Playing with Fire…

Violinist Sarah Chang has become the startling focal point of an industrial dispute in Detroit. The city’s symphony orchestra is on strike against deep pay cuts and the concert at which she was to have played a concerto was cancelled. Chang offered to give a recital instead as a goodwill gesture towards her public. The result: alleged threats and intimidation on her website. More details here.

It’s ironic that the one area of work that seems more strongly unionised in the US than the UK is music. American orchestral musicians earn roughly double, or more than double, the income of a UK player, which is approximately the national average wage – a bit less up north, a bit more in London depending on how much work they do, but rarely enough to be kicked off child benefit.

My guess is that the Detroit strikers would therefore find few colleagues in this country willing fully to support their stance which, according to the above article, is a walkout “after management implemented the terms of a new contract, including base pay cuts for veteran players from $104,650 to $70,200, rising to $73,800 in three years. The players had offered a cut to $82,000 in the first year, rising to $96,600 in year three. The parties are also at odds over work rules and other issues.”

Chang is caught in the middle. She had requested that proceeds from her intended recital should be put towards the players’ pension fund (pension fund? Another thing you won’t find in London’s self-governing orchestras). But one cellist wrote to her that her plan to cross the picket line was “a slap in the face to all of us who have played in orchestras accompanying you.”

The fact is that certain musicians are paid way too much - but not usually the orchestral rank and file (I won’t tell you at this hour of a Monday morning how that term traditionally pans out in rhyming Cockney). As the cuts bite, stand by for agents spitting fire and brimstone as orchestral managements do something they should have done years ago: refuse to pay their soloists and conductors as much for one concert as an orchestral player earns in a year. It happens, dear reader, and it shouldn’t. Norman Lebrecht has been writing for two decades about the way greedy managers and their willing maestros have distorted the music business, but while the rest of the world was behaving in exactly the same way the revelations had less impact than they should have. Perhaps now the business (and the audience) can sit up and take note.

My sympathies to the strikers in Detroit, who must be allowed to fight their corner: their livelihoods are at stake and they have the right to defend them. But Chang I suspect acted with the best of intentions and she did not deserve to be threatened. Heavyweight indimidation never does anyone any favours.

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