Counting The Costs

career cost of ownership for orchestra string musicians

Counting The Costs

By: Drew McManus | Originally published 3/24/2017, at Adaptistration.com

Question: have you ever thought about how much maintaining an instrument will cost an orchestra string musician during his/her career?

I’m not a string expert. I can’t differentiate between a Stradivari and a ‘del Gesù’ after listening to only a few notes. But after nearly two decades of working with orchestral string musicians and their employers, and being married to a concertmaster, I’m confident that I know far more about the dollars and cents they put into their instruments than they do.

And I can say with the utmost assurance that they spend a great deal more to equip, maintain and repair their instruments than most of them realize.

A lot more.

Nevertheless, it is extremely useful for players to calculate how much they spend on supplies such as strings and bow rehairs, along with expenditures for maintenance and repair. It helps them appreciate the costs they are expected to absorb over the course of their career. As a result, they can have a better sense of how much money they contribute to maintaining their skills and have less apprehension over asking for a fair wage.

The following charts and graphs help illustrate not only how far these costs reach into musicians’ wallets but also provide necessary context to effectively manage the financial aspects of their career. In short, where you play, how you play and your attitude towards care and maintenance have a profound impact on your career costs of ownership.

Author's preamble: this content isn’t necessary to enjoy the article but it does provide some additional insight as well as explain the original context of the research as it relates to the original article in 2011 edition of The Strad magazine.

This research was originally compiled in 2011 for an article that appeared in the December, 2011 edition of The Strad. All costs are quoted in dollars but have been gathered in the UK, Germany and the US. The dollar values in this version have been adjusted for USD inflation to 2017 levels.

I want to thank Ariane Todes, then editor of the magazine, for contacting me to ask if I had any article ideas for their upcoming “money” issue.

My immediate reply was “yes; yes I do.”

Her subsequent support and assistance was instrumental in helping bring about an article with research that until then, had never been compiled. I hope everyone enjoys reading this material and it contributes in some small way to making the field a better place for all stakeholders.

Interviewees

In the course of gathering data, I spoke to more than 70 orchestral musicians, luthiers and repair professionals from a diverse cross section of points in their respective careers, who are based in the US, UK, and Germany.

Musicians included section, fixed-chair and principal players from the violin, viola, cello, and double bass sections of professional symphony orchestras. Musicians who spend their careers working predominantly as soloists, chamber musicians or teachers have not been included.

Luthiers and repair professionals included 24 individuals who are owner-operators as well as those from multi-employee shops. Bow repair and rehair specialists were included in this group. Interview subjects were selected from as broad a cross section as possible of regions and climates within each location to account for the many variables that determine overall costs and frequency of shop work and supply purchases. Likewise, the musicians ranged from those using contemporary instruments and those using something made before 1900.

Understanding Cost Ranges

During the course of gathering data, it became clear that everyone maintains very personal opinions on these subjects. As a result, it is important to remember that this report isn’t intended to produce a single figure or narrow range for the cost of ownership over the length of a career.

Instead, the data is presented in a series of three spend-levels: low, medium and high. These are determined by a variety of factors such as location, type of instrument, cost differentials, and even a musician’s personal attitude.

Variables like these have a dramatic effect on the total career spend, if we take a career as lasting 50 years. For example, a violist who changes their strings at the higher rate of frequency (twice a month) but purchases strings at the lowest price point will sustain approximately 53 per cent lower costs than a violist with similar frequency habits, but who purchases strings at the highest price point.

The total career spend for each instrument is relative to how much the owner is prepared to spend (spend-level) and how often (frequency).

To put it another way, spend-level x frequency = total career spend. In addition to the three spend levels we used three frequency levels, the end result produces nine different total career spend categories:

High Spend – High Frequency
High Spend – Medium Frequency
High Spend – Low Frequency
Medium Spend – High Frequency
Medium Spend – Medium Frequency
Medium Spend – Low Frequency
Low Spend – High Frequency
Low Spend – Medium Frequency
Low Spend – Low Frequency
Let’s see how those total spend categories look with actual expense data applied:

Visualizing Total Career Spend Levels Extremes

The difference in actual out of pocket expenditures between each instrument’s spend/frequency ratio can, to put it mildly, be extreme.

For example, high-spend bassists who maintain their instrument on a high-frequency basis will spend $256,930 over the course of their career. Compare that with a low-spend, low-frequency bassist who spends $45,700 and you can see just how much all of this matters.

Curious to know how much the other instruments spend?

Violin

Total Career Spend Levels
$326,166
$231,463
$138,510
$154,657
$98,622
$61,930
$87,394
$61,894
$36,428

Viola

Total Career Spend Levels
$352,683
$238,886
$138,164
$172,092
$114,777
$63,824
$94,093
$62,797
$35,674

Cello

Total Career Spend Levels
$367,130
$254,426
$1573,819
$184,722
$126,422
$75,065
$104,092
$71,966
$44,729

Average Career Spend By Category

How your total career spend breaks down in each category, according to which instrument you play. For example, a viola player will spend 16 percent of their career total on strings.
  • Strings
  • Bow Rehair
  • Accessories
  • Annual Maintenance
  • General Repairs
  • Structural Repair

Annual Maintenance And Repair

Average career spend on annual maintenance and repair totals for each instrument as a proportion of the spend for all instruments. For example, at 33% and 30% cellists will spend more than their violin, viola, and bass peers on annual maintenance and repair.

Average career spend:

Violin Maintenance

Viola Maintenance

Cello Maintenance

Bass Maintenance

Violin Annual Repair

Viola Annual Repair

Cello Annual Repair

Bass Annual Repair

Cost Of Care Nitty-Gritty

Here we break down some of the specific costs involved in caring for and repairing an instrument throughout the course of an orchestral career.

Statistics begin with the annotated violin below and are followed by a selection of figures for the other instruments. The ranges are of low frequency–low spend to high frequency–high spend.

VIOLA

  • SEAM REPAIRS
    $3,350-$33,500 (career cost)
    $55-$111 (per adjustment)
  • ANNUAL ADJUSTMENTS
    $1,563-$27,478 (career cost)
    $31-$94 (per adjustment)
  • POLISHING AND CLEANING
    $930-$16,750 (career cost)
    $55-$167 (per adjustment)
  • BOW REPAIRS
    $1,117-$8,935 (career cost)
    $558-$893 (per adjustment)

CELLO

  • SEAM REPAIRS
    $3,350-$33,500 (career cost)
    $55-$111 (per adjustment)
  • PLANE FINGERBOARD
    $1,560-$27,480 (career cost)
    $31-$92 (per adjustment)
  • REPLACE BRIDGE
    $250-$3,350 (career cost)
    $167-$310 (per adjustment)
  • CORNER/EDGE REPAIR
    $335-$3,350 (career cost)
    $67-$135 (per adjustment)

BASS

  • RESHAPE BRIDGE
    $524-$6,283 (career cost)
    $84-$250 (per adjustment)
  • REPLACE SOUNDPOST
    $725-$5,025 (career cost)
    $363-$502 (per adjustment)
  • PLANE FINGERBOARD
    $838-$16,755 (career cost)
    $167-$335 (per adjustment)
  • REPLACE TUNING GEARS
    $1,117-$5,585 (career cost)
    $1,117-$5,585 (per adjustment)

Spending On Strings

No examination of orchestra string instrument maintenance and repair expenses would be complete without a detailed look at strings, the single most frequent item to regularly wear out for most string musicians. So let’s take a closer look by at career spend rates ranging from averages alongside low spend – low frequency, medium speed – medium frequency, and high spend – high frequency extremes.
$
0
Violin average career spend

↓ violin career spend extremes, all values $USD

High Spend – High Frequency:
Medium Spend – Medium Frequency:
Low Spend – Low Frequency:
$
0
Viola average career spend

↓ viola career spend extremes, all values $USD

High Spend – High Frequency:
Medium Spend – Medium Frequency:
Low Spend – Low Frequency:
$
0
Cello average career spend

↓ cello career spend extremes, all values $USD

High Spend – High Frequency:
Medium Spend – Medium Frequency:
Low Spend – Low Frequency:
$
0
Bass average career spend

↓ bass career spend extremes, all values $USD

High Spend – High Frequency:
Medium Spend – Medium Frequency:
Low Spend – Low Frequency:

What The Numbers Don’t Include

It’s important to know what wasn’t included in the analysis that could still be considered an accessory, supply, maintenance or repair.

Clearly, cases are associated with the actual instrument almost as much as the bow. But of all the accessories a string player can purchase, the decisions and needs associated with purchasing cases include enough variables as to make it counterproductive to include them in this review.

Differences in insurance costs based on the value of an instrument worthy of being used in a professional orchestra can be extraordinary. Moreover, there is a distinct difference between orchestras that may or may not provide instrument insurance as part of employment. The result is a very uneven application of costs that musicians may be expected to absorb.

Neither of these elements is trivial and the reader should be aware that they are expenses that are above and beyond those catalogued in this analysis.

In case you were wondering…

  • Do these figures include music stands? Nope.
  • Sheet Music? Nope.
  • Bow ties and other master agreement required stage wear? Nope.
  • Expenses for non string musicians, like tubas? Are you kidding? Well, perhaps in another installment..but not this one.

A Stitch In Time

Nearly all of the luthiers and repair professionals agreed that musicians who bring their instruments in for regular maintenance and inspection end up having fewer instances of costly repairs.

  • “I like to think of it like diagnosing cancer,” said one repairer. “The earlier I can catch something like a crack, the more likely it is that I can correct the issue before it develops into something that will require me to remove the top or back, and that’s where the real risk and costs are incurred.”
This attitude appears to be confirmed by the musicians as well. Those who say they follow their luthier’s recommended maintenance schedule reported lower instances of high-priced repair work. On the other hand, some musicians knew they were playing a riskier game, but their options were influenced by location, attitude, and budget.

The Cost Of Climate Change

Among the items included in this research, the one thing every luthier and repair professional agreed on was that climate has the greatest impact on overall maintenance and repair. Musicians who perform in climates dominated by exceptionally low, high, or highly variable humidity and temperature can look forward to higher-than-average costs.
How many professional musicians remain in a single area for the bulk of their career?

Not many.

Tours, summer festivals, and working for ensembles scattered over the world conspire to ensure that professional string players are going to pay the cost of their own type of climate change.

One of the by-products of this phenomenon is an increase in some of the more expensive repairs such as cracks and warping.

“It doesn’t matter if your instrument is one or several hundred years old,” said one luthier with more than 30 years of experience. “Moving in and out of different climates for as little as a single day can do all sorts of nasty things to an instrument.”

It Pays To Get The Best

Next to weather, luthiers and musicians confirmed that the majority of their most costly restoration and repair work relates to correcting poor repairs. One luthier and repair professional with more than 50 years’ experience lamented what he defined as a shortage of first-class luthiers who are willing to go into the service end of the business. He explained: “There are plenty of talented people who want to make instruments, but not enough who want to do go into the less glamorous restoration and repair side of the business.”

Another repair professional with nearly the same amount of experience expanded on his colleague’s observation.

  • “Education is certainly better than when I started in the business. There are many more schools turning out much better instrument makers than in previous decades, but those people aren’t taught about restoration and repair,” he said. “This means there aren’t enough experienced repairers around and too much maintenance and repair work ends up getting done by people who don’t have enough knowledge or experience. I spend so much time undoing that sort of damage.”
Several restoration and repair professionals stressed the importance of developing long-term relationships as the best measure against costly repairs. One retired repair professional who went into the field after a career as an orchestra violinist explained, “I’ve been on both sides of the fence and I can’t recommend strongly enough that each musician should seek out the finest repairers they can find,” he said. “More damage is done to fix bad work than all of the accidents combined.”

Most of the luthiers and repairers I spoke to said that they have a sliding scale for some of their rates based on the length of their relationship with a client and the value of the instrument.

It's The Little Things: Accessories

The cost of these little pieces of plastic, metal and resin can certainly add up over time, as this chart shows. Losing your violin mute on a regular basis (one of the unfortunate habits musicians owned up to the most) could cost you up to $750 during a musician’s working life.

  • Mutes: (tiny specialized bit of rubber or plastic that dampens the vibrations): up to $1,000
  • End Pins (supports a cello and bass weight): up to $1,450
  • End Stops (prevents end pin from damaging floor or slipping): up to $300
  • Rosin (allows bow hair to grip strings): up to $1,250
  • Shoulder Rests (allows violinists and violists to hold the instrument without looking stupid…or injuring their necks): up to $1,100

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About the Author

“I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired.” Those were the first words out of an executive’s mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals “aggressively embracing career change” but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn’t matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can’t keep your own clients out of the ground, and I’m fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I’ve done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

~ Drew McManus

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