Price of a Gift

Ten years ago I recorded my first album. It landed me my first award, a nice bit of publicity, decent album sales, and awesome media attention. It’s an album of piano arrangements of old-time, well-known church hymns. It struck a chord with a lot more people than I thought it would, so I followed it up with another album a year later. I didn’t receive funding for either project. Both were entirely paid out pocket. Before I knew it, I was being asked to perform in benefit concerts, and even co-produced a couple of church benefit shows without pay. I confess to not being completely altruistic. I was just trying to get my name out there, doing what I could, including working for free, to establish my career by building my very own audience base. In the process, I created a reputation for myself as a musician who works for nothing. Transitioning into a pianist for hire was difficult and sometimes resulted in uncomfortable conversations.   

One day around that same period, I received a phone call from the organizer of a church fundraiser in a town about an hour’s drive away from my home. He was looking for someone to produce and perform in a benefit concert. He told me he asked another musician first but rejected her because she insisted on a fee of $300. She was quite prominent, and $300 would have been a steal. In our chat, he complained about her unwillingness to negotiate downward, given that it’s for a church. So he asked me to perform for free. I declined, politely telling him that a fee would be expected and that I would charge the same as the musician he first contacted. He tried to negotiate with me, saying that I could have my CDs for sale in the church foyer as a form of compensation, and that the real payoff would be audience exposure. When I reminded him that I play piano for a living and that developing, rehearsing, travelling to/from, and performing such a show would demand a massive amount of my time, he responded by lecturing me on professionalism. I was asking for a nominal fee that would equate to way under minimum wage. He, a lawyer, tried to argue that professional behaviour for a musician would be to graciously accept this non-paying gig as an “opportunity.” The more we talked, the deeper the impasse. So I ended the call. 

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About 15 Sunday mornings every year, I can be found playing church service music in my capacity as a freelance musician, subbing in for the regular music directors when they are away. I enjoy doing it, I think I’m pretty good at it, and I’m paid every time. I got into a mildly heated discussion once with a fellow church musician who saw a problem with my taking money from a church. He argued that our music is a “gift from God” that we are offering back in thanks. I argued that my “gift” was something for which I’ve been working my ass off since I was 8 years old. There I was at another very different impasse. Two musicians who earn part of our livings from performing but who had decidedly differing views on when it is appropriate to work for free. I think this discrepancy is an outcome of the idea of individuality that is baked into music-making. Sometimes when I sub in on Sunday mornings, I invite a musician colleague to perform with me. Usually, the church offers a monetary token to my guest. Sometimes the musician declines the pay. Most times they take it. That’s up to them, but it sure makes for a hazy area, blurring the line between personal and professional conviction and speaking to inconsistency in musicians’ work and pay.

So how about an example from outside the grey area of churches and charities? Like the time I recorded my second album, a duets album, where each of my ten duet partners commanded a different fee ranging from zero to several hundred dollars, even though they each participated equally in terms of time commitment. One partner said, “I get lots of gigs. You don’t need to pay me anything.” Another partner, a close personal friend, requested a substantial fee. And still another declined pay on the promise that I would do the same for him on a recording project of his - a barter system of sorts. The costs of this album were as varied as the lives of the musicians who participated. Ever since then, several years before even thinking about my research, I’ve thought a lot about that scenario, the careers we’ve chosen, and how we manage them. In my work as a pianist, I teach, accompany students, accompany choirs, play Sunday morning church services, weddings, funerals, and perform solo occasionally. My fee for each of those tasks is different, different from other pianists, and sometimes I vary them depending on whether I know the person, or on the budget of the hiring party just so I can land the gig and keep playing.

The love for performing and creating music is undeniable across everyone I interviewed for my research. Things get complicated when musicians try to reconcile music as passion with music as commerce. Almost to a person, every musician I interviewed for my research commented in their own way that they didn’t take up a music career to get rich, and many of them entered the career with an exit strategy that was usually closely connected to dealing with age, money, competition and family. It’s as if some of us accept or brace for a career of low pay and an early expiry date before it even starts. My last blog post referenced a few summer jobs I held when I was about 19 and a university flunk-out. It was the music gig, the lowest paying and least certain of them all, that appealed to me the most and which I tried to turn into a career. So from the start, it was the fun, dynamism, and love of making music that took precedence over fiscal common sense. Not to mention that I am a professional trying to exist in an occupation where anyone with or without formal music training can enter, exit and return to the field freely at anytime, at any age, and where fees thus vary from one musician to another based not only on how much a particular audience feels they’re worth but also on how much musicians feel their own work is worth in a particular performance context. I can’t think of another career like it.

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I’ve written a lot about myself over the past few blog posts, trying to take care to write in the context of my research findings and preview some of the bigger issues that emerged from my interviews. My thesis, “Price of a Gift: Lives and Work of Professional Musicians in St. John's, Newfoundland”, recounts my interviews with 54 musicians who rely on performance for at least part of their annual income. Starting with the next post, I will introduce you in more detail to my interviewees including how they came to be part of my research. In subsequent posts I will share with you some interesting outcomes from our discussions that traced their lives in music from childhood to the day of our interviews. Key discussion points have to do with the roles their families and peers played on their music career path, the impact on their work of music educators, how musicians cope with competition and conflict with fellow musicians, and the conditions that lead some musicians to quit their music careers and others to commit to it for a lifetime.