Virus Reality Check: Local Musicians Brace for Financial Impact

Peter Tonguette
The Westerville Symphony

When audiences attend a classical music concert, they are more likely to be focused on listening to the notes being played than wondering how the music-makers are being paid.

Now, with the coronavirus outbreak resulting in all performing arts groups in Ohio suspending their activities, attention is turning to the financial ramifications for artists of all sorts. Several orchestras in Central Ohio operate on a “per service” basis, in which musicians are not employees but function as freelancers: They receive payment only when performances take place.

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Two such groups are the Westerville Symphony and the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, both led by conductor Peter Stafford Wilson (the former associate conductor of the Columbus Symphony). “Any time the orchestra is together, it’s called a ‘service’ and we have a set rate that we pay them,” Wilson says, adding that “services” include both rehearsals and actual performances.

“It’s a sliding scale where principal players get a certain amount of money, and rank-and-file get maybe 20 percent less,” says Wilson, whose orchestra in Springfield, he adds, is home to at least five couples in which both partners freelance full-time, playing with local orchestras and giving music lessons.

Cancellations of performances, then, do not simply mean a dearth of events for audiences to attend but also the disappearance of paychecks. “Ohio has more freelance musicians because there are so many opportunities,” Wilson says. “All of a sudden, your income dries up, you’re looking at least a two-, maybe three-month hiatus, before the checks start flowing again.”

On March 11, Wilson was preparing for a youth concert in Springfield when he received word that his musicians would not have access to their performance venue, the Kuss Auditorium at the Clark State Performing Arts Center in Springfield.

“We were locked out of the venue 9 a.m. on the 11th, so we were able to cancel before the rehearsal that night,” Wilson says. Because the cancellation occurred so close to the concert date, orchestra leaders elected to pay the musicians anyway.

“Even though our master agreement has a force majeure that would’ve gotten us out of the obligation, we felt morally we needed to pay those players,” Wilson says. Payments for future canceled performances will occur if assistance to the orchestra is granted through the Paycheck Protection Program through the Small Business Administration (part of the federal stimulus package recently signed into law).

“We have nothing coming in, so if we were to pay the musicians, it would be without any ticket revenue for that event,” Wilson says.

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When will the orchestras start tuning up again? None can say for certain, but Wilson still has Springfield Symphony performances on the books for May 16 and May 23; an outdoor, Independence Day-themed Westerville Symphony concert is slated for July 5.

The Central Ohio Symphony of Delaware, which also operates as a “per service” orchestra, postponed its final concert of the season, originally scheduled for April 25, on the heels of the closure of Ohio Wesleyan University, where the group performs; that concert, with the previously announced guest artists, may move to October.

Executive Director Warren Hyer says many musicians in his orchestra have day jobs and supplement their income through performance opportunities. Summertime concerts remain on the books, but the timing of most—including an annual Independence Day concert that could be moved to later in the summer—is in flux.

The impact of the shutdown on idled musicians weighs on orchestra leaders.

Wilson—who would consider cutting his pay if the Paycheck Protection Program does not fully cover musicians’ payroll—continues to worry about those who make music from gig to gig.

“They’re having to rack their brains and wonder how they’re going to make ends meet,” he says. 

Peter Tonguette is a freelance writer.