What other people earn in San Francisco

What other people earn in San Francisco


norman lebrecht

May 30, 2018

We reported last night that players in the San Francisco Symphony earn the highest musicians’ wage in the US. Their base salary is $166,400.

What about other public servants?

The salary for a police officer in San Francisco is $83,000. Exactly half.

The salary for a public school teacher is $79,000.

A US Senator earns $174,000.



  • Holyfield Worthington says:

    Is the point here that orchestral musicians are overpaid? Or the police officers and teachers are underpaid? or what?

    • HSY says:

      The point is SFS musicians earn a decent wage even when you consider the outrageous living cost of Bay Area, unlike some posters claimed in the other thread.

      The comparison with tech companies made in that thread is not quite valid, since the kind of companies that pay a new college grad $100,000+ (not including stock options) is usually not based in SF. Palo Alto, for example, has a median household income of about $130,000, a lot higher than SF.

      • Bill says:

        Companies that pay that sort of wage are all over the Bay Area, and their employees compete for housing all over the area, too. Doesn’t matter if the person who is able to pay more for the place where you want to live is employed in the same city or not. Some people want to live near their work, and others want to live in a place where they’ll have fun while they are not working. If you’re lucky, you get both. Google and other big tech employers hire fleets of buses to provide their employees convenient transit to and from their homes in San Francisco and so on to the workplace down the peninsula. Many, probably most, of those bus riders are making comparable money and bidding up the prices paid for housing by the orchestra musicians who want to live in the city

        I don’t think anyone is arguing that they don’t make a decent wage, but some of us are saying that it is not as fabulous a wage as it might appear.

        But if you really think they have a sweet deal, watch for audition postings and try to get a job! Too late to apply now, but there’s a 2nd violin job audition going on.

      • Barry Guerrero says:

        Hold your horses there. First off, homes in S.F. are generally much smaller than those down the peninsula. I assure that the same size house in S.F. would cost nearly as much as one in downtown or midtown Palo Alto. But even more to the point, even a dumpy house in San Pablo would cost you a heck of a lot of money. On top of that comes the high property taxes.

        As I said before, you’re not buying a house in the bay area on your symphony salary unless, A.) you have money for the down payment., B.) you have a house somewhere else you can sell, C.) you have a spouse or domestic partner who also makes very good money, or D.) you go in on a house with several other investors. If you also want to put kids through college, forget it.

        I’ve been in the bay area my entire life and cannot buy a home here – maybe a small condo in Watsonville, if we came up with the down payment money.

        • Barry Guerrero says:

          Just to be clear, by “house” I mean the size of the lot – not just the house. S.F. lots tend to be very small.

  • MacroV says:

    It takes a lot more training/education to become a SFSO member. I suspect police officers, with overtime, etc., eventually earn a lot more than that, though.

  • LB says:

    Cost of living in the Bay Area is exorbitant. Also, SFS keeps an absolutely insane schedule – they work for those dollars!

  • anon says:

    Police officers in big cities do not live in the cities they serve. That is the problem with most police forces, they are not part of the community. The relevant point here is, they work in SF but they can’t afford to live in SF. So the SFO musician can afford to live in SF, but that is it, just because they are better off then police officers doesn’t mean they are making exceptional wages compared to equally highly paid professionals living in SF.

    Moral: No sense comparing orchestra musicians to police officers. Compare orchestra musicians to lawyers. There are a lot more lawyers making $166 per year and more than there are musicians making that amount. For every 1 SFO musician, there are 100 lawyers they need to compete against for housing, not 100 police officers.

  • anon says:

    The only SFO musician who lives in San Francisco is Michael Tilson Thomas. He makes 2 million a year.

  • Scotty says:

    1. All US Senators are paid the same.
    2. San Francisco doesn’t have a US Senator. California does.
    3. Dianne Feinstein, the senior US Senator from California, is worth nearly 100 million dollars. She can afford to live in San Francisco.

    • Bill says:

      Not quite true about all US senators being paid the same; those who are majority or minority leader, or president pro tempore make about $20,000 more.

  • bratschegirl says:

    Musicians in the SF Symphony and the other “big 5 or 6” orchestras in the US are at the peak of their profession. How about we compare their salary with the highest-paid surgeons, attorneys, etc. in the country? The law firm of Kirkland & Ellis just lured a senior partner away from another firm with a promise of $11 million per year. That’s not for a movie star or a pop singer, that’s for a lawyer, also at the top of the heap. And if you don’t like the disparity, that means the teachers and police officers are being paid too little, not that the musicians are being paid “too much.”

    • Bill says:

      One crucial difference, though, is that it is possible to win one of these “peak of the profession” jobs pretty much right out of school, whereas that possibility doesn’t really exist in many other fields that pay pretty well.

      • DB says:

        Any musician who gets one of those top orchestra jobs right out of school has been busting his or her tail practicing 4-6+ hours a day for 12 to 15 years.

        • Bill says:

          An obvious counter-example would be Rainer Küchl, who started the violin at age 11 and won a position not just as a section player in a great orchestra, but as concertmaster for the Wiener Staatsoper and Philharmoniker at 20. I think most will agree that qualifies as a top job, even if it might not be the top-paying job.

    • Mark says:

      Most law firm partners, even at the top firms, do not make that much money. They do make 2-4 million a year. Also, their compensation is tied to the firm’s profit and the amount of business they generate.
      Musicians are salaried employees.
      However, I agree that it takes a lot of skill and dedication to get a position at a top orchestra.

      • Mark says:

        By “that much” I was referring to the 11 million inumber – that’s a very rare case.

        • bratschegirl says:

          Certainly it’s rare; my point in mentioning it was that the top-paid attorneys in the country make vastly more than the musicians in the top-salaried orchestras, as do the top-paid physicians and programmers and hedge fund managers etc. Even the concertmaster or music director of one of these orchestras makes substantially less than that $11M, although they had to start the work that was specifically directed toward reaching that point in their profession long before the attorney did (nothing against attorneys, my kid is in law school and I’m hoping said kid will someday be able to support me in the style to which I’d like to become accustomed).

  • buxtehude says:

    3. All US Senators somehow get to be millionaires while in office or swiftly become so as lobbyists afterwards.

    2. Schoolteachers, underpaid as they are in SF, make half or even a third of that elsewhere. This is part of a process of national suicide that is directed by the invisible hand aka the Market, the greatest achievement of Judeo-Christian civilization and known in its latest and greatest incarnation as Zombie Economics. No relation to mere music or musicians.

    1. Police officers get to kill people legally, which orchestra players don’t, much as they might love to.. A unique perk.

    • Greg Hlatky says:

      The US spends on the order of $12,000 per K-12 student. This is some 30% higher than other OECD countries. If teachers are so woefully underpaid, where’s all that money going?

    • Bill says:

      Bux, I had the same thought about the perks of being a police officer. But there’s a very practical reason for not awarding that perk to orchestral musicians – can you imagine the salaries which would be commanded by the 5 or 6 conductors who would last more than a week or two under this proposal?

  • Robert Holmén says:

    There are real market reasons San Francisco can pay so much less for a police officer.

    The minimum requirements for a SF police officer are…

    -an applicant must be a US citizen or permanent resident alien
    -be at least 20 years old (and 21 years old by the time of appointment)
    -have a valid driver’s license.

    In addition, if an applicant is chosen, the city will pay for the 34-week training at the police academy.

    There are 1900 SF police officers compared to ~100 SFS musicians.

  • db says:

    The whole premise of the comparison is ridiculous.

    SFSO members are the elite of musicians. The top tenth of one percent.

    Compare that with the top tenth of a percent of other professions.

    Obviously lawyers and doctors in that bracket are making millions. Top programmers in the financial industry make $500k-800k+. A top 1% programmer in non-financial world is making 250k-300k+ without too much trouble.

    While blue collar professions like plumber and HVAC technician don’t have high average salaries once you start getting into the top .1% – the elite, literally the best in the city at what they do, the ones who charge incredible daily rates as they’re the few with the expertise to solve complicated problems, you’ll find they’re easily clearing 200k+.

    Average police offer may make 83k. If you look for the top earning security professionals in SF – again the best at what they do, it’s going to be well over 200k.

    If you’re going to compare average salaries, compare the salary of the average musician to the average teacher, police officer, or whatever.

    Comparing SFSO members to average anything is a joke.

    • HSY says:

      “Comparing SFSO members to average anything is a joke.”

      SFS musicians earn about the same as Stanford professors. The average salary of Stanford professors is $207,900 in 17-18, and they also live in the Bay Area. If you calculate the average of what SFS musicians earn I imagine it would be close.

      Really, if money is the objective, then they probably chose the wrong profession.

      • Bill says:

        Stanford professors have some benefits that are worth quite a bit.

        1) 4 years of tuition coverage for each of their children, up to the lesser of tuition or half what Stanford tuition costs (Stanford undergraduate tuition will be $16,901 per quarter for 2018-19 academic year, and the tuition assistance is tax-free if the student is a dependent, so this is a sweet deal)

        2) eligibility to buy leasehold interests in houses on the Stanford campus as well as eligibility for other faculty/staff housing

        3) they don’t have to get to work at Davies Symphony Hall several days a week

      • DB says:

        Comparing SFSO musicians and Stanford professors is good. This is perhaps the closest professional equivalent.

        Out of all educators out there, Stanford professors are in the top tenth of a percent. Stanford is at the pinnacle of the academic world with a few other select schools. The odds of becoming a professor at Stanford are astronomical, competition is fierce and from all over the world, it takes years of hard work and performing at a high level, and there is a rigorous selection process.

        Nobody ever says, “Let’s compare Stanford professor salaries with those of the average school teacher. Are those professors overpaid?” The implication that there’s no difference between a Stanford professor and the average school teacher would be ridiculous. People understand the hard work, abilities, and devotion that it takes to become any kind of professor, nevermind one at an elite school.

        It’s mind-boggling that on a website that is devoted to music, that same respect isn’t given to members of top orchestras who have also climbed a path that is extremely difficult.

  • Mark J Henriksen says:

    Symphony players deserve every penny they make. The shock some people show here is because they are clueless as to what it takes to become a SFSO member and keep the job until a normal retirement age.

  • Doug Grant says:

    It is only in the US that one can even have this discussion. Elsewhere symphony members earn about what a teacher or police officer earns.

    Members of the SFS can always try to move to Detroit or Cleveland where I am sure they will find good affordable housing.

  • william osborne says:

    The point isn’t so much what musicians in top American orchestras are paid compared to policemen, as it is that other countries have equally good orchestras whose salaries are decent but more moderate. They seem more in line with the concepts of non-profits.

    We see similar problems with the pay of conductors, soloists, and high level arts administrators.

    Here are some salaries for concert masters in 2013/14 taken from Drew’s website:

    New York Philharmonic: $615,924
    San Francisco Symphony: $563,745
    Los Angeles Philharmonic: $554,209
    Chicago Symphony: $549,794
    Cleveland Orchestra: $503,573
    Boston Symphony: $478,935
    Philadelphia Orchestra: $385,817
    National Symphony: $368,467
    Pittsburgh Symphony: $316,961
    Baltimore Symphony: $297,072

    Other solo positions can also have special contracts. The last I heard, the first trumpet in Philly, for example, was making $300k. Quite a few players have special contracts.

    I think the system in Germany is better, which does not allow for special contracts for orchestra musicians.

    The other point is that the system is top heavy. Why should a solo player in a top orchestra make 100 times more that a tutti player in a regional orchestra that serves a large city?

    Musicians should be well paid, and far better than in our regional orchestras. But if there are those who want salaries of multiple hundreds of thousands per year, they should go into a for profit profession.

    • anon says:

      The NYP concertmaster pay was for the now retired guy, who had what, 25-35 years at the NYP? Better not be for the new guy!

      • Max Grimm says:

        Yes, it was for the now retired concertmaster. According to the NY Phil’s most recent posting made public on their website, the 5 highest paid musicians didn’t include the new guy but were the…
        – Principal Associate Concertmaster, $410.912 plus $77.566 other compensation
        – Principal Cello, $370.914 plus $114.003
        – (now former) Principal Horn, $389.562 plus $25.582
        – Principal Oboe, $383.097 plus $27.230
        – Principal Clarinet, $345.138 plus $40.135

    • Max Grimm says:

      “I think the system in Germany is better, which does not allow for special contracts for orchestra musicians.”
      That’s not quite so. Quite a few orchestras here have special contracts (Sondervertrag) for concertmasters. While not many, there are also some orchestras that extend special contracts to concertmaster equivalent positions – mostly (1st) principal viola/cello – but a very small number also include a woodwind principal.

    • Bill says:

      Common misconception: just because an organization is a not-for-profit organization does not have necessarily have much relevance to employee pay. It means that the organization is not trying to earn a profit to be distributed to stockholders and thus qualifies for different tax treatment. Now, it is true that many not-for-profit organizations do not have large income streams, and that will obviously limit what they can afford to pay. If you look at IRS Form 990 filings, you will discover that large non-profits do often pay at least some employees a salary that would cause raised eyebrows if you are laboring under the misconception that non-profit means no one is paid more than a small amount. Non-profits compete for talented employees in a market with for-profit employers, of course, and doing a good job of running a non-profit takes skills the marketplace will reward.

      As for a 100x pay difference between a solo player in a top orchestra and a section player in a regional one, I don’t think you can actually find that once you adjust for the work schedule. Take Dicterow’s outgoing $600,000 figure – while you may find some nearby orchestra which only pays a section violinist $6,000 for a year, that year will have nowhere near the number of services played by a violinist in the NYP. And some of his compensation was for concertos performed with the orchestra, which were a frequent event. May only be like a 30x difference! But as US orchestras do not generally receive much government support (except via the tax deduction donors receive), what they can pay is largely determined by what they can raise and how much they can charge for tickets. Big sponsors will see more value in sponsoring the big orchestras, so that’s where much of the money goes. And orchestras here pay what they have to to get and keep the players they want. Frankly, I don’t see how one could realistically perform the great levelling-out that some would like to see. While it would be great to have more decently-paid orchestra jobs, there’s already an oversupply of prospective musicians and performances, and an undersupply of ticket-buyers, not to mention no real appetite by those who hold the purse strings to provide widespread government support.

      • william osborne says:

        The point isn’t compensation per hour, but the amount of work offered and thus the compensation received.

        As for special contracts, they’re rare enough in Germany to define a norm.

        • Max Grimm says:

          “As for special contracts, they’re rare enough in Germany to define a norm.”
          That is more like it. You are normally very punctilious in your posts but “does not allow for” ≠ “rare enough to define a norm”.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    Remember, if you don’t have tax shelters of some sort, income tax is going to eat up a very good chunk of that money.

    • Tamino says:

      People who actually work for their income do not enjoy tax shelters. People who get their income from already owning stuff enjoy them. That is the rigged game which will bring our western societies down, as all statistics show this imbalance between income from work and income from capital is getting worse and worse, until the system breaks apart.
      And even the lawyers and realtors can only reap so much bait as there are wealthy clients in quantity. It’s not sustainable.

  • Stephen Owades says:

    When Mr. Lebrecht says “What about other public servants” in his piece comparing the salaries of San Francisco Symphony musicians with the city’s police officers, he is confusing the way an American orchestra operates with the way many European ones do. In America, an orchestral player is not a “public servant,” at least not in the way we use that expression. He or she is employed by a private institution that is supported by a combination of service revenues (tickets plus broadcast and recording fees), donations from private individuals and corporations, and occasionally minimal government support.

    American musicians are not employees of the government and don’t fall under civil service pay scales—nor do they have civil service job protections and benefits. The salaries they earn (at least the base salaries) are negotiated via collective bargaining. Using the expression “other public servants” implies that these musicians fall into that category, which they don’t.

  • David B says:

    Totally agreed. Comparing San Francisco Symphony musicians to police officers and school teachers makes no sense at all in the United States. American orchestral musicians are not government employees, and American orchestras are generally not publicly funded. The SFS received two government grants from the NEA during fiscal year 2017–for a combined total of $105,000. That’s not even a drop in the bucket for an organization with an $80 Million operating budget. US public school teachers and police officers are definitely underpaid in my opinion, but it’s an unrelated issue.

  • Bruce says:

    It’s funny how people seem to get very worked up about the idea of musicians making decent money.