Chicago: 5 reasons the musicians can’t afford to lose

Chicago: 5 reasons the musicians can’t afford to lose


norman lebrecht

February 15, 2019

Players in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have given the organisation a deadline of March 10 to make a better pay offer, or face a walkout. Here’s why this is a showdown from which they can’t back down.

1 The union has slammed its fist on the table, saying Chicago is the #1 orchestra in the US but the pay is better in, say, #4 and #5. Whether or not one agrees with the ranking, that’s the perception among the musicians and their pride is seriously bruised at being outpaid by the LA Phil, NY Phil and NY Met. They need to get back on top in order to attract the best talent.

2 Musicians at the Lyric Opera Chicago were forced into a strike last year at a time that was not of their choosing. Unprepared, they had to capitulate. Chicago Symphony musicians are not unprepared. They’ve got mattresses ready in the garage, and money to feed the families. They’ve gotta win.

3 It’s a transitional moment. Chicago needs to be looking at a successor to Riccardo Muti and the hot guest conductors are not coming in. The musicians want to set the future agenda.

4 It has been a while since US musicians last won a strike.

5 It’s Chicago, dummy.



  • anon says:

    Great orchestras survive strikes and bankruptcies and even, *gasp*, modestly paid musicians.

    Look at Philadelphia, still there, sounding as gorgeous as ever and thriving under Nézet-Séguin, being featured at Carnegie Hall next season.

    The economic reality is this: that there are a lot of top musicians and very few orchestra openings.

    It’s not Wall Street, where an investment bank can fire its bottom 10% every year just because there is better talent out there.

    If Chicago went bankrupt, that means there will be 100 more unemployed musicians, period. It does NOT mean that all of a sudden, NY, LA, SF, Cleveland will fire 10% of its musicians, open up auditions, and hire Chicago’s super-duper brass section.

    Sorry, tenure is a double edged sword. It’s nice if you got it, it’s not so nice if you want to get in.

    • Anon says:

      “It’s not Wall Street, where an investment bank can fire its UNLUCKY 10% every year just because there is better LUCK out there.“
      Fixed it for you.

    • NYMike says:

      “Look at Philadelphia, still there, sounding as gorgeous as ever and thriving under Nézet-Séguin, being featured at Carnegie Hall next season.”

      Yes, it’s miraculous that Philly still sounds as good as it does considering the hit the musicians took in the ’11 false bankruptcy the POA declared. Unfortunately, they have yet to recoup what was taken away – they’re EIGHTH in US orchestra wages.

    • Peg Schalit says:

      Thanks, Anon. I did wonder if it was all about the brass. I’m a retired second violinist from the Albany (NY) Symphony and made enough money to eat out and satisfy my shoe habit. I grew up in Saratoga Springs and have heard the Philadelphia Orchestra many times. I love to watch them as well as hear them. My little Albany Symphony has a wonderfully adventurous repertoire and good brass and gets better and better. I don’t care about who is number one. It’s good I taught beginning strings and general music in public school, because I have a pension.

  • M2N2K says:

    None of these five “reasons” explain why CSO musicians “can’t afford to lose”. They only show that winning would be better for them than losing. But this “profound” pronouncement would have been true without citing any “reasons” at all. Much depends on one’s definition of “winning” in such situations. Regardless, I wish them success, whether with the strike or preferably without.

  • MacroV says:

    The CSO musicians have a pretty longstanding tradition of being hardnosed negotiators, and willing to strike even in the face of a high-prestige event. Can’t blame them. Still, it is fair for the CSO management to compare compensation relative to cost of living, and last I checked, New York, LA, San Francisco, and Boston all have significantly higher cost of living. At least with respect to housing. Cleveland is probably the highest-paid orchestra given the low cost of housing; you can get a very nice house in Shaker Heights – just six miles from Severance Hall – for under $500k.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    There is a very interesting and insightful book “Season With Solti – A Year In the Life of the Chicago Symphony” by William Barry Furlong (a sportswriter of all things, but perhaps a better book because it was NOT written by a musician or music critic). A strike threat was a key feature of the chosen season, and the various tensions that it caused on both sides make for interesting reading. Back then Solti’s or Giulini’s scheduled recording sessions were a useful pressure point for labor action – a different world, eh?

    • MacroV says:

      That was a great book; I read it 20-odd years ago. Back then CSO pay was also – even adjusted for inflation- considerably lower than it is now.

  • Spamalot says:

    CSO shouldn’t have extended Muti’s contract into 2022.

    • anon says:

      I couldn’t agree more. He makes $2.5 million and barely shows up. We have also lost numerous principals since Mr. Alexander took over. Going downhill for sure.

  • Me! says:

    As was said the piece is nonsense propaganda- the rent cost alone (and certainly purchase price) in nyc is far greater than Chicago as is general cost of living- it would be outrageous and unfair if Chicago musicians made what nyc does — just pure extra wealth for them. Plus isn’t this a charity organization that gets and seeks taxpayer and donor $$- they certainly haven’t made case they need more $ or even stated their salaries

  • Caroline Madison says:

    The Chicago Symphony musicians make an average of $185,000 a year, have almost free and exceptional health insurance, and a pension that guarantees them $81,000 a year at full retirement age. The pension replacement that management is offering will still give them that much money in retirement, and possibly more. Management is offering them raises and they are complaining that the raises are not large enough. Do they think the public will believe they are under-compensated and being treated unfairly? This is a strike destined to fail miserably.

  • Bone says:

    Dunno about super duper brass section anymore – plenty of great brass sections in American orchestras now.
    As far as the orchestra itself, I guess this is their chance to find out just how valuable they are to their city. Hoping they aren’t disappointed…

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    Seems to me that the tether can be stretched only so much. They may have a ‘wold class’ reputation, but there are so many other really fine orchestras in the Midwest and along the east coast. And with weather and traffic becoming ever worse, how much do people really want to drive into the center of Chicago? I’m not against the musicians. Instead, I’m just wondering just how far an ensemble of nearly a hundred people can take their demands.

  • M says:

    I have lived in both Los Angeles and New York (and Paris, Florence and London) and have worked with LA Players. Yes, Chicago is the best orchestra there is hands down. Although the Viola’s solo last night had a bad note as did a bassoon. 😉 The thing is, the cost of living in Los Angeles and NYC is insane, comparatively speaking. But if the CSO players are being squeezed because of the 100 million dollar upgrade to Orchestra Hall (Symphony Center) then they deserve more. I don’t understand what the remodel entailed. I was in a rehearsal room and in the dressing rooms and didn’t see anything much. Unless they invested in expensive mics/sound I’m not sure what was changed for that amount of money. Also, who is programming these concerts? They are incredibly boring, when are we going to hear a new composer? Even Tchaikovsky would be bored by his own Symphony No. 1. The excitement is going away. The last concert I was at the lady next to me fell asleep at least a dozen times so I left at intermission. Some of the pieces need to be shelved. Zzzzzz. They are not thinking. These are modern times and you have to grab people’s attention with something new. Play the old but bring in more new as well. Seats are empty, something has to change. Look, I can handle some Doo-wop at Whole Foods as long as I know that they will also play something modern. I’m GenX btw…Start paying attention to us.

  • John Marks says:


    Chicago is the No. 1 orchestra?

    Sez who?

    Boston and Pittsburgh seem to be taking turns taking home the little gold gramophones.


  • observer says:

    In many EU countries, there is a nationwide codification of how orchestra musicians are paid according the ensemble’s category and what chair in the section they play. Bonuses are added for variances in the cost of living. This prevents the spiraling costs caused by orchestras looking for prestige by demanding ever increasing salaries — classical music’s form of the towers of San Gimignano–travesty of false status.

    We need new legislation that allows arts organizations to work together to regulate labor costs. It could be overseen by Federal mediators who consider equally the perspectives of management and labor and find a balance that stops the current insanity. The goal would be to keep fine arts organizations viable and best able to serve the public.

  • Dave T says:

    Can’t get by on $185K for 40 weeks of work? Poor babies.

    Why don’t they just quit and try their luck with the Boise Philharmonic.

    No sympathy whatsoever.

  • Philip Nash says:

    I will wait to renew my subscription until this is resolved. If they dump Muti I will renew immediately and restart my gifts to the orchestra.

  • Mark(London) says:

    Lots of musicians out there from all over the world. Particularly good string players in Asia who would jump at the salary and benefits the CSO offers!

    • NYMike says:

      Your jaundiced view colored by your London existence is invalid here. US major orchestra musicians’ livelihoods are not freelance jobs. All are covered by strong union contracts.

  • Karl says:

    NYC and LA have growing populations. Chicago is losing people. It doesn’t matter if they think they are the #1 orchestra if the money isn’t there. A quick search also shows that consumer prices including rent in NYC are 51.16% higher than in Chicago, IL. So much for comparing their pay to that in NYC.

  • Luigi Nonono says:

    Chicago is NOT the best orchestra, never was. Second or third, yes. I think it is insulting to musicians to assume they will always go where the pay is highest. How about choosing the orchestra because you prefer its sound and character? The Big Five should agree on a set salary, with cost-of-living adjustments, so that all the members are getting about the same, so one can choose which orchestra for artistic reasons. If that were the case, I bet the Minnesota Orchestra would be the most popular one to join. I don’t mean everyone makes the same amount, I mean the players and orchestra all agree on having the same level of pay.

  • Anon says:

    Try living in London with a musicians salary from one of the Big four orchestras! LSO, RPO, LPO, Philharmonia. The CSO earn twice what the above earn. And are not strangled by the Musicians Union….

  • Bruce says:

    I understand (sort of) why they feel it necessary that their pay keep up with their extremely high status among orchestras in the US and the world. It’s a reputation thing. At the same time, it’s not strictly necessary — they could let their playing speak for itself.

    And to be fair, they are not claiming that they can’t feed their families on $185K/year. They just feel that their pay should reflect their status as the country’s top orchestra. (Whether you agree that they are really “number one” is a separate question.)

    As Reggie Jackson (I believe) said during one of his several public and contentious contract negotiations with the Yankees: “All I’m asking for is what I want.”

  • Someone says:

    It is objectively impossible to say Chicago is better than Boston, New York, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Cleveland, etc. This isn’t sports!

  • Julie Lansman says:

    What about the Boston Civics Symphony, Max Hobarts got only paid @30k for conducting—-yet these folks want 185,000$ for 40weeks of « work.. »

    Bring back Roskovwitz, Jon Bishitp or Scott Reed from the Music Academy —they can shmooze wealthy donors with smiles and scripted PC nonsense.

  • Old Man in the Midwest says:

    Let’s look at the facts:

    1) The budget of the whole operation has to be considered. The musicians did not have any say in the $100 million remodel project of Orchestra Hall. But the debt does effect the entire organization and its financial stability. No way to avoid that.

    2) Losing talent due to lower pay will not happen. The entire membership of the CSO will not start taking auditions and leaving due to being paid less than LA or SF. And if they did, half of them would not be competitive in audition situations and they would be competing with each other to win the one vacant spot they would be auditioning for. Winning a job requires a very different mindset than doing the job on a daily basis.

    3) In the end the musicians can and should ask for whatever they think they are worth. It’s up to the board to promise to fill in the gap between what is earned through ticket sales, sponsorships, and contributed income. This gap can be substantial. The issue of repeated annual deficits is troubling and indicates that more money is being spent than taken in. The board may be tired of filling in that gap. Orchestras never create any efficiencies in production that help to reduce costs while increasing product. For that reason, the first place to look at reducing costs is through reducing what it costs to put the musicians on stage.