As a violinist, sometimes new and up-and-coming orchestras will ask me to rehearse and concertize for free. Personally, I don’t perform unless I am getting paid. I believe that it is inappropriate for orchestras and other organizations to ask this of working professionals. I believe if an orchestra is up and coming without a lot of funds, it needs to increase these funds by applying for grants, asking their local unions to help with the startup costs, and finding some sponsors to aid them in order to pay their musicians adequately for their services.
As a big band player, there is an entire scene in New York that involves playing free or very low-paying gigs, often for the door and some drinks at the bar. There is a great advantage to playing these jobs as they give you a chance to meet new musicians and be heard by other players. Often, it is a great way to make new contacts that turn into future paying work. And it can be a lot of fun as well. The union should allow contributions to pension and health funds to be made by the musicians themselves on these small jobs where there is a small cash payment from the door, which would allow another benefit to doing these informal jobs.
I’m happy to say that I have not been asked to play a free job in many, many years. It’s probably due to the nature of the classical music part of the business. However, around the time of my 43rd birthday, someone called to ask me to play a freebie. They said that there would be no pay but “lots of exposure.” My response was, “I’ve had 20 years of exposure. Now I’d like to start getting paid.”
I have an idea. Throw a party, invite tons of people and call it a “bash.” Then, find a real licensed, master plumber and invite him to the party also. A few days before the party, touch base with your new plumber friend, and ask if he wouldn’t mind bringing a bunch of his tools along to your house. Tell him that you LOVE plumbers, that all of the guests at the party do, that you have always WANTED to be a plumber but never had the talent, and that the kids would love to see you use a Sawzall! Tell him that at a predetermined part of the evening, all will gather and watch him replace a large section of galvanized pipe on your basement. Tell him, “It’ll be great!”
If this doesn’t work….invite a mechanic!
I have worked to raise money for many charities. In all cases it was for pay and I was left to my own inclination to make a donation. At an April 25 juvenile diabetes research event in Reno, a musical group was hired at well over scale and $1.6 million was raised. The pay to the musicians enhanced the fundraising. Contributing to the event was Paul Williams of Local 47. He donated his songwriting skills (not publishing) as a live auction item.
The writer is secretary-treasurer of the AFM.
Each situation should be handled differently. Many leaders are loyal to their first call players and sincerely believe that since they are giving special consideration to certain players, these players should reciprocate by giving a discount or even playing for free when they are showcasing or doing a benefit because the first call musicians will benefit from work. Some leaders can be greedy and just use people for as long they can and then cast them aside and then move on to the next dupe. In this case, the musician would be wise to find other people to work for. But in my career, most leaders have been of the former type and ask for only consideration when they are not big, established employers and are not even getting paid. And even then, these leaders do not make it a regular request. In this case it can cement the working bond and be rewarding for both parties.
I have no problem performing for free if it is educational in nature. In fact I believe there is a direct correlation between a musically uneducated population and the decline in humans playing music, be it live or recorded. So playing for schools for free is an investment in a hopefully brighter future. However, the typical “Hey man, can you do this solid for me? It will lead to more work!” never does lead to more work! It’s been my experience that the cheapest people are the ones with the most money. My response is: “Convince my mortgage company to do ME a solid and I’ll do one for YOU.” Until then, please pay me!
When a musician is asked to play a free job, the reply should be “I’m busy.” Then call the 802 hotline anonymously to report what happened.
In the last few months, I’ve been approached by the Rachael Ray show, MTV, and twice to play “gala events” by Mayor Bloomberg’s office. The first two were operating on “a limited budget” (!) and couldn’t afford to pay anything. The rep for Bloomberg’s office asked what I wanted to be paid (something slightly above union scale), and both times she said something like “Wow, we were only prepared to pay a fraction of that.” She was on a limited budget, too. Gala events at Gracie Mansion aren’t what they used to be, you know. (Amazingly, I later ended up getting the gig at the mayor’s mansion, and got the money I asked for.)
I’m not sure what the union can or should do. You can’t stop people from trying to get something for nothing, and I’m sure there’s no shortage of people willing to play for “exposure.” We live in an age where music is like air: it’s everywhere, and people don’t expect to have to pay for it. It’s up to individual musicians to make the decision whether or not to play for free. If it were for a good cause, I’d happily do it, but the situations above were clearly the classic scenario: “Let’s save some bread by getting free music.” I kind of understand this when it’s a bride in her 20’s, but a network TV show, a corporate media outlet, and a multi-gazillionaire mayor? Hilarious, but in a sad way.
Most musicians I know would make the decision to play for free or not on a per-situation basis. Who of us wouldn’t play a free concert for our children’s school, or do a next-to-free jazz gig because it’s what satisfies our musical interests? If a musical group is a true co-operative and all the members agree to a free show — and if everyone feels comfortable playing a free show in the name of self-promotion, or for any reason at all — it’s that group’s prerogative.
Playing a free gig for a bandleader or contractor to promote their product, however, is something I find unacceptable. It also sets a bad precedent for your professional relationship with that leader. It sets a precedent which says, “You’re the guy who will play for free.”
If a bandleader has a vested interest in doing a free gig (i.e. “This will get us work”), it’s only fair the he or she pays the sidemusicians. It’s an investment in future gigs from which typically the bandleader will profit greatly in comparison with the sidemusicians.
I don’t begrudge the fees that bandleaders can command for themselves, because it’s hard work, but personally I would never feel comfortable asking my colleagues to do any gig for free.
Members of club date bands are often asked to played free showcases and I find this somewhat abusive, because the implication is that whoever does the showcases will do the gigs. If you average out your time spent doing these showcases, the gigs themselves don’t pay very much.
What can our union do? Just as there are scales set for limited pressings in the recording field to make contract work more doable within certain budget constraints, why not create a scale that covers these “showcases”?
Every performing musician at one point in their career has been asked to perform gratis. There exists a myriad of reasons for the asking and equally as many reasons for the accepting. There also exists abuse where the union can and should provide leadership and assistance to combat unethical activities. Each case is unique and ultimately up to the artist to decide whether or not the particular situation is in his or her best interests.
There are plenty of performance opportunities where the rewards are not financial. Let’s say you just graduated from Juilliard as a violin major and have no experience playing Latin music but have a great desire to learn. A Charanga band leader has a trail restaurant gig and you get the call. The violinist learns not to step on the clave, the band leader gets a great sounding string player and lands the restaurant gig, and everyone is happy (that day at least).
Perhaps you are new to town and performance opportunities are in short supply but you are confident that once you are heard your opportunities will multiply. A free gig can be a great place to meet other musicians and get the word out about your abilities.
The reality is, however, that a great many of the jobs we do are for financial compensation. After all, our landlords are not so into the barter system.
Contractors are in the business of creating opportunities and as such often have to convince prospective presenters of the merit of their musical projects by putting on a free show. This can and often does lead to future paying performances and is not necessarily a bad thing. The issue can get cloudy when a contractor holds it against a performer for not being able to commit to a freebie and or the performer feels compelled to play for free for fear of losing work from the contractor.
An easy political solution for performers is make sure to get all the information about a potential gig before committing. If it is something you don’t feel comfortable doing simply tell the contractor you are unfortunately booked. Don’t commit to a gig that you don’t feel comfortable doing. As is often the case you may get called for a paying gig that conflicts with the freebie. Finding a sub for the free gig is always difficult and leaving a contractor in the lurch is a sure-fire way to be removed from the contractor’s list. The union should be a last resort to resolve any abusive issues.
My answer is musicians should play for free only for very certain situations. My son and I are both 802 members and when my younger son got married I was very touched that not only was my older son asked to be the best man (and I, of course, mother of the groom), we were asked to provide the music for the church wedding. We played French horn and guitar for the congregation before, during and after the ceremony. We would not accept money for this. I have also played for special services in memory of a deceased close friend of mine because I wished to offer my musical soul to honor her. To me this is giving a gift.
Here’s how I look at it. Just about every gig I do, I play for free. I love playing music. It’s just fun. I have a great time no matter what the situation and you don’t need to pay me for that. I love doing it and I would take any opportunity to play music for little or no money.
What you are paying me for is to lug a drumset across town and set it up, to show up on time, to have all the material learned, to live out of a suitcase on the road for months and months, to live in a confined cabin on a cruise ship, etc.
I’m all for doing favors for friends and helping others out for the sake of art. I ask that of fellow musician friends of mine all the time. If some one asks me to do a gig for little or no money my immediate questions are: Where is it and what equipment do I have to bring? If the date is convenient and all I need to bring I can carry in one gig bag and my schedule permits it, then nine out of ten times I will accept and be there on time with a smile. If the inconvenience factor is higher than the money, then I really need to evaluate the situation on a case by case basis. Will this gig be such a good time with some really good friends that I’ll regret not doing it? Will this gig lead to other high paying gigs? Will it be a good opportunity to showcase my talent to another potential employer?
The ironic thing is that a lot of the gigs that are high on the convenience factor — for example, subbing on a Broadway show or playing a corporate function in Midtown — are usually some of the better paying gigs.
The fact is there are hundreds of venues for live music in New York City that are not unionized. Some of them pay great, some of them you “play for the door,” and some of them don’t pay at all. If you choose never to play a non-paying gig, my guess is you’re probably missing out on some good clean fun every once in a while and you’re most likely forgetting about why you got into music in the first place.
I have played so many benefit concerts and have been asked to perform for free too many times to count. I have been naive and thought that my generosity would be appreciated, but that has not been the case. In fact, it has been my experience that when you say yes to requests from your employers or from (in my case ) the university to which I gave 20 years, you are then expected to continue to do so.
I am a highly-trained professional with degrees comparable to that of other professionals. How many times has a psychologist or a lawyer given his or her time without charging an enormous fee? When they hang out their shingle, they are sure to receive a hefty hourly rate and are treated with enormous respect.
We all know that there is scientific evidence that music has value and could better our society, yet we are killing the very people who have the wish and the talent and have done the work that it took to provide help to this troubled world.
I do not consider music a frivolous expense, but rather as one of the most important costs spent in creating a society that can help our children to make a better world.
Also, perhaps there is a double standard that exists in the arts, as in all other aspects of life. Women are not nor have we ever been equal.
If it’s a free event, then it’s not a job. If someone else in the “aggravation” (aggregation) is getting paid, then I tell them to stick it. Yeah, I’ve done free events here and there as a favor or just because I’ve wanted to play, or play with some people in particular. I had a chance to do a freebie with Art Blakey and Wynton Marsalis for a political event. What do you think I did?
As far as New York City clubs go, where original material is played by groups and artists, it’s always a “free” gig. Having to guarantee numbers at the door is basically “pay or don’t play.” It’s a way of life for original artists. Clubs need to pay the ongoing, escalating rents, so it’s not just that owners don’t appreciate music. I’d rather do a showcase at the union rehearsal room, pay to rent the room from the union, and not have my audience be distracted by poor club acoustics, servers who are trying to enforce drink minimums and late start times that eliminate the attendance of your friends who have day jobs. Perhaps this venue could be promoted as a more popular outlet for original artists, a union benefit which could encourage new members. The only time worth playing for free is a benefit or wedding showcase. I’m not big on schlepping equipment, but one showcase with a great band can yield some high-paying gigs, frequently generating even more opportunities. It’s a chance you take but often worth it. Hey, we could all just forget music and not worry about all this, but…no way!
I recently was asked to play a benefit. I was paid union scale (with cartage and parking) and was fed. Even “free” gigs pay.
Free gigs can turn into paid work when you improve your negotiating ability. Always push for some pay: at least travel expenses and food. See how the leaders behave. If they don’t follow through with promises made, follow up. Teach them how to treat musicians. When leaders cry poverty and act dodgy regarding pay , it’s a sign to me even future work will be a problem.
The union can help perhaps by finding seasoned musicians who can offer bargaining advice to freelancers at any time. Help create future contracted work.
No matter how hungry you may be to connect, always think before you give your hard-earned craft away for free.
It is unethical for an employer of any kind to ask someone to work for free in a situation in which there is a potential of retaliation for lack of cooperation. Although working for free under these circumstances is a common scenario, it is also a form of extortion. (Auditions PREVIOUS to employment should be for free.)
As a labor official, I would never prevent members of my collective from volunteering services at their respective houses of worship or for charities of their choice. There is a distinct difference, however, between religious exercise and commercial enterprise.
Any musicians who agree to provide free services in order to secure future employment status should count their fingers after the handshake.
The writer is president of AFM Local 104 (Salt Lake City)
and principal flutist of the Utah Symphony.
When a conductor or contractor asks you to play for free, the real message being conveyed is that what you do for a living has no value. The request is usually accompanied by a smile and a lot of empty promises. If everyone refused these engagements, these people would either be forced out of business, or step up and do the right thing and our industry would be richer for it. Accepting free “work” undermines everyone.
A notable exception to the rule was a gig I played during the 2003 Broadway strike. Local 802 members organized the Gotham Winds, an ensemble comprised of Broadway musicians. We played a free concert in Duffy Square to help heighten public awareness of live music. There was no pay aside from a pension contribution, but we were there in solidarity, not because of threats or intimidation, but for the love of music and to give something back to the city after a very difficult time.
There is a world of difference between the Gotham Winds concert and most “freebies.” 99.9 percent of the time there is nothing to gain and everything to lose by allowing someone to further his or her own agenda on your time and talent.
As musicians, we are occasionally asked by a contractor or conductor, who is trying to get his or her new orchestra or ensemble off the ground, to “help out” by playing for free on their opening event. Often, the pitch for this comes with a promise for paying work in the future, once the ensemble begins to become successful, and things begin to “take off.”
I have a friend in the music business who has the perfect answer for this request. When asked if he will play for free on the orchestras first concert, with a promise for a paying job “next time,” he replies by saying, “Well, why don’t you pay me this time, and then if you have another concert, I’d be happy to play for free.” He doesn’t mean to sound glib, but as professionals who pay their rent, mortgagees and food by being paid for our musical services, we must be careful to be selective about those times we do play for free to ensure that someone is not just taking advantage of us.
I have certainly played for free when the situation warranted, and have even gone so far as to OFFER my services for free when I felt it was for an important reason.
As far as the union is concerned, musicians ultimately have the right to play free. What they DO NOT have the right to do is to undercut other union members by offering their services for free as a direct means to obtain an unfair advantage or inside track to being hired by the leader for future work. That’s where, in my opinion, the union needs to be vigilant and proactive in order to ensure a level playing field (no pun intended) for all union members.
Howard G. Heller
There should be only two instances when a professional musician should be asked to perform without monetary compensation: the first being for a legitimate audition and the second in the case where all involved are donating their services for a bona-fide charitable activity. In the first case, a “legitimate” audition would involve a musician or group of musicians performing solely for those who would actually be doing the hiring. An audience should not be present unless that audience is admitted without charge. In other words, no one — neither the performers nor the venue — would be making a profit from this performance.
Unfortunately, there are employers who will lure musicians with a false promise of future employment while paying them nothing for an “audition.” Of course, the clubs are packed with paying customers and the bands are never hired for real wages because there are always bands waiting in the wings to do a free “audition.” If the music is good enough for management to bring in paying customers, the musicians are good enough to get paid.
In the case where musicians are asked to donate their services for a charitable activity, the union should establish and enforce a standard whereby the organizers of the activity would have to demonstrate both the validity of the activity and their inability to pay AN of those involved in the activity. There should never be an event where everyone takes home wages except the musicians.
The union has an obligation to convey to its membership the importance of refraining from competing against ourselves; of working against our own interests and devaluing our labor by giving it away . If all musicians would insist on being paid for their work and speak with one voice on this subject, we would see a marked reduction in this practice.
Of course I’ve played free gigs. Who among us hasn’t at some point in our fragile careers? And I would do it again. Why? Because the union, as good as it is (lol) hasn’t been able to protect its members in all working conditions. If you have a Broadway show or a Philharmonic job, you’re protected, but if you’re playing a Latin gig, club date or miscellaneous jazz gig, you’re pretty much on your own — and at the mercy of the leader. If he asks you to play a free hit and promises a record date, or a whole host of following gigs and you have rent or mortgage payments, kids, loans and other real life issues, of course you’re going to give an inch to get a yard.
The truth is there is NOTHING the union can do about it, because every year there are hundreds of new (nonunion) young musicians who are come to New York City from other places HUNGRY to work and will undercut you and play free gigs just to get known. We all did it when we came to town, and the circle will always continue as long as there are gigs to be had, which is at the end anyway.
While I have played free shows in the distant past at hospitals and jails, I no longer perform for free. Even nursing homes and hospitals are commercial businesses; and, they have the funds to pay for services received (unless they know people are available who will perform for free).
In fact, I do not perform free auditions. I charge for whatever services I and my sidemusicians provide. I do give CD’s for audition purposes. One exception: I pay musicians to rehearse for paid auditions because I think my fellow musicians’ time, energy, and talent requires compensation just as mine does. Another exception: I woodshed with musicians for the betterment of the band if are all benefiting.
If venue gatekeepers knew that musicians refuse to work for free as do lawyers, tax accountants, car mechanics, and heart surgeons, perhaps we musicians would be better respected and financially compensated for the lifetime of hard work and passion we have invested in our craft.
When you work for free you devalue your worth as a musician. And you work against the common good. The sinister side affect lies in how it lowers your self esteem. As a dear friend of mine once said “there is no ‘back end’ to this deal.”
The truth is that we all do free jobs. That’s how many of us begin in the music business. In my case, being a guitar player and singer, when I moved to New York City in the early 70’s from Ohio, I played in the street for passing change. (So, O.K., it wasn’t exactly “free,” but it was close.)
From doing that I got asked to play in small neighborhood bars at the lowest possible rates in the worst possible conditions. (There were no smoke-free laws then — and it seemed no ventilation either.) From there I graduated to private parties and club dates and then joined the union and then it became a different ball game.
At this point in my life I would need to be convinced that it would be a good business decision to play for free. Sometimes I attend jam sessions and the business benefit for me — besides the fact that I’m enjoying the jam — is that I’m making connections that often lead to something unexpectedly good. Often, if asked by a leader for a favor, I’ll suggest at least covering my expenses. But I’ll only do that once or twice for any given employer. I’ve got no problem saying no if I think I’m being played. I don’t make a hard and fast rule. Rather, I look at each situation and ask myself if it’s prudent to do someone a favor. Often it is and other times not.
But I do believe that there’s no such thing as wasted effort and something will always come around to repay any such freebie, even if it’s just learning a lesson in discrimination.
Playing for free is best taken on a case by case basis. I’ve always said, “Playing music: I’ll do that for free. Travel, cartage, dealing with colorful personalities? That’ll cost you.”
I still hold true to this. Besides, if I have a good history with whomever is making this request, I’ll do it, no problem. But of course, there will always be those less scrupulous who will take advantage of our inherent desire to play, by utilizing this “do me a favor” ploy.
So consider: Is it a benefit? A good cause? Enjoyable to play? Have the studio, crew, techs, all waved their fees as well?
It’s unfortunate, but in this time of ever-diminishing opportunities for employment, an increasingly dumbed-down society, and an across-the-board erosion of quality and live performances, a question concerning what is potentially a type of thinly veiled, passive-aggressive blackmail, gets forum.
Fortunately, I’ve never been asked to play for free, although here in New York City there have been plenty of situations that ultimately have become pay-to-play. (But perhaps that’s another topic.) There are a few bandleaders I work with for whom I’d gladly play for free because I adore them. Ironically, these are always people whose very nature would forbid them to even ask!
On many occasions I’ve been asked by music directors to play without compensation for “Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids.” Some I did, some I didn’t. I received no work or punishment for either action. As far as I can tell, 802 looked the other way. It was obvious officials were present, either as performers or as audience members.
I don’t play free jobs unless it is a memorial or a benefit for a cause I believe in. Bandleaders need to treat musicians as professionals. I have had bandleaders pay me money out of their pocket because they know it’s the right thing to do. I’ve done it as a bandleader because I respect musicians.
In upstate New York, there are numerous musicians in the Utica Symphony who play for free for the symphony fundraiser they have every year. Some of these musicians are members of Local 802.
I have never been asked to play for this kind of event. I notice in the brochure they print that they include names of the musicians with a “thank you” for donating their services. I do not appreciate that one bit and it disturbs me. But these people are all old, longtime loyal friends of the conductor, who also conducts the Catskill Symphony.
It is definitely a fact that these musicians who play for free receive more perks and advantages than those of us — like myself — who don’t donate our services. In my opinion, it is a clear case of “I scratch your back; you scratch mine” and creates a club. I think if I were more cooperative and did donate my services, the conductor would just love me. But I am not willing to do that — not even to save my job.
I do not believe that players should play for free under any circumstances. I joined the union because I believe being union means I get paid no matter what.
Local 802 has been wonderful about enforcing the fact musicians should and will be paid. But as far as the AFM goes, it really seems like the Federation focuses on the big cities and cannot see what things are being done upstate.
Should you play for free? This is a loaded question for which the answer is probably no, except MAYBE if you are very young and just starting out. Then a few free “demonstrations” or maybe sitting in for ONE set — notice I didn’t say for the whole gig — are probably unavoidable.
I’ve never done a freebie nor been expected to do any in all my years as a professional pianist — except for a few weeks ago!
A well-established dance company and school was looking for pianists for their summer session for young dancers. I was invited to “audition” by playing two ballet classes in a three-hour time block. I told them in no uncertain terms that this was totally unacceptable. (They had seen my resume and credits as a dance and club date musician, which goes back for over 35 years.)
I said that they could hire and pay me as a guest musician for that time instead. They agreed to do so and I did the gig, but I sensed that this organization doesn’t respect long-time professionals like myself. (I have yet to hear back from them about the summer session.)
What can they union do about play-for-free situations? Publicize them, get members talking about them, informational-picket them: whatever it takes to stop them!
In response to playing for free, my answer is: it depends! If the job is for a benefit or nonprofit charity or a benefit to help as in a sick musician, it’s O.K. to play job for no money. However, if the offer to play for free comes with strings attached to it, I’d have second thoughts.
Club owners here in New York exploit many musicians by asking them to play for free and bring in a crowd. Many young musicians just looking for a place to play or perform forget they are being exploited by an owner who just does not care and has no respect for something that is free! There are many parasites in this business of music and it’s all about money and greed.
My advice to the young musician is never sell yourself cheap. If you really like to play music, get together at a friend’s house, tune up the piano and have a private jam session.
The problem is, employers and club owners are always looking for a bargain, free music and a sucker. The will promise you the moon, lie and do anything to get free music. Some club owners even offer an “audition” that is an unpaid performance.
Personally, I’d rather play my tunes on my concert grand in my living room than work for nothing and be taken advantage of by some low-life, rotten club owner. I am an artist and want to be compensated for my talents.
Sure, I need money like everyone else, but thank God I don’t have to depend on music entirely and therefore can be free to choose and not be pimped for my skills.
I love music, but I will not be wronged by unsavory and greedy low-life maggots who come on with “play for food, wine, the door.”
When Con Edison wants my money to pay an electric bill, the free music just won’t get it for me.
I’ll play great jazz piano but pay me!
Like Abbey Lincoln said: “You gotta pay the band!”
Stuart H. Tresser
I think if you are playing for something special involving your family or close friends, that is fine. I have been asked to play for nothing for benefits, good causes, or something just plain fun that has a little or small budget. They usually offer me around $100 for these, or I ask for an honorarium. A small token gesture of respect for your time to rehearse and perform and your babysitter and driving expenses means so much more than just doing something for absolutely nothing.
I personally always pay all of my band members whether it’s a showcase or benefit. Most people that I work with pay me very well and I am thankful that I have never had to worry about such an issue. And I would play for them for free if the situation called for it.
However, several years ago, there was an instance where I did a recording for free for a benefit Christmas CD, on which I played an improvised violin solo. One Sunday, my husband and I walked into the church where the same musical director worked at, as they were rehearsing the very song I played the solo on. It was bizarre to see a classical violinist rehearse the improvised solo I took, then performed that transcribed solo in front of over a thousand people, receiving big applauds.
The problem isn’t the fact that the musical director stole my solo and used it as a part of his arrangement. As a jazz violinist, I am expected to create a solo that becomes an integral part of the tune’s arrangement anyway. The problem is that the church can and does pay each musician over $300 to perform at the service each Sunday, and doing so doesn’t hurt the church. What they also can and did do was NOT pay me for the recording, while they spent money on engineers, studios, manufacturing and all of the other people to whom they couldn’t “not pay.” So the question here is: “Do you really think the LORD wants you to play for free?”
It is never a good policy to play for nothing when others are getting paid. It is degrading to the individual and undermines the professionalism of freelance playing. That said, there are times when it is acceptable to donate one’s services: a benefit, for example. Though it is difficult to get experience as a emerging professional musician, if everyone plays for free then we are all amateurs!