Why else would you come together for hours at a time for free if the goal isn’t to walk away feeling like you made something beautiful and did the best you possibly could? Why have I given years of my life to something that doesn’t pay money in a capitalist state, in which value is directly equated with money? Because the highest quality art I’ve ever made has been with some of those people. ~ Violist, NYC
When does an artist, trying to make a living, not care about being compensated? If they do stop caring, have they also stopped valuing their art’s worth?Creating art is, of course, not about making money. But one must make—or have—money to live a somewhat traditional lifestyle. ~ Cellist, Seattle
This article is about what it means to perform without pay. It’s not a discussion of when it is acceptable to make art for free; that rubric has already been discussed eloquently and exhaustively.
(To explain why artists can’t do their thing for free all the time, I’ll borrow from Annie Dillard: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” Artists who make their living from art make their living from art. Art is their only source of income. String together enough days of free performance, and you are looking back on a life without a livelihood.)
I spend much of my time observing and working with community orchestras in Seattle as director of the Live Music Project (an egalitarian platform for orchestral/chamber performance promotion and discovery), so I thought I’d explore the not-money side of the money story.
There are more than 50 orchestras in the region, many of which are made up of unpaid players. Some of these are new professional-level volunteer ensembles that are in the early stages of a growth plan that moves toward paying performers at scale; others are community orchestras made up of performers with varying levels of experience and with full-time, non-music careers as engineers, data analysts, doctors, attorneys, computer scientists, and so on.
Usually, the pros play exclusively with the pro groups, and the enthusiasts play exclusively with the community orchestras—but there’s some crossover. I’ve heard professional musicians say they practice more for paid performances, while others said they felt more committed to the community projects—not that they necessarily practiced more, but that they were more passionate about them. And so I wondered: When compensation takes the form of passion and satisfaction, instead of monetary remuneration, what is the impact on performance quality, commitment, and artistic freedom?
To find out, I interviewed 30 composers and performers—professionals and part-timers—in my home city of Seattle and across the US. Among these are artists who rely on music for their entire household income, artists who have partial non-music income, and artists whose income is completely independent of music. Their answers vary, but not along those income lines.
Money, Quality, Time
Curious about priorities, I asked: When compensation takes the form of passion and satisfaction, does quality suffer? And does it always suffer, or only if there are competing (paid) efforts to prioritize at the same time?
For most, money is not the determining factor for investment. Standards are standards, reputations are on the line, and there are other key inspiring motives for working hard: shared commitment to great artistry; rising to the level of your colleagues; opportunity for growth, satisfaction, and fulfillment; passion for a project, a charity, or fulfilling a personal favor; interest in new/difficult repertoire; need for a creative outlet; investment in future employment; chemistry/energy/connection with collaborators—these are the reasons to perform.
You can create a complete turkey on mega-resources, and pull off an instant classic on a shoestring budget. In the end, it’s all about personalities intersecting and the capacity to inspire and lead people into believing in a singular creative idea. The collective will is a mighty force and can make the seemingly impossible a memorable reality. ~ Composer/conductor, Seattle
So what does impact quality?
If I don’t have time to do everything to the very best of my preparative abilities, I prioritize whichever gig is most important to my long-term career—and that is usually also the best paying. ~ Composer/musician, Seattle
When there’s a crunch, musicians dedicate their available time to paid gigs—and that can be a paid music gig or a full-time non-music job. Preparation for other musical projects is diminished (or eliminated entirely) as a result.
Even dilemmas couched in terms of money boil down to time:
Money plays a bigger role in competing with large organizations. A smaller organization like ours [a new music focused ensemble] is hard-pressed to tell a musician to not go for the gig that pays $1500 a week. I think it’s part of the deal…it doesn’t mean that the musician doesn’t love to play new music, but they’ve got to live, and an organization like ours has to be flexible. It’s about creating a community of musicians that enjoy playing the repertoire and with one another, and supporting one another toward this artistic lifestyle. ~ Composer/conductor, Seattle
What is time but an opportunity to do work and put food on the table?
Finally, a few performers whose entire personal income comes from making music expressed a deep connection between compensation and self-worth—and, by extension, quality of performance:
I feel better about myself when I’m working for money—more successful. I take greater pride in it. I think I compose harder when there is pay. ~ Composer/musician, Seattle
The more I’m getting paid, the better I feel, the better I play. I always feel more valued when I’m getting paid. I have a better attitude about it, practice harder, and feel happier overall. ~ Violinist, Seattle
Part-time performers with non-music careers may have the luxury of measuring the value of their work in other contexts (and, as we’ll see later, they enjoy other luxuries as well).
Money and Artistic Freedom
Boundless funding can open doors for creative exploration. A hip-hop producer once told me that when he worked with Kanye West, part of the creative process was bringing in as many interesting collaborators as possible, deciding later which tracks to use. “When you know you’re going to make $50 million, you can afford to figure it out afterwards like that. But if you might make $50,000, it changes things.”
Understandably so! Risk is difficult to navigate, even/especially between close friends and colleagues.
I wondered, again, about the flip side. What if there is no money involved? Does freedom from financial obligation result in great artistic freedom?
I wished I’d asked the interviewees that question, but instead I phrased it like this, fallacy and all:
When there is no money involved, and therefore no financial risk, is there more room for artistic freedom? Do great works emerge?
I was trying to get at the idea of “playing for fun” (goofing off, jamming, the musical version of doodling—what I, a casual musician, do at my keyboard while waiting for the kettle to boil). But folks took it in a more serious direction, and they took it down two very different paths.
Funding = Rules; Money is Icky
For some, not having funding means having the freedom to collaborate more openly and explore creative limits.
For new pieces, the weirdo techniques and sounds we were making were exactly what the composer wanted because he/she came and hung out with us and players in the [community] orchestra, and the orchestra [members], having no job security and less competition to worry about, often ask questions of our collaborators and composers freely, thereby contributing to the musical and social culture of the organization. Sometimes in paid gigs, asking a question exposes a vulnerability, and I feel many orchestral musicians equate vulnerability to threatened job security, which can definitely have an adverse impact on artistry. ~ Violist, NYC
And then there’s this bit of negotiation genius:
When there is no money involved, I do get to call the shots more. When working with directors, I remind them that if I’m working for free, I’m an investor in their film or video game and get to do what I want. This generally prods them to find the money unless they are looking for true collaboration. ~ Composer/musician, Seattle
In certain cases, money can be downright harmful to the creative process:
Every time I’ve been paid an actual commission fee, I feel like it really messed with my head. I feel like those pieces were not as good as others, and many of them I’m less proud of. It’s a big part of the reason I’ve slowly stopped composing. ~ Composer, Seattle
…and even losing money can be worthwhile:
I’ve bankrolled a few workshops of my pieces, and it’s been fun, and freeing, and people got paid a bit, and I knew I was gonna lose money, but I learned a lot about the piece, which is what I wanted. I was definitely in a position of financial risk, but that intentional willingness to lose money helped me have the artistic freedom to really research the piece. It was great. ~ Composer, Seattle
And yet, whether it’s the performer, presenter, venue, patron, or audience, someone always has money in the game.
There is Always Risk
There are almost always financial obligations around making music, even if the performer does not shoulder them first-hand.
Money is like the oil that allows the old fashioned “machine” to run: for musicians, we need money first of all to get an education, and to buy and maintain an adequate instrument, and then to pay for some kind of transportation to wherever we’re called; orchestras need halls and stands and lights and chairs; conductors need musicians, who need to be paid if not in money then with some kind of prize (such as Krispy Kremes at break time or Starbucks cards or just flowers); and if we don’t play traditional classical music with free parts from IMSLP, we have to pay royalties to modern composers and rent the parts from self-promoting companies. ~ Violist, Seattle
For those making a living from music, there just isn’t a lot of time to goof off, and playing without pay can have a huge opportunity cost.
When you’re not being paid, you’re risking your finances/income/livelihood for, one hopes, some other benefit (guaranteed or unguaranteed). Once you take that free gig, a paid gig might come up, and then you’re in a difficult professional position: either you back out of your commitment to the free gig and rightly earn something for your time/talent, or you honor the commitment and basically lose money (because you COULD HAVE been playing for money). ~ Cellist, Seattle
There is certainly financial risk when no money is involved, because doing the [unpaid] work can hurt your interpersonal relationships, cause you to not seek real work, and send you into a dark artistic hole where nothing gets finished. ~ Composer/musician, Seattle
Full-time performers drove home the fact that even with money off the table, there are other risks at play, especially when commissioning new works. Unpaid ensembles without deep-pocketed (and potentially controlling) backers are still concerned about getting people in seats, and need to program around that. Performers worried about playing a difficult, exposed concert where they’d “look like an idiot on stage” won’t take the gig, even if it is paid.
And finally, we come back to time:
The financial stress associated with being in the arts is so great that it’s hard to free up space for creativity, or any “extra” projects. The reality of being a working artist is that you are most likely juggling several things such as teaching lessons, maybe a part-time but steady gig, and freelancing. And, maybe you have a side job to supplement that. So that means there are so many moving parts that it’s hard to find the right energy to really create new things. ~ Flutist, Seattle
If a project is generously funded—enough to give the musicians time enough to take a hiatus from other projects—then you will have the MOST artistically-free possible greatness of an outcome. ~ Composer/performer, Seattle
What might that look like?
Financial Stability = Freedom to Choose
Money is only one of five factors that I consider when taking a gig. The other four are time commitment, people (other players, conductor), repertoire, and potential growth as a musician. If a gig meets at least three out of the five, I’ll usually do it. ~ Flutist, Seattle
I decided it was a matter of my life, and my life’s creativity, to live in a creative space in my music work, and that meant ditching the freelance mentality and adopting the generative artist mentality. What can I make? What creative artists can I support by collaborating with them? So I do all kinds of amazing stuff that is really at the forefront of goodness in my city. I am proud of my stuff and my collaborations. But the money is small to non-existent. ~ Violist, Seattle
It’s probably time to address what one performer called “duh obvious elephant”: the privilege of choice afforded those with alternate (non-music) income, or a financially supportive spouse/family, or savings from a previous job.
This sentiment figures prominently across all income groups except the entirely volunteer bracket:
- Income from teaching lets me be a patron and opportunity-maker in my field. ~ Singer, Chicago
- I have invested many thousands of dollars and many more unpaid hours in my gig. Having other paying jobs is the way to feed the passion. Learning how to prioritize time and energy is the name of the game in this field, especially if you are interested in a genre that may not pay well. ~ Conductor, Seattle
- A lifelong day job can allow you the freedom to do what you like outside of the job. ~ Composer, Michigan
- Charles Ives was an insurance man, and he could write whatever he wanted (way out-there stuff!) ~ Performer/conductor, Seattle
- I subsidize my creative music habit by borrowing from my freelancing/teaching to give myself a “grant.” ~ Composer/performer, Seattle
- I like to work other jobs so that I can have more artistic autonomy and freedom. ~ Violist, NYC
- My [day job] income is higher now, so I have a choice in whether or not to take a gig based on whether I think I’d enjoy it, not because I need the money, which is absolutely freeing! ~ Bassist, Seattle
Contrast the above with the sentiments of those who depend more on music for their income:
- Half our household income comes from music. It can be scary, because there is no security in it. ~ Composer, Chicago
- There are occasions where the music is quite inane, and I’m only there because I’m paid. ~ Violist, Seattle
- All of my income comes from conducting and teaching. I make a decent wage from my five to six jobs. ~ Conductor/performer, Seattle
From this, a tricky challenge with music-independent income rears its head:
The abundance of community orchestras in Seattle creates a challenge for those of us who play for a living; people in the position to hire musicians become accustomed to getting something for free, and are less concerned with how the quality may suffer. It’s great that community orchestra players have that opportunity, but it saturates the market in a challenging way. ~ Flutist, Seattle
If this is indeed the case, what does one do about it? Is there a solution that supports both communities?
As I ponder the strangeness of a competitive field shared by artists who are all deeply rewarded by the process of making music, yet divided on the subject of volunteerism, I can’t help but think: if we could remove money from the equation by making sure artists get paid enough to do better than get by, what would that look like?
To be paid for expressing yourself as you see fit would be an amazing life for any creative. ~ Composer, Chicago
“I don’t care if the audience is paying or not. If I can make a living playing music, I’m happy.” ~ Violinist, Seattle
As I made my way through these interviews, I realized I’d been conflating two aspects of free performance: performing without pay, and attending without cost. For musicians whose livelihoods depend on getting paid for their performances, performing too often without pay would lead to starvation. What about providing music at no cost to the listener?
I turned back to the group with a hypothetical proposal that removed the main stressors of musical life (money, lack of autonomy) and emphasized the joys they had mentioned when talking about which gigs they do choose to play for free (playing compelling repertoire, working with inspiring creative partners, reaching for the height of one’s own creative artistry, having a chance to take risks and grow).
Envision a scenario in which you were paid a comfortable living wage to perform (or compose) for a fixed number of hours per week. You would have the freedom to choose your schedule, the performance venues, the repertoire—you could be busking Steve Reich or playing Brahms with an orchestra, and everything in between. Between rehearsing and performing, this would be a full-time job. All of your costs would be covered, and the performances would be free to all audiences. (For composers: the scores you produce would be available to all ensembles at no cost.)
Would you do it? Why/why not?
The response was extremely positive. Performers called it “a dream come true,” “the ultimate ideal,” “the outline of reaching pinnacle of my career.” One asked for a job. Another said he’d leave his current career and take a pay cut to be employed in this way. For all types of artists, at all income levels, this sentiment rang true: “I’m not committed to paying audiences—I’m committed to getting paid.”
And then they really dug in.
Not Too Much Creative Freedom, Please
Musicians were thrilled with the prospect of full artistic control. In contrast, composers were quick to note that their creativity thrives in an environment of limitations (creative, temporal), and that having too much artistic freedom can be problematic.
Setting specific limitations helps us use our creative minds to their absolute extremes. If you have no limitations, then what are you conveying to the audience? A story cannot keep its listeners if it branches off in numerous and endless directions. The same can be said about music. I have recently worked on an opera that had specific limitations as to the ensemble’s regular audience and instrumentation, but instead of thinking of how “caged” I was in those limitations, I let my imagination take over as to how I could meld stylistic genres, and how to let certain timbres of the instrumentation mix and match so that they could help create the story, develop it, and move it forward. ~ Composer, Chicago
If I were paid just to produce music, I think that would be rather grand if I were forced to do specific things. I would really like to compose for a TV show because of those requirements. It’s hard to get work like that…Being a staff recording engineer or orchestrator would be great too, because assignments can be quite inspiring. ~ Composer/musician, Seattle
I’d likely still want to pair with specific ensembles and performers for each project, even if it wasn’t required contractually. I’m a very strong opponent of people writing pieces of their own volition and not for a specific group… I know so many composers who try to write big pieces (symphonies, operas, choral masses) and then attract ensembles to premiere them. It sometimes works, but often, the ensemble understandably wants to be part of the inception of the piece, so coming to them with an already-written piece is not as exciting for them. ~ Composer, Michigan
One composer, citing a parallel with Vivaldi, said he’d jump at the opportunity to be salaried and share his works at no cost; another said he could pass up licensing for his scores as long as he was happy with his income. But a third was more hesitant to give up the rights:
Intellectual property ownership is important. Control of my own music for the future is immensely important. If someone else wanted my IP, even if I was getting paid full-time, I’d be disinclined to do it. It would make me think there was a market opportunity I was missing, and that I’d be better off keeping control of the royalties. ~ Composer, Seattle
Value, Audience, and Choice
In a world where all performances are free, what might the impact be on the value of music—and the demonstration of that value?
- I’d take this job as long as I don’t have to demonstrate effectiveness by the number of seats filled. ~ Composer/musician, Seattle
- This model seems to jettison any sort of a market… how long would I be working before people stopped coming to see what I was up to? If it were free, would people still want to go? Would they value it? In a utopian world where people would just play my pieces and I could choose venues as I like: What choices would they have to either play my music or play the better music of some more worthy composer? Eventually, the market starts to creep in when more people come to some concerts than others, and people want to figure out how to attract the largest crowd so as to have the most cultural salience. ~ Composer/musician, Seattle
- I think there would be an uptick in the work one has to do to communicate “value” around classical music performance. But, I would welcome that situation. ~ Singer, Chicago
- Just writing the music doesn’t mean that anyone would actually play it or embrace it, even if it is available for free. And in the end that begins to take me back down the road to where I am now, which is to say that it’s really hard to write music, and feel good about it, when nobody is playing it or embracing it. ~ Composer, Seattle
They are not alone in these concerns. One music director—an exception among interviewees—explained that he doesn’t believe in free tickets. The community orchestra he leads has enough funding to perform their concerts at no cost to the audience, but the organization decided that doing so would lead audiences to take them less seriously.
Exceptions aside, most expressed an ecstatic enthusiasm for having a dependable living wage, and glee at the idea of having full creative control. Familiar themes of time, control of one’s own schedule (and geographical location), opportunities for growth, and freedom to take artistic risks emerged as well:
The thing I don’t have anymore is time, and being able to be a full-time composer and write what I want, when I want, would be amazing (mostly because there’s so much more that you need than just simply writing the notes: you need time to think, listen, revise, think, ponder, write, think, listen…) ~ Composer, Seattle
This is the scenario where you would have the opportunity to find a niche that could be innovative: new music, women composers, music with ethnic diversity, collaborations with other art forms… ~ Conductor, Seattle
Oh my gosh, talk about a dream job! Comfortable living wage and freedom to choose schedule and repertoire? To just perform all week??? That is basically the outline of reaching the pinnacle in my career. I would totally do it. ~ Singer, Chicago
Something people always say to me when I tell them I’m a musician is “oh, that’s so great you get to do what you love for a living.” To me, that illuminates two separate but related problems: one, that statement implies someone in a more traditional profession doesn’t love what they do. Two, just because I happen to love my job, does that automatically mean I don’t deserve to get paid for it? ~ Flutist, Seattle
Trouble comes when commitment to a passion supersedes self-preservation. ~ Composer, Michigan
As I write this, I am surrounded by walls draped in big sheets of craft paper dotted with clusters of Post-Its containing quotes from interviews. There’s a sheet for the question of quality, a sheet for financial risk, and a sheet for our lovely utopian world. There’s also a sparse, unlabeled sheet with a small collection of tangential comments that caught my attention as I read through interviews—little mentions that, each on its own, might sting a little.
Late the other night, coming down from the utopia of the autonomous artist, I put those final quotes together on a single page and heard their weighty, heart-rending chorus:
- I lose 10K a year on my creative music habit.
- I make almost as much from composing as I do from my minimum-wage job.
- I could decide to accept a few more gigs if I decided that I was comfortable with under-performing.
- Passion ≠ career.
- Eight of my all-in musician friends got evicted this year.
- Pioneering a new project that will sustain itself and the musicians is rough for me and my family. Besides the financial strain of committing all that time and practice—that’s rough for me and my family, because I am sacrificing, I’m tired—I’m also doing other paid gigs to make up for it.
- I’m embarrassed to advertise that we don’t pay. I’d be blacklisted in NYC. We have a weak union here—I guess that means certain projects can get off the ground without fear of blacklisting. But if everyone’s doing the work for free anyway, where’s the incentive for anyone to raise or give money?
- Most people simply want to consume Passion rather than pay Passion’s rent or help Passion repay its student loans.
The collective weight of these thoughts brought me to the floor.
All of my music-making is done out of the love and passion for doing so. ~ Violist, Seattle
Money plays a role in our lives, our priorities, our decisions. The absence of money may allow (in the case of those who are part-time) or force (in the case of full-timers) musicians to prioritize along particular axes. Part-time musicians, salaried but short on time (and, perhaps, artistic outlets), put their disposable energy toward meaningful growth collaborations. Full-time artists, short on money and time to make more, ultimately choose gigs that pay.
But when I added money to the equation with the hypothetical scenario above, I found that most performers and composers from all walks of life wanted the same thing: to perform/compose as much as possible, with as much creative control as possible, for as many people as possible, and for free—as long as they can put food on the table.