These are hard times for the working musician. Bars where a guitar slinger might have drawn a guaranteed $150 a few months ago are reverting to percentage pay — take $50 and 10 percent of sales, or just a straight 25 percent.

That sounds fair enough on the table, but with the upper-middles facing diminished portfolios and the working class finding hiring freezes, that amounts to less money for everyone.

The nonprofit Charleston Symphony Orchestra is no exception. And unlike a venue selling alcohol for a profit, they operate more like a church — roughly 50 percent of their revenue stream relies on the collection plate of private donations. And that giving pool is drying up, as those with less, give less.

CSO board president Ted Legasey took the stage during the intermission of the symphony’s recent Masterworks performance at the Gaillard Auditorium to alert the audience that the orchestra is facing a projected million dollar shortfall. Unless $250,000 is raised by Jan. 1, the CSO will be unable to pay the musicians for the month of December. The performers had been notified the previous week, including during a nearly two-hour meeting where Legasey used a spreadsheet to break down the financial crisis.

The symphony’s 46 musicians are unionized, and most make a paltry salary of around $20,000 for the 35-week season, during which practice and performance constitute a full-time job. Musicians’ salaries and expenses account for 51 percent of the CSO’s budget, a fixed cost that Executive Director Janet Newcomb says is the biggest obstacle to flexibility in their finances. The remaining percentage pays for 11 administrative, conductor, and artistic salaries, guest musicians, stage crews, venue rentals, and marketing.

A CSO budget crisis seems to arise every few years. In 2003, the union agreed to an 18 percent pay cut; salaries were reinstated in 2006, bringing the budget back toward its current $2.9 million annually.

Legasey and the board have asked the symphony’s musicians to renegotiate their contracts, and this time, a simple percentage won’t suffice.

“In the short term, we don’t have any visibility as to how much money we’re going to have on a pay day,” says Legasey. “I can’t say the magic number is 27 or 10 or 15 percent. We’re all in the same boat in the harbor, and it’s going up and down. What I’ve said is, ‘I’m going to promise you all I can promise you,’ which is, ‘We’re going to pay you what we can. If we’ve got the money, we’ll pay you, we’ll put on the performances, and we’ll try and make the concerts as good as possible.'”

Legasey specifies that on a given pay day (which come every two weeks and total just over $90,000 in salaries), if only $60,000 is in the bank, then everyone gets an equal percentage cut — including administrative staff. He hopes the union will accept that and appoint a committee to work with the board while they “figure out how we’re going to keep our head above water.”

Unless a major benefactor steps in immediately, the musicians’ union will likely have to make a decision before the CSO’s financial future is certain. Depending on whether or not they accept the variable payment plan, the CSO now faces either Chapter 11 bankruptcy or major financial and creative restructuring in the months ahead.

CSO Concertmaster Yuriy Bekker is one of several musicians who spent time calling past donors last week to drum up support, and he believes the money can be raised in time.

“Anything possible has to be done to save this. If the orchestra is gone, it will be a big down for the Charleston economy,” Bekker says, adding that he’s hoping to organize a benefit concert this month to rally support. “I consider (the CSO) to be at an international level. Charleston is lucky to have this, and the city is in real danger of losing the orchestra.”

Bekker says it’s already difficult to raise a family on the CSO’s “ridiculously low” salaries, but the performers rarely complain. In addition to regular concerts, the musicians also make frequent trips to schools, where children with little or no exposure to instruments hear and see live classical music. CSO ensembles visited 17,415 students at 75 schools in 2007, all funded by the orchestra. Bekker hopes past and potential donors will recognize the orchestra’s community value and realize that building a sustainable symphony requires annual giving.

In her first year on the job, Newcomb has taken steps to reduce the budget deficit by eliminating the Out of the Box concert series, cutting one Pops! and two Backstage Pass performances, and reducing the number of imported, non-staff musicians. Newcomb herself took a 15 percent pay cut over the summer, assigning the same reduction to Maestro David Stahl, who is celebrating his 25th season conducting the CSO. To mark the milestone, however, the season’s second Masterworks performance featured a guest piano soloist whose ancillary costs were four times the revenue of single-ticket sales for that concert, creating a cash flow crunch from the get-go.

Then the stock market crashed. Now, two months into the season, ticket sales are down 32 percent from the CSO’s goal thus far. With tickets comprising 28 percent of CSO revenue, or $800,000, it’s a hefty blow. New York’s Broadway has hovered around 60 percent capacity this fall, so it’s a reflection of a national trend.

“I’m hearing (from regular patrons) that this is tough,” says Newcomb, who points out that a $20-$60 ticket cost is already inexpensive compared with other markets. “All our planning and projections are based on making this expected income. We have no margin for error.”

Although corporate sponsorships are at an all-time high, with McCrady’s Restaurant, Merrill Lynch, the Ginn Company, and others making hefty annual contributions, the bulk of the CSO’s shortcomings are attributable to a serious decline in major private donations. Press coverage of their crisis has helped — last Thursday, Newcomb had a four-inch stack of donation envelopes in one day’s mail — but it’s the historic, big-time givers whose support has faded. And perhaps that’s because it’s not the first time the symphony has publicly asked for help. Newcomb says she understands the sentiment.

“There are people who feel we haven’t fixed the problem,” she says. “We have a lot of former donors who say, ‘Don’t come back until you’ve shown me you have a sustainable model.’ I’m hearing that a lot more than, ‘Let me write you a $50,000 check.'”

If the musicians agree to renegotiate their contract to get through the crunch, Newcomb says major changes will be needed to ensure the CSO’s future. First, she says the symphony must shed the notion that because something’s been done one way in the past, that it has to continue to be done the same in the future.

She decries the systematic usage of the over 2,700-seat Gaillard Auditorium, which even at half-capacity, “leaves people feeling like they’re the only one there.”

Newcomb praises the 350-seat Memminger Auditorium, where the CSO hosts its intimate Backstage Pass series. Utilizing a smaller venue and adding a Sunday matinee performance is the sort of choice and flexibility the director feels could increase the symphony’s audience. A sound feasibility test of the College of Charleston’s Sottile Theater has been scheduled in January as another possible venue.

In 2009, the CSO is expecting a $145,000 grant from the City of Charleston, and is hoping for $50,000 from the town of Kiawah Island. They’d also welcome a renewed grant from the Donnelly Foundation, the fund that bailed them out with $180,000 in 2003. Ideally, Newcomb would also like to see the symphony generate closer to 40 percent of its revenue from ticket sales.

Since the wave of small donations last week, Newcomb says the CSO will make it through the holiday season. But for an ’08-’09 season to occur, they’ll need to chip away at their $2.9 million budget by at least several hundred thousand dollars.

That won’t be easy, but consider that at 72 years old, the CSO was founded at the height of the Great Depression. In times of trouble, music’s importance in inducing happiness is ever more important. The challenge is converting that sense of worth into actual dollars, especially when one rogue wave after another seems to be swamping your organization. With ships sinking everywhere, prospective donors may hesitate to throw their money into a vessel that’s already going down.

“I wouldn’t say it’s done,” says Newcomb. “I’d say that the symphony has to change. My best wish is that we make it through the season and fulfill our obligations … and have a very solid plan of where we want to be. We’ve got to be able to communicate that to people so they trust, understand, and support us. Especially when facing a crisis, you can also look at the flipside — that this is a huge and powerful opportunity to do it right.”