Economic Justice and the Toledo Symphony Orchestra

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It’s Thanksgiving, so I’m going to talk about orchestras. (Bear with me for a second.)

It’s embarrassing to admit as a former music major, but until I went last week, I hadn’t bought an orchestra ticket for almost nine years.

Money was tight in New York, and even when it wasn’t, New York Phil tickets there were way more expensive than the student tickets I got in Cleveland during undergrad ($5 or $10, which in retrospect was such absurd value for a Big Five orchestra).

But what this meant is that I hadn’t been to an orchestra performance since before I started really understanding the extent and the entrenchment of racial and economic inequity in this country.

Toledo’s orchestra, unlike Cleveland’s, is not a world-renowned group, but it is still clearly better than any of the orchestras I ever played in. I will be returning, probably on a regular basis. But when I was deciding that, one of the thoughts I had was that my cheap-seat $28 ticket “seemed about right, if not a little low” for the performance.

And, well, that got me to thinking.

The orchestra has about 60 performances in its core season. Many of them are free or reduced-price concerts in community venues, but let’s assume that all of them are in the Peristyle, the 1750-seat home venue for the orchestra. My concert was about 60% full, and I would bet with season tickets people are paying an average of $30-35 for those seats.

Even ignoring administrative and soloist costs, this works out, for an ensemble of approximately 80, to roughly $24,000 a year per orchestra member. (This is a massive oversimplification of orchestra finances, but I’ll come back to that.) And indeed, according to a bit of investigative Googling, it appears that the orchestra members made somewhere in the neighborhood of $32K per year. (The orchestra’s own website nods at this as vaguely as they can, stating that it “employs sixty-five professional musicians who consider the Toledo Symphony their primary employer.”)

These large ensembles in particular, I think, really demonstrate the fundamental flaws in the free-market conception of society. The number of people onstage does not have a direct relationship to the amount of money people are willing to shell out to see a performance, and the sort of uneasy compromise that most orchestras have made between their ticket prices and their members has problems on both sides.

Does the slam poet or rapper who can fill the Peristyle deserve 80x the profits of each individual orchestra member per concert? Should the orchestra member’s contribution to art and to society be judged as 1/80 of the value of the rapper? Or on the flip side, should we be decreasing the ticket prices for any performance where only one or two people are on stage? Should folks who could only afford cheaper tickets be barred from ever seeing an orchestra (or large brass band, for example) perform? To some extent, this already happens with orchestras; even with outreach concerts for children, somebody like me had far, far more access to classical ensemble music than any child from a family of limited means would ever have in 2019.

Indeed, the only reason that even starvation wages are available to orchestra members with the state of ticket prices today is the existence of private donors, either as sustaining members or contributors to the endowment of each orchestra. Toledo’s endowment is smaller than Cleveland’s by about one order of magnitude ($18 million vs. $190 million), but does that mean that Toledo’s salaries should be smaller by that amount as well?

It should be noted that the Cleveland Orchestra musicians’ base pay, even 7 years ago, was reported at over $120,000 (roughly quadruple the reports of pay in Toledo). But in that same report, despite ten orchestras nationwide that had base pay of over $100,000 (Chicago led the pack at just under $150,000), only eight additional orchestras had base pay between $60,000 and $100,000. If you miss that top tier by even a little bit, your pay is cut dramatically.

What kind of options are even available to the musician who makes peanuts for a wildly irregular workweek with their “primary employer” as an orchestra? Private music lessons are the obvious counterpart, but what if your teaching skills aren’t well developed? (The folks who end up as performers in orchestras tend not to have taken music pedagogy classes, regardless of whether that’s good or not.) I have no idea whether the rehearsal schedule includes daytime sessions or not, but the concert schedule occasionally does, which likely makes even a regular part-time job difficult to work around unless that flexibility is built in from the start.

In sum, I think there are two takeaways here, on a day where we (at least, in theory) are compelled to recognize the privileges that we have:

First, the economy as currently constructed doesn’t have any way to account for the arts in any remotely consistent way, especially given that discussions about the 40-hour workweek are often implied to be of a regular schedule. (The arts aren’t the only field where this is an issue either.) If we care about the arts, then we should be interested in making sure that arts funding isn’t left up to the whims of the ultra-rich and actually captures diverse cultural backgrounds and perspectives without squeezing anybody out.

Second, regardless of whether the next big economic reform is a job guarantee or UBI, if the goal is to make public the means of production, a conversation about how arts-based vocations fit into the picture. We can point to general hypotheses that the arts will flourish with an additional social safety net, but I honestly don’t think that’s enough. Orchestral salaries have already been under attack even without the existence of economic reforms, and I think that until we as a society recognize that the means of production includes artistic production, people are going to continue to frame the demands of artists as borne of greed and laziness. Even if rehearsal and concert time doesn’t add up to a 40-hour week, practice certainly pushes it over the threshold, and calculating it hourly from there, orchestra members in Toledo, on the salary reported above, barely make the $15/hr that we currently conceive of as the living-wage starting point.

Eat up. We have work to do.

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