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Home » Music Business » Working Musicians Bill of Rights

Working Musicians Bill of Rights

  -  AFM Organizing and Education Division Director

My career has gone from playing in orchestras, opera companies, and Broadway shows to arts administration, and of course, the labor advocacy, organizing, and education work I do here at the AFM.

In these many roles, I’ve often been called to help musicians out of various problem situations. Sometimes I shake my head upon hearing a musician’s nightmare gig story because it reveals a troubling gap between what I think or assume they should know or expect, and what they actually know.

While it is unthinkable to encounter, say, a dental school graduate who has no idea what their skill is worth or how they will monetize it, it is totally common to find performing arts graduates who have no idea about fair standards or wages, what being respected in the workplace means, or even what a contract is.

So, what should normal look like when musicians are respected for their work? This Working Musicians Bill of Rights lists some minimum standards that working musicians should expect on a job.

While some of these rights may seem obvious, my long career has taught me that some are not. Are they enforceable? Can we magically demand they be agreed to by all employers? No, we cannot. Unlike the Bill of Rights found in the US Constitution, the Working Musicians Bill of Rights is not guaranteed. This is why workers in every field organize: to gain a voice in determining what is fair and respectful treatment for their labor.

But even before we can consider plans to secure these rights, we have to collectively agree that we have them. Many working musicians I’ve encountered, especially those who are beginning their careers, do not have even these basic expectations.

Our many colleges and conservatories of music are excellent at developing skilled, creative, and dedicated musicians of all stripes. Rarely do they educate students on what it means to turn their skill and passion into labor, which is the difference between being a musician and being a working musician.

Remember, while you may see yourself as a player, artist, creator, healer, jammer, or entertainer, you are also—first and foremost—a worker. This Working Musicians Bill of Rights is by no means definitive or complete. It is meant to start a conversation on basic treatment and expectations that all working musicians should look for and expect when evaluating opportunities to work in their field.

Once we agree that we have certain rights as working musicians, the greater work of securing them in our workplaces begins. This means organizing to win the changes we decide collectively that we need in order to be respected and treated fairly for our work—even as we recognize that we are also artists.

The Working Musicians Bill of Rights

  • You have the right to be a working musician—while embracing your roles as a performer, creator, healer, artist, and entertainer.
  • As a working musician, you have the right to be paid for your work.
  • You have the right to know how much you will be paid, and for what work before you accept a job.
  • You have the right to know who you are working for.
  • You have the right to be treated as an employee when you are working as an employee.
  • You have the right to meals, transportation, and lodging when scheduling and location make them appropriate and necessary.
  • You have the right to a safe, respectful, and harassment-free workplace.
  • You have the right to breaks, defined work calls, and overtime.
  • You have the right to ownership of your recorded work, and to consent to your work being recorded.
  • You have the right to refuse work offers that are not in alignment with these basic rights.