Summary of Recent Negotiations at American Orchestras

In light of the great news coming out of Pittsburgh (their orchestra settled their contract A YEAR EARLY!, AND they aren’t facing 30-50% cuts in compensation! yay, Pittsburgh!), I decided a summary of recent contract negotiations at major American orchestras was in order.

The orchestras are listed in order of endowment size (and you’ll definitely notice that toward the bottom of the list, as endowments get smaller, there is more friction and instability at the negotiating table). I focus largely on base salary here, but keep in mind there are many other moving parts to a contract, including working conditions and pensions and all that other fun stuff; however, those are more difficult for an outsider to properly compare and analyze, and I’m not going to write much about them, so go do some homework yourself if you want to learn more about those things.

I also rate each orchestra with my personal opinion as to whether said orchestra recently went through a “market reset” (the Minnesota Orchestral Association’s Orwellian phrase for “foisting massive cuts in compensation onto musicians”).

Endowment figures come from the Minnesota musicians’ website, and are probably a year or two old. If anyone steps forward with comprehensive updated endowment information, I’ll update the list.


Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 2011, the BSO signed a three-season contract that garnered a three percent raise in base salary…each year. By the end of the 2013-14 season, base will be at $140,088. Read more here.

  • Summary: No market reset.


San Francisco Symphony. San Francisco was in the news earlier this year when their musicians went on strike. Management and musicians finally settled on a 26-month contract that guaranteed a 4.5% increase in base salary. By the end of the contract, base will be at $148,200. More details here. 

  • Summary: No market reset.

Chicago Symphony. Their latest contract, which lasts from 2012-2015, also calls for a 4.5% increase in base salary, to slightly over $150,000 a year. However, musicians’ healthcare costs also increased. As this Chicago Tribune article notes, the CSO is dealing with a great deal of debt, especially after (wait for it) a 1997 renovation of Symphony Center.

  • Summary: No market reset.

New York Philharmonic. In March 2012, the Phil ratified a contract lasting from fall 2011 to fall 2013. The musicians worked for five months without a contract. They ended up gaining a 2% raise in base salary over the course of the agreement, to $137,639. As ICSOM wrote, “This was essentially a one-issue negotiation – management’s insistence upon phasing out the musicians’ defined benefit plan – which the committee, with the support of the orchestra, refused to consider. The issue did not disappear; this two year agreement gives both sides more time to study the pros and cons of defined benefit versus defined contribution plans, with the assistance of outside consultants.” Keep an eye out on this situation over the next few months.

  • Summary: No market reset.

Los Angeles Philharmonic. The current deal in place at the LA Phil – which lasts from the fall of 2009 to the fall of 2013 – guarantees base salaries of nearly $150,000 a year. More here.

  • Summary: No market reset.

Minnesota Orchestra. Management is proposing cuts in compensation of 30-50%. Over the life of the five year contract, base salaries would go from $77,896 in the first year to $81,016 in the last year…or, in other words, a mere 72% recovery toward the 2011-2012 base. Read more about that…well, anywhere on this blog, really.

  • Summary: Holy fracking crap market reset.


Cleveland Orchestra. In October 2012, the Cleveland Orchestra ratified an agreement with a 1% raise in 2013 and a 2% raise in 2014. The musicians will also pay more for healthcare costs. In 2010 the orchestra went on a brief strike, but in 2012, chair of the musicians’ negotiating committee Jonathan Sherwin said, “They approached us in a great way, and we responded in kind.” Read more here.

  • Summary: No market reset.

Philadelphia Orchestra. After many financial woes, in October 2011, the Philadelphia Orchestra agreed to drop base salary from $124,800 to $106,000…or by 15%. However, by 2015, four years later, the orchestra will be back to paying 95% of the old base. Read more here.

  • Summary: Somewhat of a market reset, but it could have been worse. Not to demean the musicians’ sacrifice, but it’s encouraging to see a relatively quick resumption of base salary…

St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. In 2012, musicians and management signed a four-year contract a year before the old one expired. It allowed for a 5% raise over the course of the agreement, with base salary topping out at $86,053 by 2017. More information here. In 2005, the SLSO suffered a nasty work stoppage, but thankfully it didn’t end in massive cuts.

  • Summary: No market reset.

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Pittsburgh settled a contract with its musicians a year before the old one expired. It will last for three years and raise base salary by 7%. However, keep in mind that Pittsburgh also dealt with a 9.7% wage reduction at their last negotiation. CEO James A. Wilkinson recently said of his musicians that they comprise “one of the best orchestras in the world. It’s extremely important we continue to reward them by keeping their salaries within the top 10 in the country.” Them’s fighting words in today’s climate, Mr. Wilkinson. Read more here.

  • Summary: No market reset.

Dallas Symphony Orchestra. In 2011, musicians and management signed a two-year agreement which basically freezes wages. It expires in a few months. Musicians have not seen a raise in Dallas since 2007. More here.

  • Summary: No market reset, although obviously one wonders…would there have been if salaries had increased from 2007 to 2012? And what will happen this fall?


Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Indy was one of the four big orchestras locked out this past fall. Their contract lasts from 2012-2017. Base salary dropped from $78,000 to $53,000 (a 32% drop), but thankfully will return to $70,000 by the end of the contract (a 90% recovery to 2011-2012 salaries). The length of the season was also shortened, and the orchestra was reduced in size from 87 to 74 musicians (for the length of this contract only).

  • Summary: Yeah, this was pretty market reset-y.

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. One of the other lockout victims of 2012, Atlanta signed a short two year contract lasting until 2014, containing roughly seventeen percent cuts. Press releases at the end of the lockout seethed with acrimony. Details here.

  • Summary: Yup, market reset. Come next fall, many eyes will be on Atlanta.

Houston Symphony. In 2010, Houston signed a four year contract with two years of no raise followed by two years of a 2.5% increase each year.

  • Summary: No market reset.

Baltimore Symphony. Baltimore has had its fair share of financial problems over the years. In 2010, musicians agreed to a contract that reduced “the musicians’ base salary by 17 percent from the 2008-2009 level.” Base at Baltimore is now around $65,000. The orchestra will be negotiating a new contract this fall.

  • Summary: Pretty market reset-y. One hopes they’ll be able to successfully navigate challenges of negotiating this fall, especially in light of the revelations in this article.

Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. In 2009, musicians agreed to a 15% decrease in total compensation, but their current deal, which extends until 2015, restores the loss by the end of the contract. Read more here.

  • Summary: Kinda market reset-y, but (once again, not to take anything away from the musicians’ sacrifice!), there’s that restoration that helps take some of the sting away.

San Diego Symphony. In July 2011, San Diego agreed to a five year contract with 3.5% annual increases in salary. Base by 2016 will reach $68,234. (According to Wikipedia, as recently as 2001, the orchestra’s base was $25,920. The increase in fiscal security came about after a $120 million donation.)

  • Summary: Definitely not a market reset!

Seattle Symphony. In 2013, musicians signed a contract that will last until August 2015. Base salary will decrease by 5.5% in the first year, stay level in the second year, and increase by 4.6% in the last year. Details here. Base salaries will end up being around $80,000.

  • Summary: No market reset.

Detroit Symphony. Detroit dealt with a crippling strike back in 2010-2011. When the dust cleared, a contract was signed lasting from 2011 to 2014, resulting in base salary plummeting 25% from $104,650 to $79,000. It won’t rise much over the course of the contract, either; when it expires in August 2014, the musicians will only see around a 79% recovery in base salary (although this will vary, given other elements of the contract and other opportunities musicians have to earn money).

  • Summary: Pretty much the definition of a market reset. On the other hand, Detroit is…Detroit (no offense meant to Detroit), and its endowment is more than $100 million less than Minnesota’s.

There’s also the National Orchestra, which in 2012 ratified a contract that contained roughly 2% annual increases in salary…which will rise to $139,360 by 2015-2016. I don’t include it in the list above because the National Orchestra is connected with the Kennedy Center and its endowment numbers are complicated. No market reset.

So take that data and crunch it as you will. It seems to indicate a relative security this negotiating cycle for orchestras with endowments of $100 million or more, assuming you don’t live in Minnesota. It will be interesting to see what happens in 2014-2016. Will the economy continue to rebound? Will Detroit’s salary keep up with inflation? Will Baltimore have to swallow another round of sharp concessions? What orchestra will emerge as the best paid by 2017? And will the Minnesota Orchestra even be around to negotiate that next contract? If so, in what form?


Filed under Labor Disputes, Minnesota Orchestra, The Orchestra Business

14 responses to “Summary of Recent Negotiations at American Orchestras

  1. Alice Williams

    Thanks for doing your homework and providing this information. I do hope the MO board members read this, too.

  2. JKM

    I have just come from a dinner party hosted by a woman who is active in support of MN Opera, Guthrie, etc. She remains convinced that what she claims as the “refusal” of the Musicians Union to offer a counter proposal is evidence of their bad faith and that the Board of the MO is acting in good faith, confronted with the financial plight of the MO. She also adds that Vänska is a hypocrite since he still collects his salary while running around the globe collecting additional fees. With this kind of attitude, I think that those of us who hope to preserve the MO in its current configuration are f…ked. Goodbye to what was once a great ensemble, supported by what was once a great community that appreciated quality in the arts. This issue has obviously become so divisive that the the scars in this community will last for at least a generation or more. A sad day for Minnesota is upon us.

    • JKM, I think this speaks to a larger problem with the Orchestra’s board–it is comprised of a very narrow cross section of people. In it’s quest to secure big donors with big bank accounts, and to secure corporate leaders who can bring sponsorships and corporate donations to the table, the Orchestra has created an 80-member board comprised nearly entirely of CEOs who all think alike. And when one CEO speaks on “business matters,” the default is to rally around the general. I have no doubt that they’ve all been talking in their closed circle, buttressing their own ideas, without hearing a word of argument.

    • Performing Artist52

      @JKM, this just infuriates me! What does this woman do for a living? Or does she sit on top of her husband’s money and pontificate on how everyone else sheould spend their money? Does she realize that the MOA is using state money while they lock out the musicians? She obviously does not know what a counter offer entails as the musicians have made mulitple offers,
      As to why the MOA conductors are still getting paid to do nothing is a mystery.

      • As best I understand it, they’re still getting paid because their contracts are still in effect. The MOA can’t cancel them without getting sued (unless the conductor does something that breaches the terms of their contract, like making a bunch of pro-musician statements). It would actually probably make more sense for any sympathetic conductors to stay on the payroll, collect their wages, and then cut checks to musicians privately. Of course I don’t know if that’s what they’re doing, but it’s certainly a possibility that that’s occurring.

  3. It has been suggested by orchestra administrators that the current struggles of American orchestras are the result of broad, national factors: e.g. the economy and changing tastes in entertainment. One has been led to believe that “market reset” is almost inevitable, given these factors. What the analysis above suggests is something different: that the issue is much more localized, including, but not limited to board and management vision and competence.

    • Sarah

      Oh yes, it’s a PR spin war and “class warfare” (those greedy overpaid musicians who don’t know about the free market).

  4. Douglas Brown

    Vänska isn’t the only one still collecting a check. Administration is still getting paid even as they lock out the musicians.

    There is a segment of our society that has adopted a class warfare mindset of employer/employee in which anyone who doesn’t manage is an employee and ergo lower status. They believe that they should control every aspect of operations, even when the only part they comprehend is the business portion. CEOs and bankers on the board of the MO persuaded the administration that this was the proper attitude to take towards the musicians of this once world-class ensemble. They have effectively destroyed the SPCO and may well do the same to the MO.

    I predict that the boards of these two orchestras will be surprised and deny all blame when Minneapolis/St Paul start losing out to other cities in competitions for corporate relocation and extension. (Ask Dallas how that works.) They did everyone in the Twin Cities an injury by their actions, not just music lovers.

  5. Curious how the Milwaukee Symphony figures in this analysis.

    • I’ve gotten that question two times, hehe. I didn’t discuss Milwaukee because their endowment is smaller than Detroit’s, but if you want to read yourself, here’s the ICSOM summary from their most recent contract (09-13)… As you can see, their contract will be expiring in six weeks. Best wishes for a speedy productive negotiation. I’m hoping it won’t be as confrontational as some of the other orchestras’, because they recently hired a musician to be their CEO… I guess we’ll see…

  6. Matthew Probst

    As I’ve said numerous times–all management has to do is run down the clock. Them doing nothing is getting them _exactly_ where they want concerning a “reset”. Management has all the power. Even if management is convicted of criminal action in misreporting of finances to the legislature, they just have to continue doing nothing in order to destroy the orchestra and hire a rent-an-ensemble any time they want light pops music in their hall.

    It saddens me to see no “or else” to the musicians side of the argument. Unless the musicians have an alternative plan that eliminates management from the picture, to use as an ultimatum, they can’t change the outcome.

    Admittedly, breaking away from management and founding their own musician owned orchestra would _still_ result in many high-end professionals leaving, and would _still_ damage the orchestra in the short term. But it seems more and more likely that this is the only way to preserve _any_ kind of high-art orchestra. The musicians just have no lever with which to move management. Even if they weren’t locked out, striking or even quitting wouldn’t serve as an ultimatum because that is management’s desired outcome.

    I fail to see how the public or the musicians have any power as long as the current management is intact, and we don’t have time to be polite and follow a 10-step plan to replace management. It needs to happen _NOW_ or we will lose too many musicians. I actually feel we’ve already lost too many to preserve things as they were.

    It’s a Minnesota Nice thing. It seems like one is taking the high ground by avoiding conflict. But often when one takes the stance of conflict avoidance, one is actually falling asleep into complacence. Taking the high ground does no good when the other side can win by breaking the rules.

    These are the same high-stakes class warfare techniques used by big business in every area of life these days. Increasingly daily life is nothing but a struggle against these high-stakes tactics, to turn us all into slaves and serfs to the management class.

  7. Yes indeed – my family members have been musicians in Boston Symphony, Minneapolis Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, Denver Philharmonic, Koeln Opera House (the famous Orchestra you hear all the time); Berlin Philharmonic, LA Philharmonic – were schooled at the Curtis, studied with the best are never spoke about what they did in their life time. It was all about the MUSIC – my license plate on my car in the State of Washington is “Music Matters” – indeed , what an awful world we would have without it!! How can the Board in all good conscience think that for ONE moment they are doing the right thing? Ironically, a few are coming to the LA PHIL – great losses on many, many levels!! Or to Boston, Phili, because they are the best!!! Osmo has been a GREAT leader and so was Stan!! I knew Dorati at age 3! I am writing for several publications who have asked for this story from the beginning, I have the orginial documents handed down to me from 1909. The Orchesta Musicians had Artistic Control and a say in what happpened!! My father was an Officer of Local 73 and fought against management for their rights so the MUSIC would never die. And now it has for at lease one season if NOT forever!!

    Song of the Lark you are an excellent writer and researcher!! Musicians from around the world as well as dancers read your blog and phone me to ask what in the world is going on in Minnesota!! As far away as St. Petersburg, Russia!! They are listening and watching. Trust me also in Germany, England, and the Baltic States, Finland and Denmark.

    The word has been out worldwide for so long that now it is a black mark on the Board.

    With all best wishes and with great sorrow from Koeln, Germany where once upon a time it all began.


  8. I forgot to mention Indianapolis Symphony ( my father’s first job at age 19!), and Mankato (my Uncle was on the podium for more than 25 years!) he also found the University of Minnesota Music School at Mankato, and of course I forgot to mention, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and The National Symphony. All part of my families history – all MUSICIANS of the highest calibur!! This is so personal for so many! It is NOT just about my family but the State of Minnesota and the fact that why would they allow this to happen after 100 plus years?? I opened the 100 year season! Look at the Press on that! I opened Mankato’s 60 year season. Thank you the greatest musicians in the world for holding your heads up high. You make me proud and cry at the same time.

  9. Performing Artist52

    Isn’t there anyone that has any contacts on the board that could start a dialogue as to what they are thinking? Are all the board members truly of one mind? Sounds like there are people out there that have a long history with the MOA. Why are they not coming forward to facilitate some type of solution? There has to be some middle ground somewhere here.
    I do believe the musicians have every right to be concerned as it looks like the MOA is looking to balance the budget on the musicians back. Oh sure, the MOA says they have cut staff members, etc. But not one of the upper management has taken a pay cut! If they are serious about cutting expenses then they too would have taken a pay cut.
    For those musicians that choose to remain, they will have a more difficult job in trying to regain what was lost in the way the ensemble used to sound. It will take years for the orchestra to become what is was in the 2011-2012 season. The board does not care about the quality of the music, they are only interested in the bottom line.

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