Artists vs. Workers

Member to Member

Volume CVII, No. 10October, 2007

Jack Gale

Last month’s “Beat on the Street” question about whether musicians are “artists” or “workers” continues to elicit responses.

The question of whether musicians are artists or workers can be a sensitive one in a world in which musicians themselves are sometimes plagued by issues of self image and social identity.

This debate definitely impacts on unionism and evokes our own perceptions of employer insensitivity to the work we do and the respect we deserve.

The question is similar to the classic rhetorical query, “Does a tree falling in a deserted forest make a sound?”

That “parlor poser” has led to hours of argument and is sort of a semantic exercise based on different definitions of the word “sound.”

Although many of us agree that most musicians are both artists and workers, some interesting distinctions can be made.

Words have connotations. “Artist” often implies depth and mastery, while “worker” has industrial and even mundane overtones.

It is important not to hear these words as either pejorative or laudatory.

If, when we say a musician is an “artist,” we mean that he or she performs with a high degree of skill, sensitivity and expression, then that evaluation is a matter of judgment and opinion.

If, however, we believe musicians are artists by definition — that is, that all musicians are artists no matter what or how they play — then quality is not necessarily a consideration.

Although both of these concepts are valid, they are mutually exclusive.


Virtually all of us become musicians based on our love of music itself, and are therefore amateurs, since that word means “lover.”

Those who choose to earn their living by other means can continue to be considered amateurs even though they may be more accomplished than many professionals. In any case, their success is tied only to the satisfaction they derive from their music.

Among those who do seek musical careers, I would offer these definitions of “worker” and “artist.”

Instead of “worker,” I prefer the term “professional.”

One might think of professional musicians as those who function as employees, and artists as those who do not.

More to the point, professionals can be seen as those who stand to benefit from union representation, and artists as those who probably do not.

These are admittedly somewhat contrived definitions but they reflect certain realities:.

Professionals are successful as long as they play well and continue to be hired by leaders and contractors.

Musical artists, much like painters, rock bands and movie stars, are successful as long as they command public recognition, approval and support.


Let’s take a shot at really pinning down the differences, just for the sake of argument.

Professional musicians (a/k/a “workers” or “employees”) may have these attributes:

  1. They are expected to play whatever is put in front of them.
  2. They are paid for their work by the hour or week.
  3. They can legally be represented by a union and receive benefits under union contracts.
  4. They must meet standards set by their employers.
  5. They are not usually known to the public by name.

Artists, on the other hand:

  1. Have a direct link with audiences and fans.
  2. Set their own musical standards and repertoire.
  3. Are paid through performance contracts and royalties.
  4. Deal through agents, rather than working under union contracts.
  5. Might or might not be competent in freelance work.

Among successful musical artists of the 20th century, many were professionals who managed to develop wide public recognition and support. Such names as Leonard Bernstein, Yo Yo Ma, Benny Goodman, Wynton Marsalis and Frank Sinatra are examples of this pattern.

On the other hand, some major artists might not be successful as professional musicians, according to my definition above. Among these could be such prominent artists as Kenny G., Sean “Diddy” Combs, Andre Rieu, Yanni or John Cage. Like the previously mentioned artists, these people are not employees. They do not have to meet standards set by employers and they can do whatever they want musically as long as audiences pay to hear them.


Artists are often entrepreneurs, beholden only to the public and, unlike workaday professionals, they benefit from public relations exposure.

One obvious example of this is the fact that artists have much to gain from performing at benefits and other high-profile concerts for little or no pay, since public exposure alone is highly valuable to them, while working professionals, who do not trade on public recognition, need to be paid for such events.

Most jazz and chamber musicians are truly “in it” for the love of music and their desire to perform publicly. Some of these musicians say that they need to play the music they love and believe in whether or not they earn scale or benefits, and many make very little money during their careers. Their desire to work as artists sometimes seems to be incompatible with the compromises required to be workaday professionals.

There are somewhat different reasons for the union’s difficulty in interesting rock musicians in union contracts.

In the minds of many young pop musicians, being an “artist” rather than a “worker” is virtually essential to potential stardom and at least the possibility of making millions rather than just the scales and benefits earned under union contracts.

As many of us know, young people with such aspirations tend to see working for the door (or for nothing) as a stepping stone in building audiences and possibly being discovered so that they might eventually be able to write their own ticket as mega artists.

With the advent of Internet music distribution, professional musicians today can venture into entrepreneurship — and a possible artist’s career — by producing their own music, seeking to sell it online and possibly developing an audience as well.

(Of course, even in this medium there are potential problems of distribution, name recognition and even digital piracy.)


Even the superstar artists of today are well advised to save their money against the day when public favor shifts to new artists.

In general, every musician knows this truth: whether you call yourself an artist, professional, worker or employee, making a secure living in music today is a hard row to hoe.