President’s Report

Should Musicians Play for Free?

Volume CVIII, No. 9September, 2008

Mary Landolfi

In June, our “Beat on the Street” column featured a question that might seem on the surface an unusual one to ask of professional musicians: “Should musicians play for free?” 

At first glance, the answer might appear to be an obvious no. After all, our bylaws specifically prohibit playing rehearsals for free (see article IV, section “ee”).

Moreover, we are professionals. By literal definition, professional people get paid while amateurs do not. 

Standard definitions, however, cannot tell the whole story. Being a musician is a calling; we have chosen this profession because we love to perform and musicians will often leap at an unusual opportunity when it presents itself.

So it is not out of the ordinary to see members of the union offering their talents for free, whether it is performing at the wedding of a dear friend or relative, reading chamber music at home or playing arrangements of music that aren’t commercially viable. The responses to the question in Allegro confirm that this is the case for our membership.

So, if a textbook reading of the bylaws doesn’t apply — and it clearly doesn’t, as the number of “reading bands” renting the Club Room attests — how does the union draw the line? Or should the union leave the sorting-out of this issue to individual members? A recent event illustrates why the union sometimes intervenes. 

I received several complaints by phone in May concerning a new group — a Broadway reading orchestra. I won’t give names, since the people calling me were eager to be anonymous, but there were two forms of criticism, both relating to the fact that the sessions of this group were being organized by a contractor and involved some of our more successful members.

Some callers — the most numerous — were upset because they were not being called for this group! They saw the opportunity to play for free for a contractor as a vehicle for obtaining future employment and their criticism fell along the lines of “if I can’t do this person a favor, he’ll never hire me.” 

The other callers felt somewhat compelled to answer the contractor’s call with a positive response and wanted the union to get them out of an awkward position — “if I say no, he’ll never hire me again.”

These are, of course, both sides of the same coin and they reveal why this group is different from the usual reading band in the Club Room. 

After receiving these calls, I had a chance to talk with the contractor involved and with some of the musicians who had played on these events.

From their perspective, these events were just an attempt to allow arrangers and composers in town a chance to write for larger ensembles and to hear work that might never be produced played by a live band.

The union might not have ever heard about the ensemble if one participant had not invited potential backers to the event without authorization. That was apparently the event that precipitated the calls to the union.

Ultimately, the contractor and representatives of the Theatre Committee came to an Executive Board meeting to further discuss the situation. The Executive Board did not take any formal action but has asked that the administration look at if and how other locals provide opportunities for musicians to be heard and arrangers to experiment.

The consensus was that, if there is a legitimate need for such a reading group, it cannot be within the purview of one contractor; there must be a method to allow broader membership participation and safeguards that prevent unfair exploitation or any interference with the union’s interest in contracts for theatrical readings. The contractor, to his credit, voluntarily suspended the project while the union looks at the situation. 

Thus far, however, a solution has not been found.

Local 10-208 (Chicago) had a reading orchestra in which any member could participate, but initial enthusiasm quickly wore out and the reading sessions ceased.

We have not yet gotten any reply from Local 47 (Los Angeles) on the subject.

If members have suggestions, I would be happy to hear them.

Whatever our ultimate solution, however, it must be one that maintains a level playing field for all members in their pursuit of work and avoids even the appearance that some have an unfair advantage in that endeavor. I believe that this is the intended meaning of this section of the bylaws. One cannot use playing for free to gain a competitive edge in obtaining employment. The union must insist upon adherence to that principle.