Have Musicians’ Wages Gotten Better Or Worse?

Miss Mussel went archive diving again and stumbled upon, quite by accident, a piece in the NY Times called “MUSIC IN THE CITY.; Where Our Musicians Come Front [sic]–Their Qualifications and Rates of Compensation.”

The article is a whopping 1714 words long and in dire need of editing in places but it does provide a glimpse of life as a professional musician in 1870s New York. Rather frustratingly, the author does not say how many performances per week or per season are standard so Miss Mussel can’t work out a per service rate.

The following stats may be useful for establishing context.
NYC Population: 942, 292 | Inflation: $1 in 1870 = $16.83 in 2008
Daily wage for skilled labour [construction, blacksmith, engineer etc] = $2.50-$3.00 (~$6000-$7200pa)
Commodities: cheese 5¢/pound, flour 4¢/pound, butter 15¢/pound | 3 New York Mills White Shirts = $2.50

Miss Mussel has found that when comparing rates of pay or cost of living it is most accurate to think in terms of buying power rather than actual currency. For example, in Ontario the minimum wage is $10/hr and a Big Mac costs $4.16, so you need to work 25 minutes to buy one. In New York State, minimum wage is $7.25/hr and a Big Mac is $3.54, which works out to 30 minutes work.

Time to jump in the Way Back Machine and see what the story was on 18th December 1870:

“The salary of a distinguished conductor is difficult to establish. Last year, the Philharmonic concerts yielded Mr Bergmann, perhaps fully $1000, the musicians receiving about $100 apiece.

The conductor of an Italian opera receives, as a maximum, from $3500 to $4000 for a season; about $450-$500 per month is the general emolument.

Musicians in the operatic orchestra receive, for playing the first instruments, $5.50 per night; second instruments $5.
[Miss M: This figure is probably the most useful for comparison. A night’s work at the Met, say 4 hours, would buy 110 pounds of cheese, 137 pounds of flour, 37 pounds of butter or 6 white shirts.]

In theatres, according to their rank, leaders receive from $250-$350 per month. Sometimes when music has to be written, extra pay is allowed. The theatrical musicians receive from $15-$18 per week. [18 to 21 white shirts]

For military bands, leaders receive twice as much as the general players, though sometimes they make their own particular bargains; when they are distinguished, they are very handsomely paid.

Of course, the tariff does not lay down any distinct prices for conductors, leaders or directors. They are supposed to make their own bargains. According to reputation, one can get an artist to manage a concert from $25, the lowest prices, up to $250.

For parades, the band is paid $6 per man. For that prices you can have ‘See the Conquering Heroes Come’ from time of assembly until 7pm. Extra hours $1 per man.
[Wedding performers: does this 6:1 ratio for 1st and additional hours still apply? How many pounds of flour can you buy from a three-hour gig? More or less than 200?]

You can serenade your lady-love for $5 an hour, but should she be a heavy sleeper, you can keep it up another sixty minutes for $1 more. (Perhaps the general American serenade of all performances is the most brutal. Instead of waking up the fond object so that there is scarce a transition between dreaming and consciousness, we let fly bass drums and cymbals and in an agony of terror the very cats shed their fur.)

Of course, no one supposes that quite as good music is required for a menagerie, as at a circus; bears can dance or lions howl with even a mediocre accompaniment; therefore, if you have an animal van, you can pay your bank $15 apiece per week, while, if in the saw-dust and bare-back business, you are mulcted* $18.”

*muclted means to extract monies from a fine or tax and has pejorative connotations of to swindle or defraud. It appears that our author feels this is too much to pay mere circus musicians.

Of course, there are loads of factors that we have not considered here. Musicians 1870 almost certainly rented their apartments, and didn’t have to factor in gas or long journey times. On the other hand, there were far fewer permanent jobs, no AFM – so long hours with no breaks, and likely far less work teaching.

It would be neat to see what the results are just for the factors we’ve covered here. To help keep everyone working with the same numbers, Miss Mussel will set 2009 prices as cheese – $5/pound, flour – $0.50/pound and butter – $4/pound. This should iron out any loss leader bias as well.

So, how much butter can you buy with your gig money? Anyone know what AFM scale is? It’s a bit odd that this info is not readily available on their site.

1 comment

  1. Hi there!
    As to what AFM scale is… that’s a tough question to answer.
    For “casual work” in St Louis, MO, it varies between $40 to $100 for a two-hour job. The variables? Size of house, how expensive the venue is, and so on. The Local Veterans’ Hall doesn’t have the kind of money that the Ritz-Carleton Hotel.
    Then there are the separate labor agreements (in the US – I’m assuming there are similar ones in Canada). These are between an employer (such as the St Louis Symphony) and the Local (such as Local 2-197 in St Louis). Base rate per year? About $74,000, for 42 weeks, of which 4 to 6 are vacation weeks. Actual time at the workplace per week is about 18.5 hours.
    Other orchestras have different amounts, and these have a direct relationship to their market size, season length, and so forth.
    Hope this helps clarify.

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