Do You Work for Free?

Musicians become musicians because they have a passion and a talent. They also have high levels of self-discipline and perseverance. To become a professional musician takes a lifetime of work. Most will have started playing by the age of ten: at that age, you might practice half an hour a day, but as you improve that soon becomes an hour, then three, then five hours (that’s per day, not week, on top of your schoolwork). By the time you’re at music college – if you’re one of the very tiny minority who make it through the highly competitive audition process – you are likely to be practising six or seven hours a day, in addition to a daily schedule of rehearsals and classes.

The pressure is relentless and doesn’t end with your graduation recital. Except for the most utterly exceptional, the life of a musician is a perilous journey, through small gigs and bigger gigs, auditions, competitions, rehearsals, more practice, and the gradual acquisition of teaching experience. In due course, the most persistent piece together a career, which is likely to combine, in various degrees, performing, teaching, composing or arranging, and accompanying. Almost everyone I know couples this portfolio approach with ancillary activities such as writing and reviewing (as I do), bodywork (such as Feldenkrais or Alexander Technique) or, indeed, pretty much anything ranging from software design to child-minding.

Like everyone else, along the way musicians acquire families and mortgages. We need to eat, run a car, and educate our children. For musicians, music is not a hobby – it is a job. When I was at the Academy, the most useful piece of career advice that I ever received came from the eminent clarinettist Georgina Dobrée, who told me: “never work for free. Not even in a church concert or community event (unless it is for charity). Do not do it even if you think it will promote you or give you good exposure. By working for free you are undercutting your own future as a fee-earning musician, and doing down your colleagues in the process.”

So why do so many event promoters expect musicians to live on nothing but the joy of music?

This week the musical world is united in fury over the blatant and widespread escalation of expectation that musicians will work for free at this big summer’s big events, the Olympics and the Jubilee celebrations. The Evening Standard started the debate with a leader item suggesting we should be proud to showcase our talents on the world stage. Social media is alight with anger. Perhaps, as one colleague said, we could suggest that the plumbers who will keep the stadium systems operational might be pleased to showcase their own sanitation expertise to the world? Or even better,as Andrea Vacari, Professor of Jazz Piano at Trinity, suggests, that the politicians (who really ARE showcasing themselves) should forgo their salaries for the month while they revel in bigging up Britain.

LOCOG entered into an agreement that professionals who provided services to the Olympics would be paid as professionals and explicitly differentiated from event volunteers. So why is there a perception that musicians are exempt from this contract? I believe it is because music, which everybody loves and most have dabbled in in some way during their life, is perceived as a leisure pursuit, an enjoyable sideline to the real business of life. The warm memory of the camaraderie at school band practice or those three-chord strummings in a teenage bedroom give music the glow of a happy hobby. At the same time, the get-famous-quick culture promoted by shows like the X-Factor encourage audiences to believe that musicians get in front of their audience by not much more than luck and the ability to look good holding a microphone. And if it’s so easy and so much fun, why should we be paid?

We should be paid because we have practised and studied for decades. We have served gruelling apprenticeships under rigorous task-masters. We produce music that people want to hear because we’re good and we can, not because Simon Cowell happened to walk past our house one day and hear us playing. We should be paid, and paid properly, because music is our job. But let us leave the last word with this classic from Craig’s List, currently doing the rounds, and ask yourself: do you work for free?

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