New York City—Timelapse,” Retinafunk

December 7, 2020; New York Times

Symphonies and orchestras suffered during the last recession, and many of the same issues and dynamics are resurfacing now. In the New York Times, Julia Jacobs reports that, “The New York Philharmonic, battered by a pandemic that will keep its concert hall dark for at least 15 months, announced on Monday that its musicians had agreed to a four-year contract that includes substantial salary cuts.”

As Jacobs details, under the terms of the new three-year union contract, musicians will see 25 percent cuts to their base pay through August 2023. Pay will then gradually rise until the contract ends in September 2024, with players still earning less in 2024 than they were earning before COVID-19. The cuts, Jacobs writes, “will amount to more than $20 million in musicians’ wages over the course of the contract, the head of the players’ negotiating committee said in a news release.”

The Philharmonic, according to its most recently available Form 990, in 2018 earned roughly $51 million in grants and donations, $26 million in ticket sales, and $9 million in miscellaneous income. Founded in 1842, it is the oldest symphony orchestra in the United States, with nearly 100 musicians. Its musicians, who are leaders in the field, are well compensated. Before the pandemic, the basic minimum player salary was $153,504 a year. Philharmonic musicians are represented by Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians.

In April, all musicians saw their pay reduced to that base pay level, which works out to $2,952 a week. Since May, the musicians have been paid about 75 percent of base pay, which amounts to about $2,200 per week. The new contract essentially continues payment at that $2,200-per-week level, or roughly $110,000 a year. Jacobs adds that, “Over the course of the contract, some musicians will also receive gradually increasing percentages of their seniority payments and ‘overscale,’ the amount they receive above base pay.”

There is a lot that could be said about this. One thing is to note that the unionized workers agreed to a 25-percent cut in pay. Clearly, the union has adopted a cooperative approach to preserving the Philharmonic and their livelihoods, even if their high base pay salaries make those cuts easier to sustain.

It should be cautioned, however, that declining pay is becoming a thing across the economy, which raises at least the threat of a generalized deflation, an important characteristic of the early years of the Great Depression. According to a report last Friday from the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute, at present an estimated 7.1 million Americans are working, but with cuts in pay and hours. Many affected, of course, earn far less than Philharmonic musicians.

Another theme that’s apparent is that many expect the downturn to continue in the arts for years. As Jacobs writes, “The deal makes it clear that performing arts institutions expect their financial pain to last, even if the pandemic subsides over the coming months. The Philharmonic projects that the cancellation of its 2020–21 season will result in $21 million of lost ticket revenue, on top of $10 million lost in the final months of its previous season this spring; but even when live performances resume, the box office is not expected to bounce back quickly.”

Jacobs notes that, “The pandemic has been testing the relationships between arts institutions and their workers, as executives insist on pay cuts and other concessions to make up for the revenue losses accumulated over months of darkened theaters.”

Deborah Borda, the nonprofit’s CEO, tells Jacobs that transparency about the Philharmonic’s financial status and plans was essential to getting player buy-in. But Jacobs notes that the Philharmonic’s contract now provides a stark contrast with the larger Metropolitan Opera, where company’s management has once again threatened to lock out its stagehands because they have not agreed to proposed pay cuts. (There are echoes of the negotiations at the Met Opera a few years ago.) According to Jacobs, “Roughly 1,000 full-time employees at the opera company, including its world-class orchestra and chorus, have been furloughed without pay since April, and the Met says they will only start receiving paychecks during the pandemic if they agree to long-term cuts.” By contrast, the Philharmonic has been careful to keep its musicians employed, albeit at reduced pay levels.—Steve Dubb