It has happened again: amidst the battles between orchestras and management, the peanut gallery has piped in with the wearisome refrain that musicians get paid too much for doing what they enjoy. In his Telegraph article, "US Orchestras are Greedy and Overpaid," Ivan Hewitt glibly asks, "Why does a musician need to be 'compensated' for doing what he/she loves?" (Perhaps Hewitt abhors writing and secretly yearns to be a dentist.)
Never mind that Hewitt slaps musicians with the Protestant work ethic while Millennial entrepreneurs crow ceaselessly of the fun they have following their "passions" from the beanbag chairs at Google, and getting filthy rich in the process. Never mind that teenage entertainers of questionable talent earn enough in one year to fund the Minnesota Orchestra's new lobby. Never mind that the average orchestra salaries Hewitt mentions roughly equal the average starting salary of every newly-minted, top-tier MBA. Never mind all of pro sports and all of finance--but wait, these comparisons are unfair, for those people all make money.
Fine for them, but is that how we determine all jobs' value? I'll refrain from pointing out that art, historically, has not been viewed as a commercial enterprise, and that the social value of plenty of well-paid jobs (judges, cops, teachers, etc., etc.) isn't measured in dollars accumulated. Nor will I link to any articles about how kids who listen to Mozart trounce your kid on every single math test and instinctually know how to do origami.
But I will point out that, much like the immense infrastructure of media workers and technology that brings a pop starlet's crotch-rubbing into your very own living room--you're welcome!--a lot of work goes into those orchestral concerts. Musicians love playing masterpieces at the top level under fantastic conductors. To get to that point, less-loved experiences include the daily hours of practice from an early age, the potential lack of developed social skills because of time spent practicing, the lack of dates due to lack of said social skills, the wholesale rejection of the fruits of this sacrifice by grumpy audition panels, the fact that musicians experience this rejection up to several times a month before becoming established, the lack of decent retirement savings because they lived on credit cards before landing the well-paying spot, the abuse of tyrannical conductors when you do land the "dream job," and most importantly, the indignity of being forced, somewhere along this trajectory, to do this:
So yes, the hour or two of performing is a blast. The lifetime of work it takes to get there, well, that feels much more like what is conventionally called "paying your dues". It is necessary, and the results are satisfying, but it's not a trip to the movies. There is no question that the current economic difficulties will necessitate many painful changes, but as we negotiate that unpleasant territory, let's not scapegoat those being hurt the most after they've given the most.