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If I could play an instrument…

By Brien Matson, board member, Local 677 (Honolulu, HI)

Editor’s Note: This article won an International Labor Communications Association 2006 award in the category of Best Feature Story (Local Unions). It is reprinted from the March 2005 edition of Keola O Na Mele, the official journal of Local 677.

“If I could play an instrument … I’d love to play for a couple of hours for $50. Heck, I’d even do it for free, I’d just be so happy to be playing music. You’re so lucky!”

Sound familiar? It’s the voice of the uninitiated non-musician, the fan, the admirer, the “Regular Josephine,” the “Regular Joe.” They’re right. We are lucky that we play music, but it’s bad luck that most people look at our profession in that way.

We are professionals. We chose music as a career, we work hard at it, and we want to make a decent living at it.

Here’s another familiar sound: “It’s just not in the budget. Look, you love to play, why don’t you just do it for that amount? It’s better than nothing…” Or these: “Take it or leave it;” “It’s great exposure.”

Sound painfully familiar? It’s the voice of the purchaser. The club owner, the restaurateur, the agent, the promoter. The sad thing is that the purchaser is in the music business to make money, but somehow, they don’t want to pay the people who make the music that makes the money.

This article is addressed to the “Regular Joes,” the “Regular Josephines,” and the purchasers. It’s also to us, the professionals. We need to think about this, and remind ourselves of how specialized what we do is, and set the bar a little higher in order to survive and–dare I say this?–prosper. Let’s go with the $50 gig. Most of us won’t take them, and people are surprised when we don’t. But let’s use that figure and do a little math to illustrate why we’re not happy to play a couple of hours for 50 bucks.

“Two hour gig, $50 each, cash. What’s wrong with that? That’s $25 an hour.” Hmmm-m-m-m. Let’s say the gig is from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m., and let’s not take into consideration practicing or warming up.

Start with the drive to the gig. What? Everyone has to drive to work! True, so we won’t count the drive. Keep in mind that most people drive the distance, and then walk in to work five minutes early, grab a cup of coffee, and start working. We have to pack up the car with equipment (half an hour) and drive to the site. Unload the car, load the equipment onto the stage (half hour), go park the car (15 minutes), come back and set up (1 hour).

Let’s say that you timed it so you had 15 minutes before the gig starts. That’s two and a half hours. Add the gig, and you’ve got four and a half hours.

Now pack up. If you’re lucky, and nobody wants to talk to you after the gig, you can tear down in one hour, go get your car, load your equipment (another half hour), and drive home.

Nobody counts the drive home, but when you get home, you unpack your car, and load your stuff into the house, another half-hour, easy.

That’s six hours work, for $50 cash. More like $8.33 an hour, not $25 an hour.

Let’s look at making a living with that same amount. To make $1500 a month, you would have to do one $50 gig a day, every day of the month. If you did that every day, every month of the year, no vacation, no holidays, you would make about $18,000 per year, and that’s before taxes.

Paying federal and state income tax, general excise tax, and full social security tax (no employer contributions), knocks it down to about $11,880. By the way, you’re not eligible for unemployment or workers’ comp, but that’s okay, it’s not really work, right?

Let’s double that to $36,000 gross, which is $23,760 after taxes. For that, you would need to do two of those gigs a day. Two gigs taking up 6 hours each is 12 hours a day, every day of the year.

It’s a simplistic formula, but it makes a point. The point is, that’s why we’re not “happy to play for a couple of hours for $50,” even though we are lucky to be able to play music.

The next time someone says something like the opening line of this article to you, turn it around. Say: “If I could be a dentist, I’d love to do it for $8.33 an hour. I’d just be so happy to be able to practice dentistry. You’re so lucky!” I’m sure the reply would be: “What do you mean, lucky? I studied for years, and I still study. I worked long, hard hours to perfect my craft, and still do. My equipment cost me an arm and a leg, and it’s very specialized work. I’m a professional!”

Just smile and say, “Me, too.”


OCSM/CFM Unity Conference to Be Held in August

by Robert Fraser, OCSM President and Member of AFM Local 247 (Victoria, BC)

In my March 2014 article in the International Musician I pointed out that 2014 marked the 40th anniversary of the meetings that led to the formation of the Organization of Canadian Symphony Musicians (OCSM). OCSM’s first stand-alone meeting was held in Edmonton a year later, in 1975, and OCSM’s inaugural conference was held in Toronto the year after that. So this summer will be our 40th Conference. We are pleased to announce that it will be held alongside the AFM Canadian Conference in Windsor, Ontario, from August 7-11. August 8 will be a shared day between the two conferences. Details will be provided in a future issue of the IM.

In Between Conferences

Like the other symphonic player conferences, OCSM is a network of orchestral musicians that works within the AFM, and with other interested industry partners, to advocate for its members and to share valuable information. Readers of the IM are well aware of the work we do with the AFM Symphonic Services Division (SSD) to prepare the wage charts.

From time to time we deal with other specific issues. For example, a task force consisting of OCSM delegates, local officers, and representatives of Orchestras Canada recently prepared a submission to the Government of Canada about problems musicians and staff have encountered in our orchestras due to changes in the Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP). Occasionally, OCSM orchestras hire non-Canadian musicians, and the new TFWP rules have made it difficult for these musicians to qualify for provincial medical coverage, or to have work permits renewed while they are still under probation. We hope these submissions will produce some results.

Although we are all busy orchestral musicians (the executive included), OCSM delegates maintain open communication throughout the season. This is invaluable when orchestras are negotiating, and when issues arise where we need to seek the advice of colleagues. Each delegate reports mid-season to the executive, and topics are collected for open discussion and action at the conference. Such topics include: health and safety issues, new forms of media promotion of orchestras (especially social media), musician involvement in conductor and executive director searches, and musician involvement in education and outreach programs.

Orchestra London Canada Shutdown

Orchestra London Canada ceased operations December 2014. Their board has not officially declared bankruptcy, but staff have been laid off and all concert dates for the remainder of 2014-2015 were cancelled. The musicians of Orchestra London have rallied to keep music alive in their community, and have continued to perform on their own. You can find out more about their efforts at: https://musiciansorchestralondon.wordpress.com/. A call to action has seen donations from AFM members across North America, with musicians from close to 30 orchestras assisting their colleagues in London. This showing of solidarity makes me personally proud to be a member of this union.

Good Newslets

  • On March 19, the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (Montreal Symphony Orchestra) announced a five-year record deal with Decca. That same week saw similar announcements from other orchestras: it would seem that major labels are reviving their interest in orchestral music. Fans of the OSM will know that their international reputation is due in part to the catalogue of more than 80 recordings made on the Decca label with former Music Director Charles Dutoit.
  • The Canadian Opera Company just finished its third production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with Handel’s “Semele” in March (previous visits were in 1993 and 2011).
  • Symphony Nova Scotia ratified a five-year agreement that sees its season expand from 33 to 35 weeks with the addition of their first-ever summer season.
  • The Edmonton Symphony recently recorded the score for the CBC TV series The Great Human Odyssey with composer Darren Fung.