I Won’t Work for Free, or Why Loving the Music Isn’t Enough

I learned one of my most valuable lessons about being a musician from an English instructor. I studied composition with noted author and poet Thomas Lynch at the University of Michigan in my senior year, and at the end of the year, there was a university wide writing competition involving a cash prize. Professor Lynch encouraged us to apply, if we so desired, and his reasoning was a bit surprising.

“Do it for the money,” Professor Lynch said. Be artistic, be creative, and be professional. Create something worthwhile. Do it for the money. The implication was clear: it’s great that you love to write. If you want to do more than love it, expect to be compensated. If you’re going to act like a professional, expect to be treated like one.

There’s a queasy odor in the air whenever professional artists start talking about money. A musician in Chicago recently described an encounter with a colleague where she was recruited to play a freelance concert. During the initial contact, she asked her respected mentor what the compensation was, and in the reply, the mentor cautioned her against asking for rates in the future, as it might make it look as though all she cared about was the money.

When did it become disgraceful for a professional to express interest in making money? When musicians weigh whether to take an engagement or not, there are a number of factors that suck away from the money earned from that concert: wear and tear on their personal car, money spent on gas, turning down conflicting engagements, and biggest of all, cancelling private students. It’s fairly common for this last part to end up being quite costly, and some musicians I know say they actually lose money when they play some concerts, largely because of lost lesson revenue. Yet we’re not supposed to ask what our employers will pay us, because we love what we do. It’s uncouth to ask whether we’ll actually make a living, because we aren’t supposed to care about the money. Somewhere along the line, van Gogh became the standard for artists – creating our art for its own sake, obeying the muse, and never being concerned that we’re selling so few paintings –  never mind the long list of celebrated creators whose artistic success actually overlapped with their mortal coils.

Undoubtedly many of you read the headline and thought “man, when did this musician become so cynical? Doesn’t he understand how few people get to do what they love for a living?” Let me take this opportunity to say that I’m not cynical. I love performing. I love teaching music. I believe in giving my time and talents, to the right causes. If a longtime student comes on hard times and can’t pay anymore, I’m sure we’ll be able to work something out. If a friend calls me up and wants to put a concert on for fun, but doesn’t have the funds, I’d be willing to hang out with some friends for a week and put a show on at the end of it. If all I wanted was to love music, that would be enough for me. But that’s not what I want, and that’s not who I am. I am a professional musician. I’ll even allow myself a moment of ego and say that I’m one of the best performing musicians within 100 miles of where I live. If a contractor comes to me and tries to engage my services as a professional, I’ll expect to be treated like a professional – one of those expectations being timely and adequate compensation. If I don’t hold to those expectations, I won’t be doing this for a living for much longer.

The above link goes on to detail a sad situation involving a professional musical organization which is still struggling to pay the musicians involved nearly a year after the fact.  Despite the fact that they have outstanding debts to the majority of the musicians involved in last year’s project, they are moving forward with the 2014 season, featuring a new cast of musicians. I am a stranger to all individuals involved and will not criticize any of them, and I hope that their project succeeds wildly this year. I will also say that I would not currently accept an offer to play with this organization. Trust us, their emails to the musicians seem to say. We’re doing our best, and we really want to pay you, and our project is so important! In his response to the public backlash, the organization’s founder comes off as genuine and concerned for his musicians. I’m sure that they’re all nice people, with good intentions, and great artistic visions. This is a profession. One of their most important professional duties is money management, and when their last project went over budget by 30%, they didn’t have a backup plan. Trust us. I don’t want trust; I want professionalism.

When I was younger, and trying to decide what to do with my life, it would have been so easy for me to say “I love music,” and to have that be the end of it. I could have pursued another career, keeping my love for music as the great hobby of my life. I wouldn’t be nearly as good, and my ability to share my music with others would be greatly diminished, but there are a lot of things I could have had if I worked in a more conventional field. Maybe I would have had more weekends to spend with my growing family. I probably wouldn’t be driving over an hour to get to work on most days. I would certainly have better job security. Benefits. Mmmm… Benefits. When I got sick, I could have actually taken a sick day, instead of facing the choice of either giving up the income, or brewing a mug of tea and going to work anyways.

I wouldn’t have to ask when or how much I should expect to be paid.

It’s not like these working conditions are anything new – Johann Sebastian Bach’s father worked a day job in addition to his duties as court musician. Another contemporary story tells of a sympathetic kappellmeister paying his musicians out of his own pocket, because his employer refused to pay them fair market value. I knew what the score was, and took the plunge anyways. I gave up that great looking life up there because I needed to do this, and because I believe the world needs music. I won’t have my access to professional relationships and working environments be another thing I give up.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s