Musician Compensation at Major US Orchestras


Well-Known Member
Apr 20, 2010
United States
As some of you know, the Chicago Symphony is on strike, which I hope will be over by the time AXPONA rolls around in a few weeks. Thought you all might be interested in the compensation packages of the CSO orchestra players.

Remember, these are average salaries. Principal players often make 2-3X these salaries. Chris Martin, principal trumpet at the at the NY Phil, makes about 500K/year.

A comparison of the CSO players with other major orchestras is also very interesting.

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Well-Known Member
Dec 7, 2011
North Shore of Boston
Thanks. That's an interesting chart. I wonder how healthy these symphonies really are. I attended a BSO working rehearsal with Madfloyd a couple of weeks ago and the audience was thanked for its generosity. Apparently, ticket sales only meet half of the needed revenue or annual cost of operations for the BSO.

If the costs continue to go up, as they surely will, it will be more and more difficult to offer discounts and meet building maintenance needs. Ticket prices will continue to increase and there will be more aggressive fundraising at a time that the audience is growing older. There are so many talented musicians out there looking for work. I imagine if the existing musicians quit because their demands are not met that it would be fairly easy to replace them with eager new hires.

It must be more complicated than that though.
Dec 16, 2018
Phoenix, Arizona USA
Sounds as if they really earn their pay based on the number of days they work for concerts/rehearsals. High cost of living cities too.
In Phoenix, at least, and I believe it's the same national union they belong to, that 'Maximum required concerts...' number is counting 'services'.. That is defined, generally, as any rehearsal or concert lasting NMT 2 hours, so theoretically they could be 'paid' for 3 of these services per day.. I expect that they are only rarely asked to perform more than 2 per day.

So the Chicago orchestra, with the highest paid time off, third-highest gross pay, and best-of-the-seven cost-of-living value, is on strike.. As an avid concert attendee and financial supporter of our orchestra, I'm feeling a little stingy toward them.. We'll see how they do.


Member Sponsor & WBF Technical Expert
Jun 23, 2010
Monument, CO
Salaries fall off quickly when you get below the top few orchestras in the country. And those charts are a bit misleading but I'm on the side of the musicians (natch). They set the lower end of the plots to emphasize the differences and left out cost-of-living adjustments paid in a number of high-COL areas. Read the CSO musician's posts and read up on the pension plan changes to see why they are on strike. At least the management admitted the new plan would actually cost much more in the long run; the immediate savings come from axing players and higher costs now then in a few years they'll be worse off.


Well-Known Member
Apr 20, 2010
United States
We are fortunate to have "our man in the ground", Ron Johnson in Chicago who first informed me of the strike and now brings additional updates.

Ron is a CSO season ticket holder. If the strike ends by April 11th, he will join some of us for dinner before the Benjamin Grosvenor concert. I look forward to meeting Ron and others at that time. Still some tix left if you are interested.


Well-Known Member
Feb 3, 2011
3 or 4 months paid vacation...MAX number of rehearsals/concerts seems high but it's a max number and they have to practice to stay sharp anyhow, right? And they could do more than 1 rehearsal per day....

Seems like a really good deal...

R Johnson

Well-Known Member
Jul 24, 2010
Chicago, Illinois, USA
The CSO strike has now cancelled three weeks of concerts. Per the previous post, I am quite unhappy. The two sides are far apart and there's apparently no compromise possible. The union likes the pension the way it is, and management wants a new retirement scheme.

Al M.

Sep 10, 2013
Greater Boston


May 7, 2010
Marina del Rey, CA
Very interesting, thanks. I’d love to see a USA vs Europe comparison.

I have no issue with paying the creme de la creme of a profession. It’s what, 500 people tops in that graph?

The bigger issue is replacing the greatest generation and boomers in going to see the symphony and enjoying classical music.
Likes: Folsom
May 25, 2010
SF Bay Area
According to the internet, the pay of the top European orchestras: Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, London Symphony is between half and two thirds the pay of the top US orchestras (San Francisco Symphony, LA Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony). In both Europe and the US, the pay drops quite sharply when you go below the top few orchestras. We know a fair number of the members of the San Francisco Symphony as well as several top flight musicians who have been temporary or substitute members of the SFS and other top orchestras. The latter have often been auditioning for years for the rare open positions that appear in the orchestra. Often there are several hundred top musicians who apply for position in the violin section. One violist we know, who was a violin student with our daughter from the age of 5 or 6, has served in year long substitute positions for both the SFS and Boston Symphony, and auditioned for the permanent position for both. She was regarded very highly by the members of the both symphonies, but came in second in both auditions. She has been playing for regional orchestras and local chamber music groups as well as teaching to cobble together a decent living. She is now in her early 40's.

In the old days, a member of one of the top orchestras would get a significant boost to their pay with the extra pay from recording sessions and royalties. The top orchestra in that regard was the Berlin Philharmonic where Karajan had a major contract with Deutsche Gramophon and the orchestra members would regularly make as much money from their recording activities as from their regular salary. No longer the case. Almost all the major orchestras now have their own labels and release recordings made at live concerts. There is no additional pay for these recorded concerts except for royalties which, of course, depend on the sales of the recordings. Occasionally a wealthy patron will contribute to finance a recording project like the Mahler symphonies that MTT did with the SFS in the early to mid 2000's. Those were mostly not live performances and the musicians did receive extra pay for the rehearsals and recording sessions.

Many classical labels now use lesser known orchestras for their recordings. One of the best examples is the recordings on the Channel Classics label which feature the Budapest Festival Orchestra and their music director Ivan Fischer, who generate fine performances and fine sounding recordings (even featuring multichannel recordings on SACD and downloads!).


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