Panel Discusses Ways to Make More Money as a Jazz Artist

Taking Ownership of Your Music, Accessing Union Protections, Are Key

Volume C, No. 5May, 2000

Jazz musicians gathered in the 802 Club Room on April 3 to hear distinguished guests including Lou Donaldson, Roy Ayers, Weldon Irvine and Clark Gayton discuss “How to Make More Money as a Jazz Artist.” It was a very well-attended event, which attracted about 80 people and ran until 7:30 p.m., when the Jazz Foundation’s Monday night jam session began.

The Jazz Advisory Committee decided to address the issue of low wages in the jazz industry by asking musicians who have had successful careers, and are still maintaining them years later, how they have achieved this. While not everyone can get rich from the sale of recordings, the committee hoped to show that musicians can have greater control of their careers if they learn more about the business side of our industry.

To do so, they enlisted a group of experienced, insightful and entertaining musicians. Jimmy Owens, the facilitator, noted that the panelists’ resumes are difficult to surpass. Perhaps more important, all have developed a flexibility that has sustained their careers, making them responsive to the changes that have taken place in the music industry and providing new opportunities for their work. One topic each participant was asked to discuss was his success in the contemporary music scene – through music sampling, recordings with hip-hop and R&B artists, etc.


Another objective of the program was to communicate to young musicians the importance of accessing benefits the union offers, such as health coverage, a pension, and wages secured through a collective bargaining agreement. Irvine, a pianist, pointed out that “many musicians are not aware of their rights when it comes to issues such as recording, especially less experienced musicians. They are eager to play and record, or they just need to get paid – and they are willing to take cash without asking for a contract because they see the union as third party interference.” Historically, he said, “this naivete and unawareness has rendered musicians impoverished and bitter. I applaud the union’s attempt to remedy this travesty.”

Jay Schaffner, Assistant Supervisor of Local 802’s Recording Department, discussed the significance of the union’s role in the music industry. He described little-known incentives such as the Special Payments Fund, which provides musicians with additional earnings for each record sold (over 35,000 copies), if it is recorded under a union contract. He also explained “new use” payments, which are generated whenever a recording is used for purposes other than those originally intended.

Schaffner stressed the importance of musicians knowing their recording rights He encouraged musicians to consult with the union to be sure they are receiving fair compensation, and are aware of any future payments they may miss out on by recording without a contract.

Several of the panelists stressed the importance of ownership and self-determination, and of musicians becoming the “leaders of their own destiny.” An important problem for artists working for the major recording labels is dealing with the business reality, said Ayers, a vibraphonist. Should the label decide to drop you, artists need to know how to maintain themselves and their careers. The clear message seemed to be to avoid allowing the label to be the only lifeline to your career.

Irvine encouraged musicians to study the history of the music business, noting that the same types of problems have been recurring for generations, and musicians continue to make them because they haven’t educated themselves.

Trumpet player Clark Gayton, the youngest panelist, said that he recognized early the importance of understanding the music business and has kept abreast of technological advances, such as MP3, that may help his career.

The issue of taking ownership of one’s music and protecting its use clearly struck a response among the audience as the panelists shared stories of their experiences with record labels. Ayers said that he began pressing his own records early on, but it has been challenging because he is competing against major recording labels with more money and resources.

Also highlighted were new experiences with the use of music sampling. Donaldson and Ayers are two of many artists who are receiving significant compensation for having their music used in popular, R&B, and other commercial uses. They are able to collect for these uses because of agreements between the union and the recording labels.

The next Jazz Open House is Monday, June 12, at 4 p.m. in the 802 Club Room.