So which is America’s highest paid orchestra?

Drew McManus has been doing the math and it looks like the San Francisco Symphony is leading the field for 2017/18, overtaking the swagger of the LA Phil.

Into Drew’s calculations, we have inserted the Met Opera orchestra, which now ranks 7th, a notch behind the National Symphony of Washington DC who have crept up out of nowhere.

Read more analysis from Drew here.

Here’s the league table:
1 San Francisco Symphony – base pay  $166,400
2 Los Angeles Philharmonic                   $164,476
3 Chicago Symphony                                $159,016
4 Boston Symphony                                  $153,400
5 New York Philharmonic                       $147,550
6 National Symphony                              $143,208
7 MET Orchestra                                      $135,328.36
8 Cleveland Orchestra                             $135,096
9 Philadelphia Orchestra                        $134,420

UPDATE: What other people earn in San Francisco.

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  • It would be nice to hear from someone close to the MET to know what the actual base pay is. From what I understand, the figure quoted here accounts for pre-season rehearsals and 4 operas per week during the season, and all the other rehearsals are paid per hour on top of the $135K.

  • These kind of lists serve no real purpose except for musicians to use at CBA negotiations, ie., “We play as good as they do so we should be paid the same as them” or “If we don’t pay as much as ‘XYZ’ orchestra, we won’t be able to recruit the best players.”

    Nonsense!

  • It’s relative purchasing power that counts, not the absolute dollar amount.

    $1 in Cleveland can buy a lot more than $1 in San Francisco.

    $166,400 in San Francisco is lower middle class, economically speaking. Dot com techies straight out of college (or if you’re really good, college drop outs) make more than that.

    • Absolutely. Ironically, the last 2 may actually be the best paid, given the cost of living in their respective cities. San Francisco may be the most expensive city in the US, so 166K there won’t go nearly as far as a lower amount in either Philadelphia or Cleveland.

    • According to the statistics that I saw, it is a very good salary, twice the median family income in the area ($85,000) and above the ‘good’ income of $120,000.

      Why are these reported figures so contradictory? What are we to believe?

      • 1) “twice the median family income in the area ($85,000) and above the ‘good’ income of $120,000.”

        That just means that housing is so expensive in SF, that everyone is underpaid, it doesn’t mean that eveyone getting the median income can afford to rent (not even to buy) an apartment. The NYT had an article on how expensive SF is, it profiled a middle aged divorced, single woman, making 80-90K, renting one bedroom in a shared apartment with roommates, because she couldn’t afford to rent an entire apartment for herself.

        2) Yes, for sure, if you’re is single, no kids, no long term commitment, $166,400 will get you a very comfortable life in SF, no doubt about that. But the moment you’re thinking it’s time to settle and you should get something really nice: an apartment, a house, a spouse, you find yourself competing with 100s of others making a lot more money than you wanting the same thing.

        Relative purchasing power means relative to other people of your social class (because it is against them that you are competing for spouse, housing) in SF, not just relative to Cleveland (whom you don’t care, because you’ll never move to Cleveland).

    • It is also relative savings power.

      If one is spending upwards of 50% of one’s income on renting, one is not saving enough for the future.

      Ironically, if a SFO musician is spending 50% of income on mortgage etc., saving on the side for a rainy day, there is little left to purchase a season subscription to the San Francisco Symphony (not the good seats anyway, lol, that’s for the rich folks!)

  • Funny how I constantly hear whining about low orchestral pay, and yet, these are all well over 100K (and some are not even truly “great” orchestras), far above the median wage for a family of 4, never mind an individual wage earner.

    • What is truly funny is how you appear to think that the salaries of a mere 8 American orchestras – whose members are among the highest paid orchestral musicians, not only in the USA but the entire world – are in any way indicative, let alone representative, of the pay earned by musicians in the countless other orchestras that remain.

      • In my European orchestra, base pay for tuttis as listed in our master contract is 32,498 euros. That’s about $37,822. You figure 1/3 of that is subtracted for taxes which is about $26,000 a year take home.

        People live comfortably on this. It’s full time job, they buy homes and support families. It’s considered a respectable middle class income. This isn’t SF or NYC, but cost of living doesn’t vary that much between comparably sized US and EU cities. Population of my city is about the size of Cincinnati. The education level of musicians earning these salaries is pretty much the same as those in the 6 figure US orchestras, sometimes better.

        I just don’t get the huge disparity between US and European orchestras salaries. We have the same training, do the same work, win our jobs with competitive auditions. We even get the same conductors and soloists!

        When a conductor comes to us with the same piece they’ve just done with one of these 6 figure orchestras, they probably have no idea that we earn 5 times less than they do! We are expected to play at exactly the same level artistically. Same with international soloists. We accompany them at the same level as these guys earning 5 times more than us. We also know that they are probably making more in one concert than we will all year.

        $166,000 a year? I simply can’t fathom what they could be doing with all that money! Buying mansions, yachts, Strads? With all due respect, why is what they are doing worth so much more than musicians doing the same jobs everywhere else?

        • They are paying for a number of expensive items out of pocket that are covered by your taxes, in addition to their considerable tax bill. Health care and college educations for any offspring are prime examples. And while it is by no means chump change, $160k is, as others have commented, not a particularly high salary for skilled individuals who compete on a national or global basis for the relatively small number of such jobs that open up each year.

          Also, anyone who thinks that kind of money is going to afford them a yacht, mansion, or Strad is likely in for a rude surprise. I don’t believe the concertmaster of any of the US orchestras listed owns a Strad, even though some are making $500k+ per year. A few do play on instruments owned by their orchestra or other institutions. Remember, however, that they may not enjoy the job security that other orchestra members do.

          • Hi, Bill! The yacht and Strad questions were rhetorical, not a serious query!

            Yes, I’ve considered the tax thing. But it doesn’t add up, IMHO. A $120,000 difference in salary for the same job would be a LOT of health care and college tuition.

            I agree that $160K is standard for a professional with the education and experience required to be a good orch. musician. But shouldn’t it be universal? Why are only a handful of orchestras paying this while the rest of us do the same job for a fraction of the salary?

            As a side note on the taxes, US citizens working abroad are subject to the same tax requirements as anyone working in a US orch. The US has “citizen based taxation”, or F.A.T.C.A. As US citizens, everything we earn from our meager European orch. jobs must be declared to the IRS, even though we’ve already paid our fair share in our country of residence. At least our 6 figure colleagues are only taxed once!

            And, just for the record, that free health care, which supposedly justifies this $120 salary difference, doesn’t work outside the EU.

          • Anon, I can’t reply to your post directly, as we’ve reached the maximum nesting allowed, it seems.

            College costs can easily go well into 5 figure territory per year. Some young friends have been applying to various schools in California (and we aren’t talking places like Stanford, either) with estimated cost figures on their financial aid offers of $30-50,000 per year. That’s for each of them, not the pair. Those are after-tax dollars, too, so don’t say “that leaves $110,000, still rolling in it!” And while someone newly out of school winning one of those jobs might not need to be paying for someone else’s college costs, there a good chance they have substantial debt burden of their own to repay.

            Health insurance is very expensive if someone else isn’t picking up most of the tab, and even with insurance, your portion of the bill can still be unpleasantly large.

            But really, all that is irrelevant to some degree, because you are arguing about how musicians in one place aren’t compensated comparably with musicians in another. First of all, they are not truly free markets – the people winning most of those US jobs cannot compete for jobs in the EU because they don’t have permission to work there. Follow the job postings and you’ll see most require you to already have permission to work in the EU. And the reverse is also true. Only occasionally will you see institutions willing to go through the headaches involved because frankly, they don’t have to – there are plenty of applicants who don’t need that.

            And unequal pay is not limited to musicians in top US orchestras. A physician, especially a specialist in a major metropolitan area, can make much more money in the US than their counterpart in the EU. Same arguments apply. It would not surprise me to hear that this is also true for fields such as software engineering.

            Bottom line is that people are paid what their employer finds is necessary to pay them to get the people they want. Orchestras in London are able to pay less than top orchestras in the US because there are apparently enough people willing to do the job at that pay and the results are deemed acceptable. The top US orchestras apparently feel they need to pay what they do to get the players they want; I am sure the managements would be happy if the figures were smaller, but they aren’t.

  • If you looked at the total payroll amount for the musicians (including over-scale, seniority pay, housing allowances, recordings, etc.), the order would jump around quite a bit.

    • It might, but this data comes from a comparison of base compensation. Norman’s headline may be slightly misleading, which is unusual, I know!

  • In what way is this newsworthy? What someone, regardless of what field they work in, earns should not be discussed on a public forum. Can you imagine the furore if what every blogger earned was posted online? The salary for each post is usually given with the job advert. And many musicians, including Grammy winners, admit they are not in the industry to “make money”, we do it because we love it.

    • I do not see any compelling reason why salaries need to be kept under wraps. For public employees, it often is a matter of public record. US orchestras usually have to disclose the compensation of their 5 most highly compensated employees, which will often include the concertmaster and a few other principals.

      I can see how some would want to avoid having to endure even more comments about how much money they make for playing an instrument instead of having a “real job” as some would say.

    • They’re nonprofits, effectively subsized by the public via the tax deductions used to incentivize donors. Consequently, their salaries are, and ought to be, a matter of public record.

  • If you rent in the S.F. bay area, you might be fine on that salary. But if you’re going to buy a home, you better already have a home somewhere else that you can sell off for the down payment on your new, outrageously expensive home in bay area. Even dumpy parts of the east bay can ridiculous.

  • These all need to be benchmarked against local cost-of-living. Indeed, Philly and Cleveland may be the highest-paid relative to cost of living. As for the NSO, their base salary is roughly equivalent to a GS-14 civil servant.

    I would assume the MET pay is much higher, since as others mentioned, they probably get paid extra for rehearsals.

  • Base pay? Is that averaging the base pay for the conductor with the base pay for the last horn just out of the conservatory?

    If you are averaging the pay of a Levine or a Mehti with the regular players in a section what would the “base pay” mean? The picture would be greatly distorted by these salary outliers.

    Like they say–figures can’t lie but liars can figure. It’s easy to lie with statistics just by how they are computed and what data is used.

    • Base pay means the starting salary for a new musician in the orchestra. It’s not an average, so the higher pay of the Music Director, concertmaster, principal oboe, or anyone else has no effect on the figure.

  • One point not so far mentioned. Orchestral pay amounts to a large percentage of a musician’s income – but not all. A few have teaching professorships and most have at least some semi-lucrative teaching jobs. Many take part in occasional chamber and other ensembles. A decreasing few play for commercials and film recordings. So the above figures will not represent total earnings.

    • And this is a comparison of what the orchestras pay, not whatever other jobs some of the musicians might have. If the job allows enough spare time, there will be some people who use that time to do things for which they get paid, some of them quite well. And of course the people who are already the best paid will likely be able to make more hay with their side hustles than those who might need it most. Not at all unique to orchestral musicians!

  • An illustration of America’s winner take all concept. The tutti musicians in the New Mexico Philharmonic, which serves an Albuquerque metro area close to one million people, make $3000 per year, even after 30 years of service. Similar story for many of America’s regional orchestras.

    The culprit is our funding system. It is based on donations from the wealthy, so arts funding is concentrated in a few financial centers where the rich live. In Europe, which uses public funding systems, the distribution of the arts is far more democratic. Sadly, the USA is essentially a one party state, so there are no political alternatives being promoted.

    • Yet, there was a recent duty up in the UK about how underpaid their symphony musicians were. The Government of Mexico supports regional symphonies. So did the gone but not missed Union of Soviet Social Republics.

      Classical Music is a commodity. Someone has to buy it either the public as in the US or the government in most European countries. They don’t call economics the dismal science without reason.

  • I’ve posted this before, but it’s worth repeating in this context, since it’s another illustration of America’s winner take all mindset when it comes to arts funding. We have a paucity of full time orchestras, and with funding concentrated at the top.

    Many Americans think it’s normal for major cities to have just one full time symphony orchestra, but that is not the norm internationally. In Europe, cities comparable to those where our top orchestras are, usually have about five to eight full time orchestras. For example, London has 8, Berlin 7, Munich 7, Paris 6, and Vienna 7. They usually aren’t as well paid as our top orchestras, but the cities provide full time employment to 5 to 10 times as many classical musicians, which requires a much higher outlay of funding.

    This is possible due to Europe’s public arts funding systems. With so many more orchestras per city, they reach a much larger demographic. They also provide a much richer training ground for conductors and composers, which is one of the reasons Americans are relatively rare at the top in these fields, especially for a country our size. Below I list the full time orchestras for each of these five cities I mention.

    London
    + London Symphony Orchestra
    + London Philharmonic
    + Royal Philharmonic
    + Philharmonia
    + BBC Symphony Orchestra
    + BBC Concert Orchestra
    + Royal Opera Orchestra
    + English National Opera Orchestra

    Paris
    + L’Orchestre National de Radio-France
    + Orchestre de Paris
    + Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France
    + L’Orchestre de l’Opéra de Paris
    + Ensemle Intercontemporain
    + Orchestre de Chambre de Paris
    (The Paris Opera Orchestra has 170 members since the services must be rotated to meet demand.)

    Munich
    + Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
    + Bavarian Radio Unterhaltungs Orchestra
    + Munich Philharmonic
    + Bavarian State Opera Orchestra
    + Gärtnerplatz Opera Orchestra
    + Munich Symphoniker
    + Munich Chamber Orchestra

    Vienna
    + Vienna Philharmonic
    + Vienna Symphoniker
    + Vienna State Opera Orchestra
    + Vienna State Radio Orchestra
    + Volksoper Orchestra
    + Klangforum Wien
    + Tonkünstlerorchester
    (The VPO and State Opera Orchestra use the same personnel, but the ensemble has 149 positions so that they can rotate the services.)

    Berlin
    + Berliner Philharmoniker
    + Konzerthausorchester Berlin
    + Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
    + Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin
    + Orchester der Staatsoper Unter den Linden/Staatskapelle Berlin
    + Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin
    + Orchester der Komischen Oper Berlin

    • From a professional perspective, one of the worst aspects of America’s one-horse orchestral towns, is the mindset it creates in the musicians in those orchestras. There are so few jobs that a solo wind position in a major orchestra might only open up once a decade or so. (And without mandatory retirement ages like the EU has, the musicians stay in the positions 40 or 50 years.) And yet there are often many great musicians who could fill these jobs. Getting a position becomes a matter chance something like winning the lottery.

      When a position is won, the status of having such a rare job becomes exaggeratedly high, and too often massively inflates the egos of the players. And it creates a corresponding over-emphasis on their status among students and collegaues. The egoism and adulation creates a narrowed, even blinkered mindset, and I think it harms the American music world more than we realize. This doesn’t happen in European cities, because there isn’t just one big fish, but several, which creates a more open community.

      • It’s a belljar culture. The other day, I ran into a principal player of one of the very uppermost, top-tier orchestras in this country. It’s clear the guy thinks he’s some kind of god. I’m thinking, “you blow through a tube for a living, and vanishingly few in your city know who you are, understand what you do or—fewer still—care one way or another.”

    • Very interesting, William! Let me add Madrid & Barcelona, with 4 and 5 full time orchestras, respectively, to your list!

      Info from the La Asociación Española de Orquestas Sinfónicas (AEOS). http://www.aeos.es/orquestas.htm

      MADRID

      +Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid
      +Orquesta Nacionale de España
      +Orquesta Sinfónica Radio Televison Española
      +Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid

      BARCELONA

      +Orquestra de Cadaqués
      +Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya
      +Orquestra Simfònica del Gran Teatre del Liceu
      +Orquestra Simfònica del Vallès
      +Orquestra Simfònica Julià Carbonell de les Terres de Lleida

      • It should also be mentioned that Tokyo has at least 8 full-time symphony orchestras:
        NHK Symphony Orchestra
        Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra
        Tokyo Symphony Orchestra
        Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra
        Tokyo City Philharmonic
        Tokyo Philharmonic
        Japan Philharmonic
        New Japan Philharmonic

    • Any time any city wants to establish one or more full-time publicly-funded orchestras they’re perfectly welcome to do so. Nothing and no one is stopping them.

    • And how many of the European orchestras you listed receive NO government tax payer money?

      All of the the above mentioned US orchestras are mostly philanthropically, ticket, recording, and endowment funded only! NO public $

      • A minor quibble, I think the National Endowment for the Arts does provide some funding to many US groups. Certainly not great percentage to the budge, but some.

    • Hello William,

      For sure, the “musical system” here in europe is different than the american system ; but we don’t have enough money for just live decently in Paris ; I’m a musician in Paris Opera since 12 years now and I earn only 3750euros net salary per month ( and we have some tax to pay after that)…in germany they make twice that amount per month in Berlin phil or german radios orchestras…so yes we have a lot of good orchestra in Paris but what about living…greetings from france…

  • I sometimes feel that you over-think things, William, but I must say that you make a very strong argument here. I could be wrong, but I do think that university and conservatory orchestras pick up some of the slack – often times at a very high standard. However, I realize that those are not paid positions (except for ‘ringers’). We have lots of community orchestras, but they’re often times not playing at a really high standard. Since most of the people who go hear such groups are usually friends and family members, they often times don’t care that they’re not hearing the Berlin Phil.

    Just to play devil’s advocate, I think it’s unreasonable to expect the the American government to pay for redundant symphony orchestras. In fact, I question if that would even be desirable.So much more of the American tax dollar goes to military than it does anywhere in Europe at this time (except maybe Serbia, or something). Given the history of Europe up until the middle of the twentieth century, it’s probably a good thing that they don’t fund military up the wazoo. But that’s a point to be argued elsewhere, not here. A loaded gun question (no pun intended).

    But your base point that the top American orchestras are paid quite handsomely, then things drop off dramatically . . . well, there’s absolutely no denying what you’re saying there. Guilty as charged.

  • When I joined the Chicago Symphony many, many years ago, we were heralded as the ‘Cadillac of Orchestras’ and our compensation reflected that position. Sad to see that, due in large part to the stagnation and shortsightedness of our union representation, orchestras on the the west coast have passed us by.

    All of the salaries listed are not so impressive when you consider these players are at the top of their field. A year after I joined the CSO, at the time the pinnacle of the profession, a younger friend graduated law school and immediately got a job at a middling law firm that paid quite a bit more.

    • Your union representation may be partly to blame, and I would be interested in hearing your views on why you think that is the case. But even if they have done a stellar job, the same situation might come to pass. The management on the other side of the bargaining table can only sustainably pay what they can afford, and that depends on the local business and philanthropic climate, size of the endowment, etc. Both SF and LA have done very well financially in recent years; I’m not sure the same can be said for Chicago. It’s also possible that your orchestra does not occupy the same position in the ranking as it might have once claimed, and it would be difficult to ascertain whether the slipping pay position is a symptom or a cause (never mind the difficulty of accurately establishing an overall ranking of the playing ability of the orchestras in the top 10 spots).

    • In Germany, the musicians’ union and the government have a nation-wide agreement that puts orchestras into about 4 categories, based on quality. Big cities can pay for the top category, and smaller cities one of the lower ones. The base salaries are set according to the category, and bonuses adjust for the documented variations in the cost of living in each city.

      This creates a very fair, uniformity of payment so that the orchestras don’t get into price wars that ultimate defy the spirit of non-profit organizations. It also helps with other problems centered around status. The mindset around a “cadillac” of an orchestra can produce a horse’s ass of a musician. Not that there are people like that in our top orchestras………..

    • Using the federal locality pay schedule as an index – which reflects salary levels in various job markets but roughly reflects cost of living, Chicago has a locality pay premium of 24.47%, while San Francisco is 39.28% and LA is 30.57%. New York is 32.13%. Cleveland is 20.8%. I don’t have time to run the numbers but this suggests, at least in a general sense, salaries of the orchestras on the list are roughly equal relative to cost of living, and Chicago may still #1.

    • I’m sorry, but bull$#!t must be called where it is due. There is nothing “Cadillac” about an orchestra that allows embarrassingly underperforming musicians such as Richard Graef (flute) or Michael Henoch (oboe) to be a part of its roster. Both of them (especially Graef) are noticeably *well* below par. Yet, amazingly, it appears that no one in the CSO is willing to do anything about it. And these two still collect a salary of that amount(!). It’s utter nonsense. If you want to make such claims about the status of your orchestra, it would behoove you to start by taking an honest look at the people already in it and whether or not they live up to glory you claim to have (hint, these two do not…not even by a long shot–and believe me, your audience notices).

        • This past Thursday’s concert was even worse. Mr. Henoch had intonation issues starting at least from the trio of the third movement (of Beethoven op.60), and Mr. Graeff had parts that were flat in Wagner (along with the last note of Bartok #3’s first movement–he couldn’t hold the pitch). We all remember the beginning of the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto a few years back with Hough and Elder. That was egregious.

          That said, the second row of the winds are indeed stellar and consistent, principals, assistants, and others alike.

          • Indeed, the second row of winds is stellar. However, an orchestra is only as good what it delivers as a collective on stage.

        • No, there is nothing wrong with the instrument. I go to concerts there frequently. He is downright awful every single time he plays. No exceptions.

          • I completely agree. Mr. Graeff’s problems started not long after Clevenger’s apparent and very painful decline (while ruining several concerts (and seasons), e.g. Mahler #9 w/ Haitink or Mahler #5 w/ Bychkov (beginning of final movement), in the interim). As time went by, Mr. Graeff’s issues continued to worsen. Yes, in this season and last he delivered some good things, but overall the trend is downward, especially last two weeks’ concerts. I sincerely hope he comes to his senses and collect his Theodore Thomas Medallion sooner than later.

            We also need a new trumpet principal. The current configuration is serviceable in other orchestras, but not the CSO. The first trumpet could not penetrate Mahler #9 (third movement IIRC) and Wagner’s Meistersinger overture.

    • Yours is a 20 hour-a-week job, for which you’re paid a base salary of, what, $160k? The “middling” law firm associate probably works three to four times that many hours.

      And, of course, his or her employer doesn’t rely on the charity of others to make ends meet.

      As for salary comparisons, both LA and SF are much more expensive cities to live in than Chicago. So on a purchasing parity adjusted-basis, you’re well ahead of the Californians.

      You’re also ahead of Boston, btw, which is a more expensive city to live in than Chicago. And, I hate to break it to you but yours is not a better orchestra than Boston’s…or Los Angeles’ for that matter, either player-to-player or ensemble-to-ensemble.

      So if we’re really going to play the comparisons game, might we conclude that the Chicago players are, in fact, overcompensated here?

      A little perspective is not a bad thing.

      • You might think that we have a 20 hours a week job, but we have to learn our parts and be more than familiar enough to come into the first rehearsal prepared. Add all those up we’re with our instruments almost 24/7 not counting sleeping and eating, etc. This list is of the top tier orchestras with highest quality playing. Just putting things in perspective.

  • This all makes me want to VOMIT
    All the bullshit socialist/zen/music ideals a lot of American musicians/teachers talk about is horseshit… I only know this because I went to the top American conservatiories where most of them suck up more money than Halliburton.
    These f***cking unions are what makes It impossible for arts money to find its way to more orchestras in more diverse places so THERE COULD BE DEVELOPMENT OF AUDIENCES and a reasonable shot at having some culture in 99%of this shitty country(arts wise).
    I know it’s not the musicians faults…its just that most of them are completely oblivious to the more modest salaries of orchestras in Europe….some of them actually (gasp) as good as American orchestras ( gasp), maybe even better.
    You can always blame it on the government, I guess.

    • “You can always blame it on the government, I guess.” And YOU can always blame it on the f***ckng unions. Nothing but a typical know-nothing comment from a h**ses arse.

  • Consider how much is added for seniority, for principal players, and their teaching and free-lance income on top. Too many musicians are in it to make as much money as possible. In one-orchestra towns, the fact that they will moonlight really makes it impossible for free-lancers to survive or thrive. Then you end up with a huge difference in quality between free-lancers and the orchestra members.
    Also consider the orchestras who forego vital positions such as principal harp and only hire free-lance players to presumably save money, such as Baltimore and New Jersey, to name but two such cheaters. How much are they paying? Or the orchestras that bring in a New Yorker rather than have a local, resident player?

  • The Metropolitan Opera orchestra is the highest paid orchestra in the world with a base salary over $200,000 without benefits.

  • The true salary of the MET dwarfs all of these other orchestras. When factoring in overtime and performance services beyond 4 per week a week (what some players can do), one can easily clear 180k if not 200.

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