What's a Musician Worth?

What’s a Musician Worth?

We musicians get a lot of conflicting information about what kind of compensation our work deserves. Too often, the message is that if you’re in it for the money, something’s probably wrong with you.

Written By

Ellen McSweeney

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.