Every musician, regardless of genre or instrument, studies to attain artistry and practices to achieve excellence. There is no shortage of learning opportunities for serious musicians, from conservatories and music schools to private teachers and YouTube videos. What is lacking is education on what artistry is worth in a professional commercial marketplace and in the nonprofit sector.
This knowledge gap is more than a shame, it is damaging to all musicians in the long run. We must commit to filling this void in musical education whenever we see the opportunity—with those we mentor and with our professional peers. Imagine if our conservatories and music schools taught emerging artists a course called “Knowing Your Worth and Demanding Respect.” What subjects would the syllabus for such a course cover? I propose the following, as a start:
Exploitation Is a Constant
Understand that the tendency of all employers is to persuade musicians to donate their services, or give them as little compensation as possible. Nonmonetary values will always be offered as a substitute—“experience” and “exposure” being the two most common. Commercial producers of live entertainment want to pay talent as little as possible to maximize profits. Nonprofit institutions, depending more on donors and grants than ticket sales to balance their budgets, necessarily want to keep their labor costs low.
While this tendency to engage musicians for the lowest pay is never going to change, we can change how we respond to it and how we educate our students and peers about it. Musicians can be compensated fairly for their work, even as producers make a profit and nonprofits thrive. Never subsidize others’ success at the cost of your own.
Exploitation Requires Consent
What is the best guarantee against being underpaid, or getting stiffed on meal per diem, or a plane ticket? In the case of a union contract, grievances may be filed forcing the employer to uphold the agreement. In the absence of a union contract, the only true guarantee is not taking the job in the first place. Never underestimate the value and power of saying “no.”
When It Comes to Fair Wages, Knowledge Is Power
What is the right compensation for your work? Are there occasions when it is OK to play for free, or for very low pay? To the second question I’d argue yes, there are times when it is fine to play for free or for little pay—but they are limited to the following conditions: 1) you are playing for pleasure, or to test out a new piece, skill, or ensemble; and 2) no one is profiting from your performance. Musicians love to perform, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But never play for the love of your art, if someone is exploiting it for their own gain.
And what should a job pay? A good source here is your local union—they can inform you of the proper minimum scale for your work, in a variety of genres and for a variety of venues. For orchestra, opera, and ballet work, the AFM Symphonic Services Division keeps detailed wage charts of many regional and large-city ensembles. This database can be accessed through the “For Members” tab on AFM.org.
Remember that compensation is more than just wages. If you are being asked to commute more than 50 miles for a gig or to stay overnight, then transportation, hotels, and meal per diem should be part of the mix. Arm yourself with knowledge before saying “yes.”
Fair Treatment Is a Matter of Respect and Responsibility
It is no secret that we work in an environment where supply outweighs demand, which makes it easier for exploitive employers to succeed in paying us less than we are worth. Because of this, it is crucial that we all stand together in demanding fair compensation for our work. But it doesn’t stop there—we must also alert colleagues to unfair gigs, and respectfully let them know that taking such jobs harms all of us. And as mentors, we must not only teach our students artistry and technique, we must also educate them on professional standards and fair treatment.
Spread the word! If you use Facebook, join the Group “Gigs from Hell,” where you can get alerts and warn others about unfair employment.