Is San Francisco now the highest paid Symphony?

The musicians signed a new four-year deal today.

The weekly base salary rises from $3,200 to $3,263, reaching $3,570 in the contract’s final six months.

That looks like way over 150 grand a year as a starting salary at the back of the strings.

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  • It may be, but as always, you need to factor in the cost of living. SF is probably the most expensive city in the U.S., rivaling or perhaps surpassing New York for housing costs. But they’re probably earning a lot more than members of any London orchestra.

    Relative to cost of living, I would guess Cleveland is the best-paid U.S. orchestra, and Pittsburgh might be up there, too.

  • We’ve already gone through this discussion ad nauseum in a prior post.

    Some new data published since:
    1) 90% of homes in SF are $1 million or more.
    2) The average salary in SF is $160,000.
    3) You have to wear face masks in SF because of the polluted air from the annual wild fires in Northern California, and schools and universities are closed because of it.

    Draw what conclusions you may.

    • As for point 3, that was 1 week, the fire is out, the schools are open, the rain has cleaned the air, and while wildfires somewhere in the state are annual affairs, events of that scale are not. I’ve lived here for 37 years, and this has been the only time I’ve seen people wearing particulate masks because of wildfire smoke.

      But yes, housing within a reasonable drive from Davies Symphony Hall is very expensive, even if you make $150-200,000 per year, and housing is not the only factor that makes living in the area costly. The slightly lower pay of some of the other big US orchestras may go quite a bit further, depending on how you spend your money.

    • Actually, the average household income is $96,677 as of this year, which implies that the average salary in SF is indeed, nowhere near $160,000.

  • Before anyone says anything crazy about how they’re being paid too much, keep in mind that cost of living in San Francisco and the surrounding suburbs is really unmanageable thanks to the likes of Facebook, Google, Apple, and other wealthy tech companies.

  • Published statistics always state that housing prices in San Francisco are even higher than those in New York. It would be interesting to know how much some of the principal players are paid, and how those figures compare to the ‘big five’ (or six, if we include the Met) in the east and midwest. I’ve always found this orchestra to be competent but bland, lacking a distinct character or profile, as is the case with the above-mentioned star orchestras. And my limited experience of hearing music in Davies Hall led me to the conclusion that the place is simply awful, even worse than David Geffen Hall. In short, money isn’t everything.

    • Regarding pay for principal players, some of this information is publicly available as part of most American orchestras’ tax filings.
      The most recent available filing (2016/2017) lists the 5 highest paid principals in the San Francisco Symphony as follows:
      – Alexander Barantschik, Concertmaster – $589.272
      – Eugene Izotov, Principal Oboe – $391.009
      – Mark Inouye, Principal Trumpet – $342.545
      – Nadya Tichman, Associate Concertmaster – $330.446
      – Carey Bell, Principal Clarinet – $289.180

      Looking at the range of the top 5 principal salaries, it seems roughly comparable to other large American orchestras…..
      – LA Phil, $326.370 to $579.722
      – Boston Symphony, $279.074 to $449.527
      – Chicago Symphony, $335.578 to $539.900
      – NY Philharmonic, $385.273 to $488.478
      – Cleveland Orchestra, $295.492 to $579.030
      – Philadelphia Orchestra, $287.627 to $428.372

  • One should assess salaries in light of local living expenses. I am not the first to bring this up in this blog.

  • Just as a point of reference, the last weekly salary mentioned is twice as much as tutti players in my orchestra earn in ONE MONTH.

    What is that, 8 times more than our tutti salaries? Our players work a full week of rehearsals and concerts, every week of the year, with a month off in summer. They have cars, families, mortgages, student loans, instrument expenses, just like the SF players.

    I know the cost of living is high in SF, but is it 8 times higher? I don’t begrudge the SF players their salaries, but maybe with all that dough they could start a relief fund for orch players who make 8 times less. Or offer an orch. exchange program where they swap places for short time with players in lesser paying orchestras. GIve those less fortunate musicians a taste of wealth and see how the other half lives. The jobs we do are the same, but the salary difference is unbelievable!

    • The wages for the highest-paid orchestral musicians in the country should be compared to those of the highest-paid doctors, lawyers, hedge fund managers, etc., all of whom earn orders of magnitude more than $150K/year. Why the orchestra of which you speak doesn’t earn more is a legitimate question, especially if it’s another major US orchestra with a 52-week season, but it’s not necessary for SFS to earn less in order for this other group to earn more.

    • The SF salaries are a lot of money but they will be almost entirely from regional donors and ticket buyers.

      If your orchestra is paid less you should ask your regional donors and ticket buyers why you’re not worth more.

      • Many thanks to everyone for the support, but I’m with a European orchestra. We’re funded by the govt. It’s politicians who decide how much we’re worth.

        To reiterate, I don’t fault the SF players their salaries. My observation is just that there are musicians doing the same job, often for the same conductors, the same hours, much of the same repertoire, for a fraction of what they are earning.

        I often feel like reminding a conductor who’s either using us a warm-up for the same material with LA Phil or a top US orch. or who’s repeating with us a concert just done with them, that we are in a whole different salary range. Somehow, we are expected to play just as well as those 6 figure players. And we usually do.

        It’s probably why film companies are outsourcing soundtrack recording to smaller European orchestras. No union, cheap labor, and generally good quality.

    • You surely know that pay is determined more by how big & how wealthy the community is and how adept the administration is at extracting money from — errm, I mean cultivating donors. The city you live in, like mine, probably has nowhere near the level of population, free-flowing wealth, or public support that San Francisco has. Their base weekly pay is approximately 8x that of my orchestra as well.

      I remember learning that in any given place — at least in the US — only about 1% of the public* ever attends a classical music performance. (I suppose “attends” means “pays for a ticket.”) In a big city you’re talking about 1% of several million people; in a smaller city it’s 1% of a few hundred thousand. Not everyone who buys a ticket to a concert also makes a donation, so the donor pool is even smaller than the audience pool.

      Just sayin.

      *(I don’t know if 1% is accurate; but we know that it’s a very small portion of the population.)

      • It’s also explain the reason why a strongly charismatic conductor can take de MD, even if she/he isn’t the best accomplished musician with a deep and spiritual artistic view blah blah blah. Specially in the US, since money comes from others than government.

  • I lived in San Francisco before, during, and after the tech boom. On a recent visit I was shocked at the cost of housing and pretty much everything. SF was always expensive, but it has reached executive heights. I can’t see that 150k goes very far in that town

  • ==I’ve always found this orchestra to be competent but bland, lacking a distinct character or profile,

    Yes. MTT did some nice Schumann symphony recordings with them, but overall they’re not an exceptional band

    • I heard them recently at Carnegie Hall – Petrushka and Sacre. Both really good, in fact the Sacre I’ve never heard it done better (including Markevitch with the LSO in 1983). The sound of the orchestra is perhaps not distinctive (which orchestra is nowadays apart from Vienna and perhaps Berlin)….however the overall quality of sound, balance and “listening to each other” was exceptionally good I thought. Not many orchestras can boast a first trumpet like Inouye (who being a jazz player too can hit the high stuff with no trepidation). MTT still is a conductor who doesn’t get much in the way of pianissimo playing (e.g. Rattle, Celi, HVK) but then again neither did Lenny. MTT has been with this orchestra a long time and it shows. Great stuff.

  • I think the difference in artistic quality between the lowest-paid full-time orchestra and the highest-paid is exaggerated by many people, but I think that in this case, the high pay is understandable due to the cost of living in the area. The same goes for Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, etc.

  • The cost of living in the San Francisco – Oakland – Hayward metro area is 141.80% higher than the national average, according to one source I found.

  • All these $200,000+ salaries for orchestral musicians may sound like a lot, but be aware they are only coming your way if you are found to have a special talent and have the courage and determination to develop and hone it over a period of years. To put things into perspective: I know many, many young people in their late teens and early twenties who are paid (I can’t bring myself to say ‘earn’) much, much more than that for kicking a ball around a grass pitch for 90 minutes once a week. So, SFS, good for you!

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