Does the skill of the musicians in the SPCO and Minnesota Orchestra justify their pay?

Musicians at both the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra are being asked to take substantial pay cuts. Minnesota Orchestra musicians earn an average $135,000 per year, and the guaranteed minimum for musicians in the chamber orchestra is about $74,000 per year. Today’s Question: Does the skill of the musicians in the SPCO and Minnesota Orchestra justify their pay?

  • Gary F

    Yes. But, the question should be reworded.

    “Should an industry that has decreasing revenues continue to pay it’s employees more than what the company can afford?”


    “Can the 15 largest metropolitan area in the US support 2 full time orchestras?”

    Seems to me, both firms are hurting for revenues. How long can both of them stay in business?

  • James

    I assume that musicians of this caliber have been honing their skills for a lifetime and practice and perform long hours every day. If musicians had “world rankings” I assume at least some of them would be near the top….perhaps in the top 1,000 worldwide.

    If they were professional athletes, they would be equally challenged to earn over $100,000 per year. Only the very best athletes earn obscene amounts of money, and many athletes in the minor leagues barely get by.

    If they were professors, or professionals in other fields (medicine, law, business) they would easily earn over $100,000 per year.

    So yes, they deserve to earn $135,000 per year, but if the market won’t support those pay levels, which apparently it won’t, if they want to earn really good dough, they should contemplate a career change.

  • Snaab

    Sure, they’re at the top of their profession, and the pay seems commensurate with this level of achievement. Not really my place to say whether they are overpaid or not, but we certainly enjoy our subscription concert series every year.

  • Jim G

    Yes. They are the highly skilled world class artists and should be paid as such.

    I was listening to a discussion about the pay level cuts this week and was reminded that the musicians are responsible for buying and maintaining their instruments. The cost of many of these “”pricey or priceless” instruments easily surpass the value of my house. Not many professions require the purchase of their implements. For example, a race car driver doesn’t buy and maintain his car on the NASCAR circuit.

    Are we always supposed take the management’s arguments at face value without validation? The management needs to open the books and prove to the public the “unsustainability”, their scary word, of paying the musicians what they currently earn. There is another question I’d like to the management to answer: Will they also take a 28% cut in their salaries? I don’t think that’s in their plans, but it would be nice to know their plot for remuneration. Open the books and shed light on these issues. Prove your case.

  • GregX

    I like the music – but I hate the pomp and bluster. I wanna hear that music , live, everywhere – just like all the other types of music. As for the market … yeeeesh ….. The market doesn’t seek quality … it seeks the cheapest version of a thing that the most people will accept.

  • Gary F

    NASCAR has people willing to attend their events and pay for sponsorship, that’s what keeps their expensive equipment working.

    Can the marketplace or will the marketplace for chamber music be enough to justify two “teams” in this marketplace?

    More attendees willing to pay more at the box office, or more corporations willing to sponsor? It’s gotta be one or the other or both.

  • BJ

    To continue Jim G’s note on NASCAR driver, their mechanics and other crew members all buy their own tools to work on the cars.

    But with instruments many had them before they had the job, upgrading as they went along.

    Almost every ‘hands on’ job I can think of you buy your own tools. Artists and Craftsmen. Employers sometimes provide but usually employee’s upgrade as soon as possible to their own.

  • anna123

    As a person who makes a point of traveling to cities like New York, London, Amsterdam, etc. simply to hear excellent orchestras, I have realized that, amazingly, many of the best concerts I have heard are right up at Orchestra Hall.

    I have come to understand how spoiled I am and, unfortunately, I know that I would not (will not?) attend so many concerts if (when?) the quality is no longer what it currently is. Hopefully most people don’t feel quite this way, since I suspect if the salary reductions go thru, this is what will happen.

    So, yes, I do think their pay is justified. And I fear that the market for this kind of thing in the Cities is not enough to sustain this level of excellence that we have been blessed with.

  • John Winder

    I have heard this orchestra in New York City over the last 25 years, and in the last 8 years its concerts have been one of the best concerts that I have heard each year. We are talking about players at the top of their professions nationally, that have put a lifetime of study into getting there, and many of the string players have an instrument with a mortgage on it between 50k and 150k. Yes, they are worth it.

    Shame on the board for their messed up priorities, spending 14 million on a renovation of the exterior of the hall this year, while failing to recognize that the only reason to attend this hall is to hear the high quality of the actual musical performance. The board would do well to educate itself so that the members can actually realize what a great orchestra they have; it won’t remain that way if the members are dispersed.

  • georges

    The poet, 160 years ago, settled this question:

    Not long since, a strolling Indian went to sell baskets at the house of a well-known lawyer in my neighborhood.

    “Do you wish to buy any baskets?” he asked.

    “No, we do not want any,” was the reply.

    “What!” exclaimed the Indian as he went out the gate, “do you mean to starve us?”

    Having seen his industrious white neighbors so well off…that the lawyer had only to weave arguments, and, by some magic, wealth and standing followed…he had said to himself; I will go into business; I will weave baskets, it is a thing which I can do.

    Thinking that when he had made the baskets he would have done his part, and then it would be the white man’s to buy them.

    He had not discovered that it was necessary for him to make it worth the other’s while to buy them, or at least make him think that it was so, or to make something else which it would be worth his while to buy.

  • Wally

    Maybe some of them should reconsider the $50,000 instruments and $5,000 bows made with hair collected from the caves of yeti. (Okay, I made up the yeti part, but not the cost.)

    I have a cornet which would probably cost $3,000-$5,000 if purchased today. The one I got at an auction for $15 plays just as well.

    Can we play “My Heart Bleeds for You” on our finger fiddles?

  • Dave W.

    Does the skill and experience of NFL referees justify their pay? I just hope the orchestra boards and management teams will learn a lesson from the reduced quality we are seeing in another of our country’s pastimes. Sure, orchestras don’t have instant replay (“Back it up — did s/he hit that note?”), but the average audience member can tell a difference between top professionals and those at the next level. As the musicians call for an independent analysis of orchestra finances, the real issue here may be fairness. The entire industry suffers when revenues (or cuts) are not shared fairly, and when accountability (say, for decreasing revenues) is lacking.

  • jockamo

    The “skill” of the musicians is immaterial to the value of the product.

    What determines the value, and therefore what the workers pay scale will be, is how many people are willing to pay how much to purchase the product.

    And, unfortunately, not enough folks are willing to pay enough for this product to keep the workers in the manner to which they have become accoustomed. So, their pay must be reduced.

    Interest in classical music has been waning for a long, long time. The marketplace rules.

    Look at what happened 2 days ago. One missed call by a NFL official garners more attention from the public than all the classical orchestras in the whole country will in the next 100 years.

    So be it.

  • Jefferson

    The pay of the musicians should be determined by how many people they can put into the seats to watch them. I do like the comparison between the NFL, we’re all talking about that Monday night game because the NFL fills stadiums (60,000 + people per stadium) for 17 weeks (not including playoffs) and they have advertising revenue on top of that. They generate $9 billion/year. I believe neither group (NFL or orchestras) should get state/federal funding but the NFL is making lots of money and it seems to only be increasing. They can fully justify players’ salaries because people are willing to pay to see NFL games. When you’re in an industry that is declining in attendance and revenue then you have to reduce salaries and benefits until that industry can sustain itself. The salary of the musicians should be directly correlated with the revenue they bring in through attendance or sales associated with their orchestra. Perhaps they need some better marketing…as tacky as it might seem they could improve sales with the selling of concert CDs outside shows along with other products like t-shirts or even alcohol sales before and after shows.

  • Craig

    Speaking as a long time season ticket holder I think there is some headroom on the price. Currently they sell the season, and above that, the promise to print in the program the names of those who give a bit extra. I would prefer they just raise the base price. They could maintain reduced prices for the young and the back section if they want to preserve accessibility.

  • hudsongs

    We’re talking about world class orchestras. I don’t live in the Twin Cities, but I have a chance to hear many of the world’s leading orchestras live. The Minnesota Orchestra plays at the highest level, better than many orchestras from bigger cities with bigger names.

    The musicians are the ones making the orchestra sound that good. They are world class performers. And they should be paid as such.

    Are there other instrumentalists who would play for less money? Sure, but you can say goodbye to the elite level of performance.

  • Dan

    I have to admit that when I first learned of the salary I was surprised it was as high as it is. Then I went on to learn how much practice and discipline goes in to the art and performance. How much high level education and the extreme audition process to get into a top notch Orchestra. They are worth it. The MN Orchestra could prioritize things better, the cuts are proposed just because. Many employers are taking advantage of ‘the economy’ to slash pay and benefits for no real reason other than they can. I support the musicians and all working people. It is about time all working people start to support each other rather than turn on someone that has a bit more or a union and say I don’t have it so why should they. We need to all say we deserve the best! It is economic spending that drives the economy afterall!

  • Sandi Sherman

    Yes. They are world-class artists who must work hard to maintain their skill. If there was a financial crisis for the orchestra, why did management decide to raise millions to renovate the lobby of Orchestra Hall. Let me see, maintaining our wonderful Minnesota Orchestra with the current musicians or pretty lobby? That’s a no-brainer to me. Why do buildings always trump wages? Same thing going on over at the U of M. I stand with the musicians and their union!

  • rachel

    I think it’s a bit philistine to spend that much money renovating and then threaten to take away what the renovation is for. they need more money? well maybe they should have put off the renovation until they had their budget planned better. I don’t really follow the classical world but I know that my friends in NYC have commented on the quality of our orchestra. but hey what’s wrong with going back to being a cultural backwater?

  • Nathan

    Absolutely. They’re world-class players. And $135K isn’t much more than the salary of a first-year associate at the bigger law firms in Minneapolis.

  • Michael

    These highly-skilled players deserve every penny. They have brought more recognition to the TC in the last decade than any of our over-compensated sports teams.

    The MN Orchestra has been proclaimed “The Best Orchestra in the World” by one of the most respected critics in the business.

    Then there is the tax-payer supported renovation of Orchestra Hall….When we built Target Field, did we ask the players to take a salary cut to play there? When we build the Vikings a new stadium, will we ask them to take a pay cut?

  • Amy Adams

    Emphatically yes. These musicians deserve the best.

    And how many people posting their opinions would like to have their OWN salaries publicized and open for discussion? Perfect strangers making sarcastic comments about your costly instrument, or devaluing your profession (Hey, fill a football stadium, man…)

    Go ahead and open it up for debate. Could you get thousands of signatures defending, among other things, your wage?

  • dispelled

    I spent many years on the same path as these musicians (but ultimately chose a career in another field), so I think I have some insight into what is required to perform at the level they do. And the answer is emphatically yes, they are worth every penny and more of their current salaries. Their work is physically demanding, mentally challenging, and requires constant practice and study to stay at an elite level. The job is not easy. It requires loads of talent, discipline, and dedication. Anyone who claims that it is easy simply doesn’t understand what’s involved.

    Now, as to whether it’s reasonable that they continue to be paid what they are in light of the organizations’ financial circumstances — that’s an open question. I say that because (especially with the Minnesota Orchestra) I don’t think management has told the media and the public the whole story. I, too, am baffled by the supposedly very-successful fundraising campaign for the renovation of Orchestra Hall, along with a lot of the cheerleading that management has done the last few years about what great financial shape the orchestra was in. Why such a drastic change of tune now that the musicians’ contract is up for negotiation? Something doesn’t smell right to me.

  • Shawn

    I think some of the commentators here have gotten it square:

    The purpose of the Orchestra is to produce music. The management’s sole reason to exist is to put the best musicians up as they can. What is the point of remodeling the building when you gut the orchestra that is to play inside of it?

    Simply put, the MN Orchestra is already grievously injured. This clear lack of commitment to the artists will push off new talent and if the salaries are slashed, most of the musicians will have no choice but to leave for higher paying opportunities and we’ll be left playing second fiddle. This hard line by management has already done much to deplete all that has been gained this decade.

  • jockamo

    Every great thing has its day in the sun.

    David Douglas was a rock star in his day, and there are quality people today who can do what he did, but they will labor unnoticed, as there is no desire for rock star plant finders, now. The market has moved on.

    There was a time when the play was the thing, and Shakespeare was the King, but a quality play writer today will be lucky to get a gig doing sit-com screenplays.

    Poetry had its heyday, but if you produce high quality poems today you will need to be very happy with them yourself, as the world doesn’t care.

    Just because I love the Grand March, and the Great Gate, and Goin’ Home and the American from Spillville, Iowa, doesn’t mean Classical Music has not outlived its welcome to all except us few throwbacks still touched by the grandeur which once was at home in the orchestra. Nor does the taxpayer have to provide me with my fix of Chopin, or Mozart, or Grieg, no matter how skilled the musicians make themselves, or how much money they spend on properly seasoned strings.

    I have my library of LPs, CDs, and DVDs right at my fingertips.

    And I have preordered the new Mumford & Sons. It’s gunna be a blaze of glory.

  • Eric Nilsson

    Totally wrong question. In my opinion, world class classical musicians are at the pinnacle of human endeavor. Their “skill” would most certainly “justify” compensation many times what they have traditionally received. HOWEVER, that is not how society views it–any more than society believes that top flight teachers (as just another example) should be paid more than a tiny fraction of what professional athletes and entertainment celebrities command.

    In the context of the current impasse between management and musicians, the issue is NOT whether the musicians’ skill justifies their demands. The issue is limited resources, and resources are limited for a variety of convergent reasons: lack of exposure (and therefore appreciation) by the vast majority of the population; multiplicity of alternatives for use of free time; vastly reduced attention spans; struggling economy; fewer “super-patrons” with a commitment to the arts community.

    To confront these headwinds, we who have a vested interest in seeing the SPCO and MN Orchestra survive and thrive, need to think boldly and creatively. We need to radically rethink the way live, classical music is marketed and presented and the way it is financed–all without adulterating the music itself. Tough task? Not really–just listen to a little Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok, Berg at the hands of our local world class musicians, and we’ll find the inspiration.

    In the meantime, to close the gap, every time we throw money at the Twins (and $10-hotdog vendors), the Vikings (and $10-beer vendors), Starbucks, Apple and our cable providers for all those movies we can download whenever we wish to view them, each of us should think–“Maybe I should boost my donation to the SPCO and the MN Orchestra so that one day, the musicians can be paid what their skill level justifies.”

  • Margaret Cain

    We have been season ticket holders for many years and are also sustaining members. We questioned why construction was started before there was firm funding in place and were given a list of funds set up awaiting donors – but not why construction was started before funding was in place. Who benefits from a new lobby? How much time to patrons spend in the lobby? We spend hours in the concert hall listening to a world class orchestra made up of world class musicians and maybe 15 minutes passing through the lobby. Priorities are terribly skewed if those making the decisions are willing to sacrifice the very reason for our attending concerts – the musicians who honor us regularly with the quality of performances praised by people all over the world. This dispute with the musicians is truly a shame. I hope it can be settled before the season starts because we already paid for our season’s tickets and I am not certain we can get our money back if it is cancelled because of this God-awful foolishness. If our musicians are dispersed, there will be no Minnesota Orchestra and no reason to maintain our sustaining membership nor to attend concerts.

  • Steve the Cynic

    It depends. If your ideology says anything worth doing will be done by the workings of the Free Market (praise be to the Invisible Hand!), then your answer would be No. If you don’t hold such an idolatrous faith, then you might be open to the idea that excellence in the arts is worth paying for.

  • Becka

    You’re asking the wrong question. The question should be: Is the orchestra management justified in proposing salary cuts of 30-50%, while at the same time spending $52 million on a renovation to Orchestra Hall?

    The Minnesota Orchestra has the sixth *largest* endowment of any orchestra in the United States. They recently reported (to their donors) that they had successfully raised $97 million for the “Building for the Future Fund.” (The management has repeatedly refused to do an independent financial analysis to account for this money.) The CEO of the orchestra, Michael Henson, said just last week “that no immediate financial crisis exists.” How, then, can you justify these enormous salary cuts?

    The Minnesota Orchestra has a reputation for being one of the top orchestras in the world. They are the Olympians of the classical music world and, under Osmo Vanska’s direction, have received international acclaim and they sound better than they ever have. They’ve done their jobs, and should not be facing a cut in pay of any amount, much less 30-50%. The management has failed the musicians. Their salary should be the one in question.

  • Wally

    All this comparison to football gave me an idea.

    Pay the orchestras to march at halftime! And give the football fans discount coupons for concerts. That ought to increase revenues and help keep salaries up.

  • Mary Schaefle

    To answer the question, yes absolutely! Every minute I am in a concert confirms that.

    A different approach to this question (from my letter of concerns to MN Orch Exec Michael Hanson and Chair Jon Campbell.) All information below relates to MNOrch and management statements on their website re negotiations.

    1. “$35,000 worth of benefits” According to your 2010 tax return (Form 990), additional compensation (benefits costs) ranged from $14,386 to $26,534 for musicians who were your highest compensated employees. If those were your highest paid employees, I’ve got to believe the average was significantly lower. How are benefits costs being calculated for negotiations? Are reasonable estimates being used in your forecasts? Should these same questions be asked of the salary figures being communicated?

    3. “Only two members [of the management team] earn more than the musician’s base salary.” Your 2010 tax return listed three individuals with a salary higher than $135,000, assuming your position is part of the management team. Are there other statements that need to be revised or further explained?

    4. Statements about pay and cuts are made without any context or comparable information. You state the average musicians pay and what the cut would be. Do you have any comparison with other national orchestras or with comparable positions in mid-sized metropolitan areas? Did you provide that detail for staff costs? You have chosen to highlight orchestra musicians as soloists (which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed). Is that contributing to the rise in musician salaries?

    5. Other financial information is provided without context. Minnesota Orchestra did not meet projections from 2007 on investment income. Given the economy, that’s true of most individuals and corporations. Your employee costs have increased dramatically over ten years. Again true in every organization I’ve been connected to. What are the benchmarks? Have you adjusted your forecasting methods?

  • Michael

    Yes. Highly skilled musicians are a treasure.

    Especially in contrast to the Minneapolis police, some who are paid over $100,000 for harassing, abusing and brutalizing the public.

    The police should be playing instruments instead of playing with people’s rights.

  • O.J.T.

    Btw Michael, the Minneapolis Police Band performs 30 to 50 times a year.

    We’re working on that non-violent approach.