Saturday, June 16, 2012

Pay What You Can Brings Austerity, Not Prosperity, To Musicians

Opinion, by Glen T Brown

The International Village BIA luncheon series at Ferguson Station and Gore Park organizers held auditions a few weeks ago. They had a panel of about five or six representatives from different BIAs around the city. They had published posters and put the word out that they were holding auditions for summer musicians, and that they would be paid.

I traveled down to the Ferguson Station location with one of the groups who was auditioning. The day had been full, and many bands and performers had taken part.

A week later, a list was produced and published with the names of the successful groups, when they were playing and where. Very good news. New gigs and musicians getting work.

So, how much did they get paid?

The BIA reps were saying to the performers, "Bring your expectations of your pay with you to your audition."

They were paying the musicians what they thought they were worth. I suppose some bands got paid more than others. I suppose if they were willing to pay for free then the BIA would be okay with that.

As my friend and I talked, the question came up, "Are these union bands? Is the union involved?"

And I said, "Not at all."

There was a day when the musicians union would be all over something like this. They would be making sure that the musicians were all members of the local, possibly checking them for their union cards and making sure that all performances were booked and paid according to union pay scale.

But not these days.

Has the union disappeared? No. Does it still collect dues? Yes. Does it still exist to protect the working conditions of musicians in the City of Hamilton? Yes it does. (Actually, it is bound to act on behalf of its members.) Does the union publicly endorse the absurd idea that musicians should work for free if they feel like it? Of course not.

However, by NOT showing up or being involved in a public audition like this, the musicians association sends a message to every “respectable” professional musician in the city of Hamilton. And the message is, "Go ahead and work for nothing if you want to.”

Isn’t that what everyone's doing these days? Playing for nothing, I mean.

I’m torn between who to be concerned with!

Should we find fault with the BIA for holding public auditions without inviting the musicians union to be involved, or should we be asking the musicians union why they weren’t paying attention, or at least commenting about what is going on?

One thing is for sure: an audition series is a huge opportunity for the union not to just have a watchdog function, but to have some input and establish its voice.

Rather than allow the BIA to take advantage of the current market, and unabashedly use the sliding "pay-what-you-want" system, I’d like to suggest a new plan for next year.

Imagine For A Minute…

Imagine the president of our musicians' association (or their designate) sitting down with the BIA and saying, on behalf of all performing musicians (and potential musicians’ union members) in the city, "Look, you're hiring musicians from around the city. This is a great opportunity for you to put value into the musicians' market. This is a great opportunity for you to attract some of our city's best talent, and to make a public statement about how musicians' work is important and valuable. What can we agree on will be your guaranteed payment for each musician you choose? We see music as an integral and indispensable part of any marketing strategy for business improvement. We see musicians as partners in the growth and renewal of our businesses and our city. We should publicly agree together on what they are worth when they're getting paid."

Hey, here’s something interesting: the aims of our local BIAs and our local musicians community have a lot in common. We both want to see people coming out to shop, spend money and have a good time.

I propose that the local BIAs should be the first to craft a partnership agreement or a “letter of understanding” with the musicians’ union. Wouldn’t that light a fire under the local musicians who have been paying their dues and working hard at their craft? Wouldn’t that be a nice gesture of good faith and bridge-building from our local businesses, who often are being left to hire just any old “discount” musician that comes along, and then they aren’t satisfied with the result? Imagine the good news working its way through the community, as the work of musicians is affirmed.

In some forms of art, artists seek funding through meticulous, time-consuming and distracting grant applications. But If a musician auditions and is good enough, they get the gig! Call-backs and hiring are almost instantaneous.

Immediate Impact

Therefore, in our imaginary scenario, if money has been made available to pay musicians for performing, the impact of hiring those musicians at a decent, agreed-upon pay rate will be immediate.

Think of how quickly the word will get out, “We were hired by the BIA for such and such gig, and here’s what they are agreeing to pay us!”

What an opportunity! Imagine the benefit of having our musicians’ union, a professional and international association, sitting down to forge an agreement with our BIAs for next year’s summer performances.

All musicians will benefit from this kind of support. At the very least, we will know that the bands who were hired for the gig were the best bands, not simply the cheapest!

Without an agreed upon payment, stated up front, all we can conclude is that they hired the cheapest musicians, not necessarily the best.

And that stinks.

Musicians need an advocate working for them more than ever. Musicians are at the mercy of venues, when they are being told, "Bring your expectations about pay with you," to an audition. It makes you think that if you priced yourself too high then you would fail your audition.

Musicians need help and representation to talk to venue operators and have a dialogue and try to improve their prospects.

For next year’s auditions, I think it would be nice if the local musicians’ union showed up and took some interest.
Glen Brown is a newly reinstated member of the Hamilton Musicians’ Guild, Local 293, Canadian Federation of Musicians. He reinstated his membership without penalty. Membership initiation fees are waived until June 30th. Go to http://www.hamiltonmusicians.org


Anonymous said...

I hear you Glen. I auditioned for the IDBIA last year with an eminently hireable professional show.
I quoted my usual fair price of $150 for the first set,
plus $50 for doing my own sound. It's peanuts, really.
But after nailing the audition and chatting with the jury afterwards to help them get to know me, I didn't get the gig. They didn't get back to me. I had to call them.

I wondered if they simply didn't want to pay anything.

Musicians worry about union membership becoming an obstacle in terms of fees and constraints on gigging, not to mention that many musicians are free-spirits.

I'm not sure the booking bodies care about getting top quality acts as long as the act is passable. In this respect they are following the lead of audience members who don't really have any expectations about quality, for reasons that have become the big debate of these last few years.

Viga said...

Excellent article Glen. Sadly, musicians are so desperate for gigs, they're now paying to get them ie. "what kind of draw do you have". "You have to bring at least 30 people" etc. As long as musicians agree to work for nothing, nothing is what they will get. Musician's Union? Hmmmm