Los Angeles Philharmonic / Music News & Info: Classical

LA Phil new contract redux: upon further review, looks like they’re the best paid orchestra after all

My previous story on the Los Angeles Philharmonic musicians’ new 5-year contract has caused some buzz, even though the $164,726 annual base compensation the LA Phil players will receive in 2022 is not tops among US orchestras. (For a quick comparison, see this chart  of the eight highest-paid orchestras, care of Drew McManus on Adaptistration).

Well, with football season being just around the corner, let me paraphrase my least-favorite retired PAC-12 referee:   Upon further review, the original call has been reversed.

You see, there’s a provision in the LA Phil contract for a “housing allowance” that is unique among major US orchestras.  That allowance, first enacted in their 2013 contract, has been mentioned without giving the specific number attached to it in either 2013 or 2017 press release.

All is Yar has now learned that the housing allowance will be worth an additional $20,000+ in the final year of the contract.  There are specific reasons why the compensation was set up this way, but I will not go into them now.  Suffice it to say that a true apples-to-apples comparison should include this amount, pushing base LA Phil compensation above $185,000+.

Mind you, this does not include additional monetary compensation that musicians receive which isn’t necessarily unique to the LA Phil but is noteworthy nonetheless.  This includes contributions to their 403(b) retirement plan, doubling pay (i.e. additional $$$ given to, say, the piccolo player also playing 3rd flute for the same concert or a trombone player for having to “double” on bass trumpet for The Rite of Spring), recording/broadcast royalties (a rarity among 21st century orchestras enjoyed by the LA Phil), pay above scale for titled players, etc.

And that is just the money they receive from the orchestra.  Add to that, potential income derived from teaching at the local universities and/or colleges, private lessons, Hollywood studio work, outside gigs etc.  Taken together, I’m willing to bet that the average LA Phil musician is making somewhere in the ballpark of $250,000 per year when all is said and done.  That’s well above the average income in affluent L.A. neighborhoods like Beverly Hills 90210, Manhattan Beach, and Pasadena.

It isn’t exactly Jimmy Iovene or Dr. Dre money, but frankly, not much is.  (BTW If you haven’t seen The Defiant Ones, the HBO documentary miniseries about them, it’s well worth your time).

Besides, musicians get paid to play music, a demanding profession to be sure, one that requires a unique blend of talent, discipline, and perseverance, but nonetheless, a profession with  “play” built right into its description.  As far as I’m concerned, anytime you get to play for a living — “I play timpani” or “I play music on the radio” or “I play beach volleyball” or “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV” — you’re way ahead of the game.  It is often a hard living, yet so is being an accountant, teacher, computer programmer, factory worker, entrepreneur et al, none of whom describe their work as “play.”  Take it for what it’s worth, and yes, I’m a little jealous.  But I digress . . .

Back to my point.  The class-leading pay at the Los Angeles Philharmonic help make it one of the best classical music jobs in the world.  What else does the LA Phil have going for it?  Well, there’s:

  • Stable and healthy organizational finances
  • A strong relationship between players and management that goes back a half-century
  • A well-regarded Music Director in Gustavo Dudamel that will be around for a little while
  • Two world-class performance venues (Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl) in which to do their thing
  • A history of programming new music, world premieres, and 20th Century masters like Stravinsky, Bartok, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich with a regularity usually reserved in other orchestra for 19th Century titans like Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky or Mendelssohn.
  • A knowledgeable audience that will fill the seats even when the music being performed has been written by (gasp!) a living composer like Andrew Norman, Kaija Saariaho, John Adams, and many others.
  • Many universities, colleges, conservatories, and academies in the area in which to teach
  • Many opportunities outside the orchestra to perform solo works, chamber music, etc.

Nice work if you can get it, a combination that’s tough to match if you’re a classical musician.  It’s not perfect, of course, and it may not be for everyone, but it doesn’t suck.

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Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association

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4 thoughts on “LA Phil new contract redux: upon further review, looks like they’re the best paid orchestra after all

  1. Are you congratulating or complaining? We should be shouting, “hurrah!”, never apologizing for salaries that start to reflect our decades of dedication, thousands more hours of study than any investment banker, doctor or lawyer, and our unique ability to share beauty, hope, and joy with our communities!

    I remember a Minnesota Orchestra board member during the strike saying, in private, “$120,000 a year seems like a lot to pay a musician.” Would she say that about her tax accountant or the owner of her local Subway franchise?

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  2. Thanks for your comment, Katherine. The article doesn’t try specifically to congratulate, complain, apologize; it just states the details showing that LA Phil musicians make the more than what their “base weekly wage” will be in 2022 as reported in the press release, therefore making them the best paid full-time orchestra in the country, with some related observations thrown in too.

    My final comment that a job in the LA Phil “doesn’t suck” was a sarcastic understatement intended as a hint to my personal views, but since you asked, let me say it outright:

    I think this is absolutely awesome: for the musicians, the orchestral management and staff, LA Phil fans, and for all the people of Southern California (whether or not they attend LA Phil concerts or listen to classical music). It is the ultimate win-win-win-win.

    If LA Phil musicians could be paid Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre money (or even Placido Domingo or Gustavo Dudamel or Martha Argerich money) without bankrupting the organization, that’d be awesome too. Maybe someday.

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  3. Or, for example, the money that is a part of the multiyear contract given to a certain tall local teenager for playing his favorite sport, after just one year of college and before he has participated in a single professional game.

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  4. Thanks for your comment, Katherine. To clarify, it was a lockout in Minnesota, not a strike. A distinction with some difference.

    I also take some issue with the point about how musicians “play” an instrument, as though that is somehow the same as “playing a board game,” or other types of play. It’s simply a quirk of language that we use the verb “play” for musical instruments. I wonder if we would put the job of an orchestral musician on the same pedestal if the language had assigned the verb “work” instead, as in, “I work the violin for a living.” All a matter of perspective, I suppose.

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