In the ballpark

Reading that the Boston Symphony Orchestra management and players have agreed to freeze salaries at their current minimum of $128,180, Thomas Garvey asks—more to the point, asks why my Globe colleague Geoff Edgers isn’t asking, “Why is the BSO so overpaid?” The answer? Because they’re not. Here are the starting salaries for either the last or the coming season for the traditional Big Five, plus San Francisco and Los Angeles:

The BSO is right in the middle of that pack. Garvey unfavorably contrasts that pay with theater pay—for example, the minimum Actor’s Equity salary in Boston is $529/week—but given the scarcity and status of a Big-Five-or-Seven job, the better comparison might be with SAG or AFTRA rates for speaking parts, which actually are higher than the best orchestral positions: $2,634/week vs. $2,495/week for the New York Philharmonic. (And if you think about the BSO as the major leagues of orchestral playing—the starting salary in the NFL is $310,000; the starting salary in Major League Baseball is $390,000.)

Back in 2006, BSO freelancers got the short end of the stick, which was reported with due skepticism; I’m assuming that inequity continues in this extension. But the full-time players are earning pretty much what every other comparable market is paying. Is the Boston Symphony Orchestra a sweet gig? Hell, yeah. But overpaid? Not according to the going rates.


  1. San Francisco AND Los Angeles make more than Boston and Chicago? Wow, that's certainly not based on quality (note: I live in Los Angeles and have been going to LAP concerts since the *shudder* Previn era).

  2. Really, Matthew – where to begin? Okay, the BSO is not overpaid – unless all the other overpaid players are overpaid. You really got me there – whoo-hoo! Ditto your comparison with national television and movie rates for SAG and AFTRA! I mean seriously – how clueless are you? (Not quite as clueless as Henry Holland, who compares actors to basketball players on my blog, but still.) The appropriate comparison was with stage Equity rates, which is the comparison I made. And of course you don't even mention my larger point – which is the BSO doesn't deserve our sympathy, not in an economic downturn which is impacting plenty of superb musicians, many of whom, of course, play with the BSO for half the money. Sheesh. Donors should take note, and give money to less-well-paid artists. And you should stick to the notes, you're weak on the economics. Or that sense of justice thang.

  3. Thomas: My experience would lead me to characterize your comparison of the national/international orchestral ecosystem to the local freelancer ecosystem as apples-to-oranges. The move from freelance musician to big-city civic-institution full-time orchestra job is much, much closer to the jump from Equity jobs to AFTRA jobs than a jump within a given market from non-Equity to Equity. The Big Five work year-round, cast an international net for talent, tour, record, and broadcast. They've spent the better part of a century building their brands. I'm just not seeing how paying them less is somehow going to translate into freelancers getting more.

    As for the justice thing—the BSO freelancer situation stinks, and I've said so, but the leap from that to the assertion that BSO full-timers are overpaid is not good economics. I'm certainly no economist, but I know enough to know that letting even the best-intentioned concern for justice warp one's sense of economic reality rarely turns out well. (Think Thatcher on one side and Stalin on the other.) One should certainly question why Boston Equity rates are so low, especially compared with other cities, but the BSO players are playing by the same rules—management pays them as little as they can get away with, performers hold out for as much as they can get away with. If the BSO has a bigger pot of money to play with, good for them. If smaller groups can steal some of that philanthropy, good for them. But, I'll repeat, the BSO full-timers are not, by any reasonably objective measurement, overpaid. For further comparison: they start out at somewhat less than an associate at one of the big downtown law firms. They start out at about what an analyst at an investment bank starts at. Come on, every year the Globe and the Herald muckrake the dozens of Boston Police officers whose overtime and detail pay pushes them over the $100K/year mark. The BSO are highly-trained professionals in an urban market. I'd say they're right about where they should be.

    Oh, and the “note/notes” bit of wordplay? Sheesh right back at you, sir.

  4. Matthew, feel free to repeat it as often as you like. Who knows – maybe if you tap your heels together, the scales of justice will, indeed, align with the ways of Mammon! Meanwhile, please be aware that I'll be forwarding on to you all the literature I get begging for money from those good folks at the BSO who are worth every penny they “earn”. Let me know how much you're going to donate.

  5. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  6. Matthew's national comparisons are entirely appropriate. The musicians of the BSO and every other top orchestra are coming from all over the world to compete for those spots – their income is entirely based on the international reputations of those groups. The musicians who aren't making as much as the BSO members haven't won the auditions that BSO members have, or spent time in other major orchestras like BSO members did prior to winning those BSO spots. That experience and toughness sets them apart, and is what helps justify their salaries, and what separates them from their musician peers. A musician who's proven to be the best at a top orchestra audition has shown they have an ability that the freelancer doesn't, or at least that the freelancer hasn't so far displayed. You can say they're overpaid, but there's no objective basis for that. The economics of storefront theater are completely different from those of the major orchestral institutions and opera companies. At that level, these musicians have proven they're the best, so they ought to be compensated accordingly. And if that doesn't persuade you, then ask yourself if 100 people making six figures is worth that much shouting. Maybe 105, to account for senior staffers.

  7. Of course, neither Thomas nor Matthew mention that the starting salary of a BSO staffer wouldn't be even half the amount cited.

    To be strictly accurate, the opening should have read: “…Boston Symphony Orchestra management and players have agreed to freeze musician salaries at their current minimum of $128,180…”

  8. Yvonne, I never said I was discussing BSO staffer salaries. Marc, your post is a series of competing non sequiturs. In short, you say that claims that BSO members are overpaid have “no objective basis,” while never really laying out what an “objective basis” for these salaries might be. Simply winning the audition, I think it's obvious, can't really be linked to the salary involved. The salary could be far higher or far lower, for example, and yet the prestige of the job might still attract top flight auditioners. And while the BSO players are, to a man and woman, superb technicians, many (or even most) of them aren't actually that interesting interpretively; they're brilliant foot soldiers, and trust me, there are many more like them. (Therefore they may not be “the best.”) And just btw, I wasn't discussing “storefront theater” – I think you're giving away a hint of snobbery there – but instead the salaries that are the baseline at our major theatres. (I've been generally intrigued by a persistent sense that people feel justified in believing the BSO is terrific precisely because it's so expensive.) And to Matthew: I think if you support the salaries at the BSO, yet are unwilling to donate to support those salaries yourself, then you're in danger of being thought a hypocrite.

  9. Thomas: I didn't claim that you did. I was simply making a neutral observation that staffer salaries had not been mentioned.

  10. Thomas: Matthew laid out the rationale for an objective basis for the BSO's salary level; I think it's valid, you don't. So my burden isn't really to provide another objective basis. On the subjective side, you think it's obvious that winning an audition isn't a valid means for earning a BSO salary. You're welcome to your opinion, but think of it like a college professor who's put in the time to earn a doctorate, and one who hasn't finished their dissertation. The ABD candidate may be the better scholar, but they haven't put in all the time yet that shows they have the requisite level of commitment their field expects, as that community has established its standards. The musician who has won a major-orchestra audition has proven to perform at the level the community requires. Therefore, they get paid at the level of the community. Yes, academic pay is commensurate with experience, but there's a musician's union involved, so the pay level is fixed. I'm not one to say the BSO is excellent because it's expensive, and I can't say for sure that Boston freelancers are every bit as good as their BSO counterparts, or make any claims for Boston's acting community. But given the demands of a major-orchestra post and the effort required to win one of the very few positions in one, the pay makes sense. Sure, people will do it for less, but the argument that artists should starve has never cut much ice with me.

  11. Well then, as I understand it, your “objective basis” for BSO salaries goes something like this: BSO salaries are very high, even though the market can't really support them, because managers in other cities have likewise inflated their players' salaries. I guess that is an “objective” basis, but it's also a form of circular reasoning – I hope you can see that. Likewise your feeling that the players “should” be paid more, because they've put in a lot of time, etc. (just like, btw, the actors and dancers you gently dismiss). That's a sweet argument, but again it's a circular one, the kind that markets ignore routinely. When you say that the musicians are paid “at the community's level” you are, of course, assuming away the basis of our discussion: I feel the “community level” should change in a way that's more equitable to all our musicians. The fact that the BSO's most recent pay raise actually came with a cut for the freelancers should be enough to make you see that these folks are to some extent setting their own pay, and that to maintain it they've screwed their co-workers. It's not a very pretty picture (and a good start in future negotiations would be to bring the fees for freelancers back in alignment with the regular players). So I'm afraid it's you, Marc, who seem to believe, a la “Animal Farm,” that some musicians are more equal than others. I don't want any highly talented artists to starve. You, on the other hand, seem happy with the BSO living high on the hog when everyone else is out in the cold.

  12. Thomas: For the record, I like to see all musicians get paid as much as they possibly can make. But whether I support how much the BSO specifically gets paid or not is immaterial to the question of whether, by any objective measurement (not based on your own subjective judgement of the results) the BSO are overpaid. You keep using “economics” in a sense that makes it into some form of speculative opinion. That's not what economics is. Economics is making predictions about market behavior that fit the available data. For decades, a prediction that the salaries of full-time players in the Big Five, &c., would largely be in line with each other has been a successful one. Therefore, an economist would say that said players are being paid what the market will bear, based on the readily-accepted definitions of “market” and “bear.” (Do economists have political opinions? Of course. But if their predictions don't match the data, then they're just crappy economists.)

    You keep implying that, if BSO full-timers got paid less, freelancers would get paid more. Your faith in the fairness of management is touching. If the full-timers get less, management will pocket the difference and keep paying the freelancers what they're getting paid now. And the idea that the market would somehow redistribute that wealth all the way down to the rest of the city's freelance community is, historically, amusing. In the meantime, lowering the upper ceiling of performer pay would artificially depress all performer pay. (The case study here is the reserve clause in baseball, before and after.) You keep saying that, unless I think the BSO is overpaid, I'm some kind of snob, but you yourself are a snob from the other end, and I don't put any more moral stock in populist snobbery than elitist snobbery.

    As for the idea that I'm a hypocrite if I don't give money to the BSO: that's the dumbest thing I've heard all week. You yourself keep saying (rightly) that theatrical workers aren't paid enough. So how much are you giving each year to the A.R.T.? Do you give money to the MSPCA? Why not? Don't you think those employees earn their salaries? You could donate all of your disposable income to the Food Bank—or maybe you don't think hungry people are hungry enough. Is the speciousness of your argument clear enough yet?

    Look, if I had an infinite pot of money, I'd lift every artistic boat in town. As it is, I'm nowhere near BSO money, so I do what I can—and I think my track record shows that I try to do my critical part to highlight the breadth of music, from the top to the bottom of the pay scale. But to think that economic forces ought to respond to my own critical opinion is neverland stuff. If you've got a plan for boosting freelance pay more likely to succeed than “pay the BSO less and see what happens,” I'm interested. But economic history is fairly littered with evidence that divide-and-conquer inevitably ends up conquering the bottom of the pyramid, not the top.

  13. Matthew, if you go back over my comments, you will discover that I have made literally none of the supposed claims you ascribe to me. And I'm afraid it is you, not me, who brought up the issue of economics by claiming that the BSO's pay was justified by “the going rate.” My repeated response is that “the going rate” is in fact NOT due to economics, or at least not due to competition, but is instead due to political decisions, power shifts, and management expectations. That means the going rate is to some degree open to the influence of cultural discussion. Which is what this is.

    And I'd like to refer to the cut in freelancers' pay three years ago as a case in point – it happened not because of “what the market will bear,” but because the freelancers allowed themselves to be represented by the BSO's Players' Committee, which was clearly more disposed to the interests of the orchestra's regular players (although admittedly management wanted the cut, too). I'd argue that the freelancers should, in future, organize themselves separately from the BSO Players' Committee, and hire outside representation to get themselves a pay raise – which may result, it's true, in a cut in the regular players' pay. Which to my mind would be fine.

    It's true that this would be a more effective route to achieving equity for the freelancers than a cut in donations, but I still advocate such a cut – or rather a re-distribution in the way classical music lovers make their donations – because, frankly, the BSO just has plenty of money already, the players are all well off, and, it's true, I simply don't find its programming to be all that interesting.

    And I'm afraid I still think you're a hypocrite, Matthew, if you advocate that BSO players be paid at a rate that makes them a charity case, but at the same time refuse to fund that charity yourself. Can't you see that's rather slimy? But no, I don't give money to the ART – because, like the BSO, they're loaded, and not very interesting. Instead I give money to smaller, high quality theatres that need it. Which is what you, and everybody else, should be doing, too.

  14. OK, I'll go one more round.

    but is instead due to political decisions, power shifts, and management expectations. That means the going rate is to some degree open to the influence of cultural discussion

    Guess what? That is economics. You might avoid the term, but you're making an economic argument. If it was just an if-I-ran-the-zoo “Boy, I wouldn't pay the BSO that much,” that's fine, I think you'd get a lousier orchestra, but you think they're pretty lousy already, so: moot point. But what you're saying is that what the BSO is paid contributes to lower freelance performer rates around town. That's a statement about economic structure, and it's one that I don't see a lot of evidence for. (Based on similar cases in other industries, in fact, just the opposite—a higher ceiling tends to raise all going rates.) Even the BSO freelancer situation, which I've said and continue to say stinks (for Christ's sake, I quoted the frickin' Internationale in my original post on it): if the full-timers had stuck up for their freelance colleagues, that would have been nice, but three years hence, the BSO doesn't seem to be having any trouble finding freelancers at reduced rates. So the likely outcome, if you accept that there isn't much societal check on the Invisible Hand, would probably have, in the long run, ceteris paribus, been the same.

    This is my point: translating one's subjective opinions into economic policy is a perilous, perilous business. Both communism and laissez-faire capitalism are, basically, predictions based on emotional opinions as to what constitutes fairness. And they both, to put it mildly, suck. What's more, the historical evidence is that tinkering on the basis of flawed, subjective assumptions almost always ends up in unforeseen-consequence land, and due to the fundamental greedy-bastardness of human beings, those unforeseen consequences always screw the most defenseless.

    That's the grand scale, but it starts at home—so if you're starting with the assumption “the BSO is overpaid” as the basis for an economic argument, that should be a big red flag against everything that follows. Because, whether you think they deserve it or not, if everyone else in comparable positions in comparable markets is making what they're making, it's either a) an everybody's-lost-but-me situation, which almost never occur, or b) they're not, from an economic standpoint, overpaid. Is it fair? Everybody's got an opinion on that. But economics is not about fairness. It's about how money actually flows, given societal structure and human propensity for good and bad behavior. (Note that I have not advocated for the BSO to make as much as they do, although, again, anytime a musician makes a killing, fine with me—but I do continue to insist that, in any sense that you can logically draw conclusions from, they are not overpaid.)

    I always think that people agree more than they disagree, however much fun arguing can be. (And boy, this one has been fun.) So let me put this comment thread to bed thus:

    I'd argue that the freelancers should, in future, organize themselves separately from the BSO Players' Committee, and hire outside representation to get themselves a pay raise

    I absolutely agree with this. I think the difference between us is that I think this is the only way the freelancers will make more, and that a cut in the full-timers' pay would have no effect one way or the other.

    (You all are free to continue the donnybrook, but I really need to get my sieve of a brain back to more pressing deadlines.)

  15. Matthew wrote, in part:
    —You keep implying that, if BSO full-timers got paid less, freelancers would get paid more. Your faith in the fairness of management is touching. If the full-timers get less, management will pocket the difference and keep paying the freelancers what they're getting paid now. And the idea that the market would somehow redistribute that wealth all the way down to the rest of the city's freelance community is, historically, amusing. In the meantime, lowering the upper ceiling of performer pay would artificially depress all performer pay.—

    Exactly. Anyone who doubts this (and guess who I'm looking at) should read “No Vivaldi in the Garage” by Sheldon Morgenstern, to see some of the truly mean Badger Games orchestra boards get up to. I think this is the book where he mentions a high-ranking board member–he doesn't mention which orchestra–turning down a black conductor from guesting with them, because to her “Those people smell funny.”

    As for Tom's argument about the BSO salaries: When I went south for the premiere of one of my pieces, I met a former member of the Louisville Orchestra; to my mind it was the greatest of all American orchestras… but that's because I'm a composer, and they spearheaded a vast program to play and record 20th century music when other orchestras weren't. (So much for 'objective' and 'subjective' views on the subject.) Among other things we talked about were salary. When he told me he'd been making around $45K per year, I said it was too bad that the NY and Philly and Boston symphonies were getting more than twice as much.

    He looked at me as if I was out of my tiny mind.

    “Don't you know how much the average income *is* in Kentucky?! The only way we could get such a high salary was by pointing out how much the Big Boys were making.”

    So, Tom: when I was working at WordsWorth bookstore for $8.70 an hour, and won the yearly raffle for a ticket at the BSO, am I a hypocrite because I couldn't afford to give them any money? I know the Newton Symphony plays more local composers than they do; but if I support the Newton, does that automatically mean I can't speak well of the BSO — even if buying their recordings (that is, if Ozawa isn't conducting on the disc) is 'my version' of support? Just askin'.

  16. Look, I know you guys are outraged by something – it's just impossible for me to figure out what, exactly. I'm arguing that the BSO players are already quite well off, and that folks with dollars to donate to the music scene should look elsewhere, to any one of our other fine musical groups consisting of musicians just as good as those in the BSO (because they often fill in for them), but which are in more dire financial straits. I also feel BSO freelancers should organize outside the current negotiation structure, and fight for better wages. I've also pretty much demonstrated that, if the BSO players are indeed paid more than other players of their caliber in the local scene (and they are), then, technically speaking, they are “overpaid.” I don't understand how any of your personal invective, or wacky posturing about the meaning of “economics,” replies to those arguments. Folks interested in my actual statements, rather than Soho's self-serving perversion of them (I have, for instance, never demanded that the BSO's wages be cut), should check out the posts on the BSO in my own blog,

  17. It is so sad that Thomas understands so little of what it means to be a professional musician. The differences between a member of the BSO and a talented free-lancer are very important. Technical skill of a certain level is only the starting point. Pschycological ability to handle the stress of the job are also imoportant. The audition process eliminates those who do not have the ability to deal with the stress that a top orchestra produces. To say that most musicians are just sheep and technical animals is insulting to all musicians. (full-time or free-lance) I am a Co-Principal horn in a Belgian Orchestra and earn about 45,000 a year. I find that reasonable and sufficient to live in Belgium. I do not feel that I should be paid the same as members of great orchestras around the world. My first reason is what comes with the salary. Pressure of a level that no one can understand unless they have been there and done it. Yes, I play the same notes as James Sommerville, but the expections of playing in the BSO dwarf those of my orchestra. We are both expected to play the right notes at the right time with the right phrasing, but the comparisons end there. Even the last stand second violin auditioned and won a place in the BSO. They deserve great respect. They had to prove musical initiative and interpretative skills to win. They don't suddenly lose those qualities after joining the orchestra. And to judge muscians interpretation skills is impossible unless they are in a solo position. If you feel that the BSO lacks interpretive qualities then maybe you should consider the conductor's input. Even Principal players have to bend, somewhat, to the interpretation of the conductor. If journalists, such as yourself, inform the public with statements like those you have made here, I would like to know where we are headed. Your lack of respect for musicians is frightening, and if by chance you are a musician then we are all doomed. If you are a “critic” then the Boston area is poorly served.

  18. What I like about Bruce's argument is that it is so argument-free. He simply believes that expert classical musicians deserve very high salaries, and that other expert performing artists don't. He also simply believes that being a freelancer is less stressful than being an orchestra member (counter-intuitive as that obviously is).

    In the end, Bruce is simply indignant; indignant that I should question the current cultural assumption about the salaries of our top orchestras. If I question that, I am somehow attacking “all musicians” – because, of course, some little part of his own self-image is tied up in that high price tag. This is of course understandable, but that doesn't make it right.

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