Well, It’s Official: Orchestra Musicians Are No Better Off Than Retail Employees

Today I was doing some research about orchestras and unions because I had heard about so many orchestras protesting the problems they have with pay-cuts and other bad things with management. In Jacobin Magazine on March 19 of this year, Isaac Silver interviewed three Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians who were just one of many CSO musicians on strike after, just last week on March 10, their contracts expired. Honestly I feel very fortunate to have come across this article because it is one of the few times I think in which someone is overtly talking about class issues in classical music and not apologizing for it. Too often the language around class and income in the classical music industry is often obscured. You hear about actors, dancers and other entertainers having to wait tables or bar-tend while taking auditions, or rock musicians working at cinemas so they can play with their band. However, I don’t really hear many classical musicians talk about the tables they had to wait while auditioning, and oftentimes I know classical musicians who feel ashamed if people in their circle know they worked those kinds of jobs.

However, the cities where you have these big-name orchestras, such as Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, are becoming more expensive and less hospitable to low- and middle-income folks (heck, even those in the $100,000 bracket are finding it hard to live in these cities), so it’s imperative that the elephant in the concert hall (aka class) makes some noise. This is also happening at a time when retail and fast food workers are striking out because they want higher wages. At a Walmart in Canada, for instance, a 17 year old Walmart employee who had been working at the company for over a year and a half, announced on the intercom to customers that Walmart management treated its workers unfairly and that “no one should work here–ever”. The employee already had another job lined up and put in his two weeks notice ahead of time. Several Sonic employees in Ohio walked out during their shifts to protest–once again–bad management and an extremely low minimum wage ($4 per hour, lower than Ohio’s $8.55 minimum wage). Bernie Sanders has been fighting for a greater minimum wage for a long time now, and service employees in general are fighting for a national minimum wage of $15.

Now, with all this said, I am not saying the struggles of orchestra musicians are the same as retail employees. My job working as a barista didn’t cost anything other than checking my sense of entitlement at the door. Owning a musical instrument, however, can be very expensive. If your strings break, you have to repair them. If something happens during a storm and your instrument goes out of tune or breaks, you need to shell out money for a luthier to fix it. With barista money it’s hard to afford nice instruments, so I think I have some privilege with my classical music background in that sense. And I also think that orchestra musicians are going to really need to start talking about class more. Heck, all classical musicians need to talk about money, because orchestras rely on private benefactors, not the government, to stay alive. If those benefactors pass away, who is going to keep funding these orchestras? I understand I addressed this last post, but this topic has been on my mind for quite some time.

According to Clara Takarabe, one of the CSO musicians on strike


Though some musicians have a keen consciousness that they are part of the working class and the labor movement, those musicians are in the minority. Higher education and music schools do not educate musicians to have historical consciousness of class strife, labor movements, economic history, or much more.


Most of music education is steeped in music history, which can be quite divorced from the bigger context. That needs to change. I have proposed to some local music departments to teach a class on labor unions. Deans I have been in contact with have responded by saying they have entrepreneurship classes, which misses the point.


I feel fortunate because I studied ancient history which in which class language and conflict is quite overt — there is no disguising what is going on. However, in the arts, ideas of pleasure, leisure, prestige: all this muddles the real issues at hand.

“Class Struggle at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra”

This quote really hit the nail on the head, and it’s one of the few times I have heard a classical musician actually straightforwardly address the lack of education around issues of class and income. I think this is sad especially because it also ties into the lack of racial diversity in today’s orchestras. Even though there have been more initiatives to get more Black and Latino orchestra players, it is incredibly hard to break into the industry because doing so requires an incredible amount of financial resources, no matter how good the person auditioning is. There is an article about the partnership between the University of Cincinnati’s College of Music and the Cincinnati Symphony to recruit more Black and Latino orchestra musicians, and in the article Janelle Gelfand talks about an African-American double bassist named Ian Saunders who had to work four jobs all at once to pay for his undergraduate degree in Bass Performance. He wasn’t able to attend classical music summer festivals because he had to work during these summers to pay for his tuition and instrument. Although Saunders played violin for 10 years, the university that gave him a scholarship, Old Dominion, needed a double bass player, so he switched to double bass because he was willing to try anything new. Reading about Saunders’ story taught me that even as a musician of color, I need to recognize my privilege. I had access to music lessons. I never really had to keep my work-study jobs in college or have a job throughout high school to pay for my music activities. I never had to work during summers and even attended a few summer music festivals for classical musicians with financial assistance. I never really thought about the lack of open conversations around class and privilege in classical music circles until I worked in service jobs after college to get out of debt and save money so I could do the music activities I wanted to in the future. I don’t even remember many of the kids in my varsity orchestra class ever having to hold down part-time jobs because their parents encouraged them to just study and practice. Class just wasn’t a big discussion in classical music like it sometimes is in other arts and entertainment circles (e.g. popular music, stand-up comedy, acting).

I remember breaking down and crying when I finished paying off my school debt because I didn’t have the money to attend a ten-day summer festival for classical musicians. The total cost was over $2,000 and as much as I tried to convince the program director I couldn’t go, he was gracious enough to let him know if finances were preventing me from going, but after a while I had to just straight up tell him that I was working over the summer and was just starting a new job, and thus wouldn’t be able to go to the festival. I also told him I didn’t feel musically prepared for the program, especially since my audition was rejected and they only wanted me because they probably were running short of a certain demographic of musicians and needed me to fill in. He then told me he understood, and so I sat in on the master classes. But since I wasn’t actually a participant I felt almost like an outsider, even though I was a musician like the rest of those kids. Again, I’m not saying I was at any disadvantage whatsoever considering my class privilege and access to lessons and other things needed to succeed in classical music. However, having to say “no” to this and another subsequent classical music festival opportunity that summer led me to learn more about the wider issue with class inequality in our country and how it is affecting a seemingly unaffected group (aka orchestra musicians).

Like me, Clara studied a mix of different fields in undergrad: sociology, philosophy, political philosophy and economy. She had exposure to the history of class and labor struggles and her experience as a CSO striker enabled her to apply her learning to real-life experience. I am sure many classical musicians want to talk about class and labor struggle, but too often we still see classical music as something for the elites when in reality, everyone can enjoy classical music regardless of their socioeconomic status. Esa-Pekka Salonen said that to change classical music would mean breaking up the season into more digestible segments or bringing in new artists. And I think he’s right. However, the CSO strikers have taken this discussion of classical music reform to another level: we need to start at the grassroots and actually talk about wealthy inequality as classical musicians. We need to stand in solidarity with other low-wage workers instead of pitying them. We need to open ourselves up and listen and learn from the class struggles and strikes that Walmart greeters, Sonic cashiers, and other struggling Americans have gone on to protest unfair management and low wages. We need to, in other words, be better class allies.

We need to open up discussions so that musicians such as Ian Saunders don’t have to feel tokenized or ashamed for talking about working four jobs to pay for their extremely expensive music education. We need to seriously get to the roots of classism and labor rights before we worry about how good the program is or whether the music we pick is good enough. Because that’s how we break the barriers that separate classical musicians and management from the wider struggling American working and middle classes.

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