The Perils of Playing for Free

Volume CVIII, No. 6June, 2008

Karen Fisher

Here is a scenario:

  1. You spend time and money auditioning for an unadvertised position in a new orchestra.
  2. You are promised that you will be paid “close to New York scale,” you will appear on “The Apprentice,” play movie recording dates, and be outfitted by a top Italian designer.
  3. You rehearse for 18 hours.
  4. You are told to sign a “membership agreement” two days prior to the concert that gives you the “option” of waiving your fee, as a donation.
  5. You learn at the same time that the $525 you were promised to be paid (for all rehearsals and the performance) will only be $263.
  6. You perform the concert.
  7. You are videotaped without your consent.
  8. You fail to receive even the $263 as the conductor “suddenly” had to leave the country.

This happened last year to musicians who played for the Chamber Orchestra of New York, a new orchestra in a troubling and lengthening list of ensembles that are engaging in blatant exploitation of young musicians. 

We all know how challenging it is to embark on a musical career. Unless you get a very lucky break or have an extremely helpful, well-connected teacher, many young musicians feel that they have no choice but to accept everything that comes their way. These “gigs” often pay little or no money.

Unfortunately, many newcomers to the freelance world have the notion that accepting these gigs will help them to become established. The reality, though, is that these engagements typically only lead to more unpaid work and the musician gets pigeonholed as someone willing to do undesirable jobs.

Once you’re labeled as such, your chances of building a meaningful career diminish, as you’ll be pegged as someone who will say yes to everything.

In addition, while you were tied up playing that freebie, the call you missed while you were out just might have been your chance to play a gig that could help pay the rent. 

There is more than meets the eye with these “lowball” orchestras. More often than not, the orchestra has been formed by the conductor as a project to serve as a springboard for his own career. There is usually little or no thought or effort spent on fundraising, organization or realistic long-term planning. The only effort is spent on the conductor’s own future.

These orchestras lure musicians by programming enticing works — often large orchestral or operatic works that most freelance orchestras cannot afford to produce. These conductors often use flattery, referring to the musicians as “colleagues” and “friends,” and attempt to create sympathy by involving the musicians in their financial problems. Do not be fooled. In these situations, conductors are making money and boosting their own prestige by using your labor.

If every musician demanded to be treated with dignity and a modicum of respect, these conductors would get the message very quickly that exploitation of musicians is unacceptable and won’t be tolerated. 

Without a contract, you are an “at will” employee. This means that the employer can hire or fire you for any or no reason at all. Your job, your position and your paycheck are not protected. Any recording made may be used without your consent.

The only way to protect yourself is to ask questions. Specifically, ask if the job is being filed with Local 802! Read the contract and know exactly what terms and conditions you will be working under. If the contractor refuses to provide such information, let us know. 

The musicians of the Chamber Orchestra of New York were eventually paid, three months after the concert, and, not coincidentally, exactly one day after the conductor got wind of a meeting of the musicians organized by Local 802.

Here’s the bottom line: if you get called to play with an ensemble you’ve never heard of, call us first. The Concert Department can be reached at (212) 245-4802, ext. 174 or you can always call our 24-hour hotline at ext. 260. All calls are confidential.


Local 802 is bumping up its organizing efforts and speaking to music students throughout the New York City area in an effort to educate young professionals about union protection and fair wages. We are also getting the word out about orchestras that are advertising themselves as “professional” yet paying substandard wages and operating without a union contract.

Since many young musicians may not have access to Allegro and may be unaware of area standards, we also encourage and invite teachers to discuss this issue with their students.

If any musician would like to volunteer to accompany us in our efforts, please contact Claudia Copeland at (212) 245-4802, ext. 158. Over the next few months we will be visiting schools like NYU, CW Post, Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music and Mannes.