How much are we worth?
Just before the Olympics began in London earlier this year, there were several articles circulating about the International Olympic Committee’s approach to live musical entertainment at the games. The IOC took a hardline stance on live music, which meant that no musician would be paid at all during the games. Exposure and prestige would apparently be payment enough. Unfortunately, this kind of attitude is nothing new and we all have to deal regularly with an incredibly varied and erratic monetary value that is assigned to our services. So how did this apparently random valuation of musical performance come about and what can we do about it?
In many ways, I feel that the problem and the solution lie with musicians. For anyone who has made a go of a professional career in music, it is no surprise that good gigs are hard to come by and income streams from performances are irregular. Even if you might have a good teaching situation there are usually semester breaks and holidays that leave chunks of the year with little or no income. For this reason every gig that comes along is valuable and it is very hard to decline an opportunity to make some money. Some gigs might be stellar with good organization, artistic fulfillment, and a healthy fee, but a large portion will be less enticing and they can often be underpaid. When a musician accepts an underpaid gig they are agreeing with the client that their services are worth a certain value, this agreement will most likely influence any further interactions the client has with musicians in the future. This process, when repeated throughout society, starts to develop a general idea of what the monetary value of live music should be. The result is what we saw with the Olympics and it is not that uncommon in my experience.
As students we perform regularly without pay because it is part of our education, the performance experience is valuable, and our level of performance might not warrant professional fees. I have found that after leaving university, that it is very hard to make the transition into charging professional fees and adapting my self-perception from a student who is grateful for performance opportunities, to a professional musician who offers services for a fee. I have often accepted gigs where I feel underpaid and as a result I feel resentment towards the client and frustration towards my own career potential. It is only recently, however, that I have considered saying ‘no’ to performances where I feel the organization and pay don’t reflect my value as a performer. It is early days yet, but I find this attitude more empowering and I believe that the people I work with react positively to being charged more because they then perceive more value in what I offer. We all assign value to products, and we are more willing to shell out the bucks for one brand over the other. Often the more valuable brand does not offer anything particularly different over their competitors but their branding has developed a value in your perception and you are happy to pay for that value. There is no reason that we cannot elevate our own perceived value.
The crux of the situation boils down to survival. We have to make a certain amount of money to keep ourselves afloat, more money if we want to undertake artistic endeavors and even more still if we have responsibilities, such as family. Therefore it can be a bit of a luxury to decline gigs on the basis of self-empowerment or branding.
A solution that works for me is to have many fingers in many pies. The popular term is ‘portfolio career’ and it entails working in several areas to generate multiple income streams. Recitals, wedding gigs, teaching, and bar tending might be one collection of income streams, and it is really up to your own entrepreneurial nature to invent ways of making ends meet. This takes some planning, and patience, and often involves a bit of risk (like living without health insurance for the first few years) but it is one viable alternative to accepting any measly gig that comes your way.
With the economic climate providing more and more challenges to musicians, I don’t see too much of a sea change in regards to this issue. Sorry to be pessimistic. I do believe, however, that each individual can benefit by taking a good look at what they offer and placing a value on it that doesn’t get compromised. I believe that in the long run it will result in higher fees and more respect, and it can create positive ripple effects for the musicians in our community.