When Musicians Play for Free

Volume 116, No. 9September, 2016

Karen Fisher

When should musicians play for free? In the June issue of Allegro, Tom Olcott discussed “the chamber music conundrum” and the ambiguity that musicians often face regarding artistic satisfaction versus the need to make a living. I’d like to follow up on that excellent article just a bit, as the season of 9/11 tributes and other memorial concerts is upon us.

We have all been asked or volunteered to donate our talents at one time or another. Participation at funerals, memorials and other special occasions can connect us to the event and to the people closest to us. When disaster strikes in the world, our natural inclination is to want to help. Leonard Bernstein famously said, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” Unfortunately, a musician can easily spend a good percentage of their time playing for various causes and fundraisers.

You want to help out, but you are a professional and expect and need to be compensated for your time and talent. What should a good union member do?

I can’t answer that question for you, but perhaps I can give you some things to consider before you agree to the engagement.

Not all causes are equally valid or valid at all. Take, for example, a group that emerged (and promptly disappeared) back in 2010 called Fear No Frontier. It was an orchestra created under the guise of a charity organization based on a vague philosophy of saving the world through music. It came to our attention when we discovered that musicians from around the country were being recruited to play under ludicrously severe conditions, including endless unpaid rehearsal periods and a prohibition from accepting other work. The organizers had made absurd promises to the musicians too numerous to catalog here.

This example may be extreme, but there is no shortage of people out there seeking to play on musicians’ sense of purpose, guilt or philanthropy. Sometimes the mission behind a project is genuinely altruistic, sometimes it is merely someone’s vanity project, and sometimes it is just an old fashioned ripoff. Before you agree to play for charity, it pays to know if the charity is valid and if your participation will be meaningful to you personally and artistically.

Here are a few questions you may want to ask yourself and/or the contractor:

1. What is the name of the sponsoring organization? Is it legitimate?

2. Is the organization putting on the event for the greater good or for its own good?

3. Who will attend the event? Are tickets being sold and where will the revenue go?

4. Is the organization paying everyone else (caterers, venue, ticket takers) except the musicians? Does it have the funds to pay the orchestra and it just doesn’t want to?

5. Is this a cause you truly believe in? Can you afford the time investment of playing, rehearsing, practicing the music, getting yourself to the gig, paying the gas, tolls, meals, etc.?

6. Can accepting this engagement be construed in any way as being hurtful to the greater musical community?

7. Are you potentially giving up a paying job to do this?

8. If you were actually getting paid for this event, would you be willing to donate your salary and benefits (let’s say $450 to $500) to this cause?

9. Will you feel satisfaction knowing you contributed to a cause that you care about or will you feel that your time and talent have been exploited?

Much satisfaction can be derived from using your unique talents to help others, or it can come from a paycheck.

Ideally, we can have both.

Karen Fisher is the senior concert rep at Local 802. Contact her at (212) 245-4802, ext. 174 or