Don’t stiff the musicians (The Internet explodes)

Ludwig say, "Und wer's nie gekonnt, der stehle Weinend sich aus diesem Bund!"

Ludwig say, “Und wer’s nie gekonnt, der stehle
Weinend sich aus diesem Bund!”

Usually when the Internet explodes, it’s over something fairly innocuous, or at least overblown.

Musicians quietly going unpaid 9 months after a large festival gig—not so innocuous. Those same musicians being thanked for their patience and willingness to not trumpet the organization’s financial woes on social media, and being promised the next year would not be planned until all debts from the previous year were made good, and then learning that the 2014 installment was planned and announced (and apparently musicians booked as well)—pretty explosion-worthy, in my opinion.

For anyone who hasn’t already seen and followed this story, I’d recommend getting caught up via the following links: The International Beethoven Project looks like a really fascinating and amazing program, to be honest—I’ve never attended, but at least in print it appears to be exactly the kind of event the classical music world needs to attract new listeners. (The originators of other, clumsier attempts at same would do well to pay attention.) Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc blog picked up on the story, as did the Chicago Reader. Andrew Patner, one of Chicago’s primary voices on Things Musical (and, to my mind, one of the few music critics to whom I generally pay attention due to his tendency to make intelligent and straightforward assessments of what’s going on musically in any given moment, even if that assessment is aimed at performances in which I have taken part. I don’t love it, of course, but I usually have to shrug and say, “yeah, okay, that’s fair.”), speaks out on his WFMT blog and is proving to be a powerful voice for these unpaid musicians—he speaks, and people notice, because he’s, well, Andrew Patner.  Ellen McSweeney’s elegant essay on the New Music Box, entitled “Chicago: The Deafening Silence of the Beethoven Festival Musicians,” is beautifully written and suggests at least to me that she might consider writing as a secondary career; one wouldn’t normally consider this a more secure and lucrative job avenue than classical music freelancing, but recent events might make one reconsider…

The articles are interesting and informative, but I especially would invite people to check out the comments, where rumors (which, being rumors, are by definition unsubstantiated, but I would very much like further information on them because they certainly aren’t ridiculous-sounding) fly: that early on one of the orchestra members suggested union involvement and was promptly fired, that the allegedly impartial logic of which of the unpaid musicians got paid first may not be too impartial at all,  that none of the 2012 musicians were invited back for 2013 and none of the 2013 musicians (including the unpaid ones) were invited back for 2014 (this one should be easy to track down the veracity of), and so on. If anyone finds their way here who can shed more light on the above, I’d welcome it.

(I also find myself shaking my head in “is this for real?” incredulity at the commenters who, with an apparently straight face, castigate Patner and the musician silence-breakers for calling the situation out, usually in the name of “passion” and not “punishing well-intentioned and ambitious arts programs for their mistakes.” Fortunately as the days pass more commenters are calling BS on these apologists, and hopefully they will dissipate into silence.)

The bigger conversation to which this has given rise is the climate of discomfort in which many musicians find themselves regarding Talking About Money. Ellen McSweeney’s essay in fact starts with a story she recounts about a mentor-contractor who chides her for asking the compensation for a gig up front, suggesting such a question might result in her not getting asked again. I find this attitude appalling in the extreme, and I hope if nothing else this whole IBF explosion results in rooting it out to some degree and alerting especially young freelancers that it is not cool and the norm of freelancing should be the exact opposite.  The comments on Ellen’s post and at least one new one that has arisen from it (Andrew Lee’s post eloquently titled “F*ck You, Pay Me: Some Thoughts on Musicians and Money” is a solid piece and covers most of the necessary ground) present a pretty overwhelming groundswell in this direction, one which I hope continues to roll.

(I will offer a small disagreement in some cases on the necessity for always having written contracts, especially for smaller jobs, now that so many gigs are offered and accepted via email—even without an official contract, if you have an email from the hiring party saying “here are the details and this is what you will get paid,” shouldn’t that stand as a fairly firm in writing commitment? Does anyone really hire over the phone any more? God, I hope not…and if they did, I’d always ask at the end of the conversation, “can you please send me all these details in an email, so I have them in writing and won’t lose track of them”?)

So, I think we can we agree, as gigging musicians, that being informed up front and in writing what the compensation plan is for a given job should be the absolute norm for any engagement, right?

Here’s my real question, though, a further call-out: Can we agree, as those who sometimes are the contractors who hire musicians for jobs, that we will make a point of stating up front the compensation for any given engagement, before the musician needs to ask—before, in fact, the musician even agrees to the job?  That we will not send out all the information about a gig but leave out this one detail, so the musician has to decide whether to come back and ask? Can we agree to transparency and clarity whenever we offer work to another musician, so this never comes up?

I offer this challenge for myself as well, and an offering of public repentance for the times I have slipped up in this area in years past–and I have definitely slipped. I’ve had decades to make mistakes on both sides of the problem, as both the hirer and the hiree, and I can only hope I’m learning, and that I have managed to make it right when I have done damage to an individual or a relationship*.

So I suppose I have some small sympathy for George Lepauw in the mistakes he has made.

But part of making mistakes is making them right—acknowledging them,  making reparation for them, and not making them again.

And that is where sympathy shrinks and dies.

[UPDATE: The President of the Chicago musicians’ union has written letters to both George Lepauw and the general Chicago musical community…all I can say is bravo, and this is why we have unions.]



*If anyone reads this with whom I haven’t made it right, at any point in the past, please let me know even now. Seriously.


  • Thank you for this awesome essay! Appreciate the kind words and couldn’t agree more with your assessment. I hope the hubbub leads to positive change.

  • chickwithastick

    Thanks, Ellen–and with everyone else, my continued thanks to you for speaking out. (And you seriously are a very good writer. 🙂 ) It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

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