Lately I’ve read several items on the World Wide Interwebs in which artists talk about being asked to produce Art without being paid for it. Ah, I thought to myself, it might be time to throw in my two-cents-worth.
One of these items was a Facebook post by a distressed colleague. She’d followed up on a lead for work as a community children’s music teacher by sending along her credentials, experience and her fee, which she calculates on a sliding scale to accommodate people of various means. She was unprepared for the response she received, which was, ‘Sorry but I think they mean free lessons.’
Ouch. My colleague was stunned and hurt. To be sure, those folks probably pay their babysitters, their school taxes and their hydro bills, but apparently an extracurricular music teacher isn’t even worth minimum wage. It’s a shock to run into people who think that the playing or teaching of music shouldn’t cost anyone anything. There are many people out there who seem to think either that we musicians all have money trees in our backyards, or that we don’t actually have to eat, pay for public transit or buy underwear like everyone else. Apparently, we are miracles – or freaks – of nature. Come to think of it, my aforementioned colleague has lived a blessed life if she’s only just run into this attitude.
I thought I’d share my most significant experience of this type, but before I do, I’d like to clarify a couple of things. Firstly, as we already know, money isn’t everything (don’t I sound deep?). There are many times when musicians offer their services for free, knowing that paying a realistic fee would constitute a genuine hardship, or if the event is something of which one simply wishes to be a part. Every one of us has done this, and for me, over the years, such events have included certain funerals, wedding ceremonies, fundraising concerts and community events. For several years I played once a month at the long term care facility where my mother lived during her final years. I continued playing there for quite a while after she died, and I’ll take it up again soon after a break of a few months. The non-monetary rewards of playing there are many and diverse, and many such facilities just don’t have funds to provide artistic activities that their residents enjoy and deserve.
But I must also say that the organizations or people who can’t afford to pay their musicians usually offer to do so anyway, apologizing all over themselves for having so little to spare, and it’s that offer that means a great deal. There’s a recognition that music has value, and that a musician’s expertise and time is worth something. In my experience it’s often the people who can afford to pay that don’t recognize this. There are folks who will tell you they spent $10,000 on a wedding dress and then offer $200 for five hours of a quartet’s time, adding that the musicians won’t get served dinner either but are welcome to ask the wait staff for water. (“Great, thanks. Is it OK if I forage for berries in the country club garden on my break?”)
And now for the story I said I’d tell.
Once upon a time, a member of a distinguished women’s organization called me on the touch tone phone. She asked me to put together a Baroque ensemble to provide music for a swanky fundraising event that her organization was putting on for the Alzheimer’s Foundation. The cause was very worthy, as they almost all are, and in hindsight this story feels even a little sadder than it did at the time. It was Alzheimer’s that felled my mother, reducing to a shadow a feisty woman whom not even cancer had succeeded in demolishing.
The woman told me that the ritzy restaurant Winston’s would be catering the event, that Very Important People would be there, and that it was bound to be an altogether scintillating event. “Well, it sounds very impressive, and thank you for calling me about it,” I said, or something like that. “May I ask what you’ve budgeted for the music?” She sounded a bit surprised. “Oh. We don’t have a budget for music,” she replied.
There was a moment of silence on both ends of the touch tone phone, and then I told her I didn’t really think anyone would be willing to play several hours of background music for free. “But it’ll be very good exposure!” she piped up. “Very Important People will be there! Please ask your colleagues. I’m sure they’ll be happy to support this great cause.” Wow. I’d heard that before, and I’ve heard it since, but it was particularly odd to hear such words coming from the representative of a women’s club linked to a local university, where people paid lots of tuition in exchange for professional training in medicine, law, engineering and – gasp – music. I told her that if musicians played for free every time we were asked to, we’d be living on the street, but she clearly didn’t understand what I meant. I suppose I sounded kind of rude, but she cheerfully asked me to check with my colleagues and get back to her.
To test my theory I called up one colleague and asked what she thought. She laughed uproariously, which is a great gift for a musician to have – way more fun than crying and much healthier than getting mad. I waited a couple of days and phoned the woman back. I surmised out loud that Winston’s probably wasn’t catering for free, nor would Canada Post deliver the invitations out of the goodness of their hearts, so why should any musicians should be expected to play for free? If the music was as significant and meaningful a part of the event as she described it, why was there no budget for it? There wasn’t even an offer of tax receipts in lieu of payment, which would at least have demonstrated an awareness of the value of the musicians’ services. As for exposure – and this part I didn’t say in my out loud voice – exposure at such an event is usually meaningless as far as career development goes. The best you can hope for is that nobody Very Important spills their red wine on you, your music, and/or your instrument. (Word to the wise re: gig outfits: always wear dark colours.)
I suggested that perhaps she could try hiring an ensemble of undergraduate students, who might actually appreciate the experience and exposure. Thanks for calling, but no thanks, and the conversation ended. Later on, I had to smile when I learned that the local universities and conservatory actually charge a fee on behalf of student ensembles who play at events like this. Go figure, it’s actually professional training.
Another time I’ll address the questions of payment and the recording industry…but this is enough for now. In the meantime, here are a couple of the many interesting posts I’ve came across: