photo by Keith TalleyFriend, trumpeter, Co-Artistic Director of ANALOG arts and S21 pal Joseph Drew, today on his own ANABlog space shared a few more thoughts on the economic realities of today’s orchestra. Joe had already written some about this earlier this year, but was prompted to bring it up again after spotting a post by the Music Director of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, Bill Eddins, over at his own blog.

An excerpt from Joe:

Sounds like other folks are starting to wake up to the reality of the orchestral labor market. Last April, in response to the argument that salary cuts at major orchestras will prompt their members to flee to better-paying jobs, I argued: …where exactly are all these top-flight musicians going to go? To one of the other 17 full-time orchestras with a yawning budget deficit? The market for orchestral talent is hardly dynamic. There is far more supply than there is demand, and the dirty little secret is that the players aren’t what makes the orchestra great (see NY Phil: great players, underachieving ensemble). Buried in that BSO announcement last month is the fact that they are actually replacing two professional seats with amateurs from Peabody. What matters in an orchestra is who’s on the podium and who’s leading the sections. There’s plenty of room for fair to middling talent in even the great orchestras. [...] For now, I’d just point out that what you are generally seeing in Baltimore, Detroit, Philly and other orchestras in similar straits is a dim recognition on the management’s part that the party might just be over, and a determination on the players’ parts to rebuild the bubble. Given their druthers, I get the impression that both sides would be happy to return to their Quixotic days inside the bubble, and that fundamental delusion is the biggest problem facing these institutions.

And an excerpt from Bill:

Two interesting situations are developing that on the surface may not seem connected but are actually deeply related. For better or for worse. Detroit. Charleston. One’s a biggie.  The other’s a … not so biggie … though I’m sure that the musicians in Charleston who rely on those jobs to make a living would argue otherwise, and I can’t really blame them. What they have in common is that for years no one has taken adequate responsibility for the long term health of these organizations. Now they’re paying for it. [...] While the big boys were jacking up their salaries over the past 40 years, and everyone else was trying to Keep Up With The Joneses, some serious systemic imbalances got contracted into the picture. No one seemed to mind deficit after deficit after deficit. But, unfortunately for us, only the Government has license to print money. The general economy is retrenching and the orchestra business isn’t going to be far behind. The admittedly excellent orchestras like Detroit are now in the position where decades of deficit spending and endowment raiding are going to come home to roost. Whether we like to admit it or not, we musicians have been complicit in this debacle. At some point the long-term health of an organization must be more important than how much the salary will increase during the next year of the contract.

So, how long until we’re a country with maybe 1000 living-wage musicians in 10-15 orchestras in only the biggest cities, and everybody else scraping what they can from wherever; and does that mean that most folk would be fools to invest years learning instruments that so few will pay them to play?

4 Responses to “Breaking bubbles, orchestral edition”
  1. Christian says:

    Is the only reason one goes to a conservatory to study an instrument the prospect of a full-time job as an orchestra musician? As Daniel Wakin pointed out in the NY Times in 2004, this is a longshot goal for even the best and brightest:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/12/arts/music/12waki.html

    Last night, I had a conversation with a young composer in which he told me it was “stupid” for student composers to be required to develop their performance chops. His laptop is enough for him.

    Given the indicators above, composers had better get used to being their own best advocates. There will be less professional performers available to play their work in the years to come.

  2. James Holt says:

    Hi Christian,

    I just wanted to throw in my perspective on your comment…

    I feel like MORE of my music would be getting played if I was more in shape as a performing musician because I’d be performing it myself. I actually wish I had both taken more lessons in grad school and kept in better shape after grad school.

    regarding the orchestra musicians: even if the professional orchestras go away the professional musicians will not.

  3. James,

    I certainly hope that the professional musicians won’t go away, but if you read the Times article I linked above, many of the Juilliard grads profiled in it were no longer performing. Some even sold their instruments.

    It’s difficult to keep your chops when you don’t have gainful employment in the music field. You’ve got to log a lot of hours of practice time to stay in shape. It’s hard to do that when you work 40+ hours in another field.

    And, if the ship isn’t righted, there’s more bad news. As Steve points out in his post, the number of folks who will continue to attend music schools if the number of orchestras dwindles remains a big question mark. While I very much believe in the importance of musical study as part of higher education, it’s going to be increasingly difficult to tell prospective students – and their parents- that it’s wise to invest in an undergraduate or graduate performance degree if things don’t turn around. That’s another whole industry – the music teaching profession – that will be imperiled by the drawdown of orchestras. This affects composers too. How will a college violin professor keep their recital career going, never mind commission new works, if they don’t have adequate teaching income?

    While there are some wonderful dedicated instrumentalists who will practice, find other ways to perform, and live the dream no matter what, once the orchestras start folding, it doesn’t bode well for performing standards or the availability of performers.

    My advice to young composers is, and will remain, don’t forget to practice your instrument, learn to sing, take conducting lessons, etc. You may need to perform your own music and the music of your colleagues far more often than you at first think!

  4. Paul H. Muller says:

    More bad news from Detroit where the musicians in the Detroit Symphony authorized a strike after managment rejected their union’s offer of a reduction of 22% in salaries as too litte.

    I would advise those enrolling in college who have an interest in music to have a double major with accounting or teaching. Esp if you are borrowing money to pay for school.

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