Which UK orchestra chiefs are underpaid

Which UK orchestra chiefs are underpaid


norman lebrecht

August 02, 2017

A Slipped Disc reader, surveying the 2016 accounts of British orchestras, has helped us to come up with the following league table of top-paid orchestra managers.

They are:

1 Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – £265,000 (Ian Maclay)

2 London Symphony Orchestra – £185,000 (Kathryn McDowell)



3 London Philharmonic             – £184,715 (Tim Walker)

4 Philharmonia                        – £142,384 (David Whelton)

5 Royal Liverpool Phil               – £115,000 (Michael Eakin)

6 Bournemouth Symphony       – £105,000 (Dougie Scarfe)

6= CBSO                                – £105,000 (Stephen Maddock)

8 Halle Orchestra                     – £95,000 (John Summers)

9 Royal Scottish                       – £85,333 (Krishna Thiagarajan)

10 Britten Sinfonia                   – £85,000 (David Butcher)

11 Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment  – £65,479 (Crispin Woodhead)

12 City of London Sinfonia        – £65,000 (Matthew Swann)

12= Scottish Chamber Orch      – £65,000 (Gavin Reid)

14 London Sinfonietta              – £60,945 (Andrew Burke)

15 Orchestra of the Swan         – £45,910 (David Curtis)


Notes to the accounts:

The list is not comprehensive. The BBC does not disclose what it pays to orchestra managers. We have not seen accounts from the Ulster Orchestra and some chamber orchestras.

But the picture is pretty clear. Top management wages in the UK are a fraction of the going rate in US orchestras and are not necessarily linked to performance, either financial or artistic.

That David Whelton, who kept the Philharmonia competitive for 30 years, should earn barely half the salary of Ian Maclay at the RPO says more than we can print about the present state of orchestra management. The RPO, in the year reported, posted a net loss of £573,000. The causes given are falls in touring and local authority subsidy.

By comparison to these compensation packages, the average wage for orchestra players outside London is below £30,000.


UPDATE: And it’s such an old boys’ club…


  • Maria says:

    How about music critics?

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    National orchestra of Wales?

  • Mark Pemberton says:

    In defence of Ian Maclay, the job involves running two orchestras, the RPO and the RPCO, both with very busy touring schedules.

  • Halldor says:

    David Curtis is actually music director of the Orchestra of the Swan as well as (effectively) chief exec. Since he conducts most of their concerts as well as heads up a lot of their fundraising, I’d say £45k is pretty good value, actually.

  • Nick Higham says:

    Is the BBC opacity because they earn less than £150k #notonthelist or because the orchestras are an exception to the exec pay disclosure rule (non Licence fee funded/”commercial activities”)? I ought to know the answer to this but can’t find it!

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Moot point, Nick.

    • Anon says:

      I can’t see how the BBC orchestras could claim to be “commercial” for that exemption, or “non- Licence Fee funded” as funding comes squarely from the BBC and thus the licence fee. There may be other reasons for non-disclosure though.

      • Scaramucci says:

        Boss salaries for the BBC orchestras will be at the lower end of this pay range, and way off the £150k threshold. So no-one needs to get twitchy about that. The advertised salary for one of the BBC orchestra CEO posts (though they’re not called that) about three years ago was c£70k.

  • Halldor says:

    So many variables here. The Chief Exec of the RLPO, for example, runs a complex of concert halls as well as just an orchestra. Contract orchestras have a completely different way of operating from freelance bands, and a Chief Exec of a 30-piece chamber orchestra promoting 20 concerts a year is not handling anything like the same level of administrative or financial responsibility as someone who manages an 80-piece symphony orchestra (plus choruses) performing 100-plus gigs annually. Meanwhile the economics of running an orchestra in, say, Manchester or Poole are very different – and conceivably far more challenging – than in the cash-rich City of London.

    The only certainty here is that the money sloshing around at the BBC orchestras (if they ever come clean) will make all this look like small change. There’s a reason why BBC jobs are known in the orchestra business as “the retirement plan”.

  • Morello says:

    The RPO receives less than a third of the ACE funding granted to the Philharmonia, LPO and LSO, yet have remained solvent and competitive for decades, providing full time work for hundreds of musicians across both RPO and RPCO. Reviews of their work with Maestro Dutoit and others are consistently excellent so it seems artistic standards have not suffered despite the amount of commercial work necessary to balance the books. With that in mind, Ian Maclay looks like very good value indeed.

    • Anon says:

      “Full time work for hundreds” is over-egging the pudding, I think. RPO lists around 70 players, and some are not needed all the time – not every concert required a contra-bassoon – and the RPCO is hardly full-time, and will often feature players from the main list.

      • Morello says:

        I’m speaking from what I observe. 2 busy orchestras, each fielding at least 70 players on any one night, whether they be members or extras. Across an average year, that does amount to hundreds of players in regular or full time work. We can argue the semantics of that statement if you like – either way, I’d still argue that Mr Maclay was worth every penny – hopefully his successor will continue in the same vein.

        • Anon says:

          Well, one busy orchestra year-round, and one orchestra busy in patches. Both regularly play with fewer than 70 on stage, so “at least… on any one night” isn’t really accurate.
          Even if they did, that would be FTE employment for say 150-odd, which isn’t “hundreds” however you cut it.

          • Morello says:

            Ok, Anon. My original comment……”yet have remained solvent and competitive for decades, providing full time work for hundreds of musicians across both RPO and RPCO” should have ended with “during that time”. I will try to be clearer in future…..!

  • Brian says:

    It would be interesting to compare standard of living costs between the US and the UK. My sense is that housing in London is nearly as expensive as NYC or San Francisco, though it may be apples and oranges in other areas. Still, quite a discrepancy.

  • Edmund Coxon says:

    It’s odd isn’t it that the musician earns (averagely) the least amount, is the sole reason these ensembles exist to provide communities with such a wealth of culture and exposure to music and yet, it doesn’t feature within the thread of commentary. It has never ceased to amaze me how someone in an office with a heavily embossed title can draw down such handsome salary whilst those who provide and perform are treated like second class citizens within their own organisation – it’s all very back to front and upside down!

    • Halldor says:

      The musicians emphatically do not earn the least amount in any of these organisations. One or two senior managers may earn figures like these but the majority of the middle and junior management staff in many UK orchestras – without whom no tickets would be sold and no orchestra would get on stage – earn less than any of the musicians. It’s not at all unusual for orchestral management staff to be working 50-60 hour weeks on salaries between £17-25k.

      Likewise, plenty of players in major orchestras will be earning far more than £30k – most principal players, in fact (which effectively means anyone who isn’t a rank-and-file string player). And of course with orchestral contracts rarely stipulating more than 25 hours playing time per week, many players can – and do – have lucrative freelance and teaching careers on the side. Just look at the staff list of any major music college.

      • Edmund Coxon says:

        If as you say without these invaluable members of staff, no musician would ever walk on stage, why is it their value is not reflected in the derisory salary you mention whilst a CEO (from the larger ensembles) draws by comparison very handsome income from the same purse? Yet another reason to bring the subject into discussion.

  • DaveW says:

    This is such a non story. It is what it is, market forces dictate salaries. I’m a musician in one of the orchestras listed above and am very happy with the value we get from our chief exec. It is an extremely difficult and specialised job, and any one of them could command far more in a different field, but they are passionate about their own orchestras. I know for a fact that these people are headhunted on a regular basis, but they remain loyal to their orchestras nonetheless.

    • Edmund Coxon says:

      If it’s a ‘non story’, why bother contribute? It’s important to see the variables in salary that the orchestral chiefs command – I doubt the assertion and inference market forces has influencing these tariffs. There has been a closed shop mentality on such things for decades and it will do the industry no harm in opening it up to scrutiny and transparency. I doubt very much these folk are ‘headhunted’ so much & am confident of my belief but, if true, it is certainly no reason to permit inflationary salaries whilst the folk who create the product that consumers buy up are so clearly under paid.

  • Edmund Coxon says:

    If it’s a ‘non story’, why bother contribute? It’s important to see the variables in salary that the orchestral chiefs command – I doubt the assertion and inference market forces has influencing these tariffs. There has been a closed shop mentality on such things for decades and it will do the industry no harm in opening it up to scrutiny and transparency. I doubt very much these folk are ‘headhunted’ so much & am confident of my belief but, if true, it is certainly no reason to permit inflationary salaries whilst the folk who create the product that consumers buy up are so clearly under paid.

    • DaveW says:

      Trying in vain to inform I guess. You can disagree if you like but I’ve been on the board of two London orchestras and I know for a fact that these people are headhunted.

      Yes, the musicians are underpaid, but the orchestras are underfunded. So until that changes they always will be.

      • Edmund Coxon says:

        I don’t intend entering into online spat but it is worth pointing out you might be patronising when you say you have served on directors board. I sincerely doubt you are alone in this regard. It is flimsy argument indeed to perpetuate the rationale of poor pay is reflected in low income – prima facie, it stands to reason but if one looks more closely at those who ‘negotiate’ enhanced salaries, securing better terms and conditions of employment and generally feathering an already well insulated nest, the average musician is a pauper where a more even balance and distribution of wealth could and should be achieved. The argument that it is otherwise as that’s the way it’s always been is naive and protectionist and unpalatable in this day and age.

        • DaveW says:

          Apologies if I sounded patronising, I didn’t mean it in that way.

          If the chief exec took a pay cut to distribute in favour of the players, there would be short term gain for the players, but it would be pretty poor for the long term health (and income) of the orchestra.

          • Edmund Coxon says:

            There, we disagree – a Chief Executive should at all times demonstrate his or her seniority in leadership by demonstrating affinity with the players he or she is appointed to serve. This affinity must lend itself to all areas of business especially the (acutely) sensitive area of pay and any disparity in pay scales that exist. The pay cut does not always have to be in favour of the lowest paid player but the additional funds saved re-directed back into the organisation’s coffers for the greater good and benefit of the orchestra. This would create a deeper and demonstrable sense of good will in order that all active participants within the organisation felt the ‘team’ were at least in agreement, singing from the same song sheet and in it for the longer term! That is intelligent approach to fairly standard psychology when looking after one’s greatest asset, the players! The disparity between a rank and file violinist in the RPO earning £35k (or thereabouts) and his or her CEO earning £285k during a spell when the company discloses losses of over £500k will undoubtedly irritate and adversely affect key contributors who should not be ignored. It also gives justification for the moral opprobrium and puts any CEO at a disadvantage. An organisation is greater than the sum total of its parts and the individual acting as vanguard for these issues has an absolute responsibility in this regard. It was the basis (albeit smaller scale) for negotiations when I sat on a board of directors of a well known musical organisation and I firmly believe the ‘old school’ approach that prevails in today’s business is not dissimilar to that which exists in BBC pay scales recently published. If McLay were on performance pay, he’d be out the door in a jiffy!

          • Edmund Coxon says:

            Apologies, I appear to have awarded Mr McLay a £20k bonus which I don’t think he deserves. I concede his pay is published in this thread as £265k!

    • Halldor says:

      The implication that this is all about fat-cat bosses underpaying their musicians is rather undercut by the fact that the 4 highest-paid chief execs here are, in each case, working for player-run orchestras. The chief exec works for the musicians.

      In other words, these bosses have been hired – and their remuneration has been agreed – by exactly those players who are supposedly being unfairly treated. If the players think their CEO is being paid a fair salary (and given that they set the salary in the first place, that seems like a valid assumption), it’s hardly for us to question them.

  • DaveW says:

    You make many good points, and if we were in an ideal world I would agree with your approach.

    Regarding your final sentence, I remember a number of years ago when Mr McLay left the RPO for a while and the orchestra’s workload fell to a dangerously low level. His presence at the helm keeps the diary full and the musicians employed. So, I would say that he is getting performance-related pay.

    • Edmund Coxon says:

      I too recall those days as I was present during that era and the diary was indeed full but again, we are to disagree as I don’t buy the assertion it was all down to Mr McLay and whilst not having played in the RPO for many years now, my ear is still close to the ground and I continue to believe the disparity in pay is a poor business model for the orchestra as a whole. Finally, whilst it is true we don’t live in an ideal world, ideals must be explored and vigorously pursued as that is where progress lies.

  • Gertrude says:

    Your argument is ridiculous. The R.P.O is a massive british institution. It’s not just classical music. It’s had two albums at number one in the pop charts in the last 18mnths alone and is the most famous orchestral brand in Britain. Its a huge huge job to organise all that!. The R.P.O isn’t run by Mr McLay anymore so what is your argument? How can you even make one when you have no idea what the current guy gets paid? Also whatever that is will be almost 10 times less than he could get in the states.

    • Edmund Coxon says:

      I assume this is directed at Norman Lebrecht who posted initial information and detail. Best wait on a response as subsequent discussions follow naturally on from that point. No need to get so hot under the collar.

  • Edmund Coxon says:

    I will say however that irrespective of the holder of the current reins at the RPO’s helm be it Jonathan Williams or any other, the persistence that some folk argue they could get ’10 times’ more elsewhere in order to justify the price tag is frankly an idiotic irrelevance. If the data shared is to be believed, McLay’s £265k versus that of his counterpart in LSO is jaw dropping (£100k less). If ten times more money is attainable in the USA, it begs the question why not travel across the water and try and get a job there? The answer of course is there are few available and it’s doubtful they would take on a UK counterpart (although I have known one or two meet the requirements set by US orchestras) It makes zero sense however to present it as a reasonable means for negotiating a pay packet in the UK and as I said earlier, is protectionist naivety on a grandiose scale!

    • Edmund Coxon says:

      Apologies – James Williams not Jonathan.

    • Halldor says:

      The unknown variable in this discussion, of course, is the BBC – and it’s been very noticeable that many of the senior orchestral managers I’ve worked with have been practically tripping over themselves to get BBC jobs (one referred to it, in my hearing, as “the retirement plan”). I think if we saw the salaries that the BBC pays to its orchestra chiefs, a lot of the speculation above would come sharply into focus.

  • TINMAN says:

    The disparity between pay of the senior managers, and chief executives against the orchestra/staff is quite ridiculous. We have a high staff turnover, not helped by the fact most are earning less than £20k per year and all have far too much to do for one person’s job. The Orchestra are similarly paid poorly (just under £40k for principals), however they only work for 200 odd days a year, and their hours etc are governed by the union. When they go on tour they receive per diems and also late night/early call. There is little compensation for the staff in this regard. It all helps to create an atmosphere of the orchestra, and then the staff which is not healthy.

  • Saxon Broken says:

    Personally, with the exception of the RPO, these salaries do not look particularly unreasonable. I would be interested in seeing the salaries at the opera companies though.

    For those interested in the BBC salaries, the key ingredient is the “final salary” pension plan. Hence five years late in your career can give you a very generous pension even if the actual salary is no better than those shown above.