The Orchestra Pit

By Laura Weber

Dark clouds loom over American symphony orchestras. Changes in audience behavior, demographic shifts, and the impact of technology are all threatening to leave musicians out in the cold.


The concert hall quiets. The baton drops. The corps of black-clad musicians responds as one. As you settle into the sublime sounds of Bach, Rachmaninoff, or Copeland, the last thing on your mind is this: Symphony orchestras are businesses.

That fact has become starkly apparent to orchestra aficionados from coast to coast in recent years, with labor disruptions in the form of strikes by musicians and lockouts by management reaching a climax in 2012. Some orchestras filed for bankruptcy. Others closed altogether. Management has sought—or already secured—deep concessions, including wage cuts of 20 percent and more.

Conflicts over rising costs, declining revenue, and the resulting deficits have increasingly pitted musicians against their boards and management. Two such clashes began last fall in the Twin Cities, as the Minnesota Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra each experienced contract disputes, leading to an unprecedented simultaneous lockout of the musicians, canceled concerts, and bitter feelings all around. Similar scenarios played out in cities such as Atlanta, Chicago, Indianapolis, San Antonio, and Spokane, where stories of contentious contract negotiations made headlines.

Although many, generally smaller, orchestras continue to thrive, larger orchestras anticipate facing similar challenges in the future, notes Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, in a recent column in Symphony magazine. And even if they’re not in immediate crisis, orchestras will have to adapt to changes in audience behavior, demographic shifts, and the impact of technology.

We asked Carls involved with the art and business of orchestral music to weigh in on the current state of orchestras and how they can survive in the 21st century.

Paying the Piper

Union Made

Until the early 19th century, musicians in Europe worked under the patronage system. “They were basically slaves, given room and board to play for the prince or duke or whomever,” says Ron Rodman, the Dye Family Professor of Music and director of the Carleton Symphony Band. “Once they began playing for the general public, wealthy benefactors became the patrons.”

To protect themselves against long rehearsal hours and no job security, American musicians organized into labor unions in the early 20th century. Yet the modern era of orchestra labor relations began in 1963, when the Philadelphia Orchestra became the first American orchestra to offer its musicians a yearlong contract. “The 52-week contract was hailed at the time . . . as the end of labor strife,” writes Philadelphia Inquirer music critic Peter Dobrin. “Contradiction was swift. In 1966 the orchestra went on strike for 58 days [over benefits].” 

After 1963, orchestras in other major markets aspired to year-round employment, a status eventually achieved by fewer than 20 of the 1,200 orchestras that exist in the United States today. “Bigger budgets required larger staffs—marketers, fund-raisers, administrators—to ensure that management was complying with complex work rules. Orchestras grew. Audiences grew, too. Until they didn’t,” writes Dobrin.

Due to all the publicity, strikes and lockouts may appear to be a recent phenomenon; however, musician strike activity is cyclical, says Rodman. As a performing trombone player in the 1980s and a “card-carrying union member, Local 3, in Indianapolis,” Rodman recalls numerous strikes during the union-busting Reagan era. Some strike activity continued into the 1990s, followed by a drop in the early 2000s, until belt-tightening measures brought about by the 2008 recession provoked the recent upsurge in strike activity.

“I see management’s point: Orchestras have to pull in revenue and operate on a budget,” Rodman says. “But, of late, it seems to be an all-or-nothing proposition: you take a pay cut or we’ll lock you out. It’s distressing, but I think they are borrowing the lock-out model from for-profit businesses.” In addition to salary, current labor-management disputes are centered on working conditions, pay structure, and workforce reductions.

When concerts are canceled due to labor issues, “it can seem peculiar to a layperson,” Rodman says. “It’s like, here we are at the Ordway Music Center with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and it’s one big happy family. But in the United States, we apply a free market capitalist economic model to the orchestra, and that’s where this labor-management issue comes in.” 

Despite the recent turmoil surrounding orchestras, the Carls interviewed for this story stress that there is a future for classical music in America. More of us than ever before have an opportunity to hear musicians play at the highest level, and “symphonic music probably has never been performed better than it is today,” says Sarah Mellander Bierhaus ’02, principal oboist for the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra and the Fort Collins Symphony.

The tension arises in the space between that reality and the fact that many orchestras, from the largest and most acclaimed to part-time community ensembles, have never been self-sustaining. Ticket sales alone are insufficient to cover costs. To make up the shortfall, orchestra boards and management solicit donations from individuals, grants from foundations and corporations, and government funding when available. The preeminent orchestras can augment income with recording and touring revenues. However, even adjusting for rises and falls in the economy, the overall financial trend for orchestras is down, says Stanford labor economist Robert J. Flanagan, author of The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras: Artistic Triumphs and Economic Challenges.

Orchestras’ economic difficulties are rooted in “cost disease,” a concept first identified in the 1960s by Princeton economist William J. Baumol. Performing arts groups aren’t able to realize the productivity gains other industries achieve through advances in technology. In other words, it takes the same number of musicians to perform The Rite of Spring today as it did when the piece was composed in 1913. However, productivity gains in other parts of the economy drive wages up in general, including those of orchestra musicians.

Orchestra management and board members—predominantly large donors and private sector executives—see concert attendance dropping (by 28 percent between 1988 and 2008, according to research by the National Endowment for the Arts) and endowments shrinking, battered by the recession of 2008. Looking to cut costs, they focus on musician compensation, an orchestra’s largest expense. Salaries have risen beyond the point of what the market will bear, board members say, and without double-digit percentage salary cuts, their orchestra will not survive long term.

Professional musicians—who are unionized (see sidebar on page 30)—respond that management has failed to do its job, which is to raise cash and attract audiences. Proposed double-digit wage cuts, as high as 45 percent in Indianapolis and 32 percent in St. Paul, and reductions in the total number of salaried musicians threaten the musical integrity of an established ensemble. The best musicians will leave, they say, which will compromise the hard-fought reputation of the orchestra.

“You have to have people playing together for a long period of time in order to make really top-notch musical things happen,” says Ron Rodman, Dye Family Professor of Music and director of the Carleton Symphony Band. “Replacements will be able to pull off a nice Beethoven Three or Brahms One, but it won’t be at the top level of performance.”

Connie Martin, senior lecturer in string bass at Carleton, describes how it takes years to learn to fit in with the established sound of a “top of the heap” ensemble like the Minnesota Orchestra, where she is a substitute musician. “When I play with them, I have to be able play at a different level. If I can’t do that, I don’t get called back.”

How Much is Too Much?

Recession-wracked Americans may look askance at the six-figure base salaries for musicians in top orchestras. (Principal chairs and players with seniority receive more.) In 2009 the base salary in Pittsburgh was $109,000; in Chicago, $130,000. The Minnesota Orchestra musicians were asked to accept a base-pay cut from $135,000 to $89,000, leading some people to wonder: Were the salaries too high to begin with?

“That’s a tough question,” says Piotr (Peter) Gajewski ’81, music director and conductor of Washington D.C.–based National Philharmonic. “On one hand, yes, because when workers of a nonprofit organization are overpaid, there is no immediate mechanism to check on this. This may well be true of orchestra management as well. But no to the extent those very highly trained musicians should be afforded a comfortable existence if what they do is valued by the community they live in.”

That said, most positions in American orchestras are part-time, and the musicians earn modest salaries. After a four-week strike ending in December at the Spokane Symphony, musicians accepted a two-year contract that includes an 11 percent pay cut (in the form of reduced guaranteed services such as rehearsals, concerts, and educational events) and three weeks unpaid personal leave. The pay cut lowers their pay to about $15,500 a year for 160 guaranteed services, down from $17,460, for about 180 guaranteed services.

To make a living, musicians often supplement their salaries with freelance gigs, teaching, and other means. Martin, for example, is a teacher and grant writer. “Unless you land one of the big orchestra jobs, the life of a musician is to piece various types of jobs together,” she says. 

“I always tell people, I don’t have a job, I have a job collection,” agrees oboist Bierhaus. “Both of my orchestra jobs are part-time. I am a member of the Central City Opera full-time, but that is only for two months in the summer. I also teach at the University of Denver and substitute for the Colorado Symphony, among other things.”

Marlou Garbisch Johnston ’64, concertmaster of the Kankakee Valley Symphony Orchestra, has supplemented her income with session work in recording studios and on stage for acts ranging from Smashing Pumpkins to Frank Sinatra. “I’ve done it my whole life. I get called because of the various positions I’ve held in Chicago, the Lyric Opera, Music of the Baroque, and the Chicago Symphony.”

Building New Audiences

One solution is to foster a love for the music itself among new generations by exposing young children to it, both formally and informally.

“As a matter of fact,” says Johnston, “a lot of us were exposed to classical music for the first time in Bugs Bunny cartoons or in commercials.” And though kids today may not realize it, many of their beloved video games are scored by classically trained composers. 

Johnston and her sisters, Marsha Garbisch Harbison ’67 and Mimi Garbisch Carlson ’66, grew up in Austin, Minnesota, at a time when more schools had excellent music programs. Each sister grew up to become a professional musician. Harbison is assistant concertmaster of the Springfield (Massachusetts) Symphony Orchestra, and Carlson plays flute and piccolo for Symphony Silicon Valley. All three women believe music education is a crucial precondition for developing future audiences.

Research conducted recently by the National Endowment for the Arts shows that at-risk students who have access to the arts—in or out of school—are more successful academically and professionally than students who do not. Yet a report by the U.S. Department of Education notes that only 15 percent of elementary schools offer music instruction at least three times per week, and schools with a higher concentration of students living in poverty were less likely to offer music education at all.

“Classical music isn’t dead, but it’s severely neglected in schools,” says Martin. “If kids are exposed to the music, they like it. Parents can play classical music when they’re driving in the car with their kids or while they fix dinner.”

Also crucial for orchestras’ survival is that the repertoire and concert-going experience evolve in order to appeal to younger audience members’ shorter attention spans and desire for interaction, both with the artists and each other. For example, the Minnesota Orchestra held a competition offering young composers an opportunity to have their work performed by the orchestra. Tickets to the premiere were just $25 and included cocktails in the lobby before the concert. Afterward, composers and guests mingled with the musicians on stage. In addition, pop-up chamber ensembles have performed in urban bars and bowling alleys around the country as part of the creative ferment.

Thanks to programs like “Under 18s Free” and deeply discounted tickets for college students, the Cleveland Orchestra has seen attendance soar among young people. The orchestra also credits its increased presence on social media and its diverse programming, including recent collaborations with Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet, rocker Stewart Copeland, banjo master Bela Fleck, and world music ensemble Pink Martini.

“Arts organizations must be willing not only to do educational outreach, but to use social media and web-based marketing and fundraising,” says Martin, who is also a core member of the Minnesota Opera Orchestra. “The Opera is successful—we sell out almost every show—because of the management’s foresight. We are on Facebook. We do outreach to many groups of people, including youth. The orchestra received a big grant several years ago to commission new works. Kevin Puts, composer of one of the works in that series, Silent Night, won a Pulitzer for the show. And management has worked with the union and is compensating musicians for recordings and broadcasts. Musicians are on board because we see the house is full, and it’s exciting.”

Nicola Melville, associate professor of music at Carleton, is a pianist and recording artist who commissions new works from composers and advocates for interdisciplinary live performances. “Reinventing the art form is what we should do as musicians,” she says. “The more personal the experience becomes, the more young people will feel it is part of their thing and get excited by it. Music organizations need to reach out and make the experience relevant in order to ensure their survival. Otherwise, they become a living museum.”

Playing Together

Just as there is no single cause for what ails U.S. symphony orchestras, economists have not been able to conjure a magic pill for a cure. Economist Flanagan says that management, musicians, and board members must work together to take appropriate actions to increase their orchestra’s economic security.

As an example of how to resolve labor disputes, orchestras are looking to the auto industry. In the opening session at the League of American Orchestras’ 2012 National Conference last June, the vice president of labor affairs at Ford and the vice president of the United Auto Workers discussed the successful labor negotiations that brought Ford back from the brink of bankruptcy in 2007 and contributed to its economic viability today.

“Management and labor at Ford built a relationship that allowed them to meet external challenges,” said League president Jesse Rosen in his remarks at the conference. “That’s the work that’s asked of every one of us. And to do this we have to put the interests of our orchestras ahead of any single constituent interest. We have to consider new possibilities . . . and we have to participate together.”  

Margee Moss Bracken ’64, a member of the Minnesota Orchestra’s board (who was not involved in labor negotiations during the lockout), agrees that both sides need to put themselves in the others’ shoes in order to come up with joint solutions. “The musicians need to understand more about market forces and financial structures. At the same time, board and community members need to understand what orchestra musicians do,” she says. “I wish top musicians were valued as highly and paid as much as professional athletes and pop musicians. Perhaps after all of this publicity, people will realize how important symphony orchestra players are.”

“We are at a turning point,” adds Rodman. “Larger markets—Minnesota, New York, Chicago—will continue to have high-caliber orchestras, but smaller markets like Indianapolis and Phoenix may have to readjust and become part-time, per-service orchestras.”

Of course, there’s more to symphony orchestras than balance sheets. The opportunity to hear live music of a world-class nature should be preserved, says Bracken. “It speaks to our souls to hear musicians play at the highest level.”

And while maestro Gajewski knows the next decades will be bumpy, he says he is “tremendously optimistic. The art form is extraordinarily clever and also mystical. Who can explain why music affects people emotionally—sometimes profoundly? Ultimately, I believe that many people will always be drawn to classical music.” 


  • May 5 2013 at 11:26 pm
    Kenneth Huber, Senior Lecturer in Piano

    While I found your article most interesting and provocative, perhaps it could have been more in depth concerning the current situation of the lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra had you contacted me. I have been serving on the Executive Committee of Orchestrate Excellence, a Twin Cities citizens coalition deeply committed to the Minnesota Orchestra. We believe that the proposed contract changes may irreparably harm the artistic quality of the Minnesota Orchestra. We believe that an artistically excellent orchestra contributes significantly to Minnesota's quality of life. We are seeking a solution to the current impasse that creates a path to a secure future for the orchestra and doesn't compromise its musical excellence. We have been studying, researching and analyzing the current situation from many vantage points, and we represent the voice of the community. Perhaps you would be interested in reading my essay "Saving Our Humanity" which articulates the human costs resulting from the current woes of our great American orchestras. It can be read at You might also be interested to note that our founder and co-chair is Paula DeCosse, class of '63.

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