Tag: payment

Looking Out For Each Other with The Real Music Wages Database

A photo of an old card catalog from a library

I recently visited a sound art class at Vanderbilt University (over Zoom) as a guest artist. Towards the end of our conversation, one of the students asked me about what I was looking forward to in the future of my work and the fields of music and sound art. Rather than the aesthetic answer the student expected (and I could easily see myself giving a year ago), I surprised both of us by unhesitatingly responding that I was looking forward to improved arts workers’ conditions.

As excited as I am about the opera I’m currently writing or thingNY’s upcoming foray into mail art, the immediate effort I see from various communities of artists to create better working conditions and a healthier, more equitable social and economic ecosystem for the arts eclipses any individual art project or aesthetic movement in terms of my optimism for the future. From the boisterous and massive in-person protests to the quiet one-on-one conversations, from the various collective conversations on Zoom to the steady helping hand of mutual aid organizations, across the podcast interviews, slack channels, op-eds, and, yes, the astounding musical performances and recordings, a culture of community care has been dancing in a rainbow of tempos in all corners of the performing arts world. Into this spirit of sharing knowledge and resources, the New Music Organizing Caucus has created the Real Music Wages Database.

The Real Music Wages Database is an anonymous, crowd-sourced list of real wage transactions reported by musicians. We track how much someone has been paid, who paid them, and how many hours of work it involved. The more entries are added to the spreadsheet, the more discernable a true economic snapshot of the new music industry is visible. Inspired by similar crowd-sourced spreadsheets for dancers, baristas, museum workers, and adjunct professors, we created the Real Music Wages Database to help freelance music workers navigate what can be a very confusing financial landscape and give us tools to negotiate wages for ourselves, particularly in situations when we don’t have a union or an agent working on our behalf. The transparency of the database is meant to also be useful for ensembles, composers, producers, and presenters who want to get a better idea of what an industry standard might look like. The database has the potential to both identify organizations that don’t pay their performers enough as well as model how much an organization should pay their performers, ultimately encouraging equal pay rates and a living wage for musicians. (Oh man, doesn’t that sound nice?)

Starting out a career in new music and its adjacent musical scenes can be very confusing financially. For me, learning what I should be paid involved years of being paid a vast variety of amounts (or not at all) in ways that even still don’t always reflect the amount of work put in. One gig will pay my rent for two months after a week of work, while another gig will take a month of work to only pay half of my month’s rent. All of us freelancers know that part of our hustle is stitching together a living from a disparate assortment of gigs, each with its own unique equation of give and take. We’re hopeful that the Real Music Wages Database will speed up the knowledge gathering process significantly for young musicians, particularly those who don’t always feel comfortable casually asking their peers what they are being paid, as well as offer transparency for those who have been going at it for a while. In addition, the database can be a resource to other performing arts workers, like dancers and performance artists, who work with some of the same institutions, presenters, and venues that we do, but who historically have had an even harder time making a decent living, and can use the details of our experiences to uplift their own.

The database is limited in the information it gathers. For instance, we don’t ask about the tax status of the gig, or if you were given retirement benefits or health insurance. (Because let’s be real – how often does that happen?) And unlike other databases, we don’t ask about your gender or racial identity, whether you are disabled or your sexual orientation. We think tracking that kind of information is important and we fully support the reckoning over equity taking place within the new music world. However, we want to protect our community’s anonymity and felt that such a level of detailed, identifying information could sabotage those efforts.

We also wanted to make adding entries to the database quick and easy. So we decided to only ask for the most essential information and then use a system of tagging so that each person can decide what additional information would be useful for others to know. For instance, if a gig is associated with a specific university or institution that did not directly pay you; whether the gig was with an orchestra or chamber ensemble, for an opera or a wedding; whether it was for a specific series or festival; if it was a recording session; or if it involved an adjacent field, be that dance, theatre, or a religious service. The more tags are used, the more options will be suggested for you as you type into the ‘Tag’ field. This way, people can add as much information as they want and it is up to each individual to decide what they are comfortable sharing.

The database is also focused on gigs where the musician is not a generative artist. We understand how complicated the funding structures for our work as composers, sound artists, and performance creators can be. We decided that to fully measure the intricacies of our creative time for such projects would take a different set of questions. (We also encourage folks to use the NewMusicBox Commissioning Fees Calculator if it will be useful for your situation.) And finally, we especially encourage musicians to input their gigs paid for by funded institutions, particularly non-profit organizations that receive funds from foundations and governmental arts councils. A larger reckoning around funding and transparency in larger non-profit arts institutions is currently taking place and we hope this database can just be one tool in the reforming process.

The New Music Organizing Caucus (NMOC) is a baby of an organization, originally founded by composer-pianist Dorian Wallace and now spearheaded by a small group of dedicated and welcoming activist musicians. Initiated during the activist summer of 2020 that was energized by Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, NMOC holds monthly Zoom meetings where a community of new music workers come together to, as stated on the NMOC website, “advocate for decent working conditions and fair wages, provide support against discriminatory practices, share skills and knowledge, and fight for diversity, equity and inclusion in our field.” It’s a community of fellow musicians that welcomes anyone who wants to become more involved. I have met many people for the first time in these meetings, which might begin in shy awkwardness and end in refreshing sensations of solidarity. As with any volunteer organization, the more its membership wants to do, the more will happen. So far, we rely on pro bono assistance. For instance, Brian McCorkle designed the website for the database, and Sophia Richardson and Alyssa McCallion designed the logo.

The Real Music Wage Database is the first large project initiated by NMOC with an eye on other ways we can support our community and share resources in the future. The group also works to advocate for the special interests of new music in larger organizations such as the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW), and the Music Workers Alliance (MWA), as well as connect members with resources in these larger organizations. Though many of the active members are based in New York City, there are members from all across the United States. And even as in-person events begin again in the coming year, the group plans to continue meeting online so that it can serve and connect a wider geographical range of musicians.

Like many others, the reason I have more time to go to Zoom meetings for volunteer, activist organizations is because I don’t have as much work as I did before the pandemic started. (Also, I was probably working too much before the pandemic started, but that’s another story…) You might be looking at the Real Music Wages Database and thinking you’d love to input gigs when you have them again. When that day comes (and oh it will), I hope you do! In addition, it is tax season. I recently found myself adding entries as I went through my paystubs and expenses from 2020 in preparation for meeting with my tax guy. However strange it seems to me looking back on what felt like an impossibly long year, there were two and a half months of work in 2020 before the lockdown completely transformed every aspect of my life, and that is as obvious in my banking activity as it is in my sleep schedule. For the ultra-ambitious musician with free time, take a moment now to add your gigs from multiple past years. And for the slow-and-steady thoughtful freelancer, thank you for adding your gigs as you get them for many years to come. The Real Music Wages Database is as much of a useful tool as our collective music community nurtures it to be. I’m real thankful to be part of a community of folks that look out for each other.

(In full transparency, the NMOC Real Wages Steering Committee currently consists of Gelsey Bell, Nicholas Connolly, David Friend, Andrew Griffin, Marina Kifferstein, Brian McCorkle, Luisa Muhr, Pablo O’Connell, and Hajnal Pivnick. We can be reached at [email protected]. Want to be more involved? Please join us!)

The logo for the Real Music Wages database

What’s a Musician Worth?

Between playing for fun and collective bargaining, where do today’s freelance new music performers fit in?

Musician silhouettes

Image via Big Stock

On August 21, indie musician and DIY internet darling Amanda Palmer put out a call for musicians. She needed skilled string and brass players for various stops on her upcoming tour. This was a great opportunity for musicians to collaborate with a talented, internet-savvy artist who recently raised more than $1 million on Kickstarter. The catch? Palmer wouldn’t be paying.

The internet went into an uproar. Palmer was probably compensating her PR person, web designer, tour bus driver, and roadies. Palmer would probably not expect free services from all the restaurants, bars, hotels, and gas stations she’d pass along her route. The one place she decided to cut costs was on musical labor. And the one thing she planned to get for free was musicians’ time and skill.

And not just any musicians–trained ones, with professional experience. From her blog:

[Y]ou need to know how to ACTUALLY, REALLY PLAY YOUR INSTRUMENT! lessons in fifth grade do not count, so please include in your email some proof of that. (A link to you playing on a real stage would be great.)

The memory of Palmer’s Kickstarter windfall was like salt in the wound. A significant portion of the money she raised probably came from musicians, willing to place a dollar value on Palmer’s creative work. As it turns out, none of that value would be trickling down.

A month later, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra went on strike when their management demanded they double their contributions to health care costs. In the musicians’ press release explaining why they had decided to strike, bassist Stephen Lester wrote, “Our product is our artistic quality. Reducing costs by lowering musician salaries beyond a certain level could result in a flight of quality to other orchestras …. It would be tantamount to the Art Institute’s selling its Picassos and Monets to buy lower quality works that are less expensive to maintain. Unlike a business corporation, a cultural organization like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra cannot save its way to success.”

In other words, the musicians seemed to be saying, you get what you pay for.

The musicians of the Atlanta Symphony recently accepted a contract with $5.2 million in concessions, including massive pay cuts, increased health care contributions, a reduced roster, and a shortened season.

That $5.2 million in concessions, by the way, was exactly what their management was demanding of them. During negotiations, and throughout a lengthy and painful lockout, the management did not move an inch. The musicians wrote that the contract “set the ASO back…over 10 years in musicians’ compensation, not even taking inflation into account.”

A friend posted the news on Facebook, and someone responded almost immediately: “Meanwhile, in Chicago…”

Was she suggesting what I think she was suggesting? That this choice by the Atlanta musicians, to fall on their own swords, was a heroic one, worthy of replicating elsewhere?


We musicians get a lot of conflicting information about what kind of compensation our work deserves. Take Amanda Palmer. The message she’s sending is: performing music is fun! I performed unpaid for years! If someone likes my music and wants to volunteer to join me onstage, that’s her prerogative. After the internet exploded in her face, Palmer told The New York Times that “if you could see the enthusiasm of these people, the argument [against me] would become invalid.” The flip side of this message? If you’re in it for the money, something’s probably wrong with you.

street performer tips

Image via Big Stock

But here’s the thing: being a professional musician who can “actually, really play your instrument!” is not a part-time proposition. Staying in shape as, say, a violinist is a way of life that requires daily investment; it’s a use-it-or-lose-it scenario. In order to remain a functional musician, a two-part process is required: First, you put in a lot of unpaid hours, alone, practicing, in order to sound your best. Second, you show up to your paid engagement and sound great. You repeat this process as necessary until, if you’re lucky, you’ve paid your rent that month. This process is not easy and income is not reliable, especially in the beginning. Remaining a professional musician is a struggle. Many people do not make it, and for good reason.

If part two of the process never happens–or the gigs you show up for aren’t paid–you end up spending a lot of hours earning money doing something else. You wait tables, you sit at a desk, maybe you teach lessons. When you get home at night, you’re too exhausted to practice so you watch Netflix instead. After a while, you’re not sounding so great anymore. It gets to be too tiring to do your day job, have a personal life, and put in all those unpaid hours for all those unpaid gigs. Before long, there’s one less “actual, real” violinist in the world.

A lot of people bring up supply and demand when you try and put a dollar value on musician employment. The supply is too high; demand is too low. And that’s why Amanda Palmer can propose a fee of zero dollars. But is this really the side of the arts economy that Palmer wants to be on? Follow that supply-and-demand scenario to its end, and we’ve got a problem. By initially refusing to make space in her budget to compensate actual, real musicians, Palmer was contributing to our extinction. The collapse of music education has shrunk the pool of competent amateurs, and low wages will strangle the professionals. At this rate, in twenty years there will be very few people who are able–or want–to read her charts.

It took Palmer almost a month to change course and decide that she would, in fact, pay all the musicians who played with her. She didn’t say how much. But as most freelance musicians can tell you, it’s not always the amount that matters.



Image via Big Stock

There’s another thing that performers like me–young, freelancing, doing lots of work in new music–aren’t sure about. How, exactly are our fates connected to those Chicago Symphony musicians earning seven or eight times what we do? Or to the folks who will show up to play Palmer’s gig for the fun of it, who perhaps didn’t invest six years (or six figures) into earning advanced degrees in performance? After all, we’re a generation working to strip away some of the formality from our work. Our concerts are as likely to take place at a bar as they are in Symphony Center.

When it comes to the CSO, many of my peers seem convinced that our fates aren’t at all connected. On Facebook, one young musician noted, “This isn’t a labor relations framework of Us Against Them. It’s more like Them Against Them.” The CSO management might be the 1%, he was saying, but so are the players. He’s describing a race to the bottom. And down there–uninsured, deeply in debt, paying out of pocket to take auditions, driving three hours for a gig that pays $85 a service–yup, that’s Us.

When we let the divide-and-conquer logic work on us, we all lose. If the CSO makes concessions at the top, what happens to everyone below them? Why is scraping by with no security “fair” while making six figures is “greedy”? Which one of these situations more closely represents the way we want artists to be treated in our society?

The New York Times wrote that Palmer had stumbled into “a culture clash between the freewheeling rock ‘n’ roll scene of club dates and scarce cash and the world of established conservatory-trained musicians long supported by strong union locals with wage scales.” In the time since that interview was published, two more orchestras have been locked out by their management. For the young performers starting their careers today, it’s clear that the rock ‘n’ roll scene isn’t the only one with scarce cash. And the future trajectory of that wage scale is anybody’s guess.


NewMusicBox is pleased to introduce Ellen McSweeney as our newest Regional Editor. She will be covering Chicago and its environs. Welcome, Ellen!

Ellen McSweeney

Ellen McSweeney

Ellen McSweeney is a Chicago-based musician and writer. She is the founding violinist of Chicago Q Ensemble, a string quartet dedicated to new music, interdisciplinary collaboration, and innovative programming. As a chamber musician, Ellen has also been heard with ensemble dal niente, Access Contemporary Music, Singers on New Ground, New Millennium Orchestra, and New Music DePaul, among others. Ellen holds a B.M. from the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University and an M.M. from DePaul University. She is a winner of Vanderbilt’s Merrill Moore Award for Poetry Writing and the Vanderbilt Review prize for Best Fiction. Her indie folk duo, Elk, will release their debut EP this winter.