Oh, the crisp cold days of Fall! We’re finally having them here, and I’ve been in my car taking in the foliage and drinking something with nutmeg in it.  It’s a great time of year where the orchestra seasons get going, and the pick-up orchestras start to pop up with the Halloween candy in the pharmacies.

Here in NYC, a controversial gig of this sort came up, and almost everyone rushed to speak out against it.  I was shocked: either these musicians had forgotten what it was like to face that situation and make a choice, or were lucky enough to skip that entire phase and go straight to the fruitful careers that they now enjoy.  So I’ve put together a two-part blog post about what young musicians face today, and why we should never forget where we come from, or at least acknowledge the place they’re coming from.

When a job that has a big corporate name attached to it pays very little, there are often three pieces of advice that circulate: 

“Talk to the group leader and try to make it a union gig!”

This is a well-meaning but out-of-touch sentiment.  Young musicians are known only by reputation, and it only takes one band leader or personnel manager, who is a musician themselves, to tell everyone they know that “this person causes trouble” or “this person is difficult to work with”.  Most professionals will tell you that the most important thing you can do is to be out playing and meeting musicians, so when you put yourself at risk of being blocked for any kind of calls, it works against any kind of progress you can make when you’re new on the scene.  When I was just out of school, a low-paying gig was at least a week of groceries for one crummy service, which is definitely enough impetus to keep your head down and get the job done.

“You’re worth more than that!”

I especially love this one. 

Most of us spend thousands of dollars on our precious degrees: should we only play jobs that break down to what we paid per hour?  I was accepted by a school who wanted me to pay $13.5k a semester for a course that required 12 hours a week.   By that calculation, I should have only taken jobs that paid $70 an hour, or at least $200 for a three-hour service.  Wow would I have loved to get those calls! At the level I’m at now, I’ve taken union work that paid $125 for 8 hours of work, because it was technically a soundcheck before a performance that paid into the pension fund.  I’ve also played 2-hour shows for $82, again under a union CBA.

The bigger question in my mind is: how much is a musician worth if they take a barista job that pays $15 an hour (hah!) when they could be playing somewhere else for $20 an hour?  Does a musician make a sound if they’re answering phones in midtown?  And does your landlord care about your worth as a musician?

“They’re ruining it for the rest of us.”

A circular argument, to be sure, that inevitably leaves the younger musicians bastardized in either choice they make.  Who are “they”?  Young musicians trying to break into the scene.  Who is “us”?  The union musicians who have broken in.  Why are the younger musicians expected to take care of the seasoned musicians, who are financially much better off than these musicians who are faced with this choice?  And after the fact, what do these younger musicians gain?  They’re just as anonymous, and they have one less opportunity to do what they are working to perfect.  We can’t be expected to create work for the next generation, so how can we expect them to lay groundwork for the work we hope to create for ourselves?

I think that I’m unique in that, despite spending many years playing these low-paying non-union jobs, I do have a fairly successful career, even though I’m not famous and have no chair of my own.  My scrappy roots sometimes work against me, but I’ve been lucky enough to play my way through the most cynical of ears.  I’ve played many different types of classical work, and I know how limiting cash flow can be, especially when you’re trying to pay your own way out of a dorm and into an expensive apartment with three roommates. Even now that I don’t get those calls, there was a week this August where I would have taken one, as I found myself with $12 in my bank account. That wasn’t a typo. Twelve. Hashtag bill realness.

Young musicians come from a culture of “10,000 hours on your instrument makes you an expert”, and we consider it an honor to get into a summer festival that puts you up and feeds you as they sell $60 tickets for your concerts.  When there’s no guarantee of work, no matter how they stacked up in the school they’re coming from, how can you expect them NOT to jump at opportunities, especially when they believe that their passion and hard work will carry them to the top of a competitive field?

I have my opinions on how this should change, but more importantly, the mindset should start to reflect the values that most of us believe in.  We live in a charged time where people who have been treated poorly are coming forward, and we as a culture are responding to their hardship.  We are even experiencing a time of reckoning in our own industry, where figures of great talent and power are being punished for bad behavior.  How, then, can we continue to engage in this shameless victim-blaming of a group of musicians that are just trying to navigate a tough system?  We have to do better by these younger musicians, or at least wait a beat before we judge them so harshly. At the end of the day, we’re all in the same boat if the phone stops ringing.

All this having been said, there were definitely times when I decided enough was enough. Tune in next week for Part II: When I Started Saying No.