The Business of Music

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How Musicians Devalue Music

with 3 comments

Yesterday I attended a concert a relatively new Arts Center that recently began a chamber music series.  Not only was the concert fantastic, with literally world-class musicians, but it was free.  And, that free concert came with coffee and pastries catered by the arts center.

While I agree that outreach is extremely important, we musicians devalue our own work by performing for free.  In a recent conversation with a friend who is looking to freelance, she mentioned that she often plays for free in hopes to get paying gigs.

If you play for free, people think one of two things:

You’re making money doing something else, and therefore doing this for personal enjoyment only.


You must not be that skilled and therefore not deserving of payment for your skills.

I do not play for free, except for a gift or for charity.  Last weekend I performed at a friend’s wedding, and did the contracting work and played, but this was my gift to the couple.  What we do when we perform for free is devalue not what we do, but also devalue the market that we are a part of.  Living in Arizona, gigs with local symphonies will pay as little as $31.50, and this fall there was a local orchestra that charged musicians to audition.

One reason that wages are low is too much exposure for the demand.  If you can see a large orchestra perform 40 weeks a year, often with three concerts during one week, the local population has plenty of opportunities to see the orchestra throughout the year.  This overexposure leads to less value.  Coupled with the rise of local regional orchestras, there are places in the United States, including Phoenix, that perform similar concerts at varying degrees of greatness every weekend.  How does the local community sustain this oversaturation?

On the reverse side, there are musicians that make millions each year – they have a brand, are recognizable to different age and cultural populations.  This is not by coincidence, it’s by having a plan.

In thinking about what your goals are regarding being a musician, think about what kind of life that you want to have in ten years, and how to value to your ensemble or business model, Friday will start the discussion on the business plan for musicians.


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Written by rosemfrench

November 18, 2009 at 11:46 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. Rose,

    I have to disagree with you on some level here. Many of the finest musicians that I’ve studied with, played with or had drinks with have often voiced their opinions on the financial side of the profession. The common denominator was that they would continue to do their jobs “without payment” so long as it was artistically justified.

    With networking being as big a factor as any these days, the differences between playing a free concert or posting a concert video on YouTube for people to see without payment can accomplish the same thing…if the goal is being in the public eye. Ideally, yes, it would be great to never play for free…but musicians aren’t the only people asked (expected?) to play a freebie every once in awhile. We have a blast doing what we do, regardless of money…and there’s always the chance to say no…but we can choose to share our gift or not, so is it better to have nowhere to play then to throw a freebie out there?

    Not to sound confrontational or anything – I’ve been enjoying your blog!


    November 20, 2009 at 11:03 pm

  2. Jay, you make a valid point! It’s true that just being out there is probably the number one way to get called for gigs. I definitely still do freebies when my schedule allows it… not only for the networking aspect, but it keeps my chops in shape (for instance, a top-notch community orchestra performing Shosty 5 next month, and I’ll be playing 1st).

    But, Rose, I agree with what you are saying, too! Musicians historically are often under-compensated for our hard-earned talents and efforts. Our profession is just as demanding as any other, and we should take an active stand in making sure our hard work is well compensated.

    I recently had to decide whether to play a “freebie” performance with one of NYC’s community orchestras which was contracted to play a segment on a television anniversary special. The TV show was not going to pay the musicians… at least not the orchestra members. Someone attempted to persuade me to play by stating that “wouldn’t it be cool to be on TV,” on this particular show. While I was trying to make my decision, weighing the ethics of it, (I mean, if anyone had money to pay an orchestra, it should be this show!), the event ended up being canceled. I’m still baffled by it.

    So, maybe there is a line to draw, but it’s hard sometimes to tell where that is. I think we have to use our best judgment in when to play for free.


    December 11, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    • I forgot an important phrase….

      The TV event was canceled due to lack of funding. Go figure!


      December 11, 2009 at 3:27 pm

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