There’s a moment in every musician’s life when you realize it’s possible to get paid doing something you love more than anything else. I can still remember the thrill of getting a cheque for $30 for my first MPTF concert when I was a teenager. I felt so mature getting paid to play Oktoberfest gigs in my uncle’s polka band. I couldn’t believe my luck when I found out the Kingston Symphony was going to pay me for rehearsals as well as concerts. What a great way to make money.
As one gets older and starts considering a career in music, the reality becomes a bit more grim. In this country, only a handful of orchestras pay what I consider a decent salary. For the most part, musicians are severely underpaid, especially when you consider the amount of training, skill, and commitment required.
The NAC Orchestra currently enjoys the highest minimum annual salary in Canada. A base musician earns $79,000 for a 46-week season, although a lot of musicians make more than that due to overscale payments, electronic media fees, and extra fees for doubling. The orchestras in Toronto and Montreal used to be in the same range, but their salaries have fallen back a bit in recent years. For the sake of comparison, the Boston Symphony has the highest minimum annual salary this season in the U.S. at almost $123,000.
The majority of orchestra musicians in this country aren’t so fortunate. Most professional orchestras in Canada pay minimum salaries between $25,000 and the low $40’s. With fees that low, it’s basically a necessity to pick up teaching jobs and other playing engagements to make ends meet.
A couple of months ago, I came across a job posting for Principal Percussion of the Victoria Symphony. If I was still pursuing an orchestral career, that’s a job I would be very interested in. Rather than a weekly fee, the position provides a guaranteed number of services. Total guaranteed fee? Just over $21,000 a year. Median price of a single-family home in Victoria? $545,000. Sigh.
The starting salary for my first admin position ten years ago, with my complete lack of experience, was $35,000. While not a huge sum, I do find it odd that I was making more than professional musicians with years of experience in some pretty decent orchestras. No wonder part of me felt like I was selling out.
This post made me think of something Michael Hovnanian wrote on his blog a while ago. He described his evolution from beginner to sophisticated professional as follows:
1) wanting to hear myself play
2) wanting others to hear me play
3) wanting to be paid to play
4) wanting to be paid not to play
At the other end of the salary spectrum, Drew McManus continued his 2008 Orchestra Compensation Report today with a post on Music Director salaries. Click here to find out which maestro earned $2,189,455 in 2005-2006.