Orchestra cuts to save money: Really? A closer look

Confederation Centre CEO Jesse Inman has stated that cutting 6 positions from the Charlottetown Festival Orchestra will save “in excess of $100,000 per season”. This is an exaggeration that is unfortunately being quoted as accurate by the media, so let’s start by correcting this amount:

The base pay for an orchestra musician is $870 per week. The upcoming season is 13 weeks long (and this is about average). Here’s my math: $870 X 6 people X 13 weeks = $67,860. Add 10% pension: $74,646.

It is true that some people make more than the base rate. There is extra pay for the librarian, the union steward, the leader, etc. This increases the average rate of pay, but you can’t calculate savings by using the average rate, because the higher-paid positions (librarian, union steward, leader, etc.) will still be required, no matter what the instrumentation.

Now, let’s look at the financial ramifications of re-orchestrating. There are the costs of paying for the re-orchestration, and for the copying of the orchestral parts (both of which will be substantial) – but I am going to ignore that, because these are not ongoing costs; they are one-time up-front costs.

But, a reduction in the number of musicians will actually cause some increased on-going costs. First, any orchestrator, no matter how skilled, is going to have to find creative ways of getting around the restrictions imposed by writing for limited resources (cf. my analogy of limiting the lighting designer to 1/3 of their colour spectrum). One of the ways to accomplish this is to ask musicians to “double” (play more than one instrument) in order to add back some of the missing colours. The union rates for doubling are an extra 50% for the first double, plus 25% for each subsequent double. In Hairspray, for example, which used a smaller orchestra (15 musicians), three of the musicians played four instruments each. With three doubles, those three musicians were each making twice the base rate.

If three musicians are being paid twice as much, we have just reduced the projected savings by exactly half. We are now down to $37,323 saved.

Incidentally, doubling is still an artistic compromise because the doublers can’t play two instruments at once, so all of those colours aren’t available all of the time.

The next step the orchestrator will take to deal with the limited instrumental resources is to incorporate the use of technology, such as synthesizers, to try to replace some of the missing orchestral colours. I’ve already written about the artistic compromise of this approach, but extra technology also comes with increased financial costs.

Unlike the cost of the re-orchestration, added technology is not a one-time cost. Because technology is constantly changing, new gear must always be purchased or rented in order to stay current. In Hairspray, for example again, three keyboards were used, and they couldn’t be just any keyboard; they had to be a certain Kurzweil model, and those keyboards had to be rented for the entire run of the production (including the cast rehearsal period). In addition, keyboards must be programmed with the correct sounds. Someone has to spend time doing this, and their time costs money. And guess what else? Keyboard players automatically receive payment of an extra 25% per keyboard – not per person, PER KEYBOARD.

This increased use of technology also breeds the need for more technology. Sound technicians will tell you that sampled sounds are extremely difficult to mix (they describe the sound as “dead, lifeless, and inert”, not to mention the tuning issues and articulation incompatibilities that arise when paired with acoustic instruments). The three keyboards in Hairspray created quite a challenge in sound production: how to create an environment in the pit where everyone can hear all of the instruments, but at a volume where the sound technician has control over the final mix. In the Hairspray situation, individual headphone monitor systems were rented and provided for each musician. This required a dedicated sound board in the pit (Cost: more gear) and an extra sound technician to control the monitors (Cost: wages for one extra crew).

Is anyone keeping track of the savings…?

As contractor of the orchestra for Hairspray, I can tell you that the cost of music for that production (including both musicians’ fees and added technology costs) was actually more than that for Anne of Green Gables…

I have taken the stance that audiences are more discerning than implied by the Charlottetown Festival, who seem to think that nobody will notice the difference in the music played by a decimated orchestra. If I allow that some audience members really won’t notice – that they are completely oblivious – I then also have to allow that some audience members really WILL notice, and I have indeed heard from many audience-goers about how importantly the music contributes to their experience of the musical. We then must expect that some of our audience will be disappointed and won’t return to see the show again. Cost: lost ticket sales. And there is NO chance that a reduction to the orchestra will, in and of itself, attract any new patrons.

Now, there is one more hidden cost about which details are sketchy. Elaine Campbell, lyricist, and wife of Norman, the composer of the music for Anne of Green Gables, established The Norman Campbell Legacy Fund: Anne of Green Gables-The Musical Endowment, which was “created to support the cost of the live orchestra, which is the foundation of the distinctively rich sound that defines the music of Anne of Green Gables”. What happens to the endowment if the orchestra is gutted? Will the Campbell heirs then withdraw their support?

Do we really still think that these cuts will save money for the Charlottetown Festival? Does the paltry amount saved, if any, really justify the cost to the artistic quality of the show? Surely there is a better way to save money, and at the same time save the integrity of the production and the reputation of the Confederation Centre as “one of Canada’s premier live theatre houses” that “showcases the best in Canadian visual and performing arts”.

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15 Responses to Orchestra cuts to save money: Really? A closer look

  1. TOtrumpetdude says:

    Brilliant post Dale. This illuminates many of the finer details of musical pit costs that the lay person knows little about. I just finished subbing into a TOURING production of Mary Poppins with an orchestra of 16. Two keyboard books and all but three musicians had at least one double. I hope enough of the media can do their homework and verify that what you say is exactly right. Too bad festival management has proven once again inept at doing their own homework on cost savings.

  2. Tired of says:

    Dale for CEO!

  3. Arts supporter says:

    I thank you for your detailed and thoughtful response to the completely misguided and misleading pronouncements from the beancounters at The Confederation Centre of the Arts – obviously they are missing the point that if the quality of the show suffers then they will have even greater difficulty filling the seats in future -I am already dismayed that they have turned away from producing more original Canadian musical theatre productions in return for more commercial fare and think they need to live up to their mandate — In announcing the 2012 Season they talked about using Canadian talent -they need to live up to those words!

  4. David A. Woolsey says:

    my feeling is that the administration should look at a 15-20% pay cut for failing in their duty of promotion and fund-raising. I seriously doubt the musicians are failing to play the parts, stay in tune, keep together and play under the singers so they can be heard. in addition, what is the board doing? what are THEIR duties? are they fulfilled? best of luck to you…

  5. shane says:


    What was last year’s Anne attendance? How many tickets were sold? I’m guessing a two or three dollar increse in ticket prices would cover the cost of six players easily!

  6. Sandy says:

    Not sure about ticket sales, but have heard that it exceeded predictions last year, but The Full Monty under sold.

  7. Rich Wilson says:

    Thanks Dale. Waddja tink, mebbe drop 6 from p.r.? Rich

  8. Marie Nantes says:

    Thanks, Dale, for your excellent article and for providing much needed information and insight on this issue. The arts are the soul of a society and slashing six integral orchestral positions and replacing these with technical manipulations is as ludicrous as asking someone from the street to lypsynch as lead soloist in a drama. Our theatre is supposed to be a showcase of talent for this country and these people have the audacity to suggest that musicians with years of training and expertise can be replaced without significant effects on the productions! We have attended most of the productions at the Confederation Centre and have always appreciated the orchestra…..the backbone of the entire production. Perhaps Islanders will have to boycott future productions at the centre if the music provided is only second rate. After all we can hear that anywhere.

    • Oh, the Irony says:

      Ironically, the fact that we can hear reduced orchestrations in other places is used as justification by the Centre. So much for showcasing “the best in Canadian visual and performing arts”. Come to the Charlottetown Festival – we’re just like everyone else now!

  9. Fred Louder says:

    A terrific exposition, Dale. Keep up the pressure! Thought for the day: does anybody know what they paid the consultant who “delivered” the reduced-orchestra “solution”? I mean there must have been at least one…and I’ll bet their fee was a substantial percentage of the so-called savings the “solution” would “generate.” I could be wrong, of course. But consultants are part of the process. It spreads responsibility around. Preserves the magic, you might say. In solidarity, Fred

  10. Brian James says:

    Extremely well stated description of the facts, Dale. It makes scratch their head and wonder why management rarely consults with the more experienced and intelligent members of their organization before they make their short sighted decisions. It would save so much time, money and strife if they did.

    Dale for CEO.

  11. Doris Warren says:

    Your informative article shows the other side of ‘their’ story. You can’t take 5 pieces out of an orchestra & expect the quality to remain the same. The music is half of the production. Let’s hope the public complaints will change their minds.

  12. Allan J. Walsh says:

    You may be interested in this clip of Mavor Moore especially when he is questioned on finances and he clearly states that the only reason he could do the original stage production was because the orchestra parts were bequeathed through the television show which at the time there was lots of money for. That was back in the 60’s so what would the orchestration and parts cost today?
    Anyway, enjoy more food for thought. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyJtdtoCcuk



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