In Terry Teachout’s Wall Street Journal article “The Money Pit”, dated 10/19/16, he uses the book Tales From The Locker Room: An Anecdotal Portrait of George Szell and his Cleveland Orchestra, by Lawrence Angell and Bernette Jaffe, as a cautionary tale for orchestral musicians. In 1952, just a few generations ago, the base salary for a 30 week season in Cleveland was $3240, that’s $29,231 in today’s dollars. Sixty percent of the musicians worked additional jobs to make ends meet. By 1967 that 30 weeks paid $11,700, when the median household income in Cleveland was $7970. In 1968 Cleveland moved to a full 52-week season, and nearly 50 years later the base salary is $120,000.
Mr. Teachout’s conclusion? Don’t get comfortable. We should not expect too much in the way of salary increases or concert attendance because we now live “in a world that doesn’t value (our) services as highly as (we) do” and “Most Americans don’t care about classical music and don’t go to orchestral concerts.”
I am going to take exception to that.
The Knight Foundation conducted research—the “Classical Music Consumer Segmentation Study 2002: National Survey”—and concluded, “It’s a myth that very few people in the United States are interested in classical music. . . . Nearly 60% of adults express at least some interest in classical music and one third of these fit classical music into their lives regularly in their autos and at home. . . . Approximately 16% of adults in the US attended a classical concert in the twelve months preceding this survey.”
In their just released “Orchestra Facts 2010-2014”, the League of American Orchestras, states: in 2014 the 1200+ US orchestras of all budget sizes contributed $1.8 billion to the economy in direct payments for goods and services as well as indirectly fueling the economy through related services. Of the 28,000 performances in 2014, approximately 42% were educational or community engagement, one in four of which were free to the public. While it is true that attendance fell in all performing arts sectors between 2010 and 2014, attendance at classical series concerts kept even with the reduction in classical performances offered.
I think it is safe to say that Americans are listening.
In relation to the “value” of musicians services, Teachout states, “lots of people think they ‘deserve’ to make higher salaries. . . . The price of labor is determined by the interaction of supply and demand.” While it is true that greater numbers of excellent musicians are graduating from schools every year, why would you not pay to attract the very best available? I assume that the three to ten times greater salaries offered our CEOs and Music Directors are directly correlated to the perception that by paying more, you get the best. Why then would you sacrifice the very product that you are attempting to market? It is not the price of labor. It is the price of artistry.
Mr. Teachout does make one very important point. It’s good to remember your history—how things are today is not how they have always been. American orchestras have made enormous advances in salary and working conditions in the last fifty years. Through concerted effort, union activism and a desire within our communities to foster the cultural institution of a symphony orchestra, we have raised the bar beyond anything seen historically.
How do we maintain that?
First and most importantly, we must be a visible and accessible part of our local communities at all income levels. Ticket prices have dropped an average of 30% at the highest level and 12% at the least expensive since 2010, but we need more attainable pricing and subscriber incentives. It is essential that we have the contractual flexibility to perform outreach concerts and expand our role in education. We need to be able to court our donors with projects that appeal to their community spirit and the desire to foster music for everyone.
Secondly, our boards and managements must be fully invested in the idea that our orchestras can and should be a growing, vital presence in our communities. Corporate-style downsizing is a slippery slope to dissolution. If the very people who are charged with overseeing the viability of our orchestras don’t believe in artistic excellence and the fundamental role of classical music in our society, they don’t belong in our board rooms. We are not asking too much; rather, our boards are asking too little.
Finally, we ourselves need to be proactive within our organizations to attain these goals. It is no longer enough to just play the best Beethoven on your block. Each one of us has the capability and talent to reach out, inspire, and educate. We need to continue to find ways to interact with our public, boards, and management that will galvanize investment in our orchestras and secure the vital role of orchestral music in our communities. We must speak out to counteract the pervasive negative messaging and find new ways to promote our orchestras in the public sector.
There will always be critics like Mr. Teachout, who accuse us of ignoring what they decree to be cultural and economic realities. But we do not have to resign ourselves to their grim predictions. We know that our music can be a positive force in the world; that our message is one worth listening to; and we know that, working together, we can create a solid financial basis for our orchestras to become a cultural priority. Money talks but music sings.