Gasp! Orchestra Strike Post That Doesn’t Devolve To “Overpaid Bums”

On the Marginal Revolution blog, economist Tyler Cowen quotes bits of a Wall Street Journal article on orchestra strikes by Terry Teachout and ends with what seems to be an implication that many orchestra musicians and conductors are being paid too much.

I had expected many of the comments that followed to state orchestra musicians are overpaid bums, but to my surprise very few of the nearly 100 comments did. Instead, there were some of the most interesting discussions about the proficiency of orchestra musicians and ensembles I have seen outside of an arts related news source.  If anything, some orchestra might be tempted to cite these commenters in their negotiations.

There were multiple mentions of musicians today being more skilled than those in the 1950s and 1960s and easily able to tackle compositions with which their predecessors struggled.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra had a number of fans and comments about them emphasized their proficiency:

26 Tununak October 25, 2016 at 11:47 am

The only time I heard the Chicago Symphony live was when I was in Chicago for a conference years ago. They played Petrouchka, and to this day I remember the flute solo as being absolutely breathtaking. I had never really thought about that solo before that moment. There really are differences between the delivery of the very top performers and the rest, and they aren’t necessarily marginal differences.

27 Steve Sailer October 25, 2016 at 7:46 pm

For example, I attend a minor league opera series in Los Angeles called Pacific Opera Project that is wildly entertaining and quite moderately priced. They’ll do anything for a laugh. It’s great entertainment value per dollar.

The only problem is when they spring for a really good singer and he suddenly reminds you that the rest of the singers in the production aren’t really good and you are missing out on a whole world of unbelievable singing because you can’t afford it.

Steve Sailer October 25, 2016 at 7:17 am

That raises an interesting question: if the next time the CSO goes out on strike, if management could secretly fire everybody and replace them with Lyric Opera musicians, how many season ticket holders would notice that diminution in quality?

I’d guess maybe less than 50% but more than 10%, but I’m just making those numbers up.

Since I am living in Ohio, I can’t let Cleveland’s praises remain unsung:

96 Faze October 25, 2016 at 10:25 pm

The insecurity of Clevelanders is reflected in the Cleveland Orchestra’s signature sound, which is perfection. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has a looser, scrappier sound. But Cleveland can’t afford to let its hair down. Night after night, year after year, they pump out pure, transcendent perfection. The exquisite tone of the string section alone can leave you gaping. But as one Russian music student of my acquaintance said, “Eeez borink. I don’t learn from them. They have no mistakes.”

I was interested to see the following comment for the very Industrial Revolution assumptions it makes about the purpose of unions:

29 BC October 25, 2016 at 10:11 am

If musicians are that differentiated and not interchangeable, then why unionize and collectively bargain? Most unions represent interchangeable labor and indeed actively discourage differentiation (merit pay, employee evaluation, etc.). When labor is undifferentiated, unionization creates a monopoly. If musicians are individually differentiated, then each musician already has a monopoly on his or her own talents.

Professional athletes’ unions are an exception and their demands are correspondingly different than those of unions in other industries. In professional sports, the unions are pro-market, demanding things like free agency, and the owners are anti-competition, demanding things like salary caps, luxury taxes, etc. Are the musicians striking to end anti-competitve and collusive practices of orchestras or are they acting more like traditional labor unions, just asking for uniformly higher pay?

Discussions about the arts on an economics blog can yield some interesting points of view. There was a comment earlier in the thread where someone said something similar, asking why oboists, for example, didn’t hold out for more than clarinetist in communities where clarinetist were common.

It makes me wonder if part of the difficulty orchestra musicians face is this concept that unions exist to insure a supply of skilled, interchangeable cogs. I don’t think it is necessarily the term “union” that is the problem, any collective effort would likely be regarded as a union even if they called themselves more lighthearted like a Musician Clan.

From the comments and general observations, I think there is an underlying sense that talented individuals can negotiate the best deal for themselves and mediocre individuals join collective bargaining groups in order to get better pay than they would be able to get alone.

Really it is more a matter of what value is placed on the work being done than on the talent and skill of the person doing it. People initially formed unions to get better pay for work that has low value associated with it.

Whether you think orchestra musicians are overpaid or not, to read the comments in this post it appears a number of people feel that the musicians of many orchestras are to be commended for their pursuit of excellence in performance.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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