As a classical musician, do you know what union scale really pays?

Volume 116, No. 3March, 2016

Karen Fisher
THE UNION ADVANTAGE: Musicians of the Riverside Symphony enjoy the wages and benefits of Local 802's union scale. Above, Riverside musicians perform in 2013 in their annual Music Memory festival. Dozens of other ensembles in New York City have signed onto Local 802's classical contract, which protects musicians and guarantees them union benefits. Photo: Walter Karling

THE UNION ADVANTAGE: Musicians of the Riverside Symphony enjoy the wages and benefits of Local 802’s union scale. Above, Riverside musicians perform in 2013 in their annual Music Memory festival. Dozens of other ensembles in New York City have signed onto Local 802’s classical contract, which protects musicians and guarantees them union benefits. Photo: Walter Karling

Unless you are a contractor or a negotiating committee member, chances are you have never stopped to read the contracts under which you work. Busy schedules and commitments often do not allow for a lot of down time, so this is understandable. Ignorance is not bliss, however, and there are various possible negative consequences to your financial health when you do not know or do not understand the way things (are supposed to) work.

With that in mind, the following is a brief explanation of the particulars of the classical single engagement contract. It is not meant to be “everything you always wanted to know about the contract but were afraid to ask.” However, it may answer some of the most frequently asked questions. Whether you are new to contracts or just haven’t thought about them for a while, I hope this guide will inspire you to read your contracts and call us when further elaboration is needed.

All of the provisions, rules, and benefits were conceived by musicians for musicians, and have been hard won over decades of negotiation. Since most musicians work under a variety of contracts, it is important to know that the rules vary slightly from one field to another. However, every Local 802 contract, whether a CBA (collective bargaining agreement) or a separately negotiated single engagement agreement, has provisions for the following.

(Note: Local 802 recently updated classical scale. See Tom Olcott’s story. The numbers below reflect the new scale. The complete scale is available on this site under  “Forms, Scales and Agreements.”)

Wages: This is the minimum amount that every musician will be paid for the performances and rehearsals. Individual musicians are always welcome to negotiate a higher wage for themselves if they can, but every musician must be paid at least this amount. As the other premiums are based on a percentage of wages, this is usually the most contentious item in negotiations. Our current benchmark wage rate is $274 for a performance of 2.5 hours or less.

Premium Pay/Principal Pay: This is a premium of 20 percent over gross scale wages for performances and rehearsals for section leaders. This premium also applies to musicians when they are the sole player in the section. The concertmaster receives an additional 100 percent over scale. If an engagement does not call for a traditional concertmaster, another musician must be designated as the leader and receive the premium.

Doubling: A premium of 20 percent is paid for the first double, and 10 percent for each additional double. There are some exclusions, such as: A, Bb and C clarinets, trumpets, and separate categories of percussion. If you have questions about whether a specific instrument should receive the doubling premium, consult the agreement or call us.

Sound Checks: For a service to be considered a sound check (as opposed to a rehearsal), it must be an actual sound check and not an abbreviated rehearsal. It may be scheduled only in the event that no previous rehearsal for that performance has taken place at the performance site, and it must be scheduled no more than 1.5 hours or no less than 30 minutes before the performance. Sound checks pay 1.5 times the hourly rehearsal rate.

Chamber Music: Concerts requiring 14 or fewer musicians are considered chamber music and require a 12 percent premium for all players in addition to principal pay and doubling.

Religious Service: The rates for religious services apply to music played as part of a religious service (rather than a concert that happens to take place in a church or synagogue, for instance). There are specific guidelines for these depending on the number of services per day and the time frame in which they occur. Major holidays require an additional payment of 50 percent above religious service scales. Principal pay and chamber music overscale do not apply to a religious service.

Pension: Pension (currently 16.35 percent) is calculated as a percentage of gross scale wages, which include performances, overtime, rehearsals, mileage, doubling, and all premiums. It is not deducted from your wages, but paid in addition to your wages by the employer. It is worth a reminder here that it is extremely important to check your statement from the pension fund every year to make sure you received your benefits. Only employment covered by a union contract is eligible for pension benefits. If you are new to the plan or new to union work, make sure you understand how much work you need to do to become vested. It is a shame when people discover that they have lost years of benefits simply because they missed vesting by a few dollars. For more information, contact us.

Health Benefits: Health benefit contributions, like pension, are also paid by the employers and the money does not come out of your paycheck. In this case, the contribution is not a percentage but instead a set amount, and it is the same for all musicians regardless of other premiums. Currently a concert pays $51 and each rehearsal pays $17. These health contributions are not paid as cash into your pocket. Instead, they are deposited into your health account at the union, and once they reach a certain minimum level, you can earn health insurance through the union. Call us for more details.

Cartage: For a full list of instruments that pay cartage, please refer to the contract. For timpani, harp and other bulky instruments, the actual cost of cartage is paid. Make sure you keep receipts!

Mileage: A special mileage payment is earned for jobs in Nassau and Suffolk Counties and beyond Local 802’s jurisdiction, even if transportation is provided. The payment is $16 for the first 25 miles from Columbus Circle, then $11 for each additional 25 miles or less

Recording: No recording of any kind is allowed without prior written agreement. There are too many details related to recording and our national contracts to cover in this space, but I cannot stress enough how important it is that you educate yourself and know what you are getting into when you agree to do a recording. You easily could be cheating yourself out of thousands of dollars down the road if you agree to record non-union. Archival and grant recordings are a different matter. They do not require payment to musicians; however, they do require agreement with the union and a vote of the musicians. If you see microphones being set up in a rehearsal or performance and you have not received prior notification that a recording is taking place, inform your contractor and call us.

Working conditions: This section relates to the length of performances and rehearsals as well as breaks. Musicians must be paid for a minimum of 2.5 hours of rehearsal and for an entire concert even if only needed for a shorter time. A rehearsal may be called for up to 4 hours before overtime is required; however, all rehearsal times must be called no later than 24 hours before the rehearsal with a definite start and end time. No musician is required to remain beyond the last rehearsal call.

Work dues: For all work other than recording, a deduction of 3.5 percent is taken out of your gross scale wages. This should be the only deduction from your check other than the statutory taxes. If no taxes were deducted from your check, you were paid as an independent contractor, which is against the law in New York State. If this happens to you, contact us. We can let you know how being paid as an independent contractor can come back to haunt you at tax time and what you can do about it.

Technically speaking, the classical scale discussed in this article is called Local 802’s Single Engagement Classical Wage Scales and Conditions (Appendix A). You can find a copy on this web site under “Forms, Scales and Agreements.” Better yet, stop in and pick up a copy. We are always happy to see you.

Karen Fisher is the senior concert rep at Local 802. Contact her at (212) 245-4802, ext. 174 or