Many of us have heeded the siren call. “Come to Spain! (Or Vietnam! Or Tahiti! Or some other exotic country!) Play your instrument on an international stage! Vacation while you work for food! We won’t pay you, but it will be a blast! And a great networking opportunity! And good exposure!”
As someone who got duped into playing one of those tours in the mid-90’s, I urge extreme caution should you choose to accept any overseas tour.
In my case, the lure was a trip to sunny Spain.
I had just left a full-time job, had some money saved, spoke passable Spanish, and had friends in several of the cities on the itinerary.
At the time I got the call, I had been planning a short getaway to Europe anyway. I thought, why not incorporate this tour into a working vacation, save some money on hotels and food, and play a few concerts? Never mind that it didn’t pay. Never mind that there was no contract. It will be fun.
I could not have been more wrong.
The musicians were mostly students, the conductor incompetent, and the food inedible. Hotels were two stars at best. Imagine endless hours on a bus in 100-degree heat, sleep deprivation and greasy food, and you will only start to get the picture.
Our concerts started at 10 p.m. – and sometimes 11. Often we didn’t return to the hotel until 2 a.m. or later. People became sick and behaved badly, as human beings are apt to do when they have no control over their environment. At one point, the orchestra left a cellist at a rest stop in the middle of the desert and no one noticed for three hours.
This kind of thing is still going on. I recently heard of a “freebie” tour of Korea that went out last summer. Sadly, it all sounded too familiar.
The orchestra, which goes under the name New Jersey Philharmonic (not to be confused with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra), was supposed to supply room and board.
Unfortunately, “room” one night was a stay in what appeared to be a whore house, complete with assorted sexual paraphernalia in plain sight.
“Breakfast” consisted of a cookie.
Busses had no bathrooms. The orchestra played two, sometimes three concerts a day. Rehearsals were often scheduled between concerts, and at times the orchestra played four services in one day.
Remember, this was all for no pay.
Musicians became sleep deprived, were poorly nourished and became ill. One musician said: “I finally left the tour an emotional and physical wreck, at considerable personal expense.”
The musician had to be hospitalized upon returning to the U.S and still suffers from panic attacks as a result of this ordeal.
According to Steve Gelfand of the AFM’s Department of Touring, inquiries regarding unpaid foreign tours are on the rise. “Call the AFM, talk to the touring department – before the tour,” Gelfand told Allegro. “After the fact, there is nothing we can do.”
Although the incidents described above were truly terrible, tours can be wonderful and lucrative experiences. I hope that the musicians who played on the Korean tour last summer do not become discouraged from accepting another tour, as the positive aspects of touring can be genuinely life-changing. But one must proceed with caution and eyes open. For every legitimate employer, there is an unscrupulous management eager to take advantage of musicians’ fantasies, youth, desire to play, and goodwill.
TOURS: A SURVIVAL GUIDE
As soon as you leave U.S. soil, all bets are off. The types of legal protections we enjoy here are not universal.
There are steps you can take to prepare yourself before you leave:
1. Before you sign or agree to anything, call the AFM’s Touring Department at (212) 869-1330, ext. 231. The department may have information on the employer’s history and any problems that may have occurred in the past with the group. They can also explain Pamphlet F which contains helpful touring guidelines.
2. Research the country you will be visiting as if you were going by yourself. Never rely on management to take care of everything. Make sure your cell phone and ATM card will function in a foreign country. Often, ATM codes have to be changed to accommodate different keyboards.
3. Learn essential phrases in the local language. Do not assume you will find an English speaker everywhere you go. Familiarize yourself with local customs, etiquette, and currency ahead of time.
4. Make sure your health and instrument insurance is up to date and valid for foreign travel.
5. Compile a list of addresses, phone numbers, and e-mail contacts of embassies, consulates, and any friends or relatives who reside in the places you are visiting.
6. Do not rely on the pre-tour itinerary. It will change. Expect changes and go with the flow – it will save you untold stress.
7. Never turn your passport over to management for “safe keeping.” This is a common ploy used in an attempt to essentially hold you hostage to the tour. Always leave a copy of your passport with someone at home. In case of loss or theft, a copy can help expedite the replacement process.
8. Have an exit strategy and don’t be afraid to use it if conditions become unbearable or dangerous. Have enough money available to purchase a ticket home.
9. Even if food is provided, expect to buy some meals, particularly if you have special dietary needs. Keeping healthy by getting enough sleep, eating right and exercising is absolutely essential for your mental as well as physical health.
10. There is strength in numbers. If you are feeling frustrated about something, chances are good that others feel the same way. Bringing the issues to management as a group is much more effective than one person having to bear the entire burden.
11. Most important, have some fun. Get away from the tour, sight-see and talk to locals. Proceed with caution, and – with a bit of luck – you can avoid becoming the next horror story!