How much should the music-makers be paid?
Did you hear about the (fill in your preferred insult target here) who got into classical music — for the money? Cue the rim-shot! Well, that old joke could apply just as aptly to classical radio as to actually playing, singing or composing the stuff. Not for nothing are almost all classical stations, like other classical institutions, in the dot-org (or dot-net) domain. And if there was ever a dot-org bubble to rival that of the dot-coms in the '90s, I seem to have missed out on it.
Not that I have anything to complain about. I'm doing just fine, thanks. And when I retire at the end of this year, I'll be in good shape. But if I had the mind to do so, I could compare my salary to those of folks whose jobs don't require the same level or combination of skills as my job, yet receive more remuneration — what gives? And hey, not to brag, but there probably aren't more than a few dozen people in the whole country who could do what I do as well (or, I hope, better) than I do. Besides, what we classical jocks do adds to the happiness and well-being of the community. Shouldn't we be rewarded as richly as someone who's just in it for the money? Do they think it's easy to do what I do? Yeah, you, Mr. Fatcat corporate manager — you try coming on the air, speaking to thousands of people , and announce a day's worth of classical pieces with lots of long fancy names, while making it sound like you really know what you're talking about even though you just looked it up on the internet! I bet you couldn't do it as well as I could do your job — which is to enrich yourself WHILE LEADING THE REST OF US TO FINANCIAL RUIN!!! If I had the mind to do so,
Well, ratchet up the financial stakes, as well as the skill and training it takes to get the job done, and you have the argument made on behalf of the striking musicians of the San Francisco Symphony (Wall Street Journal article here) by composer and sound engineer John Chittum in a blog post I cited in my own most recent post. Yes, others have made the case with less vitriol, but the notes Mr. Chittum bangs on here (in response, I should point out, to a musically uninformed blog post by a SF-based investment advisor named Anthony J. Alfidi) are the same others have struck repeatedly: Musicians should be compensated commensurately with their expensive training and rare skill, rather than according to how much revenue they produce. Here's a more reasoned rendition of the same tune.
I don't blame the musicians and their advocates for feeling this way. But let me bring it back home, back to where I started in this post: Me. Suppose I, like the musicians in the San Francisco Symphony and other orchestras, started to complain about my level of compensation, at a time of overall financial hardship, and in a business in which it's hard enough to make ends meet even in decent times. A strange kind of business it is, too, one which rather than adding to overall wealth, is a drain on wealth, albeit voluntarily and for a worthy purpose. How sympathetic would you be to my cause, especially since my gain would would either mean someone else's loss, or entail asking you for more money than you already give? And if I were to get so angry that I walked out on the job, and the station went silent during my regular hours, would you rally to my cause and join me on the picket line? Finally, suppose the station gave in to my demands, resulting in large deficits, leading to cut-backs, layoffs and maybe, at the end, cessation of operation? How would you like me then?
OK, it's not so simple, either in public radio or in orchestras. Yes, orchestra management is also to blame when the concerts stop, though they have a tough job seeing orchestras through in a time of changing tastes and increased pressures on unearned (i.e., donated) income. All I ask the musicians for is to demonstrate a degree of humility about their place in the overall scheme of things, along with some acknowledgment of what it takes to make payroll, and where the money comes from. They may want, or even deserve, a larger part of the pie. But the pie isn't going to get any larger; indeed, it's more likely to be downsized, with everyone on the losing side. Of course they couldn't be replaced by just any minimally competent musician as implied by Mr. Alfidi. That's just silly. But just because they went through lengthy, expensive training, and they're uniquely excellent at what they do doesn't mean the we, the ticket buyers and donors in the audience, are willing or able to compensate them accordingly. In the end, there's only so much money to dole out.
The more the musicians contribute to the orchestra's silence, the less the public will side with them (check out this recent bit of deft snark at the musicians' expense). It may be unfair, but that's how it goes. So, my unsolicited, sure-to-be-unheeded advice for orchestral musicians contemplating a walk-out: keep your demands reasonable, maintain a low profile, and do whatever is possible to keep the music going while you strive toward labor peace. If you choose to do your negotiating in public, or by stopping the show, don't be suprised when the public doesn't shed tears for you.