ArticlesBlogEssaysFeaturedIssuesLetter to the EditorNovember 2013

Should Musicians Work for Free? By Barbara Siesel

This week there has been much discussion in the media about whether artists should work for free.  Here are two, one pro and one con, of several articles out there.  The Flute View joins the fray and would love to hear your thoughts on the subject too.

We all know that many musical groups are struggling in today’s economic climate.  Series are being cut and orchestras are struggling to stay afloat.   In the last few weeks in NYC we have lost the NY City Opera to bankruptcy and rumors are afloat about the upcoming demise of the Brooklyn Philharmonic.  The supposed capital city of the arts can’t sustain two opera companies, and the great borough of Brooklyn (which now has higher rents than Manhattan) can’t sustain a symphony orchestra with a short season??  These are a few examples that point us to the discussion I’d like to have with all of you.

Is there a musician working today who hasn’t at one time or another been asked to perform for free?   We are often asked and told it will be great for “exposure,” or to “help out” a project, or because the place never pays its artists, even if they are making money.    I think we all want to keep performing and welcoming audiences to wonderful music and so we agree, when we can, to perform for no fee.   In our capitalist society we subject music to the laws of demand- high demand, higher prices, low demand- lower prices.  But does our willingness to give away our art drive the prices down?  And does giving it away create lower demand because people often think something is better if it is expensive?

Or is it something else entirely- are we willing to give it away because we somehow feel that music should be free- that music is a gift for all and shouldn’t have a price tag?  Does it change when you add a monetary value to it?  Are we embarrassed to ask for money since we are doing something that is considered fun?  Something we want to do?  I would argue that there are many things that humanity needs that should be free-medical care, food, an education, somewhere to live, but we don’t think it’s OK not to pay doctors and nurses, farmers, teachers, builders, carpenters etc.. Why is that?

On the other hand today the internet is giving so many more of us the chance to be heard.  We can bypass the usual gatekeepers, and create the kind of career that we want for ourselves.  The playing field is flat and that is advantageous to many a Flute Viewer, including myself.  We can join with entrepreneurs in many different fields to reach many more potential audience members who can reward us financially.  So maybe the argument isn’t a pay/no pay discussion, but maybe we are in the midst of a paradigm shift away from the usual institutions that pay artists (like symphony orchestras) and into something new that is only beginning to be defined.

I don’t know the answers and I think there are many answers to the question, but I do believe that we musicians and artists in general need to talk about what is happening and figure out how to have a voice in the changing marketplace.   I would love to hear what you think, and if you have solutions that you would like to share with the community.  Tell us if you have played for free and why, and tell us how you have resolved this for yourself.


5 thoughts on “Should Musicians Work for Free? By Barbara Siesel

  • bevanmanson

    This can be a tough and important question, and yet in many cases, it is not so tough. It is very tied in to how you perceive your own human and musical dignity.
    In my experience in the wilds of Los Angeles, when you give music away, you deflate your own value as a musician. You set a precedent by which unscrupulous or ignorant producers get the idea that a template has been created for the future where the musician in effect is taken advantage of. That is why the musicians’ union has a standard set fee structure, and it usually works. The producer or promoter knows what to expect in the future and so do the musicians. The latter get pension just as a carpenter or doctor would. Planning and some stability follow.
    Do you value yourself as much as a a carpenter or doctor? Of course you do. If you are a skilled flutist, you’ve spent infinity and a half in honing skills. And whether you spent a few months learning the Rouse concerto or a Mozart concerto or a sonata by Prokofiev or Hindemith, or are playing jazz flute like Hubert Laws, or playing for a soundtrack, you deserve to be paid.

    The intricacies of capitalistic supply and demand are certainly a factor. But…in many cases they are artificially determined and manipulated. And those who manipulate it do have choices. There is no natural reason for the mind-boggling and soporific programming preponderance on radio of really bad pop music (most which doesn’t even have one flute!), for example. There is an artificial reason: it is the pandering to a very low common denominator and marketing outreach (by non-musicians in business positions) to the supposedly passive teen audience. This did not happen overnight. It is a cumulative development also having to do with cuts in music education (a whole generation of business executives having grown up with electronics and almost no chances of experiencing the beauty of ‘Syrinx’ live, for heaven’s sake…), the consolidation of media, and the difficulties in this country of developing culture in a world of short attention spans, among many other things. Sure, more young people will gravitate immediately to Jewel or Orange Julius more than Julius Baker, but there is no reason the latter’s music can’t be more easily accessible.

    Which is one reason why the Flute View is such a great idea. One of the solutions to getting more respect is advocacy of the profession in the media.

    Regarding playing for free again…there are exceptions, such as benefit concerts, and a few specific chamber music situations that have other benefits) But in general, I think we have to work at persuasion. Also exposure-someone who is, say, ignorant about chamber music can change their mind when sitting three feet away from an exciting performance. (as opposed to being in a balcony seemingly a mile away)

    …there is much more to say….but thanks for starting the conversation with the great article.

  • bevanmanson

    Also just wanted to comment on the NYC Opera situation. Very sad and again, a matter of choices. There are hundreds of individuals in NYC with the resources to do a joint rescue of it. Whether that will happen is another story, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

  • MelanieDS

    By definition, our work gives us exposure: performer/audience. So does an accountant’s, when s/he’s offered a contract with a big firm. Does s/he take the big firm job for free in order to get referrals for other contracts? How about the advertising agency who got their first Super Bowl ad contract? Free, so that their work can be seen by millions?
    For benefits, I ask for an “in kind” document, so that I can be given the same treatment as other donors to the cause. And I query about who is being paid; if it’s only the musicians working for free, while caterers, etc are paid, free is off the table.
    Talk to anyone who’s been out in the weather for long stretches: You can die from exposure.

  • In recent years I have decided to decline performing for free. This decision makes me sad, I like to play and share my music with others. However, I value my own talent and the talent of other musicians and I believe musicians should be paid as any professional does, whether they are a doctor, nurse, accountant and so on. In the past I found that “donating” my talents to a cause “for exposure” DID result in said exposure; I got many more requests to DONATE my talent “for a good cause”!!! The last time I “donated” my talent to an art show (I felt the only folks worse off than musicians are artists) I ended up being taken by a law firm! This particular art show took place in the law firm office, a PR move for the law firm to attract more clients. Not only did they not offer me any money, but they advertised that they were providing free food and wine (for money to these vendors, of course) from the best catering outfit in San Jose and a top notch winery in Los Gatos. My name was listed last and all I was given for 3 hours of flute solo background music was a poster with my photo (8X10) that they “made” so I could put it next to me while I played. I wasn’t even offered any of the “extraordinary” food and wine. Had I not sold three CDs (they did allow me to do so), I would have gone into the red paying for gas and the dinner I had to buy for the drive home. Not only did I feel bad about myself as a player after such a gig, but I felt anger towards those who insulted me. I don’t think those types of negative feelings should be a part of a musical performance.
    No matter what these type of “clients” offer: exposure, a free dinner, free advertisement, gas allowance, and so on, we owe it to ourselves to refuse to be treated this way, not only for ourselves, but for all musicians.

    • Thank you Susana for this very clear and unfortunately true story that illustrates so many of the reasons why playing for free can be detrimental to an artist.

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