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Looking Out For Each Other with The Real Music Wages Database

Looking Out For Each Other with The Real Music Wages Database

I recently visited a sound art class at Vanderbilt University (over Zoom) as a guest artist. Towards the end of our conversation, one of the students asked me about what I was looking forward to in the future of my work and the fields of music and sound art. Rather than the aesthetic answer the student expected (and I could easily see myself giving a year ago), I surprised both of us by unhesitatingly responding that I was looking forward to improved arts workers’ conditions.

As excited as I am about the opera I’m currently writing or thingNY’s upcoming foray into mail art, the immediate effort I see from various communities of artists to create better working conditions and a healthier, more equitable social and economic ecosystem for the arts eclipses any individual art project or aesthetic movement in terms of my optimism for the future. From the boisterous and massive in-person protests to the quiet one-on-one conversations, from the various collective conversations on Zoom to the steady helping hand of mutual aid organizations, across the podcast interviews, slack channels, op-eds, and, yes, the astounding musical performances and recordings, a culture of community care has been dancing in a rainbow of tempos in all corners of the performing arts world. Into this spirit of sharing knowledge and resources, the New Music Organizing Caucus has created the Real Music Wages Database.

The Real Music Wages Database is an anonymous, crowd-sourced list of real wage transactions reported by musicians. We track how much someone has been paid, who paid them, and how many hours of work it involved. The more entries are added to the spreadsheet, the more discernable a true economic snapshot of the new music industry is visible. Inspired by similar crowd-sourced spreadsheets for dancers, baristas, museum workers, and adjunct professors, we created the Real Music Wages Database to help freelance music workers navigate what can be a very confusing financial landscape and give us tools to negotiate wages for ourselves, particularly in situations when we don’t have a union or an agent working on our behalf. The transparency of the database is meant to also be useful for ensembles, composers, producers, and presenters who want to get a better idea of what an industry standard might look like. The database has the potential to both identify organizations that don’t pay their performers enough as well as model how much an organization should pay their performers, ultimately encouraging equal pay rates and a living wage for musicians. (Oh man, doesn’t that sound nice?)

Starting out a career in new music and its adjacent musical scenes can be very confusing financially.

Starting out a career in new music and its adjacent musical scenes can be very confusing financially. For me, learning what I should be paid involved years of being paid a vast variety of amounts (or not at all) in ways that even still don’t always reflect the amount of work put in. One gig will pay my rent for two months after a week of work, while another gig will take a month of work to only pay half of my month’s rent. All of us freelancers know that part of our hustle is stitching together a living from a disparate assortment of gigs, each with its own unique equation of give and take. We’re hopeful that the Real Music Wages Database will speed up the knowledge gathering process significantly for young musicians, particularly those who don’t always feel comfortable casually asking their peers what they are being paid, as well as offer transparency for those who have been going at it for a while. In addition, the database can be a resource to other performing arts workers, like dancers and performance artists, who work with some of the same institutions, presenters, and venues that we do, but who historically have had an even harder time making a decent living, and can use the details of our experiences to uplift their own.

The database is limited in the information it gathers. For instance, we don’t ask about the tax status of the gig, or if you were given retirement benefits or health insurance. (Because let’s be real – how often does that happen?) And unlike other databases, we don’t ask about your gender or racial identity, whether you are disabled or your sexual orientation. We think tracking that kind of information is important and we fully support the reckoning over equity taking place within the new music world. However, we want to protect our community’s anonymity and felt that such a level of detailed, identifying information could sabotage those efforts.

We also wanted to make adding entries to the database quick and easy. So we decided to only ask for the most essential information and then use a system of tagging so that each person can decide what additional information would be useful for others to know. For instance, if a gig is associated with a specific university or institution that did not directly pay you; whether the gig was with an orchestra or chamber ensemble, for an opera or a wedding; whether it was for a specific series or festival; if it was a recording session; or if it involved an adjacent field, be that dance, theatre, or a religious service. The more tags are used, the more options will be suggested for you as you type into the ‘Tag’ field. This way, people can add as much information as they want and it is up to each individual to decide what they are comfortable sharing.

The database is also focused on gigs where the musician is not a generative artist. We understand how complicated the funding structures for our work as composers, sound artists, and performance creators can be. We decided that to fully measure the intricacies of our creative time for such projects would take a different set of questions. (We also encourage folks to use the NewMusicBox Commissioning Fees Calculator if it will be useful for your situation.) And finally, we especially encourage musicians to input their gigs paid for by funded institutions, particularly non-profit organizations that receive funds from foundations and governmental arts councils. A larger reckoning around funding and transparency in larger non-profit arts institutions is currently taking place and we hope this database can just be one tool in the reforming process.

A larger reckoning around funding and transparency in larger non-profit arts institutions is currently taking place and we hope this database can just be one tool in the reforming process.

The New Music Organizing Caucus (NMOC) is a baby of an organization, originally founded by composer-pianist Dorian Wallace and now spearheaded by a small group of dedicated and welcoming activist musicians. Initiated during the activist summer of 2020 that was energized by Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, NMOC holds monthly Zoom meetings where a community of new music workers come together to, as stated on the NMOC website, “advocate for decent working conditions and fair wages, provide support against discriminatory practices, share skills and knowledge, and fight for diversity, equity and inclusion in our field.” It’s a community of fellow musicians that welcomes anyone who wants to become more involved. I have met many people for the first time in these meetings, which might begin in shy awkwardness and end in refreshing sensations of solidarity. As with any volunteer organization, the more its membership wants to do, the more will happen. So far, we rely on pro bono assistance. For instance, Brian McCorkle designed the website for the database, and Sophia Richardson and Alyssa McCallion designed the logo.

The Real Music Wage Database is the first large project initiated by NMOC with an eye on other ways we can support our community and share resources in the future. The group also works to advocate for the special interests of new music in larger organizations such as the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW), and the Music Workers Alliance (MWA), as well as connect members with resources in these larger organizations. Though many of the active members are based in New York City, there are members from all across the United States. And even as in-person events begin again in the coming year, the group plans to continue meeting online so that it can serve and connect a wider geographical range of musicians.

Like many others, the reason I have more time to go to Zoom meetings for volunteer, activist organizations is because I don’t have as much work as I did before the pandemic started. (Also, I was probably working too much before the pandemic started, but that’s another story…) You might be looking at the Real Music Wages Database and thinking you’d love to input gigs when you have them again. When that day comes (and oh it will), I hope you do! In addition, it is tax season. I recently found myself adding entries as I went through my paystubs and expenses from 2020 in preparation for meeting with my tax guy. However strange it seems to me looking back on what felt like an impossibly long year, there were two and a half months of work in 2020 before the lockdown completely transformed every aspect of my life, and that is as obvious in my banking activity as it is in my sleep schedule. For the ultra-ambitious musician with free time, take a moment now to add your gigs from multiple past years. And for the slow-and-steady thoughtful freelancer, thank you for adding your gigs as you get them for many years to come. The Real Music Wages Database is as much of a useful tool as our collective music community nurtures it to be. I’m real thankful to be part of a community of folks that look out for each other.

(In full transparency, the NMOC Real Wages Steering Committee currently consists of Gelsey Bell, Nicholas Connolly, David Friend, Andrew Griffin, Marina Kifferstein, Brian McCorkle, Luisa Muhr, Pablo O’Connell, and Hajnal Pivnick. We can be reached at newmusicorganizingcaucus@gmail.com. Want to be more involved? Please join us!)

The logo for the Real Music Wages database featuring the text:

Gelsey Bell is a Brooklyn-based singer, songwriter, and scholar. She is a core member of thingNY, Varispeed, and the Chutneys. Her recent works include Cairns, a soundwalk for Green-Wood Cemetery; Meander, a soundwalk created with Joseph White for Brooklyn Botanic Garden; SubtacTTTTTTTTT, an early pandemic online performance created with thingNY; and shuffleyamamba, a dance piece created with Yasuko Yokoshi. She is currently a resident artist at the HERE Arts Center where she is developing the opera mɔːnɪŋ (pronounced morning/mourning). She has released multiple recordings, including This is Not a Land... Read more »


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.

One thought on “Looking Out For Each Other with The Real Music Wages Database

  1. Philip R White

    Congrats on this Gelsey (and everyone else)! The wage and working conditions issue is one close to my heart and I’m really thrilled to see this. I’d like to add a question to the conversation.

    Having worked for several years for various small institutions and these past several years as a designer and performer mostly involved with either small companies or individual artists, there are only a few situations I can point to and say “there was extra money and they chose not to pay people fairly” (looking at you LA Phil). What does occur on every project I’ve been involved with is that the artist/company/institution wants to do as much as possible with whatever they have.

    In the case of institutions, it’s often expected by the community. When I was at ISSUE and we went from 300 concerts a year down to 100, artists were very upset. And of course they were! That’s so many fewer performance opportunities (both at Issue and in nyc as a whole at that point). But from an organizational side, that 300 shows a year situation was completely untenable both in terms of worker welfare and budget.

    Likewise, time and again I’ve been on projects with individual artists who receive a modest chunk of funding and build out a large project in which it’s expected that everyone involved will work for some reduced rate.

    Is the problem then that we need better fundraisers? Are we willing to watch our institutions pay higher salaries to hire experienced professionals in hopes that eventually they’ll be successful and that money will flow to artists in the form of better wages? Are we willing to scale back the performance opportunities and give a better wage to fewer people?

    Or is there some other aspect that I’m not seeing? (genuine, non-rhetorical question)

    No matter what, this wage transparency effort is crucial to getting anywhere.

    Again, this is super cool and I look forward to filling in some info on the database when I finally force myself to do taxes :)
    –Philip White

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