So I’m behind on the blog, but I’ve recently been made aware that it’s not widely read and that I should delete it altogether. As I like to say, more powerful forces than this haven’t managed to stop me yet, so on I go to blog and play.
I have spent this last year afloat of the inner workings of Local 802, the musician’s union here in NYC, and the largest in the country. I’ve historically had a bad habit of counting myself out of groups because I didn’t fit in, and so I decided to put myself into a situation I knew I wouldn’t be comfortable in, mostly to stretch my boundaries and make sure that I wasn’t hiding behind hard work and self-deprecation. I felt underrepresented so I decided to represent myself, and all of those musicians that I had car rides and deep conversations with that revealed just how much we share the same struggles. I wish I had better news to report, but it seems that musicians in an socialist exercise are equal to citizens of a country that is supposed to operate as a democracy.
I’m sure we all read progressive articles and political memes that lament the inequality and injustices of what’s currently happening in our country. A country that was built by refugees of an oppressive government is turning refugees from other governments away more than 200 years later, and even inhumanely imprisoning them. A party system is hotly contesting the fates of these refugees, all the while neglecting many classes of people that are riddled with addiction, illness, and poverty. All of these issues are built on assumption: the refugees, the poor, the addicted, and the sick are all in their dire straits because of things they did to themselves. Maybe people wouldn’t be poor if they didn’t buy their own iPhones, maybe people wouldn’t be addicted to drugs if they had college degrees, maybe refugees should stay in the country they were born in, or so the news paints it out to be.
The truth is, I didn’t choose to be an American. I was born here, and that may be the greatest stroke of luck in my lifetime. In fact, what I call “luck” is what my ancestors called “sacrifice”: my great-grandparents swam across a river that once belonged to their Mexico. The truth is, if you’re poor in America, you can’t afford to go to college without a major sacrifice on someone’s part, because it’s so difficult now to get a job. Yes, even at Starbucks, and I’ve actually tried. Most of my musician colleagues would agree with these facts. And yet, when it comes to other musicians, there is a striking lack of compassion and empathy for fellow musicians, until there’s a labor movement that needs support.
In all of these meetings and events that are built to support musicians as an entire group, there is a common theme that emerges: an assumption that a musician attracts the caliber of work that they deserve. If a musician is a chairholder in a show, it’s because they are at the top of their field and are therefore a part of a “select group of elite musicians,” or so I’ve been told as a lowly sub. Conversely, if a musician can’t break into the circuit of union work, it’s because they don’t have the talent or commitment to cross over and meet people who can take them from busking to subbing.
The truth is, in a business where work is scarce and talent abounds, it takes a lovely breath of luck for that opportunity to knock on your door. It’s a perfect potion of fortune, timing, and training for a dream gig to work out and stick. It makes sense that musicians who have benefited from this would be quick to explain it away: if I got a million dollar phone call that gave me a locker and a weekly salary, would I want to admit that it boiled down to a powerful person handing me a gift of a job? Of course not: I would want to believe that I was the only horn player right for the job. And yet, most of my interactions on 48th Street revolve around the fact that I’m down and out because I haven’t laid the right groundwork to get called for a show, or that I’m not subbing big Lincoln Center jobs because I’m just not good enough.
I could sit here and type out my resume to try and prove that I deserve that work, but I have a separate page for that on this website. Instead, Local 802 should be an entity that represents all musicians that pay the dues, and that includes musicians like me that work and practice a ton, but haven’t been ordained with that halo of “chairholder,” even though it’s something that I’ve wanted and worked towards for years. And I’m really getting tired of having these vulnerable conversations with people that now are leading major 802 initiatives, but used to ride in my car or take the same classes in college, to be told that “I miss 100% of the shots I don’t take.”
Honey, I’m outta bullets.
Until musicians can take a step back and see their circumstances as they are, in success and hard times, Local 802 will be ineffective and useless. Angry musicians are rife at Local 802 because they need support, but when they’re happy with their CBAs, they are hard to find at organizing meetings. When a new effort takes place, those of us who spend our year hoping the next month will yield better than the present are expected to support our colleagues, when the groups we have in common with them literally don’t call us enough for us to truly be colleagues. Musicians’ unions will be a farce, and not a force, until we can look at the work world around us and take it for what it is, much like our Facebook walls. Right now, a slow month is humbling. Maybe in another decade, work will be scarce enough that success will be even more so. Maybe then, we’ll truly be “in this together”.