Tag: labor

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.

Are Unions Relevant to New Music?

Musicians at peaceful demonstration on Union Square, New York

Source: iStockphoto

Virtually all the new music musicians I know are left-leaning and pro-labor, yet much of the new music field is non-unionized. Why is that? The AFM and other unions play a significant role in the realm of larger, more traditional music making—orchestras, musicals, film recording, opera, et cetera—but they are far less visible when it comes to performances of new music. In the Bay Area, where I live, AFM local 6 lists only one new music presenter with a collective bargaining agreement.

Size is probably part of the equation, since a handful of orchestras is easier to unionize than the ever-shifting ecosystem of small chamber ensembles more typical in new music. But it goes beyond that. The AFM certainly represents chamber musicians, and it has initiatives designed specifically for smaller groups, such as its Fair Trade Music program. Yet most of the new music musicians I interviewed for this piece held a dim view of the musicians’ union, and many had experienced hostility from their AFM locals.

Clearly something is pushing us apart, and I think it boils down to conflicting agendas. Any union’s top priorities revolve around securing decent wages and working conditions for its members. Those are, without question, important considerations for musicians in any genre. But new music practitioners also have a third priority: advancing the cause. Nobody just happens to fall into new music because of all the great gigs that came their way. We choose new music despite the fact that it’s a hard slog, because we want to champion the art form. So when push comes to shove—and new technologies have created a lot of shove—we sacrifice pay or benefits.

I’d very much like to see more music unionization; both in our genre and across the board. Musicians of all stripes are facing strong downward wage pressure, and a lack of collective action is only making things worse. But for the AFM to win over the new music community, the realities of why we make music will need to be better accommodated.

What makes an occupation unionizable?

To better understand our situation, it’s useful to look at where unions enjoy the greatest successes. Most union-friendly occupations have the following characteristics:

  • Clearly defined roles
  • Static employer–employee relationships
  • Proven business models
Fast food workers strike

Fast food workers strike in Richmond, Virginia
Photo by Bernard Pollack, via Flickr

That’s why coal miners, fast-food workers, teachers, sanitation personnel, home health aides, and orchestra musicians are good candidates for unionization. If you’re a garbage truck driver, you’re unlikely to show up one day and find yourself designing a new waste treatment facility. Similarly, if you’re the principal bassoonist in an orchestra, your job is not likely to involve playing the viola part or planning the marketing strategy for the next concert season.

Now consider a profession like dentistry. Most dentists are not unionized, and that’s because the majority are self-employed or work as associates in small practices. Professional lobbies like the American Dental Association are a better fit for their needs, which typically revolve around regulatory overhaul and dealing with the insurance market more so than collective bargaining.

Still, there’s nothing intrinsic about dentistry that precludes unionization. If the growth of multi-office, corporate dentistry continues, we might expect to see more collective bargaining in that field. After all, dentists have clearly defined roles and responsibilities, and the business model doesn’t change dramatically from dentist to dentist—everyone basically has the same teeth. The only missing element is an employer with multiple dentist employees. Look at the parallel world of the hospital, where healthcare personnel are increasingly classified as employees. There you’ll find increasing unionization, in contrast to the general anti-union trend in American society.

Like dentistry, music affords us many possible working arrangements. That’s why it’s not enough to say a violinist is a violinist, so you should all join the union. If you’re playing for a Broadway musical, then yeah, it makes sense: fighting for a union contract will be good for you and for all future pit musicians. But if your grad school buddy asks you to join a fledgling ensemble dedicated to promoting new music for harpsichord…well, the choice isn’t so obvious.

The “sharing economy” of new music

Musical employment tends to be piecemeal, but especially so in new music: multiple part-time ensemble gigs, some teaching, perhaps grant writing or administrative/logistical support, another music gig that’s less inspiring but pays better, and so on. Musicians often collaborate with each other on different projects, sometimes swapping roles depending on who’s leading.

Zoom in on any one new music ensemble and it might resemble a traditional employer–employee setup, but that’s misleading. If Suzie plays in Johnny’s string quartet, Johnny plays in Frederica’s Pierrot ensemble, and Frederica and Johnny both regularly perform solo sets on Suzie’s recital series, can anyone really be said to be the employer? It’s better to think of these musicians as colleagues who collaborate on whatever opportunities present themselves.

In this sense, the production of new music resembles “sharing economy” businesses like Uber and AirBnB more than it does the employer–employee world of the symphony. More specifically:

  • A need isn’t being well provided by existing institutions
  • There are people with the expertise, resources, and time to fill that need
  • The need can be filled without necessarily making it into a full-time job

Let’s compare our hypothetical harpsichord ensemble to Uber:

Uber vs Ensemble

One major difference, of course, is that Uber and AirBnB have become wildly successful on a commercial level—enough that they cause negative ripple effects. The City of San Francisco is opening an Office of Short Term Rental Administration and Enforcement to deal with the shady landlords who evict tenants to rent apartments on AirBnB. Uber is facing a class-action lawsuit as to whether its drivers should be considered employees or contractors.

It’s worth remembering, however, that those negative effects are problems of scale, not design. There’s nothing inherently evil about renting out that extra room in your apartment to a backpacking college student. It’s only when the AirBnB market gets big enough to push tenants out of their apartments that we have a problem.

We would do well to think about unionization in new music along similar lines. There may come a point when your new music ensemble becomes successful enough that it would be unethical to oppose unionization. But in the scrappy, small-scale production environment more typical of our genre, you’re not really dealing with the traditional employer–employee model of the union. It’s more like a fluid group of like-minded professionals, or an employee-owned worker cooperative.

For the love of money

None of this is to imply that, hey, you should always take the gig, because new music! There are plenty of poorly run and exploitative organizations that build their successes on the backs of overly accommodating musicians. While researching this article, I interviewed Bruce Fife, president of AFM local 99 in Portland. He had this story to share:

“…major nonprofit in Portland, advertising for live music, told musicians that as a nonprofit, they couldn’t afford to pay. As is usual, they said it would be great exposure for the musicians. This, from a nonprofit that did over $20 million in revenue, $2 million in net profits in FY14, and has $39 million in net assets.”

But on the flip side, there are also a lot of talented people out there with great ideas but little financial backing, especially among early-career, emerging musicians. The standard AFM shtick is that collective action gives musicians increased leverage against employers—which is true. A union contract would be extremely beneficial when dealing with an organization like the nonprofit Bruce described. But not every gig is like that. What happens in the more typical new music scenario where the role of employer is essentially honorific?

If we insist that every self-producing ensemble or upstart music festival provide a full union ride, it means only organizations with pre-existing financial support will be able to produce anything. True, the AFM does sometimes grant exceptions for specific use cases, but the application process is bureaucratic and requires a new petition for each project. That’s not the best use of time for emerging musicians trying to hustle together something amazing with limited resources and bandwidth. And what if your local decides not to grant your exception, or doesn’t respond in time for your production?

In actual practice, emerging musicians with an interest in new music quickly learn that the AFM has little to offer them. If they played by the union rules, there would be precious few opportunities for them to work in our genre. While they aspire to a level of career success that would command union rates, they’re not willing to stop making the music that matters to them in order to get there. Yet somehow this basic fact gets lost in recruitment appeals from the AFM.

Collective action: you’re doing it wrong

collective action megaphone

Photo by Molly Sheridan

A couple years ago, Tom Olcott of local 802 wrote a piece calling out several New York new music ensembles for not being unionized. He also listed several union members in good standing as counterexamples, including the New York Pops and the Mostly Mozart Festival. Unfortunately, his argument was apples to oranges in the extreme. Orchestral pops and the music of Mozart—these are widely known and artistically conservative genres. They appeal to a broad audience, with a market that was established long before either of those presenters came onto the scene. So while the repertoire undoubtedly has value, I’m pretty sure no one plays in the New York Pops because they feel that Rodgers and Hammerstein are underappreciated by society.

New music, on the other hand, is basically evangelical: we’re hooked on the thrill of new, unorthodox repertoire, so we toil to build awareness and expand audiences for living composers, to push the boundaries of musical experience, to make art that might someday, if we’re lucky, add something new and unique to the cultural heritage of humanity. But there’s no pre-existing market for the unknown and the unproven—by definition. So unless the American political climate becomes much more supportive of state-sponsored arts funding, new music organizations will have to continue operating on shoestring budgets, below union standards. They have no other choice.

The kind of musicians who gravitate toward new music will always choose love of the repertoire over financial considerations. But that doesn’t mean new music is anti-union. Comments like the following were typical among the musicians I interviewed for this piece:

“Organized labor is the reason that music is where it is.”
“We are 100% in support of an organized labor system that can accommodate our reality.”
“I try really hard to pay as close as I can to AFM standards.”
“Union scale is a benchmark that we quote to all presenters.”

Nor is the AFM completely unsympathetic. In my interview with Bruce Fife, I asked what he thought a group of young composers with a limited budget should do if they wanted to throw together an ad-hoc ensemble to perform or record some of their pieces:

“Anybody can approach their local board or the IEB to request waivers or considerations or promulgated agreements to make those kinds of things work so they accomplish what the goal is….To me it’s always about what’s going to happen to that music, how is it going to be utilized, and are the musicians being fairly compensated for the use.”

I think this emphasis on usage is probably the best way to bridge the gap between traditional union mandates and the needs of the new music community. Bruce described how a similarly “sideways” approach worked in Seattle, where that city’s local fought for better loading zone access at nightclubs instead of focusing solely on wage considerations.

The AFM will get more sympathy from new music if it concentrates on helping musicians and presenters develop practical usage agreements that meet the needs of all participants, instead of insisting on pension contributions, minimum scale, and secondary market considerations more applicable to the film industry. Not that wages and re-use fees aren’t important, but downward price pressure in music is a complicated and pervasive issue. When even star economist Paul Krugman admits to being confounded by the economics of music, we’re unlikely to solve the problem by towing the traditional party line.

There is a lot of useful work that can be done to strengthen the standing of musicians outside of the wage issue. This in turn will bring more musicians into the union fold and give the AFM greater lobbying clout to tackle the big economic trends. But nothing’s going to happen so long as young musicians entering new music see the AFM as an institution that is incompatible with their aspirations.

Potential solutions

Here are two ideas that would immediately improve this situation. First, I propose that the AFM abolish scale and simply provide average and median fees paid for similar engagements, in similar genres and markets, over the past five years.

The problem with something like a minimum scale is that it can be twisted into a glass ceiling. No matter how high or low you set the rate, music presenters without a collective bargaining agreement can use it as a justification to pay something lower: “Well, we’d really like to pay that rate and we’re trying hard to get there, but the economy blah blah blah, so right now the best we can do is X.”

By providing averages instead of scales, the AFM would torpedo this sleezeball approach. Employers would have to justify their offers based on what others are actually paying, giving musicians much firmer ground to stand on than some bleeding-heart appeal to fairness. “You should be paying union scale, because that’s the right thing to do” becomes “Why would I work for you at half the rate those other venues are paying?”

My second suggestion is that the AFM create genre-specific, graduated paths toward full union compliance. At some point, all musical employers of a certain size should be providing decent wages, pensions, and benefits; it’s just not always feasible for a new organization on a shoestring budget. So instead of forcing emerging musical employers to work outside the union fold until they can afford full participation, start looking at what musical organizations of a similar scope are doing, then develop best practices and a roadmap for growth. As long as the employer stays within the bounds of what’s acceptable given its mandate and stage of development, it would get the stamp of compliance from the union.

There would be a path for a string quartet playing new music, and a different path for one playing wedding gigs; a blueprint for a regional pops orchestra, and one for a film scoring orchestra. And naturally, the requirements for each group would change over time. In the beginning of an organization’s existence, obligations would be few and benefits would be many. As the organization grows, financially and otherwise, more stringent requirements would kick in. The new music ensemble that tours internationally and has steady operational funding should absolutely be held to a higher standard than a self-funded group that is putting on its first show. If the successful group can’t provide the types of benefits and support that similar groups are providing, it should rightly get heat from the union.

Naturally, there are details to work out before either of these suggestions could be put into practice, but they’re not insurmountable. I know we can do better than a system where an entire class of pro-labor musicians feel that the musician’s union doesn’t apply to their careers. None of my ideas are all that radical, nor are they meant to be a rigid, unchanging formula for all time. I’m just trying to get the ball rolling, because I want new music to have as many allies as possible. What a shame that the AFM isn’t among the most important.


Aaron Gervais

Aaron Gervais
Photo by Tracy Wong

Aaron Gervais is a freelance composer based in San Francisco. He draws upon humor, quotation, pop culture, and found materials to create work that spans the gamut from somber to slapstick, and his music has been performed across North America and Europe by leading ensembles and festivals. Check out his music and more of his writing at aarongervais.com.

Dying From Exposure

Desert walk

You should play for free…you know, for the exposure.
Photo by Maarten van Maanen, via Flickr.

Recently I went to the Traverse City Film Festival, which in addition to showing a wide variety of independent movies, also features musical acts as pre-show entertainment–a nice way to pass the time during those interminable waiting periods before the movie begins. I discovered that many of the musicians were unpaid, or rather, they chose to volunteer their time, depending on how you want to phrase it. I found myself feeling very conflicted about this. On the one hand, the festival is a non-profit organization that depends heavily on volunteers from the community (1600 this year), and it almost certainly wouldn’t function without them. On the other hand, how hard would it have been to at least pay something, anything to each of the festival’s 100 musicians, as a gesture of respect for their time and talent? At an event with so many sponsors and donors, and an audience with a median income of $87,500, it didn’t quite sit right with me, especially considering the fact that founder and president Michael Moore just donated $250,000 to the festival. If each musician was paid $100 (not a huge fee, but not unheard of by any means), the total would represent a mere 4% of that quarter of a million dollars, and that’s not even including the festival’s usual annual budget.

That is not to say I blame any of the individual musicians for making the decision to play for free. Deciding whether or not to do an unpaid gig often involves a complicated calculus of factors, including the nature of the organization running it, the nature of the event, the kind of repertoire, the potential non-monetary benefits of doing it, etc. It’s easy enough to say that we should join a union and agree on standard rates, but unfortunately this one-size-fits-all approach is often out of touch with the reality of musicians’ daily lives, and doesn’t account for the vast diversity and disparity in various musicians’ circumstances. (For evidence of this, look no further than video game and film composer Austin Wintory’s recent difficulties with the American Federation of Musicians.)

It’s also true that these kinds of issues are not unique to music, and happen across the board in the arts (for example, performance artist Marina Abramovic’s questionable uses of unpaid labor). Heck, even musicians have to be goaded into begrudgingly paying other musicians sometimes. (Amanda Palmer is probably the canonical example here, though the recent fiasco with Chicago’s Beethoven Festival is another illustrative scenario.)

But what is not problematic on an individual level can become catastrophic on a larger level, and I worry that we are rapidly ruling out pretty much every scenario that would allow a typical musician to make a living. The logic seems to go something like this:
how musicians get payyyyed (2)
The extrapolated end result of this circular flowchart seems to be a world where there is only room for hobbyists and megastars, and the middle class musician is a thing of the past. Many people would probably be perfectly fine with this, but it sounds like hell on earth to me and most people I know.

How do we then extract ourselves from this seemingly unsustainable situation? I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that arts entrepreneurship could be useful here.

There has been plenty of arguing back and forth about the merits of arts entrepreneurship lately, with Aaron Gervais and R. Andrew Lee questioning whether such a thing even truly exists. I think part of this is just semantic anxiety about the word itself, and I too find the word “entrepreneur” and its cousins (branding, marketing, etc.) to be kind of off-putting and skin-crawly and impersonal. But until better terminology comes along, we seem to be stuck with them.

There is also a fear, I think, that if everyone in the arts developed entrepreneurial skills, this would just make the competition for the same resources stiffer, and the net effect for all that extra expended effort would be zero. There are a few reasons why this reasoning is faulty. For one thing, one of the foundations of entrepreneurship in the arts is audience building, especially beyond the confines of the usual audiences. This kind of thing doesn’t just benefit one person or group; it benefits everyone in the field.
To their credit, both Gervais and Lee do acknowledge that all musicians could use some basic business savvy. What they object to is the use of entrepreneurship as a panacea or magic incantation that wishes away real problems and real distinctions. Art is not a commodity in the usual sense, they argue, so applying entrepreneurial skills to the arts is misguided at best, actively damaging at worst. They then suggest some alternatives to entrepreneurship based on personal connection and engaging the most involved parts of your audience, what Lee calls “supporters” and Gervais calls “hardcore fans.”

These are solid suggestions, but I worry that they are not enough. Gervais makes a historical argument by pointing out all the false threats that have been thought to endanger musicians throughout the ages, and it’s true, reports of music’s death have been greatly exaggerated time and time again. And yet Gervais ignores the huge upheavals that have dramatically changed the way musicians make money over the years, from artistic patronage to digital distribution. These things make a difference. Music will certainly survive, but possibly not in its current diversity and quality, and we should care about this.

It’s true that in a free market society, any way to make money off of music is going to be a “hack” of some kind, and isn’t going to represent a 1:1 ratio with that music’s true value, which is subjective anyway. But this isn’t an argument against entrepreneurship — it is an argument for its absolute necessity, at least in a society without abundant public arts funding (like the United States).
In other words, the medium matters. Streaming music services are one kind of entrepreneurial venture that can have a big impact on the livelihoods of musicians. Let’s look at two existing services, Spotify and Bandcamp, and their ability to engage the supporters and hardcore fans that are so important to Lee and Gervais. On the surface, these services are pretty similar on the end user side of things, offering unlimited free streaming to music listeners. Spotify then pays the artist a rate based on the number of plays per month. While these rates are slightly different for free users and paid users of the service, it doesn’t really differentiate between avid and casual listeners for a particular artist. The rate at which Spotify pays out tends to be consistent but small, in fractions-of-a-cent-per-play territory.

Bandcamp, on the other hand, only pays the artist if the listener specifically chooses to purchase and download the album. At first glance this might seem pretty bad — there’s no guarantee you’ll get paid at all! — but in practice it clearly delineates who is emotionally invested enough to actually buy your music. A pay-what-you-want option allows for superfans to pay more if they so desire, not all that different from a charitable donation in effect.

To date, I’ve made over 75 times as much money with Bandcamp versus Spotify. Clearly, one service was made with musicians’ input and interests in mind, and one was not.

This is what I am deeply concerned about when we abdicate our role in arts entrepreneurship. When we let others make these decisions for us, others who may not have our best interests in mind, we leave ourselves open to exploitation. This is why we must continue to advocate and agitate, and not be lulled into accepting the status quo under the false assumption that the status quo cannot and will not change. How music is disseminated and perceived is in fact undergoing dramatic and profound changes right now. While this is terrifying, it also gives us an unprecedented opportunity to shape music’s future, but if and only if we have the will and vision to see it through.

Update: The original version of this article mistakenly stated that Michael Moore donated $250,000,000 to the Traverse City Film Festival. This figure has been corrected.

On the Met Opera Lockout

Lincoln Center Plaza

Photo by Christine und Hagen Graf via Flickr

This afternoon, all hands will be together at the table, trying yet again to negotiate the Metropolitan Opera’s contracts for 16 unions. If the Met Opera does not sign the contract by Friday, they have pledged they will lockout workers. This means that from August 1 on, the Met’s management will refuse to pay workers or to let them work, only providing the minimum of unemployment and health benefits. Musicians and stagehands alike have been preparing for months for this, and now the moment is upon them.
The Met Opera’s dramatic tactic is meant to shake the workers into serious concessions regarding pay and benefit reductions averaging 16 and 17 percent. It will also have a profound effect on AFM Local 802, which counts the Met’s musicians as 20 percent of their income. Under these terms, the resistance is likely to be long and serious. So, it’s time for a showdown.
It’s really hard to resist placing this in a narrative of villainy, especially given the setting and characters. The media have largely portrayed this as a debacle of ego—general manager Peter Gelb, pseudo 1%er with his 1.8 million dollar salary and lavish production style, versus the musicians and many dedicated workers who shape the space they play into. (The workers run the Facebook page Save the Met, if you’re interested). What is missing here is the fact that Gelb is an emissary of the Met, the whole institution, and that he keeps talking about how he has to get the cuts so that the board and donors will be more reassured. If something’s rotten in the state, it’s got to be more than just the king.

The numbers don’t really tell us why the lockout is happening now. We’re talking about a deficit of $2.8 million dollars out of the Met’s $300 million budget, of which $200 million goes to the workers who make the Met what it is. Gelb said that the smallness of the deficit was deceiving, as it “could have easily been $20 million to $30 million if I had not been calling up our donors and getting them to fill the gap.”

Of course, calling up donors is his job, so it seems that he merely did his job. Is he suggesting that donors don’t want to support such base needs as workers’ pay? This argument doesn’t make sense since giving is generally up at the Met. What’s not up is investments and the pension portfolio, which means they need to be less risky about their asset management.

Another part of Gelb’s job is balancing the budget, which would imply figuring out what the fixed and variable costs are, and minimizing the variables first: a.k.a. production costs, overtime costs, and other costs directly related to his artistic vision. That he brazenly refused to do so amid the financial meltdown and the devaluing of investments is the number one critique leveraged at Gelb, and the thing the unions are focusing on in their negotiations, demanding $20 million in spending cuts rather than curtailing worker wages and benefits.

Someone has to be held accountable for the deficit—but who? It’s going to be the workers, says Gelb. Why should the workers do just as much work for less money? For the ideal great opera? For Gelb’s?

Labor is a fixed cost, unless it isn’t. A union contract is the surest way for workers to ensure that their earnings are accounted for in the budget. To attack such a cost is to attack the power of the union to secure fair pay and conditions at all. Gelb has said that “the short-term pain is something we’d have to live with in order to provide long-term survival,” but what seems to really to be at stake here is the long-term pain of concession at every contract.

A $104,000 base pay for a chorister at the very top of her game is not outrageous––it’s a solidly middle-class income for New York, and likely will go towards paying back years of debt accrued while slogging through the musical trenches of underfunded musical institutions. Met musicians aren’t even the best paid in the United States, if you take into account the cost of living: that honor would be the orchestral musicians of Los Angeles. Still, to kill the possibility of reaching this level is to kill the very dream of “making it” as a professional opera singer, or indeed, as part of the middle class. I doubt that is a reality the Met wants to usher in.

A lockout is like a management strike: Gelb thinks he’ll gain power by forcing the workers to stay idle. This one is timed by Gelb to interfere with the beginning of the season. He’s got to be betting that, come that ruined opening night, sympathies will lay with the impoverished noble institution rather than the greedy workers who would run it into the ground. Where have we heard this doomsday narrative before? Public school teachers? Unionized hospital nurses? It’s not a coincidence.


Photo by Darwin Bell via Flickr

Of course the lockout will be toxic, as we learned from the Minnesota Orchestra and from the last Met lockout, in 1980. Subscribers flee, musicians flee, and the art suffers too. Whatever happens, a lockout will mean bitterness between the workers and Gelb. It will mean a division among the subscribers and donors, and worse, it will mean that other institutions may follow the Met’s hardline example. In other words, something rotten will spread beyond Denmark.

And then there’s that other part of Gelb’s job: presenting opera to a worldwide public, which is one big reason why new music fans should care. He makes decisions about what we hear. In 2009 Gelb told the New York Times that the economic crisis has “affected our endowment, it’s affected our cash flow, it’s affected our revenue streams. What we don’t want is for it to affect our artistic productivity.” But the following season, he replaced the Met’s 2009 revival of John Corigliano’s Ghost of Versailles with La Traviata. And while the focus of the recent cancellation of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer HD broadcast was said to be because of its political content, new music fans cringed at the knowledge that the one work of the season by a living composer was being taken that much further out of circulation.
We as audiences are told that we have to accept this artistic and political conservativism until the crisis has passed, just as the workers are told that they have to give concessions so that the institution can survive. But the crises never pass, and the field of opportunity doesn’t just expand for new musicians or for workers. It’s a real fight to get the lost concessions, artistic or economic, back. Better to fight not to lose them.

What lessons can we as fans, musicians, and members of presenting institutions learn from this situation? Can we prevent this from happening in our home institutions? One of the things that I take away from it is that we have to think about the long-term health of the music institution as something we all have a responsibility for. Perhaps it means putting together an audience coalition that demands to review the books or the investment portfolio. Perhaps it means stating at each fundraising dinner that the workers are why we do this, or standing up after rehearsal to say that the season’s expenses are too high. Perhaps it’s about putting the community back in the budgeting process with something like participatory budgeting. Whatever it is, it is certainly about preventing conflict through responsible budgeting rather than fueling confrontation and demanding concession from those already most squeezed.

Of New Music and the 99%

Carr making music at Occupy Wall Street

Photo by Stacy Lanyon

When I was asked to be a NewMusicBox columnist, I understood that one of the many points of the project is to facilitate conversation, and that “debate was welcome.” I’ve decided to embrace the idea and spend a month writing about conflict, specifically the ways in which music makers are agitating for better pay and working conditions in various parts of the industry.
Because this is NewMusicBox, I want to steer towards issues and case studies that speak to new music and its community. That said, I also want to state a belief that I plan to explore this month: that questions about funding, sponsorship, contracts, and payments are generically similar across many musical and creative domains and also across many “precarious work” contexts. Also, that these areas mostly land us in the working and middle classes in the neo-liberal West. I say this because I suspect that most people working in new music have working class or middle class economic situations, regardless of upbringing, education level, or identity. Perhaps I will be wrong in my hypothesis, and I would be more than happy to be wrong if the reality is that most music makers are actually making enough from music to be considered upper class, but I somehow doubt we are all living as “rock stars.” That is what I want to deal with in a more serious and empirical way this month.
Although I was always generically interested in music as labor, it was really my involvement with Occupy Wall Street that showed me what the contemporary struggles were in this field. The rest of this column is a short tour of how I got to the place I am now and why I consider Occupy the foundation of my current attitudes about musical labor.
When OWS sprung up in downtown Manhattan, I showed up to lend support and to hear what was on people’s minds. I was a music journalist who had played in new music and indie contexts for a decade, but I had wandered from performance when grad school took over my life. Within a few days of the occupation’s beginning, I signed an online pledge of support via the site Occupy Writers, led by Jeff Sharlet. I began editing and writing for the website, and visiting the park more often.
After my friend Will Hermes sent us a piece about Jeff Magnum’s Zuccotti performance

—I was both inspired and frustrated by my own work for the movement. I was a writer, but I wanted there to be something like Occupy Writers for musicians, because music is what I loved and music is what I knew about. I lay in bed one night about two weeks after the occupation started, worrying because no one had launched a campaign for musicians.
That night I had a sensation that was new to me. I knew that I wasn’t qualified to do this thing, I wasn’t a “real” musician and felt I thus didn’t deserve to step into the space of organizing a musician’s solidarity campaign, but I decided I was going to try to do it anyway. I had a little of the Occupy spirit in my veins when I popped over to my computer at three a.m. and bought the URL for occupymusicians.net, finding out in the morning that another New Yorker had bought the dot com only a day or two before me. “Why not join forces?” Sharlet wrote, and gave me the guy’s email. And so I met Judd Greenstein, an entrepreneurial young composer who also wanted to show solidarity, and together we launched occupymusicians.com.
When we launched we didn’t know what the site would do, other than that we wanted to show the world that many—indeed tens of thousands—of musicians felt kinship with or were part of the 900+ occupations held around the world that fall. To me it meant that the musicians not only supported the direct action tactic of occupying public space, but also that they had a consciousness about where they fit in the economic space. Most musicians, even the wealthiest among our list—such as Tom Morello or members of Sonic Youth—were the 99 percent. We decided that the list was just a list–a public statement. What musicians and activists did after that step was up to them.
We launched the website, got a lot of media attention, and began collecting a lot of great music and documentation of music (check out this Occupy-dedicated piece “Occupy Air” by Pauline Oliveros, for instance). The site was a global thing, but quickly after its launch I got involved in the New York OWS music working group. This meant coming off the computer and really doing the occupy thing, in the streets. I had to become a street conductor, performer, manager, wrangler, MC, and peacekeeper. I found myself in improvisational action contexts that challenged my comfort and creativity. (For instance: helping opera goers scale police barricades to get on the people’s mic at Lincoln Center, part of an action Alex Ross also wrote about. [I’m the girl in an orange hoodie shouting in front of Alex].) I had to sit in meetings and help hash out what our group’s values were when it came to recording, licensing, sponsorship, and other forms of money and prestige exchange at a moment when big media and corporations really wanted to be part of the Occupy space. I was pretty shy so all this street stuff scared me, but really it was the meetings that were the hardest part. I was at a loss when it came to how to behave, having spent a half-decade in the apolitical, totalitarian miasma of a Ph.D. program—a place where I learned I shouldn’t speak at all (literally, I was told to stay quiet in meetings until tenure), yet alone speak up for my values.

In the music working group, we had no road map except the strict use of consensus process, and with vastly different world views and the stakes seeming so high, we had huge arguments. We were from the worlds of classical, jazz, folk, hip hop, electronic, indie, Latin, Jewish traditional, street music. We were old hippies, anarchists, socialists, libertarians, liberals, feminists, and curiosity seekers. It was like the first day of college, only where 1,000 cameras were pointed at all the sophomoric choices and inarticulations. While it brought out the grandstander or bully in some, in me the process kept me quiet, observing others for about six months. I had no idea what to say, which as a journalist and wannabe academic, was terrifying. My whole world was shifting. In that time I stopped seeing musicians in terms of genre, stopped seeing people in terms of their class or education level, and gradually began to stop only thinking of how each life decision could support my career. Then, and this is still very much in process, I began to see what I wanted to do.
By the time I figured out what I wanted to do in the movement at least, it was six months in and the official story was that “Occupy was dead.” The mainstream media said it had failed aside from planting a meme of class consciousness in the minds of Americans. Even as I read this pronouncement, I would look around and see that my own world had changed, and that all these new people in my life were changed, too.
It was around that time that I began to see quite a few music-oriented action groups popping up with organizing and agitation plans surrounding issues old (fair contracts) and new (online streaming).
Carr working with Occupy musicians

Photo by Stacy Lanyon

In the three years since the movement began, I’ve seen a definite shift in the tactics used by musicians, organizers, and other people working in the music industry as they attempt to build power and push for fair pay and conditions in the vast and strange landscape of contemporary composition, performance, and recording. As a NewMusicBox columnnist this month, my plan is to write about some of these projects and some of the issues these struggles raise for musicians and music in general.
I certainly am not any kind of expert on the topic, but merely as one who is deeply interested in helping folks in the music industry earn a decent living and have opportunities to present their work. I hope that the brilliant and deep NewMusicBox commenting community will join in on this conversation, so we can get an even greater sense of where these struggles for fairness and dignity are happening, and what we can do as a community to support them.

Carr headhsot

Photo by Stacy Lanyon

Daphne Carr is a New York-based writer, activist, and educator. She is working on a memoir about contemporary music and activism, using Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night as inspiration.