Yesterday morning, Ellen McSweeney wrote an excellent piece detailing payment trouble she and others are having with Chicago’s Beethoven Festival from 2013. (I would strongly suggest reading the article and glancing through the ever-growing comments before reading further.) There is no need to rehash those points here, but I do think it is important to address further some of the issues surrounding classical musicians and money.
Immediately after reading McSweeney’s post, I was reminded of a talk I saw a while back titled “F*ck you. Pay me.“¹ In the video, designer Mike Monteiro and his lawyer discuss how to get paid for one’s work to what I presume is a roomful of mostly web designers. There are parts that don’t directly apply to musicians (payments in the tens of thousands of dollars not the least of which), but there are many points that every individual or small ensemble should take to heart. If you have 30 minutes (and don’t object to profanity), it’s well worth a watch, and I’ll try to pull some salient points that might help us all get paid in full and on time.
Money and Art
(If that isn’t a book-length topic, I’m not sure what is.)
In McSweeney’s post, she recalls an incident where she was offered a gig and after inquiring about a fee, was told to that she might not want to ask such questions in the future. As she writes, “When it comes to money and music, it seems we aren’t in agreement about what the norms are. How much is enough? What questions are we allowed to ask? And what do we do when the check never comes?” When she writes of “norms,” she seems to imply (and here I also draw from my own experience), that money is something to be tip-toed around, that there are tacit rules that must be followed, that handshake deals are the norm, and that money somehow sullies the purity of art.
This needs to end. Now.
Did you and others spend an enormous amount of money on lessons/education/instruments/etc? Have you invested countless hours honing your craft? Do you have debts and bills? Do you like to eat?
I get it. It is awkward to talk about money, and I don’t enjoy it anymore than anyone else. But when we sell ourselves short or pretend like money is not important, we do ourselves and our community harm. That’s a big part of a “F*ck you. Pay me.” attitude. It’s an acknowledgement that what we do has value and should be compensated fairly and promptly, but it’s also the extremely important recognition that when paid and paid well, we have the opportunity to do what we love at a higher level and for longer.
There are several things working against this, of course. Musicians are financially vulnerable, ours is an artistic pursuit and thus above such petty things such as money and, you know, rent, and at the end of the day, most of us would do it for free if we could. None of us (I hope) got into classical music for the money; ours is a labor of love. And yes, I think if we could make it work financially, we’d play for the pure love of it. But that doesn’t mean that we always can.
We must stop apologizing for discussing money. We must stop pretending that just because we would do something for free doesn’t mean that we are able to. Like it or not, artists need money to survive, too, and we can’t keep tip-toeing around the issue.²
I cannot tell you the number of times that I’ve played gigs where an agreement was never formally put into writing. I’ve also hired people the same way. This should not be the norm. A great portion of the video is spent explaining what should be put into contracts and how that avoids problems. But the first big takeaway is that contracts, when done well, should protect everyone involved.
From the perspective of the hiring organization, rehearsals, repertoire, cancelation, promotion, etc. are all important issues that should be formalized. I once was on the verge of having to miss a performance due to illness, but the venue already had that issue spelled out, so I was not panicked. That, however, was a rare instance.
From the performers’ perspective, there are many issues to consider beyond getting paid. The following is just what I could come up with in a few minutes, and I’m sure there are many other points to consider:
- Payment and due date
- Comp tickets
- Selling of merchandise (someone to help?)
- Cancelation on the part of presenter
- Late fee / lawyer fee
That last point may require some clarification. The example I thought of was something along the lines of, “if payment is not received within 120 days of the performance, the presenter will owe the performer 125% of the original fee and any attorney fees necessary to collect payment.” Keep in mind, I have zero training in law, and I have no idea what would or would not hold up should lawyers have to get involved, but if nothing else it shows the presenter that you are to be taken seriously.
The other caveat I have to add is that I have never tried this, but I plan to do this without exception in the future. I see no reason why a simple draft contract could not be at the ready for even a small gig. The fear, I think, is that presenting something like this will scare away gigs, and on that point my lack of experience with contracts shows. That said, if a presenter is nervous about being able to provide payment within four months, I’m not sure the gig is worth it. Moreover, I believe that even small-scale contracts allow us to lay all expectations on the table, protect all parties, and get on with the business of doing what we all love.
On final point from the video is worth mentioning. Monteiro, as might be inferred from the title, does not seem to shy away from being blunt. Yet when asked about his design firm firing clients, he had a somewhat surprising answer. He said that in all the years he’s had his own firm, he’s only had to fire two clients. He assumes, as we all should, that no one walked into the agreement wanting to be difficult or to derail the process. He suggested that a meeting over coffee or a phone call (never email) was almost always sufficient for resolving conflicts. We all, presenters and performers alike, want to bring the music we love to as many people as we possibly can. The contracts are there to protect us when things turn sour, as the case with the Beethoven Festival seems to be, but if we approach one another knowing that we are working toward the same end, we can hopefully keep these fragile and necessary relationships in tact.
¹ Credit to David MacDonald for also noting the video and posting it in the comment section of the New Music Box article.
² I’m not at the moment wading into the other thorny issue of exposure in lieu of payment. I’ve taken several gigs at reduced rates either as favors or for exposure. Some paid off and some have not, but at issue here is the pretense that money cannot or should not be discussed openly.