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Detroit Explores the Net Value of a Symphony Musician

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Prominently featured in the August 19 issue of the Detroit News was a multi-page article on the contract talks between the Detroit Symphony musicians’ union and Symphony management. The outlook is gloomy, what with negotiations featuring pay cuts ranging from 22 to 28%.

When the economy tanks the first thing that suffers is the arts. If there is a soul left in the rest of the world that has any doubt about the sorry state of Michigan economics, they need not look any further than the Detroit Symphony. Faced with declining sponsors (the big ones used to be various divisions of the Big Three), declining ticket sales – who will buy a ticket when disposable income drops? – the Symphony loses approximately $3 million a year, this despite cost-cutting measures meant to trim expenditures.

The DSO has made the venue available for popular concerts. They’ve eliminated jobs and combined jobs. Even Maestro Leonard Slatkin works four weeks each year without pay.

A 22 to 28% pay cut is not a paltry sum. It’s not chicken feed or the cost of a Starbucks’ latte a day. (I know because my Michigan business has been declining by the teens every year since 2001. Believe me, even the teens hurt.) I can’t imagine a teacher or my mail carrier considering such a cut without screaming, and screaming loudly. Think of yourself having to live on one-fourth less income than you do now.

No, this is a pay cut that hurts, and hurts in more ways than the obvious fewer digits in the checking account.

So what is the net value of a symphony musician, or any musician at all? Having raised one child who went on to complete his education at a major music conservatory, I can vouch for the monetary expense, even with the supplementation of a handsome scholarship. Going into music as a profession is not exactly a lucrative career choice. Those who do pursue a career in music do so out of a combination of passion and skill, and they may not make a lot of money.

Orchestra Hall is a stunning venue, one that amazes me every time I visit. Built in 1919, it closed during the Depression, and was reborn as the Paradise Theater, a jazz club. Between 1953 and 1970, the space was shuttered and almost fell victim to the wrecking ball, but quick action by musicians and friends of the DSO saved the building and placed it on the National Register.

Detroit’s one shining jewel of musical excellence has been this symphony. It’s rated among the top ten in the country (based on musician salary), but there is more. The Detroit Symphony musicians play so cohesively, it’s hard to imagine them as being singular components. If there are prima donnas here – as there tend to be in the classical music world – they keep their grievances to themselves. Even the bigger dogs, like the San Francisco Symphony, do not compare.

A lowered pay scale would push the Detroit Symphony down to 20th place in the nation. The lowered rating would make it difficult to draw and maintain the type of talent needed to maintain the quality of musicianship this symphony has been known for. It may mean Leonard Slatkin will leave for greener pastures.

The alternatives are grim. Unless a fairy godmother swoops down with enough cash to sustain the status quo, there could be a musicians’ strike. Musicians and management could settle or agree to the proposals on the table.

In that case, I will prepare for the slow decline of the DSO.

Since I live in Michigan, I have experience in witnessing slow declines.

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About Joanne Huspek

I write. I read. I garden. I cook. I eat. And I love to talk about all of the above.
  • http://detroitmusicians.net Gordon Stump

    Dear Joan,
    I do not normally comment on blogs and forums since some folks attach a stigma to my day job.

    However, sans rhetoric, I really enjoyed your article.

    Gordon Stump, President
    Detroit Federation of Musicians