Pay to Play?

The job of maintaining standards for musicians belongs to all of us

Volume CX, No. 7/8July, 2010

Karen Fisher

Photo: © Jim DeLillo via

In the labor movement, we talk about “respect” because it is one of the fundamental ideas on which the movement is built. As performers, we must demand that the fruits of our labor, specifically the ineffable experience a live concert or show brings to an audience, are remunerated with fair wages and some modest benefit contributions. In our passion to perform, we sometimes forget that the benefits we enjoy have been hard won and are easily lost. We talk about respect because as soon as we stop fighting for it, we lose it.

I recently heard a bit of news that reminded me of this simple truth in a very personal way.

I used to tour with Keith Brion and His “New” Sousa Band. Keith has made a name for himself as a scholar and arranger of Sousa’s music and his New Sousa Band is a recreation of Sousa’s original band, complete with uniforms and the unfurling of old glory during the “Stars and Stripes Forever.” When I played with them, the musicians were a mix of freelancers, orchestral musicians, college professors and current and former military band musicians.

The pay was all right – never great – but it was a gig and you could respect yourself in the morning. I believe that the reason people kept coming back was the extremely high caliber of musicianship and great camaraderie. We respected each other and we felt that we were respected and appreciated from the podium. Audiences everywhere loved us. The highpoint of my years with the band was a wonderful tour of Japan in 1996 where we were treated like rock stars. I had never before or since played with a group of musicians who were so happy to be there.

Unfortunately, all good things must end.

Just as work declined everywhere, work for the band diminished. The “tours” became mostly one shot deals or overnighters. The last gig I played with them went like this: I flew into L.A., rehearsed, played the concert the next day – and that was it.

The pay became less and less. Factored into that, the musicians had to pay their own transportation to and from the gig. Much as I loved playing with the group, it often cost more to travel to the job than I would earn and I had to refuse offers of work. I began to feel that those of us without steady income were, in effect, disproportionately subsidizing the band. I recently heard that the last few engagements the band played, the pay was zero.

That was shocking enough – but it gets worse. I also heard that the band is traveling to China in December. A source in the band tells me that musicians are being asked to pay $650 for the privilege.

So, assuming what I have heard is true, over the course of a decade, the pay started with what I considered respectable. Then it went to what I consider lousy. Then it went to nothing. Now, according to my information, the pay is “negative $650”!

We know that this is not a new idea. Amateur choruses and high school bands pay to play all the time. There are companies operating right here in the city that engage in this practice, preying on young musicians who are just eager to get on stage but who eventually move beyond that level.

In my opinion, for a professional gig to become amateur is the worst kind of backsliding.

I understand that times are hard for musicians and managements alike and that $650 is a relatively cheap trip to China for those who can afford it. I only ask that each musician who agrees to pay to work (!) will at least give a passing thought to those who fought and sacrificed over the last 200 years for the respect that our profession deserves.

Will their conscience dictate their actions? Will anyone stand on principle?

If the answer is “no,” we will all pay.