Tag: income

Artist Financial Profile: Dr. Lisa Neher, Composer & Performer

Lisa Neher


Since my first Artist Financial Profile featuring Tony Manfredonia, I have been receiving some wonderful messages via Twitter and Facebook responding to the article. Many people seemed relieved and/or encouraged to see a case study of a specific musician’s income—a small chapter in an evolving theoretical Guide to Musician Finances. Some people also mentioned that they have been questioning their own rat-race struggle to achieve financial security in the arts and that the first article helped them start to consider next steps.

Whatever your takeaway, these articles are meant to be helpful. As an author and interviewer, I am trying to display the incomes of these fearless people without emotion or criticism, so that we may all simply look at how they have used money to live and as nothing more than the tool it is.

Let’s break down the taboo some more. Here is Dr. Lisa Neher:


Lisa Neher is a composer and mezzo-soprano currently based out of Portland, Oregon. She received her DMA in vocal performance and pedagogy from the University of Iowa in 2016 and has been working as an adjunct professor of voice, a private voice teacher, a composer, a performer, and a composer-performer. Originally from South Seattle, Lisa moved to Iowa City for her DMA and then to Cedar Rapids to live with her partner, prior to her most recent move to Portland.

Lisa and I spoke over a slightly troubled Skype connection and probably raised more questions than we answered about the money taboo, positioning, realistically “making it,” adjunct teaching, and the ins and outs of working with your PRO. As a “continually emerging” composer myself, I think Lisa speaks for many of us when she wonders how feasible a life as a composer-performer really is.

Lisa, like my other interviewees, has agreed to share her finances with our NewMusicBox readers. We hope that this uncommon practice is informative and valuable to the new music community as we all navigate these mysterious seas together. When I asked her how she felt about sharing her finances, Lisa was honest with her reply:

It makes me feel nervous about having a conversation in an article…but also I’m mad about that nervousness…so I’m like, “Let’s talk about it. This is dumb. It’s hurting all of us.”

The Problems of Moving

For 2018, Lisa’s income as a composer/performer/teacher was affected by her move to a new city. The move was purposeful: Lisa wanted to be in a larger music scene for her own career advancement. Her partner was the first one to get a job that initiated the move. Being a freelancer, Lisa spoke about the difficulty in making connections in a new town, without prior contacts and established support systems. As a private voice teacher, it is almost impossible to build a studio of students from the ground up without being there. Some work was done in advance, like sending introductory emails to local high school and middle school conductors at the start of the school year, but it was easier to reconstruct her private student base by actually being in Portland. Lisa felt fortunate to be sharing fiscal responsibilities with her partner, which allowed her more transition time. She explains that she “would have handled the lead up to the move differently” if she had been on her own.

As a freelancer, much of Lisa’s work and income are built from personal connections and networking face-to-face. Maintaining the normal day-to-day hustle while moving home bases is ultimately problematic. Where do you find the time to network in your new city while you finish up your work in your old town? Moving in June left the summer pretty barren. Adjunct positions for the fall had been filled, and many people do not seek out private lessons until the school year starts up again. Once the fall came around, Lisa was able to start up her studio and get on the radar of professors at Lewis & Clark College to do some temporary adjuncting and subbing for music history courses.

Lisa’s Income

Lisa’s made about $25,560 in 2018 and it breaks down like this:

$12,200 Collegiate adjunct teaching (mostly private voice, some coursework) at three different colleges and universities

$6,500 Teaching private voice lessons (only $500 of that income total was earned in the fall)

$2,160 Composing income (which includes commissioning fees, plus about $120 in ASCAP royalties and $30 from the sale of a score)

$4,700 Performance income (as a mezzo-soprano soloist or ensemble member)

The median household income for Portland is $71,931. During our discussions, Lisa suggested that $60-70k a year is her personal income goal to live comfortably. Keep in mind that Portland, Oregon, is on the high end of the national average (the median income in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is $54,465), and this income is household, which 50% of the time indicates two earners.

It is important to note that Lisa’s 2018 income could have looked much different if she had stayed in Cedar Rapids. Understanding that the bulk of her work was between January and June of 2018, with a bit of extrapolating, it is possible that Lisa’s yearly income could have been closer to $45k – $55k with the same sort of work. Moving to Portland mid-year drastically affected her teaching studio and her potential adjunct income. (She also notes that the adjunct teaching schedule in Iowa, though a great opportunity, was not sustainable for her well-being.)

This is a lesson for freelancers thinking of moving: consider the costs of starting over again. As Lisa expressed in her interview, if it were just her as a single person, she would have had to network in the new city (Portland) far more intensely and have secured an adjunct or arts administration job prior to the move to make moving fiscally possible.

Concerns of Sustainability

Lisa had a lot of concerns about the musician’s eternal hustle. Discussions in new music circles seem to focus on the abundance mindset, networking, creative productivity, and other entrepreneurial tactics. Thought leaders like Garrett Hope (Portfolio Composer), Jennifer Rosenfeld (iCadenza), Dale Trumbore, and Angela Myles Beeching paint an optimistic picture full of ways to advance one’s career. Sometimes this information can be overwhelming, and we start wondering how much one can do in a single day. Lisa is concerned about burn out and for good reason. Is this lifestyle sustainable? Can one meet their income goals without having to become famous, or without having to develop a high-end teaching system or coaching business? We want to believe it’s true, but the sheer amount of things one must do to succeed seems daunting, especially when stacked against actual income.

Freelancing as a composer and a vocalist also has its particular challenges. Lisa expressed a certain “fixed” cost for much of the work she does. Small to medium-sized choirs and ensembles that hire her as a performer only have so much wiggle room for negotiating her artist fee. When teaching private voice lessons, she can only flex rates so much depending on the going rate of the area. Many times, for gigs, she has to either accept the fee at the rate the organization offers it, or not take the gig. Lisa also found that her peers don’t like talking about those fees, maybe because they are lower than where they should be.

“With gig work, there seems to be a specialized kind of not talking about [money].”

ASCAP and Performance Royalties

For each of these financial profile articles, I am trying to find a small focus area within what are pretty natural conversations during the interviews. With Lisa, there was a lot of mystery surrounding performance royalties. As I have been writing this piece, Lisa started to get more sizeable royalty checks from her PRO. I felt that readers would benefit from learning about her experience with increased performances of her works and submitting performances to ASCAP.

As Lisa was discussing the mound of performance documentation she submits, and all of its tediousness, she was ultimately wondering if the work put into claiming performances was worth it. She speaks for us all when she says: “ASCAP royalties… I can’t predict what will get royalties and what won’t.” No matter which PRO organization we are personally affiliated with, I am sure many of us feel this way.

I myself recently submitted a ticket to ASCAP asking about how payouts worked, specifically for educational concerts, and what I learned was (quoting from the email I received): “Performances given under Educational licenses are credited or not credited according to a random sample by date used only in the Educational field. Only performances that take place on sample dates will be credited.“ Luckily, we were also able to get some clarification from ASCAP thanks to a phone call with Cia Toscanini, vice president of concert music. Here is a summary of our conversation about performance royalties for both education and professional concerts.

The email I received above is accurate. Concert programs from educational performances (at colleges, universities, schools, etc.) are collected from licensees and ASCAP members and compiled in a year-long survey. Then a sample survey is done of all concerts within a specific time range and performance royalties are paid out from those performances that fall within the sample. ASCAP samples October 1 through September 30; publisher royalties are paid out in the following March, and writer/composer royalties are paid out in April. In Lisa’s case, some of the publisher royalties were not paid because the performance was not claimed as a publisher. Don’t worry, she still has time to correct that. Toscanini stressed that everyone should register as both a writer and a publisher, and claim performances as both, to receive maximum benefit.

The census for professional concerts (non-educational) is different in that every performance is collected and paid, so long as they are claimed by an ASCAP member or submitted by a licensee and the licensee is up to date on their payments. ASCAP has primers for members that are basically an extremely thorough checklist for concert music performance claims. They can be found here. BMI offers similar resources.

Lisa was generous enough to share her ASCAP royalty activity, especially upon the good news that she received more this year. Here’s the breakdown, for those wondering how it might work out:

In 2018, I was paid $64.03 as a publisher and $64.03 as a composer = $128.08 for 1 performance of my large mixed chamber ensemble piece Twister by Durward Ensemble at Kirkwood Community College in August 2017.

Note that these payments came about three-quarters of a year later. Lisa also registered as a composer ($50 one time fee) and a publisher (another $50 one time fee), so that she received 100% of the royalties for her activity, instead of just 50%. For those wondering, Lisa only gave her publishing company a name for ASCAP (D.C. Al Platypus) and has not set up a truly separate business.

As I was writing this article, Lisa was excited to do even better this past year (2018) with her ASCAP royalties. She also was willing to share these figures:

I just got payment, in April of 2019, for two other 2017 performances, but this will go into tax year 2019 (which begs the question, what took them 18 months?)

October 2017, my marimba solo Icy Celestial Bodies was performed at Cedar Rock House in Quasqueton, Iowa; November 2017, Icy Celestial Bodies was performed at University of Northern Iowa in a faculty concert; November 2017, my marimba duo Thaw was performed at the Sacramento State Festival of New Music in California.

For these performances, I was paid $506 as a composer and $391.26 as a publisher. No idea why those numbers are different.

After speaking with Cia Toscanini, we figured out that a few things affected Lisa’s ASCAP income. First, some of the performances were not claimed as both a writer and a publisher. It is important to do both to receive 100% of the royalties. Delayed payment from the yearly schedule as previously described, usually comes from licensees not paying their fees on time, delaying the payout for the creators.

Lisa also claimed six other performances in 2017 with no royalty payouts. It is possible that these payments are still in the queue somewhere, waiting fee collection, or that they were not part of the sample survey. Only two of those were performed in an educational setting, unless the libraries and museums that were performance spaces were part of an educational institution.

ASCAP does have a messaging system built in to the member section of their website (as I am sure does BMI), and they will get back to you via email when you ask questions. It is worth asking, as performance royalties can be a great side income early on, and as your performances increase, have the potential to become a substantial part.

Continue the Discussion

If this article series speaks to you, I urge you to begin building your network of financial confidantes. Before you have to invoice someone, before you negotiate commissioning fees, before you set your rates, talk with your colleagues and mentors, if they are willing. Find like-minded individuals in similar situations and talk actual dollars. You may be surprised. You may find reassurance. Hopefully you will both be encouraged to protect your worth.

Financial knowledge and literacy doesn’t happen overnight. Tackle one thing at a time, when you can. I know my interview with Lisa has encouraged me to register with ASCAP as a publisher—I’m not sure why I was holding back! But I will save figuring out the royalty distribution formulas for another day.

Stay informed, and be an advocate for your artistic and financial worth. The next article in the series will feature the ensemble loadbang, to give us some financial insight into the nonprofit ensemble world. For all of those interested in freelance life with a performing ensemble, it should be a very interesting interview and a fun article!

The Secret Lives Of Composers Who Work In The Trades

My alarm goes off at 5 a.m. and I vault out of bed like a meatloaf rebounding off a linoleum floor. There’s an awkward shuffle in the dark as I locate pants and shimmy to the kitchen where I process my reward for not oversleeping: the first coffee of the day. This is a great time of day to be awake and the coffee discretely severs my tether to sleep before I hit the road. At this time of day, the world is silent and my thoughts would be able to jam wildly in my head if I was having any. I arrive at my destination—an industrial park not far from town. There’s another sip of coffee before I suit up: steel-toe boots, jeans that are never clean, sturdy work gloves, and a tool belt. I’m a concert music composer who has a secret life working in the trades.

Sivack in the trades

About five or six years ago, I made a big change. I had been doing my composer work for approximately a decade at that point and working various retail and kitchen jobs to support my art. From a writing standpoint, things were going very well. My craftsmanship had reached a point where I felt like I was no longer writing student works, professional ensembles would approach me to write for them, and I was bringing in money for the work I was putting in. My career trajectory was looking up.

But then the math set in.

I was being commissioned to write three or four pieces a year. At the rate I was being paid, I could hypothetically divorce my side gig by writing eight to ten more pieces annually. The idea of even approaching doing that much writing was, frankly, unappetizing and completely unrealistic. I was already living the lifestyle of a borderline hermit. Spending more time at my writing desk by forgoing luxuries like sleep, daylight, and grocery shopping didn’t exactly fill me with glee. Also, I was quite sure that if I tripled my output, I would produce exponentially less work I was proud of. The scales would be tipping towards quantity at the expense of quality if I pushed much harder.

If I was unable or unwilling to increase my composition output, I was going to be working my side gig for the next thirty years. Did I want to work in my retail-kitchen churn for that long?

At that point, the record needle swung wildly across the deck: if I was unable or unwilling to increase my composition output, I was going to be working my side gig for the next thirty years. Did I want to work in my retail-kitchen churn for that long? Dread and foreboding crept up my spine. I experienced some serious staring-into-the-abyss moments before I decided what criteria my side gig had to meet: it had to be something that didn’t make me miserable, it had to be something that paid above minimum wage, and it had to be something that could reliably be around as I aged. I began to explore options.

Film work is a great gig for a composer. For one, it can pay quite well. For two, it has exponentially more glitz and glamor than the pencil pushing in concert music circles. For three, because people watch movies in droves there’s the regular possibility someone might hear your music and register a thought about it. But you have to hustle to get film gigs. Big time. It’s not like you just wake up one morning and decide to turn on a faucet that magically sprays you with succulent composer dollars. Anybody who makes their living as a film composer got there by busting their ass. The best suggestion the experienced film composer will give you is if you want to get into film music you should get a reliable job so that you can support yourself while you build yourself up. For me, it just didn’t make sense to have a job I didn’t want, to support a creative pursuit that wasn’t my first choice, in order to financially support myself in the pursuit of my first choice. I could easily remove the film work middle-man and continue in kitchens and retail and be equally miserable.

Academia is a rich pursuit for many of us. However, I was already sick of high academia after my undergrad and, at that point in time, the relationship between the teacher’s union and my local government could be best described as a fistful of pins pounding sand. There were also other problems: I had spoken with a number of teachers who were at the start of their own careers and they were teaching sporadically, with long commutes, and having to do side gigs in order to maintain an income. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Also, if I’m being honest, I’m more of an introvert than an extrovert and I’m just not so sure I would be a good fit for the profession.

So instead of making sales in retail, cooking omelets in kitchens, teaching algebra in classrooms, or writing for my second choice, I picked up a hammer and swung for the bleachers. I was going to work in the trades. When I explain my side gig to people, I often tell them I’m an Internet plumber—my trades colleagues call me a splicer and preface it with the word “filthy.” There are hundreds of thousands of kilometers of cable that snake all over the world humming with data. They hang in the air from telephone poles, they run in underground conduit between manholes, and they even run along the bottom of the ocean. Making sure they are connected properly, figuring out why they might not be connected properly, and splicing them together is my new side gig. My typical day now involves climbing telephone poles with climbing gaffs, ladders, or in a bucket truck; splicing together fiber optic, twisted pair, and coaxial cable; troubleshooting network problems; and getting absolutely covered in grime. It’s dirty work and I love it.

Sivack in the trades

I’ve been at it for three or four years now, and it often feels like I’m leading a double life—something I’m still learning to navigate. There are relatively few of my new colleagues who are interested in classical music and I’m still new enough that I feel like I need to establish myself as someone who belongs where I am, perhaps unjustifiably so. So I don’t mention my composing to my colleagues much during the morning shuffling of trucks.

I don’t mention my composing to my colleagues much during the morning shuffling of trucks.

But I think the reason I keep my art close to my chest is because I’ve encountered a perception in the trades that the arts are a dalliance; art can’t possibly be real work and those who do it don’t understand what real work is. When I was first hired, I was driving to a job site with one of my bosses and he casually mentioned that his son was a musician. Before I could chime in with my shared experience, he rushed to explain that his son wasn’t lazy or lacking in ambition; the young man had a teaching and recording studio and was doing quite well for himself. The immediate defensiveness was striking and I kept quiet. I was right at the beginning of my entrance to the trades and there was a pressure on me to be perceived as a competent and good worker. I didn’t want to jeopardize that by tapping into people’s prejudices.

On the flip side, you can encounter those in the arts who reject you at the molecular level because you don’t fit their perception of being serious about your arts practice. To them, a serious musician derives their income primarily from performing and teaching. There is some flexibility in accepting entry-level restaurant work but if you exceed those narrow parameters then, to them, you must not be serious about your art. Your fellow artists will gossip about your side gig as if you were perpetuating adultery by opting to swing a hammer to pay the bills. Even if there were any rules, written or unwritten, that legislate how a person is to balance art in their lives, it shouldn’t matter if you’re a barista or a plumber. The linchpin is whether or not you continue to make art happen. If your side gig allows you to continue doing it then your dedication to your arts practice is reinforced, not weakened, by whatever you choose to do to keep yourself afloat.

So I tend to maintain a separation between my two lives. It’s not that I don’t talk about it with anyone ever, but I definitely avoid it as a leading topic of conversation. However, I think there is a balance that I have yet to achieve. I recently left my old company to work somewhere new, and on my last day I mentioned to my crew that among the things I was looking forward to in my new life was finally being able to get a piano again. I had been living in a shared space and this was changing after my move. This piqued the ear of an older colleague who was driving me to a site and, once we got to talking, I found out that he was also a pianist. In fact, he had been a touring musician in the ’70s and had a studio back home in Alberta. On this singular drive, we discovered we shared a love of jazz and classical music. We were both flabbergasted. Like me, he had his own crisis when he was a young man and decided to get into the trades to keep his music alive. I had been working with the man for almost two years at that point and we had never clued in to each other’s secret identities. I was hit with regret—playing my cards so close to my chest caused me to miss an opportunity to connect with a colleague. I’ve since relaxed my subterfuge. After all, part of what makes music appeal to me is the chance to connect with other humans over our mutual appreciation of it.

Sivack in the trades

I still have time to write. The same hours I had set aside when I was working my old side gig are as available now as they were before. I also find the creative juices get flowing during moments of solitude at work. I once experienced a wonderful creative rush while driving a truck through a mountain pass and had to immediately pull over and jot some sketches down. Many people say that the hours in the trades are long, and they sometimes are. But one of the benefits is that when I hang up my hard hat, I hang up the stress of my job with it. My work doesn’t follow me home. Instead, I go to choir practice, I open up a copy of The Well Tempered Clavier, I get out a pencil and some manuscript paper and dash some squiggles that will hopefully one day become something memorable.

Initially, I might have been resistant to heading into the trades because I was worried I would be giving up on music and my composition career would end with a resounding thud of failure. I was wrong. The only way you fail at art is if you stop doing it. There’s no reason a composer can’t be a plumber or an electrician instead of a teacher. All you have to do is keep writing.

Roundtable: The Bonnie Jones Grant

Bonnie Jones

[Ed. Note: In the spirit of conversation and story sharing, we reached out to music makers and asked them to let us know what was on their minds when it came to cash and creativity and what lessons from their own careers they might share. Some answered questions we posed directly, others were inspired to take the topic somewhere else. Each provided something illuminating, and we hope you’ll jump in and share your own experiences in the comments.–MS]

Bonnie Jones

Bonnie Jones

A few months back, my friend and fellow Baltimore composer Alex Gardner invited me to sit on a panel she was moderating, “Artists Outside Academia,” which was part of the 2016 New Music Gathering at the Peabody Institute. The artists included were those of us in Baltimore who did not primarily make their living as fulltime professors and were therefore outside of the typical presentation opportunities, support networks, and technical resources that university faculty often enjoy—not to mention the full time salaries.

The discussion centered on the various activities, priorities, and lives of the local artists on the panel and how we each, in our own ways, have gone off script in creating personal lives that sustain our creative work. Certainly for me, choosing to live and work in Baltimore was already a conscious choice made for my art practice—relying on the freedom afforded by relatively lower housing costs compared to cities like Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, etc. Other negotiations of time, space, and finances that came up included taking on the role of primary childcare provider, taking on additional training and classes for skills used to piece together side jobs, working seasonally, or making sacrifices in healthcare or housing to balance paying bills with insecure incomes.

For those of us working for our art practice without significant financial support other than what our own bodies and minds can generate, all these negotiations are probably familiar. We always have to consider FOOD/SHELTER against how ambitious a project we can undertake, how quickly we’ll be able to complete that project, and how much energy and self we can pour into that project. All these things change the rhythm of our creative minds and shape what our ART (not the work per se, but the practice), situated inside of our very real LIVES, will have.

My own path for making a living while making art was something that during the panel I referred to as the Bonnie Jones Grant. This “grant” was all the various web-related freelance and fulltime jobs I’ve held during my 17 years in Baltimore, which directly funded my volunteer non-profit, curatorial work, and art practice. In other words, I had a lot of regular jobs, but I thought of them as very much a part of my creative practice because they sustained that practice. I came to music later than most, having in my twenties focused on poetry and performance. Once my focus turned to music, the stuff I was interested in making was often challenging and abstract, produced with cracked and circuit bent electronic instruments. While the international community of noise and improvisation is incredibly stimulating intellectually and aesthetically, the financial sustainability is tenuous at best. So I realized early on that the music and writing I was drawn to might never be able to generate enough income to support my FOOD/SHELTER needs. So I got a job, a job job as artists sometimes call it, or job jobs in my case.

So the other day while working on this blog post, I took a break and watched a documentary called The Wrecking Crew about a prolific group of studio musicians who were responsible for thousands of Top 10 recorded hits from the 1960s and 1970s. You may have never heard their names, but you’ve certainly heard their music. This crew recorded The Beach Boys’s “Good Vibrations,” the Mamas and Papas’s “California Dreamin,’” the Righteous Brothers’s “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. The discography is mind-blowing.

Money was on my mind, so it was refreshing to hear these musicians talk about their art WORK. They spoke honestly about their modest or sometimes impoverished childhoods, the hustle of their early years when they were making their names, the sacrifices in parenting they made to support their families (studio gigs would sometimes keep musicians out for 20-hour days), their struggles with addiction and mental health issues as a result of the demands of their jobs and the insecurity of their incomes. They had no pretensions about how their art and their jobs were, by necessity, collaborative and entwined.

Percussionist Earl Palmer (who played on recordings of Richie Valens’s “La Bamba” and Jan and Dean’s “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena”) freely admitted that he didn’t care much for rock and roll, his heart was in jazz, but that to make a living off of rock and roll, he needed to play it like it was his favorite music. There was a general acknowledgement from the musicians that ALL the work you did was the REAL work of being an artist. Palmer’s judicious comment about playing music he wasn’t all that into: “It’s not beneath you if it’s supporting you.”

So why then, does it still seem novel when artists talk transparently about the money they make from art or other jobs? I wonder if talking about the very unsexy ways we make a living threatens some myth of the serious artist? The serious artist doesn’t sell out. The serious artist only cares about the art and everything else is false. The serious artist never compromises their authenticity for money. The serious artist never considers themselves part of the nasty capitalist game where many fight for what few resources are available. The serious artist’s success is based on a meritocracy. Who can actually live like this? Where did this myth come from? Did capitalism create the myth and ultimately make fools of us all?

Cash Week - sm

Read more new music and money coverage all this week on NewMusicBox.

These days funding and jobs for working musicians are fewer and further between—the recording industry is collapsing, arts funding is choked off so orchestras are folding and commissions are disappearing. Even within the world of artists making objects, painters and sculptors are constantly working for free—their work appearing in major cultural institutions with no compensation unless they become one of the few who enter into the art economy as commodity. I think most of us agree that solely making money off your art is becoming a very rare condition.

The WORK part of a working artist’s career has expanded into a variety of industries and jobs that don’t utilize our artistic skills directly. The education industry has probably become the leading source of jobs for artists, while of course generating significant income off of those same folks in the form of MFA, DMA, and Ph.D. programs. This in theory sounds great, until the jobs are all taken and the universities keep creating masters and doctors of art who have student debt but no job prospects. So most artists are still spending lots of time stringing together a lot of different sources of income. Though I think it’s important to note, a lot of them really aren’t at all. A lot of highly visible and successful artists are such because they have financial support from family, partners, or other places not directly related to their art practice and in many cases they’ve always had that. And I think it’s fair to say that that does make an enormous difference in the shape of an artist’s life.

Which brings me to my current fear about the future of art in America. What happens if young artists starting out, with little or no financial support outside themselves, just stop making art and trying to put it out there because they need to take care of FOOD/SHELTER. What if only rich folks can make a successful living off of making art? What if we’re deprived of the benefits of having access to art made from a huge range of human experiences and backgrounds? Or maybe this kind of fear is completely out of touch with how art will be made and distributed in the future? Maybe we’re just witnessing a transition phase?

A side note about my own privileges. I was adopted from Korea and raised in a modest but middle class Caucasian farm family. I had all my basics covered as a child and, with family support, attended a great (cheap) public university that led to some solid job prospects, which led to a secure income working for an internet company, which I was able to parlay into a subcontracting position, which allowed me to go to and pay for my MFA, and which today allows me to work and make money on projects and then take off for months at a time to work on art and touring. Some years I make well above the poverty line and others not as much, but the work is fairly reliable and if the worst were to happen—cancer, psychiatric crisis, car accident, house fire, etc.—I have a stable relationship with my family that I know I could rely on. All of these things I recognize as enormous privileges. 

OK, so for those of us who decide to keep producing anyways, because we just can’t stop, because it’s an essential part of who we are, because we’d lose our minds if we didn’t: Sometimes I wonder, is it all on us to just get our shit together and make it work? Does the working artist these days just need to become a better administrative assistant, giving themselves over to the business of art? Or is there a collective issue here that we can examine?

Raise your hand: who has been asked by an institution (typically a large one—university, museum, etc.) to present your work for little or no money for the “prestige”? For “the love of the work”? To build your resume? Who has agreed to $250 honorariums for two days of studio visits and presentations? Who has decided not to apply for a grant because the application or requirements are labyrinthine and exhausting and you just can’t fit the work into your schedule? Who has noticed that funding is often reliant on having gotten funding in the past, on proving yourself in a certain way—often outside of art itself—which means that grants often go to folks who already are receiving the large majority of available grants?

In 1973, avant-garde filmmaker, photographer, writer/theoretician Hollis Frampton wrote this letter to the Museum of Modern Art on the invitation to present a retrospective of his work. MoMA was hoping to circumvent the rental fees from the distribution company by having Frampton bring his prints and appear for free. The question this letter so succinctly articulates is: why do museums and major institutions prioritize their incomes for everything but the art and artists? This question becomes even more pressing for time-based artists (filmmakers, poets, musicians, performers) who don’t produce objects or straightforward commodities. The NYC-based organization W.A.G.E., which hosts the copy of this letter that I linked to above, takes up that issue by placing the responsibility on institutions to sustain artists and their work by—well, paying them.

On that note, I’ll leave off with a mini manifesto, because writing this post made me realize that I have a lot on my mind these days about art and money and privilege and power…and I could probably keep on writing, but this after all is a blog post likely being read on a phone, so I’m going to leave it at this:

We must question the value system of capital “A” art and how it designates what is important to the market and therefore to artists and institutions.

For sure we must place institutions that profit from artists at the center of the critique and put our minds towards creating more institutions that don’t profit from artists but still believe in what art accomplishes socially and culturally and who are willing to take some risks in supporting work that might question capital “A” art values.

Without a doubt, we must be honest with young artists and students about what the life of the working artist (bills, jobs, tenuous housing, lack of healthcare, lack of access to materials) looks like, vs. the life of the artist who has more financial freedom from the start (plenty of access to materials, ability to present and create work for free, stable housing and quicker financial recovery from health problems).

I consider myself an artist. I’ve been working to make art for the majority of my 38 years. To be sure I’ve had many successes and recognitions of my work over the years, but few of those have paid the bills. And I’m OK with this, for now. But to a certain extent, I have no idea what the next 38 years will look like, and whether the sacrifices one makes for a life of making art might actually have to be the art itself.

Bonnie Jones is a Korean-American writer, improvising musician, and performer working primarily with electronic music and text. Born in 1977 in South Korea, she was raised on a dairy farm in New Jersey and currently resides in Baltimore, Maryland. Bonnie creates improvised and composed text-sound performances that explore the fluidity and function of electronic noise (field recordings, circuit bending) and text (poetry, found, spoken, visual). She is interested in how people perceive, “read,” and interact with these sounds and texts given our current technological moment. Jones has received commissions from the London ICA and has presented her work in the US, Europe, and Asia and collaborates frequently with writers and musicians. She received her MFA at the Milton Avery School of the Arts at Bard College.

Why “Don’t Play for Free” Is Not Enough

Just say no to “pass the hat” gigs.

Just say no to “pass the hat” gigs.
Photo by Gregory Nissen

In response to my first column, the first comment was an admonition to musicians that they shouldn’t play for free.  I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the last two weeks because I felt that this was an unrealistic route to change, but I hadn’t been able to say exactly why. Here are some reasons why I think that the statement isn’t sufficient to address the problem of unpaid gigs.

1.) No one person can change a system. If you turn down a free gig, is it a strike? No, because you are not an employee leveraging power. (Although Italians launched an effective “culture strike” in 2010.) Is it a boycott? Not exactly, but more similarly, in that it’s a withdrawal from a practice for an ethical reason, with hopes to change the system through a negative multiplier effect. If no one plays without compensation, something has to change.

For a musician simply to remove himself or herself from the industry might be noble, but it will do little or nothing to change the industry as a whole.  If it ends there, it’s a relatively passive, individualist form of resistance. The power to effect real, systemic change comes only in the communication of grievances and organizing.

Communicating with the venue and fellow musicians about why you refuse to work for free is a start, and then trying to work with the venue to get it to change is even better. If that fails, getting together with others is how you turn your individualism into a community act. Now, an organized boycott—that’s a thing! And probably the only thing that you’d want to do if you dare speak up at all, because there is safety in numbers.

2.) Don’t reprimand musicians for free work; reprimand promoters for demanding unpaid labor. Venues and promoters have the primary responsibility for ensuring their workers are paid. It should not be the responsibility of a worker to have to ask for pay, it’s the responsibility of the employer to explain the payment conditions and to pay fairly and on time.

Image courtesy Arun Joseph via Flickr.

Image courtesy Arun Joseph via Flickr.

3.) Sometimes you don’t know you’re playing a free gig until it is over. This is well evidenced in the controversy over the 2013 Chicago Beethoven Festival, where musicians and venues alike were not paid by organizer George Lepauw. Lepauw explained that “the Festival experienced a combination of factors which unexpectedly led to the discrepancy between expenditures and income”—which means they didn’t have the money.

The dreaded discrepancy can come for any reason: ineptitude, bad ticket sales, a failed grant application, or some weather disaster. In each scenario, the promoter has taken a risk and lost. It wasn’t the musicians’ fault or the fault of anyone else legally contracted to do the work, and they should not suffer for someone else’s bad event management.

4.) Unpaid labor is often coercive—some people really can’t say no if they want to stay in the field. There are many forms of social pressure that go into getting a musician to play without pay:  current position with a group, promise of a future job, respect for seniority, some sense of obligation to friend or teacher, the prestige of the gig, or the idea of cultural norms for a genre. If musicians are not truly free to say no to a gig without fear of future detriment to their careers, then coercion is part of the unpaid deal.

Abuse is a strong word, but I think that it applies when thinking about the compromises a leader, teacher, or promoter may ask of a musician. But why would another musician be angry when they know that this practice is widespread? The Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness writes, “One reason people blame a victim is to distance themselves from an unpleasant occurrence and thereby confirm their own invulnerability to the risk.” Perhaps it is our own fear of being caught in a similar position—and anxiety about what we’d do—that causes such frustration.

To change coercion, a lot of cultural practices around performance would have to change. At the very least, there should be independent checks on institutions and people with the power to exploit their underlings in this way.
5.) “Paying your dues” through unpaid gigs means reinforcing the labor status quo.

A friend of mine moved to New York City from the Midwest, where she was a highly sought-after jazz pianist. After two years of unpaid gigs, sitting in and showing up to jams, she finally started getting into the network of paid work. If she’d been wealthy, those two years wouldn’t have mattered. If she’d gone to school in New York, she would have passed this hurdle young.  The problem was that she had to pay rent during those two years, and so the job that made more sense was not in music.

So asking someone to “pay dues,” which is really a form of coercion, means that those who are already at an economic disadvantage within the field will be even less likely to make it if they have to spend time earning wages elsewhere. They simply cannot play all the free gigs someone with wealth can, and thus they won’t be able to put in the time which leads to getting paid.
This is similar to the arguments around the widespread use of unpaid internships, and exacerbates unequal access to future paid work. Both depend on eager new entrants into the already crowded workforce willing and able to accept training and experience but no wages.

Image courtesy Walt Otto via Flickr.

Image courtesy Walt Otto via Flickr.

6.) The “if you do free work, you’re taking away my job” argument. This is written generically to show the parallel to other forms of labor protectionism based on rank. If someone is more established in the field, chances are they went through some form of the exploitative system and have come out on top, into the promised land of paid gigs. Now, they seek to protect their status by shutting down the current avenue of advancement in the field—free labor. Instead of focusing on shutting down worker’s opportunities for advancement, established musicians need to use their reputations and prestige to try to end this system of exploiting incoming musicians. This does not come from yelling at musicians for taking free gigs; it comes from demanding fair contracts for all and asking audiences to demand the same.

Are there times and places to take unpaid gigs? Yes, as David Hahn and others have written, charity and friend favors and maybe even “having fun” are good reasons to do things, but these are best assessed as what they are, with no blinders—tradeoffs made to positively affect some other part of life than one’s income. Playing music is part of a total life experience—from earning to gifting to community building—but I believe that musicians should have an informed choice when putting their labor into service and should never be coerced into unpaid work when it will hurt their ability, or the community’s ability, to survive.