by Barbara Siesel
For most U.S. workers, real wages have barely budged in decades. The following was published by Pew Research Center in 2018:
"On the face of it, these should be heady times for American workers. U.S. unemployment is as low as it’s been in nearly two decades (3.9% as of July) and the nation’s private-sector employers have been adding jobs for 101 straight months – 19.5 million since the Great Recession-related cuts finally abated in early 2010, and 1.5 million just since the beginning of the year.
But despite the strong labor market, wage growth has lagged economists’ expectations. In fact, despite some ups and downs over the past several decades, today’s real average wage (that is, the wage after accounting for inflation) has about the same purchasing power it did 40 years ago. And what wage gains there have been have mostly flowed to the highest-paid tier of workers."
For the last several years we have been hearing about wage stagnation, and as the article and research above clearly state, this is becoming a real problem for Americans (including flutists), so I wanted to explore this for our readers. Is this happening in the music world too? And if so what is actually happening? Orchestral players make between $4000 to $150,000 (or more if principal players) a year, and teaching sites like Lessonface show average hourly online lessons of $50 or $60 an hour.
A look at my own life tells me some aspects of my work are definitely stagnating or even deflating. Among the work I do involves bringing music to children and requires performances in libraries and schools (many of whose budgets have been cut to the bone). What in the past paid me $500-$1200 a performance has been reduced to $375 (and less) to $600, so I know for myself that these wages are not going up. There are many reasons for these budgetary problems in educational institutions, but that’s for another article.
The link above (from 2011) gives us a list of orchestra salaries with a wide range depending on the level and budget of the orchestra, but I do think that some recent numbers show that several orchestras have increased their musician salaries since the 2011-2012 season, so here we are seeing some improvement. Additionally, many musicians are part of the “gig economy," (we are the original gig economy!) classified as contractors and not employees, which can make it difficult to negotiate benefits and end up creating increased expenses around healthcare and insurance and actually depressing wages.
One reason for wage stagnation in my reading is that corporations have too much power and unions have been weakened. The pension plan for the Musician’s Union Local 802 in NYC, for example, has lost a lot of money and will have trouble meeting its obligations. One reason is that there are many fewer musicians joining the union and having the kind of work that pays into a union pension.
What is the average salary for musicians, and has it changed or kept up with inflation over the years?
According to this chart, the average yearly salary for musicians is $43,523 as of April 21, 2019. Zip Recruiter gives us a lower number of $35,702, 9% more than the average national salary of $35,000. But the question is, have these salaries changed much over the years, given how much more expensive things, such as housing, are today? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics consumer price index, prices in 2018 are 92.12% higher than average prices throughout 1990. The dollar experienced an average inflation rate of 2.36% per year during this period, meaning the real value of a dollar decreased. In other words, $35,000 in 1990 is equivalent in purchasing power to about $67,243.60 in 2018, a difference of $32,243.60 over 28 years. That means that if you are still earning $35,000, your wages are stagnating and you would have had much more purchasing power in 1990 (actually $32,000 more!) And, $35,000 in the year 2000 would need to be $51,000 today for the same purchasing power.
We also know that artist revenue streams are changing with the advent of the Internet, streaming, etc. There is more competition as the barriers to entry into the market have come down through You Tube, Instagram, Facebook, and Internet marketing, so there are more opportunities, but with more competition, prices can also get depressed and contribute to wage stagnation and even loss of income.
My conclusion from the research I’ve done so far tells me that there is wage stagnation in our industry.
The Flute View would be interested in hearing your stories and your solutions to this ongoing problem. Perhaps it’s time to charge higher fees and to strengthen our unions. As you know, we at The Flute View are entrepreneurial and have strived to take advantage of the changing marketplace, but I do think this is an important conversation for us to be having so please join in!
Here are some more articles to read about wage stagnation and solutions:
Barbara Siesel's career includes performing, teaching and producing. She has appeared in concert halls throughout the US, Europe and Asia. Siesel is co-founder and creator of the Green Golly Project, co-founder of The Flute View, and founder of Flute Mastery and Spiritual Flute Workshops. She received BM and MM degrees from The Juilliard School. www.flutemastery.com.