The Sunday New York Times splashed symphony conductor salaries in its arts section. Said the piece:
Paralleling trends in corporate pay, salaries for orchestra leaders shot up during the late 1990’s. Among the 18 American orchestras with 52-week contracts, at least 7 pay their music directors more than $1 million, and 3 pay their managers more than $700,000.
But journalist Blair Tindall is a bit too quick to waive off that comparison to corporate America, where gaps between executive pay and labor pay have been widening for decades. Says Tindall:
But the similarity ends there. In the corporate world, the incentive to trim labor costs is to return greater profits to investors. The classical music business is nonprofit, which means that the investors aren’t looking for financial rewards.
There seems to be a common assumption that market forces are all about money, when money just happens to be the most obvious among many elements of the system. In the nonprofit world — especially among organizations that earn half their income and raise the rest — traditional financial market forces are only half the story. The other half involves attention, affinity, status, political and social power, and the mind share of a community’s major wealth.
Star conductors are perceived as magnets for big-name board members and big-league contributions. They help label the significance of an orchestra to its community and its peers across the country. And they do, it seems, return greater profits when ‘profits’ includes contributed income and community status. Such stars are necessarily scarce, and scarcity combined with perceived value equals higher price. At the same time, exceptional orchestral performers seem easy to find, with dozens or hundreds auditioning for every open slot in the orchestra.
That’s not to say that the markets at work are reasonable and just. But these are market forces, not rational forces, we’re talking about — large aggregations of people making choices based on what they believe they know. There are some oddities and cross-connections in those beliefs — such as the core importance of a conductor in the mix of a great orchestra, or the low perceived value of its musicians. It might be more productive to explore those odd beliefs and unbundle their source and sustenance than to wag a finger at the symptoms.