On the Pay Disparity between Full Time and Substitute Orchestra Players

I’d like to relate a quick anecdote from the beginning of the Minnesota Orchestra’s 2014-2015 season, which I was privileged to take part in as a singer in the Minnesota Chorale.

First, some quick background. As I’m sure we all remember, between 2012 and 2014 the Minnesota Orchestra had been embroiled in bitter lockout lockout that came close to shattering the organization. Indeed, by all accounts the City of Minneapolis was hours from taking over Orchestra Hall. But in January 2014, a settlement was reached and the long process of healing began.

Over the next few months the recovery process accelerated at a pace no one could have imagined during the height of the lockout—controversial President and CEO Michael Henson was removed, and incoming President Kevin Smith set a new tone of cooperation. The much-loved Osmo Vänskä was brought back as music director. A series of successful concerts announced to the world that performance standards remained as high as ever.

All this built to wild sense of anticipation for the season opening concert in September, which would be the first full season since the lockout ended. Everyone was looking forward to a new era of rebirth and reconnection with the community.

And so, to my anecdote… which took place at the final dress rehearsal before opening night. Before we got underway, a musician took to the podium, and said the following:

“I wanted to pass this along to all our guests sitting in as substitute players. Please know that we are so grateful you are here… we literally can’t do this without you. We’ve lost a number of good players from the lockout, and we won’t be at full strength for some time. You are critical to us right now, and many of us have been in your shoes for the last few months. Well, this opening concert is a big deal for us, and it’s your season opening, too. We want to stand together and have you to be part of this, so we printed up name tags for you that are back in the lounge. Please put them on, and join us in the activities. It’s also a great way for you to meet our awesome audiences and talk about your work, your instrument and everything. Thank you for everything you do.”

* * *

With this anecdote in mind, I am surprised and saddened that the Minnesota Orchestra is somehow being held up as an organization that seeks to harm fellow musicians by encouraging a disparity in compensation between full-time musicians and temporary substitutes.

Drew McManus has been driving this point on his Adaptistration blog.  In fact, his #1 worst thing to happen in the classical musical world during 2014 was the fact that the Minnesota Orchestra musicians, as part of the overall settlement ending the lockout, agreed to a system where substitute players earn less than full-timers. He writes: “It is difficult to overlook the wildly disappointing decision by a majority of Minnesota Orchestra musicians to accept a clause that relegated substitute musicians to second class status by paying them a lower base rate than full time musicians.”

I haven’t responded to this directly, as I’m a firm believer that people have the right to choose whatever they want for their year-end countdowns, based on their own criteria. And I fully agree that pay parity is a large problem in the classical music world—an issue that slowly wends its way into many other topics. So yes, it is obviously fair game.

That said, I have a few issues with Drew’s stand. For one, I am flabbergasted that someone would look back at the 16-month lockout out, and the 12-month rebuilding period, and determine that pay disparity is the most important, most far-reaching, or most interesting development. It certainly wasn’t the pivotal issue as to why the lockout occurred—there were much more visceral issues that triggered the dispute. Likewise, I can’t imagine that the one lesson arts administrators will take away from the catastrophe is that they are now free to cut subs’ pay… was that the lesson learned by leaders at the Metropolitan Opera or the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra?

So while Drew is right to shine a spotlight on the issue, it feels like he’s not seeing the forest through the trees.

But I’ve been more disappointed with subsequent developments. First, Drew has kept on hammering this issue past the point of usefulness. I understand this is an important issue that certainly can use greater exposure, but continuing to single out the Minnesota Orchestra seems unwarranted and unfair, and willfully ignores the context in which the agreement took place.

Worse, a few of the comments have taken this line of attack further in the comments section, accusing the Minnesota Orchestra musicians of actively “selling out” others, saying that the final settlement was done “directly on the backs of sub players,” and launching insulting, personal attacks against other commentators. This is particularly noteworthy in that I have, in the past, commented myself on Drew’s page, and I know he approves the comments that are visible to the public. After submitting a comment on one occasion, he contacted me personally to see if I truly wanted him to post it, as it was somewhat controversial. I agreed that the content might get overwhelmed by the potential controversy, so we agreed to leave it off. As a result, I imagine the insults currently in the comment section are there with his direct approval.

Let me say a couple of things. First, I want to honor and celebrate the very real contributions substitute players make in modern American orchestras. As that Minnesota Orchestra musician stated at the dress rehearsal, orchestras couldn’t do what they do without substitutes. I’ve worked with many in my time, and I have uniformly found that they are supremely talented—frequently with the exact same education and training as their full-time counterparts. Moreover, they are wonderfully adaptive, turning on a dime to meld their sound with each ensemble they perform with… often with little advance notice. And I love that they come into a project with fresh ears, so to speak, bringing a host of new insights and an outside perspective that keeps the music from becoming stale.

Subs don’t just fill out the ranks… through their training and talent, they add to a performance in enormous measure. They absolutely deserve equal compensation to their full-time counterparts.

And based on my interactions, the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra realize this. My sense is they agonized over this development—again, many of them were in that exact same position for months and months.

But let me add this. While I had no involvement in the labor negotiations, one thing seems clear. At the time of the settlement, the board was strongly divided. The leadership and its allies wanted to continue a scorched-earth campaign without backing down. But there was another, pro-resolution side that wanted the lockout to end. And this group really stuck its collective neck out to get a deal done. If the musicians had balked at the offer given, choosing to hold out for a perfect settlement, the negotiations would have collapsed and the pro-settlement faction would have been discredited and marginalized. I have no doubt that as a result the hardliners would have redoubled their efforts and caused much, much worse institutional damage. The healing we have now would not have happened, and the existence of the Minnesota Orchestra would be in serious doubt. This is not hyperbole.

So again, let me be absolutely clear that the pay disparity is unfair.

But the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra did not set out to give substitute players the shaft, nor did they welcome such a development. At a very delicate moment of an extraordinarily destructive labor dispute, the musicians settled for a contract that was not perfect. I’d go further and say these concessions were made under extreme duress, so I am not convinced that this is the best case study.

* * *

Pay disparity is an important issue. But using the Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute as the one and only case study of this broader problem feels needlessly inflammatory, and like we’re casting around for a scapegoat. The result is to make everyone defensive… which hardly helps solve this very real problem.

And that should be the emphasis, right?  How do we work toward solving this problem?




6 thoughts on “On the Pay Disparity between Full Time and Substitute Orchestra Players

  1. “I imagine the insults currently in the comment section are there with his direct approval” – wowza.

    And I can only imagine the thread on which the January 2014 negotiations hung. This was the LAST chance. It was incredibly under the radar and everyone kept it so because it was so crucial. To second-guess the process and the outcome, to play Monday-morning quarterback as Drew appears to be doing, is pretty cheap, and it’s not constructive – especially for someone who supposedly wanted to appear “neutral”.

    I’m waiting for the full disclosure as to whether this issue affects Mr. McManus PERSONALLY. Given his dog-with-a-bone approach, I’m guessing there is some connection.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I read all of the comments (hadn’t before) – geez louise are there some nasty and uninformed people out there, and encouraging it is not professional (nor is it “objective” which is what consultants supposedly strive for . . .).


  2. Thank you for your response to Drew’s list. It is truly disheartening that he would put the MN Orchestra on the Worst list. He certainly has an axe to grind with the pay disparity issue. No one loves that situation, but it is not the most important part of the negotiated CBA for the MN Orchestra.


  3. Pay disparity affects every player in every orchestra; not just substitute players, and is a factor in the morale of the group. Individual players negotiate over-scale pay usually at the time they are hired. Depending on the orchestra’s financial outlook, the manager doing the negotiating, and the musician’s negotiating skill, salaries among players vary widely. These negotiated over-scale payments usually remain in effect throughout musicians’ careers. It is very difficult to negotiate an increase in over-scale once a contract is signed. Subsequently, cuts only to base salary penalize lower paid players more as a percentage of their salaries.

    That is why I advocate for a fixed schedule of over-scale pay as a percentage of base pay. This was a proposal put forward by the Minnesota Orchestra management, that I agree with, but was not adopted. However, the 15% cut that we accepted INCLUDED OVER-SCALE PAY. This was equitable and affected higher paid players more in terms of dollars (myself included) than lower paid players. A fixed schedule also gives management a predictable picture of their single greatest liability obligation; musicians’ salaries.

    Interestingly enough, during the lockout the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra paid all players the exact same amount for each self-produced concert, regardless of instrument, which part was played, and whether or not one was a full-time member of the orchestra.

    I believe that our negotiating team did their best in advocating for substitute players’ pay. Our next negotiation will surely address that and a whole range of financial issues.


  4. This is an incredibly difficult issue to discuss without being hurting feelings on one side or another. Thanks for addressing it, I quit reading Drew’s blog for quite a while because I found his fixation on this one aspect of the Minnesota agreement upsetting. I know some feelings were hurt in and around Atlanta by some things that were said during their lockout regarding substitute musicians too.


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