The Beat on the Street

Labor Day

Volume CVII, No. 9September, 2007

Are you an “artist” or a “worker”? Why should musicians care about the labor movement?

Click for larger image.
Photo by Mikael Elsila.

When I work, I’m told what to play, how to play, when to show up, what to wear, when to go home. Sometimes they even tell me when to breathe! I have, mortgage payments, car payments, tuition payments for two kids in college, health care issues just like many other working people. I have many things in common with building trade workers. They are concerned about health care and money. Their bosses are in the union, their jobs are temporary, and their unions face many of the same problems as ours do. I think I might be a worker.

David Schneck

This is kind of an ambiguous question but here is my two cents worth. The tricky thing about being a musician is that ever–present balance between art and commerce. We all deal with it in different ways. While most players handle the balance pretty well, some musicians skew heavily to the art side. You know them well. It goes something like this: “I am an ARTISTE! I will not play that crap! (Oh, it’s paying what? Okay I’ll be there.)”

Other musicians slant a bit more to the commerce side and of course we all know that special breed of bottom feeder who has eliminated the artist part altogether. (You know who you are!)

I would say that when we are expressing ourselves playing and creating music, we are artists. When we are trying to make a living with music related services we are workers. Of course the line blurs many times. There is a real art to playing something on demand and creating something you love is hard work. I do have two pet peeves regarding the topic.

One, I think the term “artist” is greatly overused. I like to think of myself as being an obsessive musical “putterer.” Sure I’m obsessed with music, practice about four hours a day, and think it about it constantly but I don’t attach much importance to music. I just happen to be obsessed with it. It’s not like we are brain surgeons. “Nurse. This man needs immediate surgery! Bring a tenor player over to play ‘Giant Steps’ STAT!”

Two, it’s always annoyed me how lay people don’t think of what we do as “work.” They always seem to think we are just having a fine old time, never realizing how much work has been done to get us to the point that we can play the way we do.

Of course musicians should care about the labor movement. We are workers!

Well, I think I got more like four cents worth in but that’s my take on it. If you will excuse me, I have to go back to being an artist now!

Vinnie Zummo

Surely, musicians should care about the labor movement. Organized labor has enabled union musicians to acquire better wages, working conditions, health and pension benefits, and job security in a variety of venues including Broadway shows, club dates and teaching situations. However, because union jobs are scarce, a two–tier system exists where many musicians take nonunion jobs to survive. They may earn a living, but they have no job security, health care or pension and must work longer hours or in unsafe circumstances. This can change if enough musicians can join together to organize a bargaining unit and negotiate a union contract.

This occurred at the New School jazz program where I have taught for over 20 years, both before and after our 802 contract was signed. As a result, the faculty now enjoys all of the above–mentioned union–guaranteed benefits, and the contract provides a structure that both the school and the faculty can refer to when problems arise.

I regard myself as an artist in my creative work, and a worker for my livelihood. When the two coincide and I can support myself solely through my art, as I did in my 20’s and 30’s when I was regularly touring, recording and performing, I feel best.

In my 40’s, the music business changed, so now I work in other areas related to music (like teaching or commercial work) to create a stable income stream, and I use my free time for artistic endeavors like recording CD’s, composing new music, organizing tours and offering workshops.

I’m 56 now and have played music since I was seven. I have no children because I couldn’t afford the time, energy or money that properly raising a family requires. I’m a realist, and although I’ve worked hard for it, I don’t expect stardom in my lifetime, but neither have I given up on music as a satisfying and dignified occupation. My union membership has helped make that possible.

Armen Donelian

The issue of whether we are labor or artists, or leaders or followers is secondary to the larger issue of what we want our music world to look like, and what we decide should be our role in that world.

If one limits their view of the world to one where we relegate ourselves to being labor, or contract labor (freelancing), then unions become more important. But music has been transforming itself through an increasingly digital age, with more music now being distributed through electronic media than through the concert stage. See my full response at

Michael Drapkin

I consider myself an artist when I’m creating music, either writing, arranging or playing. I’m a worker when I’m negotiating a fee, signing a contract or cashing a paycheck. I think the labor movement works in my favor sometimes, sometimes against. (I was working at Radio City right before the dreadful negotiations there.)

So, I guess it’s a job-by-job discussion as to whether or not the union is a benefit to its members or not.

If this seems a wishy-washy answer, I’m going to bet I’m not alone.

Wayne Abravanel

As a musician I care very much about the labor movement. I feel that whether we view ourselves as workers or artists we should always be fairly compensated for performing. Although we can be workers, our product is art. Personally, I prefer to feel like an artist who also works!

Mike Boschen

“Workers,” “artists” and “laborers” should all care about and support the various labor movements, since our livelihoods depend on the benefits derived from the movement. I consider myself as both an “artist” when performing music that I enjoy and is creative, and a “laborer” for those unexpected situations that do arise from time to time. We belong to the same lodge: struggling musicians!

Dennis Williams

Depending upon the gig, I’m either a “worker” or an “artist,” and I feel equally comfortable with both.

Musicians should care about the labor movement because it gives us additional strength to fight against those that regard our efforts not as significant as other endeavors. Music is the most significant universal language that provides opportunities for people to surpass their separations.

Gene Perla

I have a feeling that many of us identity both as workers and as artists. For me, when my dad brought me into the union offices on my 18th birthday, it was a very important day for us both. His dad and his grandfather were both union men (brick layers in Seattle) and for my family it was a big deal when I joined. My dad, Jack Sheedy, had been active in AFM Local 6 when he was a band leader in San Francisco. When I turned 19 and moved to New York, I promptly joined Local 802. I’ve always cared about the labor movement because of my family history and would like to think that the work ethics I learned growing up helped to temper my attitudes and behaviors as a musician and an artist (hopefully for the better!) in a very complex industry.

Anne Sheedy

Of course musicians are workers. Depending on how you approach your trade determines whether you are an artist or not. It seems artists are those of us who have chosen and continue our work for noble and selfless reasons rather than practical or materialistic ones. That doesn’t change the fact that we’re still workers and need to pay our bills as well as feed ourselves and our families. What it does change is that a working artist works for beauty and for posterity and not just for food and money. There are artists in every form of labor, not just “the arts.” I think that there’s a common misperception among most laborers that are not artists that they exclusively do the jobs that are essential for everyday life (cooking, construction, sanitation, transportation, medicine, etc.) and art is generally excluded from this “essential” category. This is a problem that unfortunately creates a lot of the lack of culture and worldly understanding in our society today.

Charles Czarnecki

Whenever someone winces at the amount I get paid for some gigs, or the conditions and accommodations of a tour, or my struggle with health care, my reply is always: “Hey, it beats working for a living.” While sometimes my artistic integrity may be in question, I do not consider my music “work” — although that is what I do for a living.

David Vincola

I consider myself both a worker and an artist. Yes, musicians should care about “the labor movement.” (What exactly does that mean — a “movement”?) I support a union that supports me, and stays current with its members’ concerns in the marketplace.

Gloria Parker

I’d like to think of myself as an artist whose work has value but, in this American environment where the arts are not viewed as something valuable or important, I think it’s important to remind people that this is what we do for a living, that it takes a lot of hard work to get to this level, that purchasing and maintaining the tools of our trade is very expensive and that we deserve to be paid accordingly. I’ll repeat my new motto: “I don’t play the violin, I work the violin.” Maybe we’d get a little more respect if we weren’t viewed as people that are getting paid to “play.” The fact that the New York Times Sunday paper includes a section called “Arts and Leisure” is part of the problem.

As for the importance of the union, just look at non-classical musicians who don’t have a union, like bands that play in the East Village or Brooklyn.

The bars get rich and the musicians make nothing.

I know that Local 802 was immensely helpful to the Noise Action Coalition, a group of just these sorts of musicians who organized and tried to better working conditions in these clubs. They worked hard and did make some positive changes but to my knowledge there are no clubs or bars that have signed recognition agreements with our union so there are no places where these musicians can play with the safety, security and fairness of a union contract. I know the union is way understaffed and Rome wasn’t built in a day but wouldn’t it be amazing if New York City, supposedly the cultural capital of the country, was the first to protect these musicians? That would be amazing.

Gregor Kitzis

I’m definitely an “artist.” Work is something I “have” to do. Like fix the leak in the toilet. I must confess, however, that some of the gigs I’ve played over the last 60 years have felt like I’m fixing a leak in the toilet. Unions do a good job for a lot of people, so I do sympathize with that cause. However, if you’re hoping to equate musicians with “workers,” you are only trying to degrade “creativity,” and none of us want that.

Cliff Hoff

Artists or workers? The answer is both. Musicians, unique among skilled workers, share an experience with their audience that transcends the excellence of their skills. Employers rarely value that experience, and we must stop endorsing their limited perception of our worth. As workers, we are individually responsible to demand real wages and benefits for our unique product. As artists, like others working for corporations, we are the labor movement.

Bud Burridge

I think of myself as an artist, not a worker. I do, however, think artists and workers — of any skill level — should be involved equally in the labor movement. Workers need to monitor how they are treated, working conditions, salary and benefits. Artists, however, are highly skilled and need to be compensated accordingly. This always needs to be addressed.

Jon Berger

We are both workers and artists. It reminds me of speaking to a businessman on a plane while on tour. He asked me what I did for a living. When I told him, he responded, “Oh, that’s great. What else do you do?” — as if being a musician couldn’t be a full-time career. Most people don’t understand the time, dedication and effort it takes. Yes, it is work.

What’s happening in America today is what’s been happening to musicians for quite some time, especially since the Reagan administration. Deregulation of industry, diminishing of unions and the complete breakdown of labor laws have led to workers being taken advantage of in all fields of labor.

Leo Traversa

Musicians are on that fence between “workers” and “artists.” We have a craft that takes years to develop and perfect which is used in both artistic and work arenas. As a freelance classical violist, I certainly am part of the work force in an orchestra and when playing certain jobs. But my “artistic” sensibilities are always present when unique skills are needed.

All workers have skills that must be respected. Although we are indeed part of the labor force — and should continue to support labor unions in this environment of ever-diminishing value put on unions — the musician is still part of an art form that has always been and will continue to be one of the greatest contributions to humanity.

Myron Rosenblum

Musicians are workers similar to prison chain gangs. They perform repetitive, arduous tasks under abhorrent conditions and oppressively farcical leadership with compensation in the form of a chipped-beef sandwich (metaphorical or otherwise), returning to cramped, ill-maintained confinement while bearing the scorn of society — often earned. Organized uprising might end tragically, but with cunning may also win that extra dessert; whereas negotiation perpetuates regular chow as portions grow ever smaller. Artists find fulfillment anywhere, wisely delegating labor issues either to management or their alternate personality.

Pete Macnamara

From day one I have been a worker. I have been privileged to work, in a supporting role, with some artists. I can’t tell you precisely what an artist is but I know one when I see one. The labor movement is of great importance to me. Odd then, that when labor negotiations take place, I have been included among the artistic, rather than technical, staff. The technical staff, more often than us, gets its way. Too often we lack clout because it is supposed we are doing what we do for the artistry (and fun) of it.  

Dave Wilson

I view myself more as a “worker.” That is, I see my role as a musician to be about serving people and society. That doesn’t mean I consider myself subservient. But at the end of the day, my role is quite simple: to put a smile on people’s faces, maybe even enlighten them a bit.

While I’d be the first to admit that music is most definitely a business, for me, the most direct path to success has been to speak to people’s hearts with my music. It’s the best marketing strategy I know.

Rozanna Weinberger

Professional musicians are both workers and artists. If we weren’t workers, we would not be professionals. If we can’t be artists, what’s the point of being musicians?

The union most definitely has a role to play, but it needs to address both aspects of our profession. The old AFM model from the Petrillo era, based on traditional labor practice, was that the union’s job is to seek better wages and conditions at the expense of employers, and that the art would take care of itself.

Fortunately the union has come to recognize that many musicians want to be partners with their employers in creating art in addition to being paid for what they do. Both the AFM and Local 802 have taken steps in recent years to soften some of the Petrillo era policies that were most damaging to musicians’ exposure as artists, such as exorbitant and restrictive recording scales, and have helped develop performing opportunities for its members.

I hope this trend continues, so we musicians and the groups we play in can be more fully employed and better recognized as artists in addition being compensated fairly for our time as workers.

Steve Hammer

On certain jobs, I am an artist, and on others, a worker, and sometimes on the same job I can be both.

Unlike some other businesses, this is a creative business, and what I play, where and how I play, and who I work for changes on a daily basis.

If I’m working somewhere and I’m told what to play, and how to play it, I’m a worker.

If I’m given the freedom to play creatively the way I want, I’m an artist.

I can have it both ways, but if the day ever comes where I’m just a worker, then I’m outa here.

Steve Michaels

Sometimes you’re a “worker,” sometimes you’re an “artist,” and there are all sorts of degrees in between.

The drag is those that think they are “artists” — but in reality it’s a whole lot of “work” listening to them!

David G. Weiss

As a Broadway musician, I think this distinction between worker and artist is at the heart of the current questions facing our community. In order to gain fundamental labor protections, we’ve been required to consider ourselves solely as “workers;” but in the process, many of us have forgotten that our unique role is that of an “artist.” We mustn’t lose sight of the unique artistry that is both our gift and our product. Halting the erosion of our rights and protections by employers starts with each of us recognizing our inimical and indispensable role as artists in the workplace.

Matt Gallagher