What's a Great Musician Worth?

Severance Hall, Home to the Cleveland Orchestra
Severance Hall, Home to the Cleveland Orchestra

 On January 18th the musicians of the elite Cleveland Orchestra went on strike, and the news made the front page of The New York Times (1/19: “Strike at Cleveland Orchestra Points to Classical Music Woes”). Cleveland is hardly alone among America’s leading orchestras in its struggle to deal with the Great Recession. Endowments are down, subscriptions are down, and for the Cleveland Orchestra (as the article lays out in some detail): the whole CITY is down! A capital of the Rust Belt, Cleveland is not the city it was when the orchestra was founded, in 1918. “Old-money families” are now doing the heavy lifting for a city that  has lost not only its corporate headquarters, but 50% of its population in last 50 years – and 10% in the last decade.

What to do? Follow that fleeing population to where it has gone, and so the Cleveland Orchestra has struck a deal with Miami, as part of its “globalization strategy,” to provide quality classical music down there.

Makes sense, at least for a while.

So what, for the musicians, is at issue?  Management has asked the players – whose minimum salary now stands at $115,000 – to take a 5% pay cut this year, go back to par next year, and accept a 2.5% raise the following year.

Not bad, especially in this economy.

But the Cleveland Orchestra has been operating at a deficit for nearly a decade. This is a structural problem, and so something has to give.

Not only at Cleveland, but at orchestras all across America.

So the bottom line question is: in our society, what is a great musician worth?