on stage at Symphony Hall is in the union.
    When you say that most don't make the call to every show that is also wrong. What you might be referring to are positions in the orchestra that might not be called for on every piece on the program. It is rare that more than one or two players are not needed for an entire program.
    What I perceive from your post is you don't respect the art form enough to warrant these salaries. That is a fair opinion. However, one must look at it from the word the BSO occupies. In the world of orchestras that pay a salary, of which there are 50 or so, they are at the top of the food chain.

  10. Robert, you clearly don't know what you're talking about. Freelancers often appear on the BSO stage, often called only on the Monday of that week's concert, to replace the regular players. You clearly don't know many local musicians if you don't know that. And whatever you may think of the players' work schedules, which it's true are not light, most of them still find the time to maintain second jobs. (Not many other $175,000 gigs allow you to do that.) Also - rest assured I adore classical music, I just dislike foolish arguments like the ones you've made here. And every other dim reader with an axe to grind - if you're ignorant of the actual situation, and don't have anything intelligent to say, please do not comment.

  11. Wow, could you be more of an unpleasant dickhead even if you put an effort in to it? No? I didn't think so. *You're* the one who was comparing actors and dancers salaries to BSO salaries, so too damn bad if I mocked that by bringing up KG.

    And get out a little more, huh, Henry? Because you can hear those BSO freelancers for much less money in any number of area orchestras and chamber groups

    That's nice, but I live 3,000 miles away, so unless you're going to fund me flying RT to Boston and staying in a nice hotel 3 or 4 times a year --all without having to meet you-- I'll have to decline.

  12. Great, Henry, glad to hear you're stuck in L.A. Why not keep your silly dickhead comments to the L.A. area as well?

  13. I came to this discussion late. I do have to say that the best surgeons, the best lawyers, the best conductors, and frankly the best "anything" are paid not only for the work they are doing at the present, but also for the experience they possess, the education they have, and all the hard work they have done in the past to bring them to the level that they currently are at. One must factor in that these players (and , for that matter, the millionaire plus conductor) have probably since age 6 been practicing, studying, learning their craft, practicing their craft, etc. In School, they probably didnt do 6-8 hour days. They likely did 15 hour days, for 8-10 years. AND they have talent. Huge talent. AND they happened to win one of the top jobs IN THE WORLD. Those that attain one of these jobs are without question at the top of their field. When comparing other occupations who are at the very top of their field, such as CEOs from major corporations, pro athletes, actors, MUSICIANS IN THE ROCK/POP field, those saleries are at the very least in-line, and in many cases LOW.

    When a player such as a BSO player is teaching at a univeristy (giving a few lessonsweekly to the most gifted students), they are there because their expertise is needed and respected as one of the very best in the field.

    If you don't want to support the arts, that is your choice, of course. But I can tell you with certainty that if you fired everyone in the BSO, and filled every seat with the best freelancers in Boston, and found the best local conductor in Boston, while you certainly would have an excellent orchestra, you would not have an orchestra of the quality of the BSO. Not week in an week out. The collective experience wouldnt be there, and it would sound like it.

  14. Thomas, you need to start taking into account the fact that the BSO is one of the top five orchestras in the US, if not the world. You are comparing local actors to an international orchestra. Of course there is going to be a salary difference. Not to mention, those 191 concert performances are all preceded by an immense amount of rehearsal time with the orchestra, and much more practice in the performer's home.

    If you want to compare the BSO to actors, those actors need to be Hollywood actors, because both those actors and the BSO are on the top of their industry. If you want to compare local actors to musicians, compare an acting company and an orchestra that have similar budgets.

  15. To LEckerling:

    Now how, exactly, did you get the idea that I "don't want to support the arts"? I'm really curious about that. Did you read anything else in this blog?

    Indeed, it's my desire to support the arts in these perilous times that has led me to the rather obvious conclusion that in a tight economy, the BSO doesn't need our help. I haven't advocated firing all the players, or replacing them all with freelancers, or really anything you seem to think I've said.

    But I'll mention that, contrary to your last paragraph, the quality of the BSO itself rises and falls over the course of a season. James Levine, who's in town for not quite half the season, does get a superbly detailed sound out of them (sometimes because of added rehearsal time), as good as that of probably any orchestra in the world. But do they actually have their "own" sound, as the very greatest orchestras have in the past? In a word, no. (If you think they do, I'd be interested to hear you describe it.) And many visiting conductors, with less rehearsal than Levine can command, manage considerably less well. There seems to be a general attitude within the BSO that strikes me as slightly philistine, in fact - few of these folks are intellectuals; many are instead simply very skilled technicians, and hence exude an attitude you never sense, frankly, in our other leading orchestras. Maybe you should check those other orchestras out. And donate.

  16. I confess I'm astounded by the apparent naïveté of so many BSO lovers. Do not actors and dancers train long and hard? (Indeed they do - in fact, I defy anyone to watch a rehearsal of the Boston Ballet and walk away believing the BSO players should be paid more than these dancers are!) And do not many local theatre and dance productions compare favorably to those in New York (and therefore, I imagine, the world)? Yes, they do.

    I have to say, though, that these opinions are proof positive of the success of the BSO's marketing. Boston (and even the world - Ryan's on Long Island!) has been thoroughly brainwashed by this crowd. That is what may be truly world-class about the BSO.