Play for What You’re Worth

Financial Vice President's Report

Volume 112, No. 4April, 2012

Tom Olcott

When you get called to play a gig, are you paid what you’re worth? We want to make sure the answer is yes, because there is a problem slowly spreading through the classical scene in New York City. The good news is that it’s a problem we can solve together.

I’m talking about the recent emergence of new, nonunion classical ensembles here in town.

Many of these groups have engaging Web sites that offer audio clips and even streamed performances. Some have received terrific reviews, made major television appearances and recorded their work on major recording labels.

It’s true that these ensembles are hiring musicians and presenting live music. How can we argue with this?

The problem is that these musicians are not being paid what they deserve, and this brings down the wage standards of all musicians in NYC.

According to our research, this work is not just being taken by young musicians out of school. Many Local 802 members are taking this work as well.

If you get called to play a low-paying job in a new ensemble, our message to you is this: take the work, but call us confidentially and give us the chance to improve your pay and benefits. And tell your colleagues the same thing. Tell them that the union can make a difference.

For instance, full union scale for a three-hour classical performance is $250 plus benefits. Is that what you’re making?

What about when you make a recording? Our benchmark recording contract pays musicians $387.62 per 15 minutes of final, recorded product, plus protections against future exploitation of your work. Is that what you’re making when you record for one of these groups? I doubt it.

There is also the question of benefits. When you play a union gig, you get payments towards your pension and health, on top of your pay. Nonunion ensembles don’t offer this.

The Local 802 health plan can provide you with personal and family health insurance. The AFM pension plan is national in scope, portable, and, best of all, is a defined benefit pension plan. Defined benefit plans offer far greater retirement security than other investment vehicles. Whether a musician works in New York for an entire career or wins a national orchestra audition, the AFM pension plan is there for musicians regardless of geography.

Finally, when you play for a nonunion ensemble, you are most likely paid as an independent contractor. The law in New York requires all musicians to be paid as employees. We’ve figured out that when you’re paid as an independent contractor, you’re losing 7.65 percent of your wages. If you make $30,000 per year as a musician, you are losing $2,295 in taxes out of your own pocket that your employer should be paying for you!

To those of you who take these kinds of gigs, I know why you do it. I admire your artistry and understand your dedication and enthusiasm to your chosen ensemble.

But I also have not yet seen anything to indicate that you, as an individual in your ensemble, and an employee of that ensemble, have a working wage, a viable plan for your health insurance, or a credible plan for the end of your career.

I imagine that each of you desires a long prosperous career as a professional musician. I would suggest that you now consider how you can achieve that goal. Do you understand the “business” of your life? Can you influence that “business” to your advantage, and to the advantage of your colleagues? How have you addressed that future?

I invite each of you to ask those questions of Local 802 and to consider very seriously whether Local 802 can assist you to ensure a long and prosperous future. From my experience, I know your answer should be “Yes, I am interested, and how can 802 help?” My next answer would be: if you want to improve your compensation, health insurance, and future security, then call Local 802 and let us know how we can work with you to achieve those goals.

Finally, just so you don’t think I’m just some union bureaucrat telling you what to do, let me tell you a little bit about my own background.

I’m a professional trombonist and lifelong Local 802 member. I’ve performed nearly every major piece of the classical repertoire and have performed with all of the established Lincoln Center institutions and almost all of the other major local freelance orchestras. I have been a member of the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra for 30 years and the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra for 25 years. I have also performed numerous avant-garde pieces with smaller ensembles.

Virtually all of the work in my career has been performed under union contracts. Thanks to those contracts, I have received a fair salary, a good pension, and consistent health care for my family.

Now, as an officer of Local 802, I want to make sure that all musicians in New York City have the same great benefits and protections that I was lucky enough to have…thanks to the union.

If you get called to play in a nonunion ensemble, take the job, then call us confidentially. We have a great track record in improving wages and benefits while protecting your identity and your job. This helps you and it helps every musician in NYC by keeping our standards high. Call us at (212) 245-4802 and ask for the Concert Department or the Organizing Department.