Are We Amateurs or Professionals?

If You Play for Peanuts, Call Us

Volume CVII, No. 6June, 2007

Karen Fisher

In the mid-1980’s, I was an ambitious young clarinetist just embarking on my career. Armed with a bachelor’s degree in music performance and modest experience, I spent a small fortune traveling to auditions only to wind up in cattle calls with literally hundreds of other hopefuls. After several close calls but still no job and no real freelance work where I lived, I knew that I had to do something drastic.

I applied for a day job at an insurance company. During the last round of interviews, one of the managers looked at my resume, and then peered at me over his glasses. “It looks like you have devoted a lot of time to your hobby,” he said. “Are you sure you want to give up music?”

The answer, of course, was a resounding “no,” and I walked away with a renewed determination to succeed as a professional musician.

To many people outside our field, a degree in music may just as well be a degree in basket weaving. We have all faced similar questions and concerns from well-meaning friends, family and acquaintances. How is it possible to make a living as a freelance musician?

It is frightening to ponder the answer to that question if our members do not start to call in nonunion work.

When we accept low pay, no health benefits, no pension, no social security contributions and no other employer-paid benefits like workers’ compensation, disability and unemployment insurance, how can we expect employers to respect us or our talents?

It should go without saying that when musicians work for cash, we are undermining ourselves and crippling our futures.

Charity work aside, professionals of comparable caliber in other industries would never entertain the idea of working for a fraction of the existing market rate, with no benefits or protections.

As dedicated, highly trained professionals and artists, we deserve more than a few bucks for our experience and talents. We deserve to see a doctor when we are sick, and to retire with dignity.

Everyone needs to pay the bills and I am not advocating refusal of all work that is not under a union contract.

There is a good amount of work outside the jurisdiction of Local 802, and – in the interest of full disclosure – I admit that I played my share of nonunion gigs.

I can honestly say, however, that with few exceptions, I usually felt artistically compromised and exploited on those gigs knowing that I was not being properly compensated for my efforts.

A common misconception is that unionizing a job is futile, and often will result in the loss of any work from that particular employer.

In fact, working under a collective bargaining agreement not only provides the dignity of well-earned pension, health and other benefits, and legitimizes the work for our tax purposes, but it also encourages employers to turn half- hearted endeavors into steady employment.

Accurate budgets can be written based on union scale increases, and in many cases, employers can justify to foundations and clients the necessity of modest annual revenue increases due to legitimate negotiated increases in operating expenses.

In fact, governments and foundations are increasingly looking to fund responsible and ethical employers, which are often defined as unionized employers that pay a fair wage and provide decent benefits.

Finally, treating musicians with respect will always help in increasing quality and providing much sought-after stability.

If we are treated fairly by an employer – and certainly if something like our health care is dependent upon continued employment with a particular employer – we surely will remain more loyal to that organization.

This reduces subbing and turnover, and provides the stability that most employers seek.

The result is that productivity and quality increase because – with decent union contracts – employers can attract and retain the most qualified and dedicated musicians.

If you want a day job, you can always try selling insurance. It worked well for Charles Ives.

Otherwise, Local 802 and the AFM are here to help, but we need your input.

Our slogan – “We’re the Professionals” – will only remain true if we all believe in our worth as artists.

Remember that it is not unreasonable to demand a living wage and benefits. You’re worth it.

Joe Eisman contributed to this story.


If you get called to do a nonunion performance, you should accept the job – and then call us. We prefer that you make contact with a rep personally, but you can also call Local 802’s 24-hour hotline, at (212) 245-4802, ext. 260.

By calling the hotline, you give Local 802 the opportunity to convert your nonunion job into a union job, which could mean an increase in pay, benefits and the other protections of a union contract. It’s also the right thing to do.

If you call the hotline, you can stay anonymous and we can do our work without even knowing who you are. But if at all possible, please leave your name and number so we can follow up with you.

In any case, make sure you leave as much information as possible on the message, including when and where the performance and rehearsals take place, who the employer is, who called you for the job, and the names of anyone else on the job

Why do we need to know this? In order for Local 802 to convert a nonunion performance to a union one, we have to act fast, and we have to contact the employer and the other musicians on the job. Every bit of information helps.