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Home » Symphonic Services Division » Musician Compensation Is Possible – and Essential – Even When Performance Is Impossible

Musician Compensation Is Possible – and Essential – Even When Performance Is Impossible

  -  AFM Symphonic Services Division Director

Collectively, as musicians we are enduring a chapter of our professional lives more painful than any we have ever before experienced. We have been exiled from concert hall stages and orchestra pits and sent into solitary confinement in our home practice studios. Our incomes and our identities as musicians are suddenly precarious. Our contact with others comes filtered through screens, masks, and distance. Our travels in the world are reduced to walks around our neighborhoods. Anxiety, fear, grief, and anger are our emotional companions; joy, exuberance, and hope seem like strangers. Our lives are so much smaller than they were just four months ago. There is little clarity as to when we may regain normalcy previously taken for granted.

And yet . . . we are also witnessing and participating in a historic moment in the long struggle for civil rights for all human beings, regardless of race, sex, or any other of the many wonderful, immutable characteristics that make us who we are. The rising tide of calls for an end, finally, to racist violence wells up within society at a moment when we have all been forced to reckon with vulnerability, personal and societal. Perhaps this upwelling would not have occurred without the pause in our ordinary lives that has allowed us to reflect and to show up for each other, in protest both real and virtual, like the deeply moving #taketwoknees initiative.

Painful as it is, the pause provides an opportunity to reflect on what we want for our post-pandemic lives and the workplaces in which we practice our art. The pause also requires us to think creatively about how we can best serve our communities now and into the future. Unfortunately, many of our managers and boards are not similarly engaged in creative thinking.

As I write this, the Nashville Symphony musicians are reeling from their employer’s decision announced June 12 to furlough all musicians and staff and suspend all concert activity through July 31, 2021. In sad irony, the announcement asserts that this move is necessary for the institution to “conserve its resources until the orchestra and its concert hall . . . are able to resume activity.” But how does cutting off all pay to the 79 musicians of the orchestra do anything to conserve the institution’s most precious, and now most endangered, resource—its musicians? Beautiful as it is, Schermerhorn Symphony Center is not responsible for the Nashville Symphony’s 12 Grammy awards and, last I checked, no one was buying tickets to listen to an endowment fund.

Of course, the Nashville musicians are not alone. Earlier in June, the Victoria Symphony made a similar announcement. The musicians of the Metropolitan Opera have been without a paycheck since March and their fall season has been canceled with no activity planned until 2021. There have been and there will be many other cancellations and furloughs. How are these musicians supposed to survive, much less maintain their world-class artistry, during months on end without a paycheck?

More hopefully, many orchestras are planning how they can continue to serve their communities even when traditional concertizing is impossible. Managers are compiling lists of works that can be performed by the number of musicians who will fit on stage at a safe distance from one another. Performance spaces are being reconfigured and non-traditional venues are being evaluated for their suitability. Employers are bargaining to add concert repetitions to the weekly schedule to reach patrons in smaller tranches, socially distanced. Some are planning to sell tickets that can be used for either a seat in the concert hall or access to a stream of the same event. The AFM is working on a symphonic media package to support these efforts.

And in many places, musicians are already back to work. In the past weeks, the musicians of the Orchestre Metropolitain and the Montreal, Cincinnati, and Dallas Symphonies, among others, returned to work. In every case, musicians’ health and safety was paramount, and the parties bargained extensive safety plans before bringing musicians back into the workplace. While we must be deeply cautious, work can be done.

But as we have seen again and again through this crisis, it is both essential and possible to keep paying musicians even when performance is impossible. In this context, the true leaders in this sector are doing what it takes to ensure the conservation of the only resource that genuinely matters—the musicians, singers, and dancers who create the art.

How is that possible? The reality of symphonic budgeting is that most orchestras derive only about a third of their annual budget from earned income, which is what has dropped precipitously (although not to zero, as patrons have allowed orchestras to keep their ticket money even when concerts are canceled). The rest of the budget is typically a mix of contributions (from individuals and corporations), grant funding (from government and private foundations) and endowment draws. In a tidy symmetry, musician compensation typically consumes only a third of that total budget, with the rest going to other expenses, including production, administrative, overhead/physical plant, and salaries or fees for staff, music director, and guest artists.

A complete elimination of earned income should still leave two-thirds of the annual budget intact. Where an orchestra has ceased performing, the loss of earned income is offset by the elimination of production expenses and fees to guest artists, which can be quite substantial. Contributions may decline somewhat, but careful messaging about the organization’s plans and its continued vitality coupled with personal contacts from development staff (and musicians, where appropriate!) should stem these losses. Even when a loss of earned income is paired with some reductions in charitable giving, there should be no scenario in which an orchestra has no money in the budget to continue musician compensation.

On the subject of giving, the New York Times reported on June 10 that five charitable foundations with a history of support for the arts are stepping up their payouts for 2020, in some cases issuing bonds and borrowing funds against endowments to allow them to distribute more to organizations in need. Together, these five foundations (Ford Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Doris Duke Charitable Foundation) will collectively increase their giving by over $1.7 billion this year. Leaders of these foundations acknowledge that COVID-19 has created unprecedented challenges that call for unprecedented action. While we can and should advocate for some of these funds to flow to the performing arts, more important is the foundations’ model of decisive action to tap funds in extraordinary ways and use them to safeguard cultural resources that would otherwise wither catastrophically. Our symphonic, opera, and ballet boards of directors and managers should be paying attention to this model of stewardship.

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