As of Thursday, the Pacific Symphony’s musicians have no contract. Negotiations between representatives from Local 7 of the American Federation of Musicians and symphony management ended on Aug. 31, the day the last contract expired, without an agreement.
“This is very disappointing. We started bargaining on July 12, and we’ve put in more than 60 hours at the table,” said Adam Neeley, a violist with the Pacific Symphony who has served as chairperson of the orchestra committee for the last year. “The musicians have made four contract proposals that we feel have been more than fair.”
The union had brought in Chris Durham, an AFM negotiator from St. Louis. He has left Orange County – an indication that talks are off, at least for now.
Pacific Symphony president John Forsyte confirmed the impasse. “We are taking a hiatus because we have not been able to reach an agreement,” he said. “We hope we will resume conversations very soon.”
Talks have been complicated because there’s more than money at stake.
The Pacific Symphony pays its musicians on a per-service basis rather than a fixed salary – unusual for an orchestra of its size (the ensemble’s annual budget is around $20 million). For years the arrangement proved satisfactory to many Pacific Symphony musicians because there was a wealth of studio and film work in Los Angeles to supplement their income.
But in recent years those opportunities have largely dried up, Neeley said. “The possibilities that were there previously for freelance musicians simply are not anymore. There’s a lot less going on, especially in the studios, than there used to be.” Neeley blamed runaway productions and changing tastes toward smaller musical forces for film music.
Forsyte acknowledged that the local landscape for musicians is shifting, but pointed out there are other conditions unique to Orange County that make it extremely difficult for the Pacific Symphony to alter its compensation model. “It’s critical to remember that this orchestra is only 37 years old and hasn’t benefited from multigenerational endowment giving like other orchestras have.”
The orchestra receives only $150,000 in public funding and only 4 percent of its operating budget comes from endowments; both are far less than most ensembles of its size, he added.
It’s also costly to produce a concert in Orange County, Forsyte said. “Many concert halls are owned by cities or highly funded by government resources, and they don’t charge [tenants] very much. We enjoy none of those privileges. We’re blessed to have one of the world’s finest concert halls, but it’s very expensive to operate. That shows itself in very high rental costs.”
And the classical music market is ultra-competitive here, Forsyte said, making it especially challenging to keep seats filled. “I would say that next to the New York metropolitan area, [Southern California] has the highest saturation of classical music offerings.”
After the symphony’s musicians voted to authorize a strike in 2007, a generous contract gave them a 41.5 percent increase over five years. Even though the Great Recession took a huge bite out of revenues and the orchestra was saddled with a $4.84 million deficit from 2007-10, its management didn’t try to re-negotiate those terms, Forsyte said.
The present situation isn’t unprecedented. Before the last agreement in 2013, the back-and-forth stretched on for a year while orchestra members worked without a contract.
The current contract pays $249.26 for a concert and $183.67 for a rehearsal. Principal players in each section get 50 percent more than the base rate. Though a season can contain more than 200 “services” (concerts or rehearsals), many orchestra members won’t play that much, since the needs of repertoire and venue can significantly alter the number of required musicians. “Our per-service rates are high,” Forsyte said. “They compete with the top freelance orchestras in L.A.”
But the union prefers salaried positions, Neeley countered. “We are looking for a structure in which we can predict our income from week to week, month to month and year to year.”
Neeley added that even if that change is achieved, the Pacific Symphony isn’t paying competitive compensation, which is especially damaging since it resides in such an expensive area of the country. “Even if you’re a principal, even if you can find other [freelance] work, the pay is a problem.”
An employment ad on the Pacific Symphony’s website lists annual income for principal viola of $63,492 under the just-expired contract if all services were played. (Such section leader roles pay considerably more than rank-and-file positions.) A position for 3rd/Assistant Principal French Horn pays $53,670. Base pay would be substantially lower.
According to the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, the average annual base salary for a musician in one of America’s 20 best-compensated orchestras was $101,711.50 in the 2011-12 season. The Los Angeles Philharmonic ($143,260) and the San Francisco Symphony ($141,700) were number 2 and 3.
The Pacific Symphony didn’t make the top 20 list. Similar-sized orchestras in San Diego, Indianapolis and Utah did.
Forsyte says he understands the challenge, but improving musicians’ salaries will take time. Despite improvements in fundraising and a growing endowment, ticket sales have been flat. “The gap between reliable funding and expenses is thin right now. We need a bigger endowment and a broader donor base. If we promise something to the musicians that we can’t sustain, then we will have broken our promise. I don’t want to do that.”
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