Chicago: The deafening silence of the Beethoven Festival musicians

Chicago: The deafening silence of the Beethoven Festival musicians

I was recently hired to play a daylong ensemble engagement. In my reply, I gladly accepted, and asked what the compensation would be, since the initial email had not included that information. The contractor, an admired mentor with whom I have a frank rapport, told me the number, but also offered that I might want to refrain from such questions in the future. Asking about pay, he suggested, could make me look like money was all I cared about. In his mind, I’d violated a norm. It was almost as if he were surprised I didn’t trust him. And sure enough, when I arrived at the gig—which was well-paid—the check was on my music stand.

When it comes to money and music, it seems we aren’t in agreement about what the norms are. How much is enough? What questions are we allowed to ask? And what do we do when the check never comes? That discomfort has reared its head in a particularly dramatic way this month in Chicago. The Beethoven Festival recently announced its fourth annual event, happening this September. But for local musicians, the announcement was stunning: the festival has not yet finished paying the people who played for them last year. I personally am owed in the neighborhood of $1,000. This is, of course, the complete opposite of having the check on your music stand when you arrive.


Given the number of musicians owed money—and the number of musician who know someone owed money—one would think that the festival’s 2014 announcement would’ve been a lit match in a dry barn. But it wasn’t, quite. A single Facebook post from violinist Austin Wulliman yielded fifty comments from prominent local musicians, including members of eighth blackbird and professors at the University of Chicago. A post on Slipped Disc—which, depending on whom you ask, is widely perceived as either essential rabble-rousing or venomous clickbait—broke the story publicly, but comments from named musicians are scarce. Media stories followed from Chicagoist (where writer Drew Baker had difficulty getting anyone to go on the record) and even the Chicago Reader. But these stories weren’t as widely shared on social media as you might imagine, given the profound violation of norms that the story represents for the Chicago freelance community.

Why were the wronged musicians and their friends still so quiet? And, come to think of it, why did we maintain silence for nine months as we awaited sums of money that, to us, make or break our ability to pay the rent?

For me, the story of the Beethoven Festival is a story of vulnerability: my own individual vulnerability, that of my colleagues, and that of our entire musical community. Much of the most artistically adventurous work in Chicago isn’t unionized, and we take a leap of faith every time we work for each other. Usually, that trust is rewarded, and professional and collaborative bonds are formed that allow us all to thrive. Horn player Matt Oliphant’s blog post on this matter is aptly titled “Beethoven Festival and Respect.” The community is indeed held together by trust, respect, and not much else. If circumstances like these are kept secret, it threatens the security and well-being of every musician in our city.

The unpaid musicians began receiving apologetic emails from Beethoven Festival Artistic Director George Lepauw in early October. As the festival’s dire financial circumstances became clear, a tacit agreement quickly developed that we would not take to social media or the press. We were never asked to remain silent, but we did. I suspect that the other unpaid musicians were, like me, nervous that any public complaint might have resulted in an even longer delay of their payment. After all, for many months it was unclear what logic had been used to determine who would be paid first. (Lepauw described the payments as happening “on a rolling basis.”) At a Christmas background music gig three months after the festival, I had an awkward encounter with a friend.

“Too bad about that Beethoven Festival money, huh?” I said to him as we set up.

“Oh…uh…yeah,” he said, looking at the ground. It took me a moment, but I realized that he’d been paid. We laughed about the bizarre situation. But the truth was, he was personally closer to the festival’s organizers, and his insistence on being paid had helped. (Lepauw told the Reader that 15 of the 60 orchestra members have been paid in full, but there’s been no discussion of how they were selected.)

When the festival sent out small checks to everyone in February—around 30% of what we were owed—one colleague posted a cryptic Facebook status about receiving a fraction of his pay, six months late. A few musicians left grumbling comments, but the offending employer was never named. It makes sense that so many musicians opted to preserve the festival’s reputation and quietly wait for their checks. Musicians were not only concerned that public complaint might have monetary consequences, but also about their own reputations. To complain about the missing funds could be construed as unkind or malicious towards a beleaguered, near-bankrupt organization that was reportedly working hard to right the situation.

Perhaps that’s the biggest reason we kept quiet about the unpaid bills: Compassion. Sympathy. Love, even. We hoped things would get better. No one wanted the Beethoven Festival to fail. No one wanted fewer performance opportunities for Chicago musicians. No one wanted to see a musician’s reputation destroyed, nor an ambitious and idealistic venture go down in flames. I would not wish such a spectacular public relations disaster on any arts organization.


But was it the correct choice for us to remain silent, ostensibly to help the festival right itself? In his official response to Slipped Disc, George Lepauw said, “I have always been, and still am, a musician’s advocate, and am extremely grateful to all the musicians who have been patiently waiting for their dues, and who have been supportive of us throughout this difficult period and have not complained on social media about it.” Lepauw posits that this silence was the noble thing to do—unlike, of course, musicians such as Wulliman, whose lone post Lepauw described as “a campaign of misinformation and blurring of facts that is counterproductive to the intent of repaying musicians.” The implication I perceive in his statement is that silence will be rewarded, and speaking out will only result in further delays of payment. And yet Wulliman had the freedom to voice his dismay expressly because his ensemble, Spektral Quartet, was paid in advance for their performance. Wulliman could speak out, in other words, because he had less to lose.

And it’s a good thing he did. The consequences of our silence go beyond when, or whether, we ever get paid. While we were being nice and patient and quiet, a whole new roster of musicians from throughout the U.S. agreed to play for the 2014 festival. At the very least, the national community should have known that these debts remained unpaid, so that they could have made an informed decision about whether to participate. These individuals, met with the uproar of the past weeks, now face the difficult decision of whether to withdraw. While it is uncomfortable to call our fellow musicians to task here, they have unfortunately agreed to perform for an employer who, in a story about this debacle, actually described the festival’s skyrocketing budget as “an incredible story of success.”

It’s not fun to publicly admit how much a $900 check might matter to us, but the truth is that our position is precarious. This fall, I placed a nervous phone call to an employer about a check that hadn’t yet arrived. It was only two days late, but things were tight for me and it mattered. “I understand,” the woman on the phone said, “I used to live hand-to-mouth.” I cringed and just hoped she could help me.

As tax time approached this year, I owed $2,500 on my $25,000 income. That’s another aspect of the vulnerability of self-employed artists: our social safety net isn’t very strong. Without the security of a full-time employer, we must be particularly diligent in setting aside money for taxes, retirement, and emergencies. Around March 1, I received an email from George Lepauw:

It is likely that within the next week, we will…be able to start issuing checks. However, we may not reach the total needed to pay everyone at once, so we have decided to issue what we can to each of you as we receive funds. After much internal discussion, we feel that this would be a better system than paying some of you but not others. You will therefore get several checks in the course of the next weeks until we are back in the black.

I felt hopeful. Perhaps the check would arrive by April 15; perhaps it would enough money to help with the taxes. But as it turned out, I received only one check for about $300. The other promised payments never came. When tax day rolled around, I couldn’t send an email to the IRS explaining my lack of funds and the noble work of being a musician.  I simply wrote a big check and hoped the next month would be better.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

83 thoughts on “Chicago: The deafening silence of the Beethoven Festival musicians

  1. Mafoo

    “The contractor, an admired mentor with whom I have a frank rapport, told me the number, but also offered that I might want to refrain from such questions in the future. Asking about pay, he suggested, could make me look like money was all I cared about. In his mind, I’d violated a norm. It was almost as if he were surprised I didn’t trust him.”

    Oh my dear Lord hell no.

  2. Luke Gullickson

    Thanks for the big thoughts and the honesty, Ellen. If we want our capitalistic society to have musicians, we have to figure out ways to pay musicians money to be musicians. There is this tacit assumption out there that a musician is doing something fundamentally recreational, and that we should feel fortunate that any given gig (, presenter, festival) even exists. And we *should* feel lucky to do what we do–it’s amazing. But you can’t scan that feeling at the grocery store, or draw rent checks on it.

  3. Ethan Wickman

    I think it is totally appropriate to sort out these details ahead of a gig. Culturally, so many of us are afraid to talk about money, and hesitant to let potential ’employers’ know that mutually agreed-upon compensation figures into our periodic budgeting and financial planning. I also found the comment made about living “hand to mouth” to be inappropriate, if not presumptuous. Several years ago I received a grant/commission from a prominent organization. Upon completing the piece, and hence fulfilling my contractual obligation to the commissioning organization, it seemed like I waited weeks to receive the final installment of my commission. I finally called the office and was greeted by a younger employee who, when I asked when the check was going to be sent, snarkily offered to airlift some food to my house, if necessary.

    I think that as artists we sometimes have a kind of guilt about money–like we should be above wanting it, needing it, or feeling motivated by its acquisition. The fact is, money liberates us to be able to do our best work in the most unrestricted way. Intense financial pressures can absolutely crush a creative will–as lofty, artistic ambitions plummet into panicked survival mode.

    A helpful book for those of us who feel conflicted about the intersection of art and finance is Barbara Stanny’s “Overcoming Underearning.”

  4. Pingback: Why we played without pay in Chicago – Slipped Disc

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  6. Andy Costello

    Great article, as always, Ellen.

    I’d love to add a few things to the discussion. For inquiry upon compensation mentioned in the first paragraph, I think it is more of a delicate balance than either/or, ask-or-don’t-ask. I think all the gig’s details (the exact dollar amount, time commitment for rehearsals, repertoire, and date of performance) should be consented to in writing before anyone is committed to anything. Asking about pay is a completely inevitable question that must be resolved before anything is settled upon. If a musician obliges to a gig before pay is discussed, the musician has effectively set his/her rate at $0, and any pay at all that comes in will be a bonus. That’s the only leverage we have, saying no and going elsewhere for our pay. Frankly, coming from the perspective of a new music player, and perhaps slightly nihilist freelancer, you were lucky to have been paid at all for that gig. What’s stopping the group from paying the chair next to you, because they asked, and you nothing, since you essentially agreed to play for free?

    So, I agree that asking needs to happen, but, perhaps it was done in the wrong order. Saying yes, then asking for pay, just doesn’t align from a business perspective… I’m not suggesting one says, “YEAH FINE HOW MUCH ARE YOU PAYING?” haha. No, not that. But, at least some kind of balance like, “Sounds awesome, but I only have so much time to make my living, play well, and retain my sanity, so… how much can you pay?”

    Personally, a potential employer who can’t talk about payment comfortably (i.e. gets offended or punishes the artist for even asking) is someone I would avoid at all costs (no pun intended).

    And, from the other side of the coin, as a concert organizer, I once had a musician ask me for pay too early, imo, before having any idea what they were getting themselves into (i.e. never heard of the composer or his music)! Not only did the musician ask, but he named his own price! So, it’s a balance, and a delicate balance at that. Because we are all wearing different hats at different times (employer, employee), we end up developing a special plane of communication when it comes to money. And the only way to talk on that plane is to be experienced in equal parts as an engaged artist, and an event organizer.

    So, it goes both ways. In the new music community, we are all equal parts job holders and job creators, beggars and donors. It produces this incredible camaraderie and mutual respect, and love even –like you say in the article– for one another. I think the Beethoven Festival has really brought out the best in our community, and shows how we still manage to support one another, in the face of frustrating circumstances.

    1. Debra

      Why is it inappropriate to name our fee? Doctors, lawyers, accountants, dentists, carpenters, plumbers, HVAC technicians, electricians, etc., etc., etc., all name what they charge for their services. I see no reason why, upon knowing the hours of the job (and that’s another whole discussion) I shouldn’t be able to say, “Here is what I charge (generally) for that much time”. The parenthetic “generally” is optional if you want to preserve some flexibility.
      Is it realistic in the current climate? Well, maybe debatable, but at least in principle, why shouldn’t we?

    2. Consuelo Skosey

      If this Festival has brought out the best in the community then the community should be approached to provide support to sustain its existence.

      1. Andy Costello

        Dear Conseulo,
        I’m confused by your comment. Who is the community your referring to? If I assume this is a response to my comment (which is how you have replied), are you saying the community of under- and unpaid musicians of the Beethoven Festival should be responsible for providing financial support to the festival?

        1. Philipp Blume, y'all

          I hope you get an answer here, Andy… but it sounded to me like she thought it was up to Chicago’s patrons of music to help the Beethoven Festival plug its financial hole.

  7. Kyle Gann

    That’s what makes the freelancer’s life so untenable. The Europeans were the worst about paying, as though smugly assured I wasn’t going to cross the ocean to collect. I once began faxing a French record label every day asking where my money was – this was nine months after I’d turned in their program notes. Italy owes me $3000 to this day, for work done 20 years ago. Once I took an editor at Harper’s Bazaar a bottle of champagne to celebrate the first anniversary of the day I had turned in my article (I was still waiting for the check), with a Hallmark card attached that said “Wishing I could hear from you.” She was too embarrassed to come to the lobby, and sent out her secretary. They never paid. I lived in Chicago on freelance work for some time. You have my sympathy, and your mentor was dead wrong.

    1. Andy Costello

      haha, I love your way of coping with these types of correspondences! I might just steal the champagne-and-hallmark-card play out of your playbook some day!

  8. Larry Eckerling

    Ellen, This was a very brave and thoughtful article. It is a very difficult situation for the Beethoven Festival, but an even greater difficulty for the musicians. First, I think every musicians has a right to ask (though politely) what the compensation will be. I admit it is tricky. When I was younger and playing for many other contractors, I always asked. It turned some people off, but I didn’t care. I have to admit, when people ask me now, I tell them, and secretly wish they didn’t, but then force myself to remember that I used to ask all the time. It is the musician’s right, if not their responsibility to ask.

    I think it is unfortunate, but plausible, that an arts organization can run into financial trouble from time to time. It happens everywhere, and all too often. The arts organization has to understand that it is their responsibility to pay their musicians. It seems like they do. But one of the possible reasons that musicians have kept silent might be that they don’t want to be seen as the complainers, so that they will not get hired again. How is their silence rewarded? By hiring a whole other roster for the new season? This seems like the most outrageous part of it.

    It would have been much wiser to try to get the unpaid musicians to be part of the team, thank them for their hopefully short term sacrifice, and invite them to play for the new season. Sure, many might say “not until I get paid for 2013”, but they should at least have been given the courtesy of the offer.

    It’s sad all around, I think.

  9. Rob Deemer

    Thank you for this, Ellen. In addition to the many performers who have not been paid, there were several composers who were commissioned to write works for last year’s festival. Those commissions, as far as I know, were not paid either (yep, I’m one of those composers).

  10. Annon.

    All musicians with strong union ties who played in 2012 were not rehired for the 2013 orchestra. Check the rosters and union book.

  11. Glenn

    The contractor on that gig you took, admired mentor or not, has no idea what he is doing. Any experienced contractor would laugh in this guy’s face to hear him suggest that it is unethical to ask what a gig pays. I get offers like this sometimes. They are either from startups that don’t yet know what they are doing, or from pompous blowhards that think the experience of working with them is payment enough. Rest assured, if this mentor of yours got a gig offer that did not include the terms of compensation, he probably (rightly) wouldn’t even respond to it. I hope you don’t have to deal with this clown too often.

      1. Glenn

        A link to the Slipped Disc article was posted to the Beethoven Fest facebook page and was promptly deleted by their administrators. Come on Chicago musicians! Are you going to let them hush their deserved negative publicity while planning a new festival with a (probably) six-figure budget, all the while not paying you for services rendered?

  12. Andrew Patner

    Brava, Ellen. I know that it was not easy to do this and to bring the situation to wider, national attention. You are eloquent, honest, empathetic, open. Here is the commentary that I did this past week on this subject as Critic-at-Large of 98.7WFMT Chicago and on both the air and the web. Good luck to you and all of the other musicians — You are the professional artists who make performances and festivals possible at all.

    Andrew Patner

    1. Fiona

      And bravo, Andrew, for (pardon the pun) airing this dirty laundry. Not paying the musicians who had been contracted to play is not only unethical, it is also illegal. It is shameful that this is being hushed up, but thanks to you this will not be a dirty little secret anymore.

  13. David MacDonald

    I wish we all had mentors and teachers in school that were teaching us better practices regarding unions and legal issues. Ellen and others might be interested in checking out talk by designer Mike Monteiro about the subject of contract work and getting paid. Warning: lots of F-bombs. Not for the easily offended.

  14. Emily Hu

    Thank you for writing this, Ellen–I have been meaning to write something, too, but like so many of us who are owed money for the project, I have been deterred by a mix of concern because of other people’s silence and, frankly, overwhelming feelings of frustration and anger at the situation.

  15. Hilary Feldman

    Great article, Ellen. Personally, I think it is ridiculous NOT to ask about pay, and even more ridiculous for potential employers to feel ‘put out’ if you do. I hate that artists are put in this position so often. I had a solo gig this past February at a performing arts center. It took four years of knocking on that door to book that gig, and then another year after booking it to actually do it. And then… they didn’t pay me. They were in financial trouble. I was promised I would be paid in May when they got a city subsidy, but I was skeptical. After all, I am a solo artist. No manager, no union, no nothing to back me up. I am the easiest person not to pay because, you know, what recourse do I really have? And how much of a fuss do I want to make? It took four years to build that bridge. Do I really want to burn it? Do I tell the friends/colleagues that I know have gigs coming up there that they may not get paid? We all spend much of our lives living check to check, so the least I should do (I think) is let them know that there may be a delay so they can plan for it, at least. I feel I should care more about the welfare of my friends and colleagues than I do about an institution that is not paying… but it’s hard. Very hard. I did end up informing my friends, so they could make their own decisions. I just asked them to leave my name out of any discussion. I did eventually get paid, too, which makes this situation different from yours. Tricky. But still, I hold to the position that no one should ever feel squeemish about asking what a job pays, no matter what the job, no matter what the profession. Work is work. Just because I happen to love what I do doesn’t mean I shouldn’t get paid for doing it. Period.

  16. David

    Thank you for the nice article.

    Anyone who suggests that asking about pay is “taboo” is not only a fool, but also a HUGE part of the problem. Sorry, but that’s unacceptable. The amount of pay and when it is to be paid should be mentioned in the first email/phone call, no exceptions. If not, well, it tends to make people wait 9+ months for imaginary checks.

    As for the group silence, it seems like reverse solidarity to me. We’re pros, pay us. Nobody else works in this fashion, if we do then we only have ourselves to blame. Each state has clearly defined rules about payment, it’s 30 days in my state. When the employer tries to shame those that speak out, they move from “bad employer” to bad person”. You, Mr. Beethoven Fest, are a bad person. There’s no other way to put it. Pay your people, or someone should contact the Attorney General in your state TODAY.

  17. ES

    I have to agree with David, above. Everything should be spelled out in advance of agreement. One way or another you are entering into a business transaction with someone. Terms should be set out at the beginning and agreed upon. Every time that I have enthusiastically signed on to something without understanding exactly what the terms are, I’ve felt under paid or taken advantage of in some way. I finally realized, however, that I had done it to myself by not asking for these things in writing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an email exchange or formal contract or something in between – anything in writing works.
    Money is a form of energy, just as music is. We give them our musical energy and they give us their monetary energy. It is a fair exchange. Money in and of itself is neither evil nor bad nor good. And they do not have the power over us to make us feel guilty about speaking out or asking about money. That is a cultural phenomena that needs to stop now, in my opinion. There is nothing anti artist or unmusical or uncommitted about being paid. Most of the great artists and musicians of our time are very well compensated. There’s no reason why anyone should play for free. Even benefits usually pay honoraria of some sort. You can then freely donate that money back if you so choose.
    Let’s not continue to do this to ourselves. Speak out. Insist on terms up front. Let’s help each other keep to the high road fiscally and artistically. The entire society benefits if we do.

    1. ke

      I fully agree. We are in the BUSINESS of art if we in fact desire compensation, and to that end, like any segment of industries, business is business. Assuming that there was a written contract (I didn’t read anything about one) that fully memorialized all of the conditions and consequences, one should absolutely utilize any and all means available within our system to obtain compensation that is due to us. It’s just plain stupid for a contractor to ask not to make any noise about being paid. Name one mainstream industry, medicine, technology, law, retail business, where such a thing is said, much less having such a large population be noble enough to cut so much slack to their employer. If a high profile event like the Beethoven Festival truly wants to run with the big dogs, they, like any business, need to conduct themselves with integrity vs. subterfuge. Their actions, per the law of karma, will come back to bite them, big time. I’m a performing classical pianist and to date, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with employers where we comprehensively and fully memorialize our agreement in the contract, and where they recognize that this is, in addition to a contribution of art, a business transaction.

  18. Mark

    I’m glad to see that you are speaking out about this. As an orchestra musician and freelancer, I can’t imagine not getting paid for my work. After reading through these comments I am a bit surprised that no one has made a comment about the union. I understand that union musicians weren’t hired but that is a risk you take not being in the Musicians Union. I am not from your area, but it is beyond me why everyone wouldn’t want to be in the union just for instances such as this. When I do a gig, I don’t need to ask how much I am going to be paid because the rate has already been set. I do understand that many people have a problem with unions, but this is exactly why everyone should be in the union. If all of the musicians were in the union the employers would have no choice but to pay a set wage and to pay in a timely manner. We work hard at our craft and we should all be paid for our hard work. I can only hope that you speaking out will help others realize the importance of musicians being paid and the importance of everyone sticking together in the musical world. Again, I’m sorry about your situation and hope you get the compensation owed to you.

    1. Nancy

      Great comments, all, and as both a performer and an agent, I have seen pretty much everything. Three things come to mind, as noted in earlier posts: Join the union. It’s insurance against that sort of mismanagement. There are downsides, to be sure. Some folks won’t hire union workers, cuz they can get cheaper players (which is a self-fulfilling prophecy for musicians who are willing to ditch the union option, really); and also, you can’t negotiate your own terms. And union fees are typically not stellar. But I hear in these posts that musicians largely hate to negotiate their own terms. It’s not what we do.

      Thing two: Get an agent. Not for everyone. For one thing, you have to pay the agent a percentage of your fee, and if you’re a jobber, it maybe doesn’t make fiscal sense. But having someone represent you in certain situations might help, and you can most likely find agents who will help you with certain gigs and still leave you the freedom to do the pickup gigs you need and want.

      Thing three: Get a contract in writing. If someone asks you to perform (and I’m not talking about the Green Mill, but organizations like Beethoven Festival), ask them for something in writing. If they can’t or won’t do that for you, run. Or play with your eyes wide open.

      Any non-profit presenting a concert or program should have a sound enough business plan (and the guaranteed donors/revenue) to insure payment for the talent. That is the most important part of the program, and if they haven’t found funding in advance of the performance, and have proof of that, something is terribly wrong. Musicians playing for non-profits such as the Beethoven Festival, or any other non-profit (or for profit, for that matter) would do themselves well to ask for something in writing, or at least do the homework to learn about the financial strength of the organization. This is the sort of thing agents and unions will do for you. If you choose to be independent (a perfectly logical choice), you will need to accept and take on a few of these jobs typically taken care of by those who have your best interests at heart.

      There is a symbiotic relationship in the music world. We play for free sometimes for events or issues we care about. Organizations or businesses will ask us to play for the door, and we do it because we need the exposure. There are many advantages on both sides that can’t be quantified by money, but instead we build relationships that can last and be fruitful beyond that one gig.

      But I believe that one thing you, as a musician, can do and should never feel guilty about doing, is ask what the gig pays before you do it. There is no shame in that. We need to begin to define the rules, and that simple action is part of it. Your art has value. You have a right to know the terms. You can always decide to play for less than you hoped for, and you can always play for an organization you aren’t sure can pay you, if you choose. The difference is knowing what you are getting into in advance, and making your own decision from a position of strength, not as a victim.

  19. Philipp Blume, y'all

    “Not only did the musician ask, but he named his own price!”

    Needless to say, perhaps, but the above is standard in just about every other profession, and even in music I wouldn’t hold it against a worker for doing this.

    1. Andy Costello

      Hello Philipp, I agree entirely in principle, but the context was more closely akin to an interview. There was no contract, there was no date, there was no location, no concrete offer, and absolutely nothing was in writing. Just a conversation with ideas. Like a pre-interview phone call.

      Would you take it upon yourself to declare your professional rate at such a point, on the phone, before you’ve been interviewed, before you’ve been hired?

      Maybe I’m totally naive, but even outside of art, job applicants often take interviews before knowing the exact salary the job will pay. No?

      My apologies for not providing fuller context. Essentially, my point is, it is a delicate balance, in any contract negotiation, and especially in the arts, between sympathy for an employer’s organizational budget, and sympathy for one’s own monetary needs. And that balancing act is enriched for us independent artists who regularly play for both sides.

      I think you’re taking my post a little out of context. There was a whole lot more to what I was saying than the one sentence you quote!

      1. Philipp Blume, y'all

        Fair enough. My comment was meant to give courage to those who are willing to up-front state their fee. I’d say it’s a valid way of going about things, as long as the player recognizes it’s risky — risky, but not rude. If anything it saves time. The presenter is then free to look for someone else, and skip over that person the next time.

  20. Andrew Nogal

    Commenter “Glenn” may be surprised to hear that musicians from the Northeast were hired to play in last year’s festival orchestra in Chicago and are among those who are not speaking out about any mistreatment.

  21. Hudson Fair

    I liked the tone and thoughtfulness of this article. Thank you for your good writing. Minding the store and so called “business arrangements” are part of the job of being an independent musician. Business arrangement basics such as time, place, music being played, suggested length of service, pay etc. should all be stated as a matter of course. It is very normal and part of the work to discuss fees. Those who pretend that it is not proper are either new or they are somehow squeemish. Neither of these states of mind are the freelancer’s problem.

    I think that the best course of action for the Chicago Beethoven Festival is that course suggested by Andrew Patner in his WFMT on-air commentary last week. That is, the festival should suspend operations, publicly apologize to all those who have been shorted and raise the money to pay them forthwith. That means no 2014 festival will be presented. It should not be presented.

    Once everyone is paid, the festival founders and board can take stock of where they are and make a decision about if they will go forward.

    I like how the author calls for gumption and courage from the shorted musicians. I don’t understand why they are silent. At least make a complaint to the Attorney General of Illinois. That is the office that polices bad action from not-for-profit entities in Illinois. Come on musicians–make a fuss.

  22. Liz

    It is outrageous that you have to wait silently, hopefully to get paid. They expect you to be on time at rehearsals, know the music, etc. certainly they don’t lose sleep over whether the performers will appear for the performance. You should have the same expectation of the organizers. The silence and so-called norm hurts the musicians. They are as bound to the agreement as you are.

  23. Gilles Aniorte-Tomassian

    interesting article but if Lepauw acknowledged the debt and has already entered the equivalent to a payment plan ain’t that enough reason for most of the concerned musicians not to work on destroying his reputation and the festival ?

    1. Tarn Travers

      Hi Gilles, your comment is quite misleading. What you call “the equivalent of a payment plan” is simply George again stating the same thing to us that he did back in October (and has stated numerous times since), which is basically “we will pay you when we have the money.”Given that some were paid immediately following the festival, some were paid in December (some in full), some were paid partially (around 20-30%) in April, and some have yet to see any money at all, these words are of little comfort to us, especially when he went back on his word to not have another festival if he has not yet fulfilled his financial obligations.

      And I have to say that I did not see the purpose of this article to be destroying the reputation of anyone or any organization. It is a beautifully-written article describing the situation and others like it, from the point of view of freelance musicians. Unfortunately, this is not a unique situation. These sorts of situations do merit serious conversation, even if it is uncomfortable to those on all sides of it.

      Thanks, Ellen, for your courage in putting this all out there and doing it so eloquently.

      1. Gilles Aniorte-Tomassian

        As you just wrote, Mr. Lepauw and the organization have been paying in full, paying partially, publicly recognizing (and in written) their debt and debtors , it might not be a formal payment plan but it’s pretty close to it.
        Then why trying to destroy him and the festival ?

        1. Tarn Travers

          Hi Gilles, first, I refer to you to my previous comment, in the second paragraph, where I talk about what I perceive to be the purpose of the article. My point is that your comments have very little to do with this article, as I read it. Also, most people define a payment plan as a series or structure of scheduled payments, which bears absolutely no resemblance to anything that I have heard from George, as his”equivalent to a payment plan” that you mention has no structure and no scheduled payments of any amount whatsoever. Meanwhile, in direct contradiction to his word to me and my colleagues, he is making more financial commitments to artists, many of whom had no idea of this financial situation coming out of the 2013 festival, which puts both the unpaid artists from 2013 and the contracted artists for 2014 in an extremely uncomfortable situation.

          So, I take issue with your comments because I feel that they are misleading and I do not feel that anyone, no matter which side they take in this, is served by any sort of a campaign of misinformation. I am trying to be upfront and completely honest (as was Ellen in this article), and I hope that everyone else will do the same.

          1. Andrew Patner

            Tam and Ellen are so far from trying to or doing anything that might destroy anyone or anything. They are making and offering extremely careful, reasoned, and sensible requests and reminders about the lives of musicians and artists and how presenters must take these into consideration in planning, programming, and in dealing with the public. And they have done this only after many months of patient and polite public silence and attempts to get answers to their questions and to be dealt with fairly by those who owe them money. One could say, in fact, that they have been offering thoughtful roadmaps on how individuals and an organization could *maintain* (and develop) a good reputation. The world of independent musicians and artists is in their debt.

  24. Paul Erling

    I am not really a professional musician, though I’ve sung in some professional choirs. Mostly, I work as a business man. If I heard someone telling me not to talk money on the way in, I would assume that he doesn’t know how he is going to pay for whatever I am selling him.

    I’m sure this is a common predicament for people trying to organize a large musical performances – or for that matter any artistic performance that depends mostly on donors and audience – it can easily grow to be very expensive, and you can’t know how big your audience will be, etc.

    The way people would handle this in the business world is to ask the organizers to post a bond. They wouldn’t blink at having insurance if they had to borrow someone’s portatif organ, etc.. So posting a bond to ensure that the musicians get paid should be a no-brainer.

    So how to find an insurance company/bank/fund willing to offer this? One opportunity with this approach is that while most musicians are struggling, a few are doing great, and if you can figure out pricing (admittedly tricky) this could be an investment that earns a return for a “funder” while simultaneously ensuring that the performers are not the ones getting the short end of the stick.

    One thing that is for sure, it would be great for a music scene in Chicago, and it would reward the organizers who are prudent and plan well, and consistently generate audiences, because if you defaulted, and the performance bank had to pay out, it would be hard to get a second bite at the apple.

  25. Zimb

    I’m writing this because I’ve seen, and been personally plagued by poor business practices in our field over and over again. Even recently I was swindled by another artist who simply planned and publicized live music but didn’t budget for it.

    There are two parts to this story, from the business side that really get to me:

    Part I: Ethics
    Talking about what you earn is gauche – asking what the remuneration is for a gig should be standard. As contractors, we have expenses. If we want to donate our time, which can frequently be an option, we should be given the opportunity to accept or decline – not swindled into playing a pro gig for free. That’s courtesy. It means I might work for you in the future.

    Part II: Good Business Practice
    Any festival, event or orchestra that operates without funds to deliver its program should re-evaluate its business practice, and the scale of its operations. Something, budget-wise, has to give, and the ONE place you can’t scrimp is fees.

    Likewise, an organization has a board of directors and/or trustees. These individuals are responsible for the fiscal health of the endeavor – and in a dire scenario, should be openly approached for donations to offset deficit – again, BEFORE things are dire. If the board can’t fish in their pockets, they should be asked who and how the money can be raised – and can they help? BEFORE people go unpaid.

    It’s the job of the Managing Director, Executive Director and Board of Directors to maintain the integrity of their organization, not by demanding unpaid contract workers to lie, but by actually honoring their debts.

    Budgets exist for a reason – it’s simple addition and subtraction. If you have the capital, you proceed. If you don’t, imagine alternatives. I realize this is difficult for some to digest in our current Bailout Economic Culture – but with fiscal short falls plaguing *everyone* in the arts, good business practices are an absolute necessity.

    In my opinion, this festival should fold, reform, or slim down its activities until it has paid everyone it owes; the managers, no matter how prestigious (given they’re using their status to swindle performers) should be fired, the board re-examined and officers re-elected. The fact is, If these people stiffed their performers once, they will do it again. They’re clearly not qualified for the job they were hired to do – math. It’s just addition and subtraction.

  26. Betty D.

    The idea that musicians don’t talk about money is ludicrous. Would a plumber, copywriter, anyone (!) work without knowing what the compensation is? Music is a business and we need to treat it that way before anyone else will. Did you have a contract with the Beethoven Festival, or a verbal agreement? Perhaps if everyone would join together you could engage a lawyer. It is unfortunate that freelancers fear for their reputation for complaining over non-payment, more than a festival worries about actually paying.

  27. Eric Berlin

    Great article and brava for your courage in speaking out. Your mentor was dead wrong. We must strongly insist to all that our work has value and that receiving that product is a transaction like any other. Would this mentor approach his grocer, his doctor or his mechanic the same way?!

    I am saddened by the silence of your colleagues and feel the need to remind people that this type of abuse is why our predecessors fought so hard for unionization and collective bargaining. Sweat shop laborers at the mercy of a capricious boss were”lucky to have a job”. Musicians, whose work fulfilled much more basic needs of the soul were even more easily abused.

    Being “polite” and silent as individuals runs counter to the principles which allow us to scrape out a living. As a group, when we speak up, we are strong. When only one has the courage, he/she becomes vulnerable with the collective at fault, not the dead beat employer.

    Especially as we watch labor under attack across America, from teachers to auto workers to the Minnesota Orchestra and the Met, we must be vigilant and strong if we are to survive. Have courage and stand strong together.

  28. Jared

    The whole thing about asking about your pay baffles me. Any organization that is hiring people has a budget for their artists, so they should be clear up front about how much they can pay. It’s an easy thing that becomes unnecessarily complicated.

  29. Kit Emory

    Ellen, this is a very thoughtful, well-written piece. I’m appalled at the festival presenters’ treatment of the musicians, especially with the announcement of another festival and the hiring of other artists in the process. I presume that you had a contract, either by email, or hard copy, for last season’s festival. You most likely could sue in Small Claims Court and win, perhaps even be awarded damages because of the cavalier attitude of those that hired you. Would it hurt you getting hired by other presenters in the future? Hard to know. Word would have to get out. And it’s not like you haven’t waited patiently for payment over these months. This needs to be covered by the local media and the presenters shamed into ponying up what they owe – and this needs to happen BEFORE the next festival gets underway.

    As for asking what a gig pays – it is reasonable and expected by any standard contractor that an artist will ask prior to accepting. It SHOULD be in the offer, of course, but if it’s been left out for whatever reason, you simply MUST ask. It is the PROFESSIONAL thing to do. To imply otherwise is an indication of a pretty clueless contractor, friend or no….

    I dearly hope that this blog generates sufficient attention to get all of last season’s artists paid pronto. Meanwhile, keep the faith and keep playing.

  30. PW

    Hi Ellen,

    Great article and I’m sorry to hear about all that nonsense.

    I’ll echo other statements and just say it’s never out of place to ask about money. It’s professional.

    I am in no way defending the Beethoven Fest folks, but having worked extensively both as a performer/composer and at a number of non-profit music orgs (almost always in dire financial straits) I have a few things I’d like to throw out into the general discussion.

    It’s mentioned above that budgeting is simple addition and subtraction, but that’s unfortunately not the case. More often than not large productions rely on funding from multiple public and private sources with deadlines and funding windows that make it impossible to know exactly how much money you’ll have before you’ve had to lock in contracts, start the press push, etc. Without a couple of “angel” donors you can run to in an emergency, putting on something big like a festival is a bit of a hail mary.

    In terms of the organization preferring the situation kept quiet, the conventional wisdom is that funders don’t want to invest in an organization that doesn’t have its house in order. Keeping up appearances becomes critical in raising the funds to pay back debts.

    That doesn’t really leave musicians much agency in the matter…call them out and maybe they fold and you don’t ever get your money (actually non-profits are supposed to carry insurance in the case of bankruptcy or dissolution, though I’ve never seen this process close up; I can’t imagine it’d be speedy or easy to collect) or remain silent and at their mercy.

    Then again, I’ve seen organizers who’ve somehow rationalized to themselves that they don’t need to pay performers/composers for some deluded reasoning.

    In any case it doesn’t seem like the matter was handled remotely well from your description and I hope it all works out in the end for you and the other folks that got stiffed.

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  32. Julia Bentley

    There’s a Ponzi scheme afoot here– but that’s not news to any free-lancing musician, and not necessarily as negative as the idiom implies. We agree to perform with an organization, or even simply with a few other musicians, because we love what we do, and/or for a check– but also because there are implicit hopes that “things” will go well for that organization, and the rising tide may lift our little leaky boats, too. And the Beethoven Festival has maximized positive publicity in order to gain a solid footing– this is self-serving, but the artists who have participated have their fingers crossed for George and Co., that Chicago does indeed want more ambitious artistic endeavors, and that what was run on a (too-short) shoestring will be flush in the future, if that positive publicity generates adequate financial support. None of this excuses shaming artists who deserve clearly stated financial terms that are honored; reading publicity trumpeting the success of this festival when artists have not received the remuneration they were promised turns my stomach.

  33. NYMike

    The fact that union musicians from the 2012 series were not rehired in 2013, should have been the tipoff. This guy is nothing but a scam “artist” (I’ve met a few in my time). Better not to play at all than play and not be paid.

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  35. Christian Hertzog


    Others have given you good advice here, but I haven’t seen anyone suggesting you sue. Well you can! And you don’t need a lawyer to do it!

    You performed a service and you were not paid for it. You and everyone else who was stiffed should individually file small claims court suits against this jerk. (First, attempt in writing to settle without filing a claim–that could be enough to get your money from the organization). In Illinois, you can sue for up to $10,000 in small claims court. You don’t need a lawyer, and the filing fee is insignificant. If the judge doesn’t award you court costs, they’re tax-deductible as a business expense to recover your fee.

    Lots of great advice at Nolo Press’s website, and read their books on the subject:

    Good luck to you!

    1. Muscian's Wife

      We contacted a lawyer in November and after several letters to George Lepauw, we were paid in full the first week of January. The individuals who were paid out in full at the beginning appear to be close to George or just lucky. I believe without perusing legal action, that we would also be included in the musicians awaiting full compensation.

  36. James Smith

    Well written article Ellen. Congratulations for your courage to speak up! It does not surprise me that so many musicians did not get paid by “Monsieur Beethoven” whose pianistic abilities are certainly not of international caliber and whose character is flawed. But it does surprise me that so many people of Chicago’s highly political and oftentimes unjust “classical music family” did not catch on earlier, including some “bigwigs” who were still raving about the 2014 “Walkabout” Beethoven Festival, thus giving it undeserved publicity.
    Something to think about and learn from Chicago!

  37. Winifred Brown

    Singers are always the last to get paid. Especially in Chicago and oddly,
    Major European houses and festivals. We once tallied that I was “owed” ( robbed) of about forty five thousand dollars over a thirty year
    Full time career. So…don’t spend what has not clearly cleared.
    And…demand payment in full by intermission. That used to be state of the art. I was involved in several performances that ended abruptly.
    Not a new issue, but getting worse in Chicago.

  38. Miles Maner

    Brava, Ellen! You carry the torch with elegance and strength. Musicians everywhere thank you.

  39. ictus75

    If nothing else, this should be brought out in the open so musicians who have been hired for the 2014 Festival can make a decision whether to play the gig or not. If last year’s players still haven’t been paid, I’d be hesitant to get involved in this year’s Festival. I agree that they should suspend this year’s festival, pay last year’s people, then figure out where to go from there.

  40. Matthew Fields

    I don’t believe in taking in-kind loans from performers. My projects move forward when the funds to pay them exist. I also credit every participating individual, even in large ensembles. Even with friends I work out written agreements and stand by and stick to them. i don’t see a good reason why anybody would operate any other way. And when an impresario is not upfront about compensation, musicians should feel empowered to see their books before working for them.

  41. Joseph Gluck

    That mentor/contractor may be an excellent player, but he/she is not a musician. You can’t
    carry that label unless you value,respect and appreciate those that have acquired the skills
    that produce the music.
    “Thank you for accepting this fee.I know you deserve more,but it is all we can afford.”

  42. Phil Fried

    Of course the “important folks” got paid. This is why unions exist. There are thousands of reasons why concerts lose money but there is no reason place that on the backs of performers.

    Sadly this kind of thing happens all over in may guises.
    In my own related case I signed a contract and rented a 1 hour performance slot at “Music at MacDougel” in NYC yet I was only able to play for around 10 minutes, with interruptions too. What is my recourse? Sue? Naturally the management promised to make it up to me — they have not –and this was a return performance the first time I played there it was a good experience.

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  44. Cornelius Boots

    Ludwig van would burn this to a cinder. This is blatant classism.
    What we have is an epidemic—an infection, an infestation. Because those who slave away their lives in drudgery (and this means some billionaires too) are envious of those of us that have found a spark of aliveness and beauty in this increasingly toxic “world”—the payback for that is the false “optionality” that payment for gigs has taken on. I blame some of that on any of us that have EVER played for free: that’s where it starts.

    Lepauw and the Festival itself seem to be pawns, puppets infected with this falsity: it is beyond their own vision to see what absolutely untenable B.S. they are engaging in here:
    In fact, let’s thank him for drawing this darkness out a bit into the light.
    I left Chicago in 2002 for the sunny West Coast and have never looked back—but sadly, this issue is global.

    My bass clarinet quartet was approached by the Bohemian Club (“gentlemen’s” club of some of the wealthiest on the planet) to perform at their annual retreat: for no monetary compensation except some food and we could hang out with —-who? George !@#$ W. Bush?
    Uh, no thanks.
    I was too baffled to respond directly to the request having no desire to engage their dark magic, but in the spirit of “response” I did write my blog post:
    “There’s No Such Thing as an Unpaid Gig”

    Please respect yourselves and speak clearly about compensation—before, during, after, whatever it takes—and to those of you who do not understand what I am saying here: pay for your next meal out with a smile and some thoughts of love and tell us how it goes.

  45. Martin

    Congratulations Ellen, to a fair and balanced article on a festival, which I can only call unfair and fraudulent.
    George Lepauw’s family runs for many years a “free for everyone” (including the musicians) “Parisian Salon Concerts” series at the Northbrook Public Library for “the exposure”, only to recruit young professional musicians towards his Beethoven Festival or to use them for some of their “high society” real estate functions. without paying any of them. You can expect nothing good from these people. They will only use you and replace you in the case of the slightest dissent or even badmouth you.
    I doubt very highly that George Lepauw will sincerely apologize for his actions as he seems to be a very self righteous man. Your best bet to get your money would be in my opinion, to get a good lawyer involved-Good luck and best wishes to you!

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  47. Thomas Matta

    Hi everyone:

    Please discuss the details of $$$ when you hire a musician, or when you accept work. Not just the amount, but the timeline/terms, too. Especially for someone you do not know or who has a sullied reputation.

    Whomever this clown is that has put up a festival then not paid the band? Let everyone you know he is a deadbeat.

    I hope everyone gets paid.

    Oh, one more thing:


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  49. Anon

    It behooves the musician to have an advance understanding of what they are walking into before making any assumptions. With all due respect to the author’s mentor, his rationale is a bad business decision under most circumstances. It’s also high time that musicians stop performing in the name of “exposure”, a stigmatic term which has, at best, amorphous value to a professional musician. We are now living in a time when (in lieu of a viable audio product), live performances are now the best way for musicians to be compensated.

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  51. Tim

    I am in two bands that don’t do any work without a contract. If you do not want to agree to an amount, or terms, or ammenities, then we do not work for you. Simple. No gig is so prestigous that you do not deserve compensation. Pay me or be taken to court, or to task publicly. We work hard for countless hours for the few hours we are asked to perform. Boiled down, it is a tremendouos investment time wise, for the amount we charge. Not being paid is not an option. If I burn that bridge by being insensitve, so be it. We are reasonable, however. If we have multiple engagements and one of them goes poorly, because of weather, or other uncontrollable circumstances, we make concessions, to make the $$ down the road.

  52. Jay Banta

    This seems to always be such an awkward issue. I am not a professional musician, but have been left awkwardly waiting around waiting to be paid. One thing that did seem to help was to be up front with what amount you charge. They can either agree or not agree at that point. If they agree I would say something like, to eliminate any confusion I have found it much better to receive my fee prior to the performance, that way it is one less thing to worry about afterwards when things have a tendency to get a little crazy!
    Thank you very much for your consideration and I look forward to playing this performance.

  53. EK

    This is absolutely shameful that the Beethoven Festival has not paid their musicians. They are not fiscally sound and have failed to produce a 990 for their organization. Looking up the International Beethoven Project (their name when they registered with the IRS as a nonprofit) on guidestar, they have not submitted any 990s to the IRS. Which makes it impossible for anyone to see how fiscally sound they are and also does not allow us to see how much George LePauw makes. Perhaps instead of hiding behind failing to do this, they should come forward and display everything for all to see, including past and future musicians who work for them.

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  55. Les

    “Airlift some food to your house…” Ha. Pardon my anger, but people like that need an a**whipping airlifted to their house! Who is John Galt? Does he play Cello? How would he handle the lack of respect and common decency that is a hallmark of the current music scene (unless your a Justin Beiber) ?

  56. Peter Trevor

    According to the International Beethoven Project exempt status was automatically revoked by the IRS for failure to file a Form 990, 990-EZ, 990-N, or 990-PF for 3 consecutive years. In addition it states that further investigation and due diligence is warranted.

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