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Thursday, August 6, 2009

What musicans make

The United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics published the 2008-09 edition of their Occupational Outlook Handbook. It contains estimated salary data for musicians: singers, instrumentalists, music directors, conductors, composers, and arrangers.

Musicians apparently comprise of a significant portion of the U.S. workforce, holding about 264,000 jobs in 2006. Of these, approximately 35 percent worked part time and almost half, 48 percent, were self-employed.

As we drill down in the data, workers holding the title "Music Director" and "Composer" are classified by the DOE SOC Code 27-2041.

Combined, they accounted for 68,000 employees in the workforce in 2006 (before the current global recession). By the year 2016, this profession is projected to grow by 13%, adding 8,800 band new jobs to the economy.

The Department of Labor website provides some useful information for anyone considering a career as a 27-2041:

Composers create original music such as symphonies, operas, sonatas, radio and television jingles, film scores, and popular songs. They transcribe ideas into musical notation, using harmony, rhythm, melody, and tonal structure. Although most composers and songwriters practice their craft on instruments and transcribe the notes with pen and paper, some use computer software to compose and edit their music.

Median hourly earnings of wage-and-salary musicians and singers were $19.73 in May 2006. The middle 50 percent earned between $10.81 and $36.55. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $7.08, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $57.37. Median hourly earnings were $23.37 in performing arts companies and $13.57 in religious organizations. Annual earnings data for musicians and singers were not available because of the wide variation in the number of hours worked by musicians and singers and the short-term nature of many jobs. It is rare for musicians and singers to have guaranteed employment that exceeds 3 to 6 months.

Median annual earnings of salaried music directors and composers were $39,750 in May 2006. The middle 50 percent earned between $23,660 and $60,350. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $15,210, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $110,850.

I don't know any composers who earned $110,850 in 2006. That's probably the work of commercial song-smiths and music moguls. I would guess that all of the composers I know are in the bottom bracket - earning less that $15,210 annually in their profession. In my case, I am in the bottom 1 percent of the bottom 10 percent.

Just to put this into perspective, the 2009 official poverty level for the 48 contiguous states (and the District of Columbia) as defined by US Dept. of Health and Human Services is $18,310 for a family of three (the average household size). Below that threshold, you are in deep doo-doo, even with Food Stamps.

Based on this information, one can assert that in 2006 at least 10% of composers (approximately 6,800) were living below the poverty line. I'd estimate that the numbers could actually be much higher.

Yes Virginia, there are starving composers. Fortunately, my wife works and I've held various day jobs throughout my life.

Some street musicians are also street people. Superstar violinist Joshua Bell conducted a social experiment where he dressed in old clothes and performed out in front of a subway stop for spare change. He was virtually ignored by the passers by. Bell would truly be living out on the street if he didn't have another context to present his music in.

In France, freelance/street musicians receive government subsidies and fringe benefits that any other working person would be entitled to. They can survive.

But in the US not all musicians and their families live in dire straits. Even in the field of "long-hair" classical music, some musicians do very well. Orchestral musicians who make it to the pinnacle of their profession and secure a coveted job with a major American symphony orchestra are top earners.

Here is a list of the starting (minimum) salaries for the major American orchestras as reported recently by the Boston Globe (the salaries are for the past season or the up-coming season):

New York Philharmonic: $129,740 (2009-10)
San Francisco Orchestra: $129,740 (2009-10)
Los Angeles Philharmonic: $129,585 (2008-09)
Boston Symphony Orchestra: $128,180 (2009-10)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra: $127,637 (2009-10)
Philadelphia Orchestra: $124,800 (2009-10)
Cleveland Orchestra: $115,440 (2008-09)
Mind you these are starting salaries - not for long-term veterans who typically earn much more. Often they combine their orchestral job with teaching and various freelance work that substantially supplements their gross income.

I'm not going to bash orchestral musicians for getting paid well. Like doctors and other professionals, they invest a lot in their education, training, and skills. It's not easy work either, and the stress involved with the job often leads to ugly occupational hazards (such as self-medication).

On the other hand, there does seem to be a little salary inequality compared to other musicians in the economic and artistic food chain (e.g. starving composers). These under-valued musicians invest a lot in their education, training, and careers too.

While we could argue that people ultimately get paid what society thinks they should earn, I'm a little surprised that an orchestral musician on average could earn more than a resident in the hospital emergency room, or a commercial airline pilot for that matter. Flubbing a note in a live performance wont result in human tragedy or loss of life. Frankly, some professionals are more essential to the basic operations of an orderly society than others - although I do think that arts plays a vital role.

Perhaps there is something slightly out of kilter when orchestral musicians and lawyers wind up among the highest paid members of society rather than EMTs and airline pilots.

Let them eat cake. Growl.