What’s a Musician Worth?

What’s a Musician Worth?

Between playing for fun and collective bargaining, where do today’s freelance new music performers fit in?

Musician silhouettes

Image via Big Stock

On August 21, indie musician and DIY internet darling Amanda Palmer put out a call for musicians. She needed skilled string and brass players for various stops on her upcoming tour. This was a great opportunity for musicians to collaborate with a talented, internet-savvy artist who recently raised more than $1 million on Kickstarter. The catch? Palmer wouldn’t be paying.

The internet went into an uproar. Palmer was probably compensating her PR person, web designer, tour bus driver, and roadies. Palmer would probably not expect free services from all the restaurants, bars, hotels, and gas stations she’d pass along her route. The one place she decided to cut costs was on musical labor. And the one thing she planned to get for free was musicians’ time and skill.

And not just any musicians–trained ones, with professional experience. From her blog:

[Y]ou need to know how to ACTUALLY, REALLY PLAY YOUR INSTRUMENT! lessons in fifth grade do not count, so please include in your email some proof of that. (A link to you playing on a real stage would be great.)

The memory of Palmer’s Kickstarter windfall was like salt in the wound. A significant portion of the money she raised probably came from musicians, willing to place a dollar value on Palmer’s creative work. As it turns out, none of that value would be trickling down.

A month later, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra went on strike when their management demanded they double their contributions to health care costs. In the musicians’ press release explaining why they had decided to strike, bassist Stephen Lester wrote, “Our product is our artistic quality. Reducing costs by lowering musician salaries beyond a certain level could result in a flight of quality to other orchestras …. It would be tantamount to the Art Institute’s selling its Picassos and Monets to buy lower quality works that are less expensive to maintain. Unlike a business corporation, a cultural organization like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra cannot save its way to success.”

In other words, the musicians seemed to be saying, you get what you pay for.

The musicians of the Atlanta Symphony recently accepted a contract with $5.2 million in concessions, including massive pay cuts, increased health care contributions, a reduced roster, and a shortened season.

That $5.2 million in concessions, by the way, was exactly what their management was demanding of them. During negotiations, and throughout a lengthy and painful lockout, the management did not move an inch. The musicians wrote that the contract “set the ASO back…over 10 years in musicians’ compensation, not even taking inflation into account.”

A friend posted the news on Facebook, and someone responded almost immediately: “Meanwhile, in Chicago…”

Was she suggesting what I think she was suggesting? That this choice by the Atlanta musicians, to fall on their own swords, was a heroic one, worthy of replicating elsewhere?


We musicians get a lot of conflicting information about what kind of compensation our work deserves. Take Amanda Palmer. The message she’s sending is: performing music is fun! I performed unpaid for years! If someone likes my music and wants to volunteer to join me onstage, that’s her prerogative. After the internet exploded in her face, Palmer told The New York Times that “if you could see the enthusiasm of these people, the argument [against me] would become invalid.” The flip side of this message? If you’re in it for the money, something’s probably wrong with you.

street performer tips

Image via Big Stock

But here’s the thing: being a professional musician who can “actually, really play your instrument!” is not a part-time proposition. Staying in shape as, say, a violinist is a way of life that requires daily investment; it’s a use-it-or-lose-it scenario. In order to remain a functional musician, a two-part process is required: First, you put in a lot of unpaid hours, alone, practicing, in order to sound your best. Second, you show up to your paid engagement and sound great. You repeat this process as necessary until, if you’re lucky, you’ve paid your rent that month. This process is not easy and income is not reliable, especially in the beginning. Remaining a professional musician is a struggle. Many people do not make it, and for good reason.

If part two of the process never happens–or the gigs you show up for aren’t paid–you end up spending a lot of hours earning money doing something else. You wait tables, you sit at a desk, maybe you teach lessons. When you get home at night, you’re too exhausted to practice so you watch Netflix instead. After a while, you’re not sounding so great anymore. It gets to be too tiring to do your day job, have a personal life, and put in all those unpaid hours for all those unpaid gigs. Before long, there’s one less “actual, real” violinist in the world.

A lot of people bring up supply and demand when you try and put a dollar value on musician employment. The supply is too high; demand is too low. And that’s why Amanda Palmer can propose a fee of zero dollars. But is this really the side of the arts economy that Palmer wants to be on? Follow that supply-and-demand scenario to its end, and we’ve got a problem. By initially refusing to make space in her budget to compensate actual, real musicians, Palmer was contributing to our extinction. The collapse of music education has shrunk the pool of competent amateurs, and low wages will strangle the professionals. At this rate, in twenty years there will be very few people who are able–or want–to read her charts.

It took Palmer almost a month to change course and decide that she would, in fact, pay all the musicians who played with her. She didn’t say how much. But as most freelance musicians can tell you, it’s not always the amount that matters.



Image via Big Stock

There’s another thing that performers like me–young, freelancing, doing lots of work in new music–aren’t sure about. How, exactly are our fates connected to those Chicago Symphony musicians earning seven or eight times what we do? Or to the folks who will show up to play Palmer’s gig for the fun of it, who perhaps didn’t invest six years (or six figures) into earning advanced degrees in performance? After all, we’re a generation working to strip away some of the formality from our work. Our concerts are as likely to take place at a bar as they are in Symphony Center.

When it comes to the CSO, many of my peers seem convinced that our fates aren’t at all connected. On Facebook, one young musician noted, “This isn’t a labor relations framework of Us Against Them. It’s more like Them Against Them.” The CSO management might be the 1%, he was saying, but so are the players. He’s describing a race to the bottom. And down there–uninsured, deeply in debt, paying out of pocket to take auditions, driving three hours for a gig that pays $85 a service–yup, that’s Us.

When we let the divide-and-conquer logic work on us, we all lose. If the CSO makes concessions at the top, what happens to everyone below them? Why is scraping by with no security “fair” while making six figures is “greedy”? Which one of these situations more closely represents the way we want artists to be treated in our society?

The New York Times wrote that Palmer had stumbled into “a culture clash between the freewheeling rock ‘n’ roll scene of club dates and scarce cash and the world of established conservatory-trained musicians long supported by strong union locals with wage scales.” In the time since that interview was published, two more orchestras have been locked out by their management. For the young performers starting their careers today, it’s clear that the rock ‘n’ roll scene isn’t the only one with scarce cash. And the future trajectory of that wage scale is anybody’s guess.


NewMusicBox is pleased to introduce Ellen McSweeney as our newest Regional Editor. She will be covering Chicago and its environs. Welcome, Ellen!

Ellen McSweeney

Ellen McSweeney

Ellen McSweeney is a Chicago-based musician and writer. She is the founding violinist of Chicago Q Ensemble, a string quartet dedicated to new music, interdisciplinary collaboration, and innovative programming. As a chamber musician, Ellen has also been heard with ensemble dal niente, Access Contemporary Music, Singers on New Ground, New Millennium Orchestra, and New Music DePaul, among others. Ellen holds a B.M. from the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University and an M.M. from DePaul University. She is a winner of Vanderbilt’s Merrill Moore Award for Poetry Writing and the Vanderbilt Review prize for Best Fiction. Her indie folk duo, Elk, will release their debut EP this winter.

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.

27 thoughts on “What’s a Musician Worth?

  1. Joelle

    I’m so glad you wrote about this!! The whole controversy gave me lots of feelings. I credit The Dresden Dolls’ first album as being a big part of my entry into the songwriting/compositional process. When I was in high school, Amanda Palmer was the first big media representation I had ever encountered of the “awesome ladies who write music at pianos” thing, which made me think “hey I can do that!” which eventually led to me becoming a composer.

    She actually recanted her original statement and ended up compensating all of the volunteers (something she announced, coincidentally, the morning she played the show I had tickets to see in Austin, which cleared up my guilty conscience quite a bit). Gotta love a lady who listens to her fans. It has yet to be revealed how much. But I agree that this was definitely something she should have already planned for in her original kickstarter budget. I generally like some of Amanda Palmer’s fan-based-grassroots politics but this crossed an interesting, and very touchy, line. The New York Times quote you use at the end sums things up pretty well.

  2. Brighton

    Nice piece. Thanks. Glad you’re writing here.
    Our country censors classical music. Performers don’t get to play what they want. Composers don’t get to write what they want. Instead, we have to play what the market demands. This is ass backwards in terms of cultural freedom. Have you noticed our new US musical heroes are Jennifer Higdon and John Adams, the two least offensive composers in modern history? Soon all orchestras will play nothing but pops concerts. The market will demand it. Innovative classical music will only happen in other countries who wisely support it with tax revenue.

    1. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

      Brighton, I’m guessing you’re a composer. I don’t think we should take out our frustration on Adams and Higdon, who have made good careers out of music that happens to be widely liked.

      In fact, I think you and I have a good deal more freedom than the famous ones. The problem is that the market asserts its power through its tastes, whereas we composers want to be compensated simply because we make art (taste aside).

      What seems more important is that when we enter a business relationship with someone—via commission or another arrangement—we are appropriately compensated. For composers, I wish we could find a way to shift this burden from the musicians onto the audience. Now to just convince them that we are worthwhile.

      Pleasure to read this article, Ellen! Welcome, and I’m looking forward to future writings.

      1. Ellen

        Thank you Mischa! I’m very excited to be here!

        I also agree that targeting Adams and Higdon as “the problem” would certainly be wrongheaded, although I don’t think that’s exactly what Brighton was saying. More that it may be an example of “the market’s” conservatism, that this is the music getting the most play.

        I think performers’ enthusiastic advocacy, and repeat performances, of new work is crucial here. If we can be ambassadors for this music, the general sentiments of audiences — and markets — could shift.

    2. StevenCee

      I find this topic to be a bit ironic, as it seems that now, even classical music players have been herded into the category of “musicians”, with the rest of us (non-classical)… We have had to contend with this very situation, no security, benefits, having to play what the public likes, being seen as “just entertainment”, not as professionals, etc.

      The state of live music in general is not good these days. Less venues, less people going out, less pay, and full-time professionals have to compete against amateurs, as well as those with “real jobs”, who don’t care how much they are paid, as it’s more a weekend hobby. Thus, I have been underbid for gigs by high school jazz bands, the boss’ next-door neighbor’s kid’s band, etc…

      So, welcome to the new age of live music…
      “The life of the arts is far from an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation, is close to the center of a nation’s purpose – and is a test of the quality of a nations’ civilization.” . . . – John F. Kennedy

      1. Ellen

        Steven — ugh, super painful to be undercut essentially by children! My quartet has definitely run into this on the weddings & events circuit, where high school and college students are offering the lowest rates. At a certain point as an adult and a professional, you can no longer accept that kind of money. However, I’m hopeful — and I’m seeing evidence in Chicago — that you’re wrong about the state of live music, and that there is indeed still a love and demand for it. But it’s deeply frustrating to see our work undervalued. My quartet was recently approached to play for free at — wait for it — the Apple Store. I know they’re really hurting for money, but … ;)

        1. Eric V.

          For free at the Apple Store, huh? I’m glad you didn’t take it, I would have needed quite the drink if I had been walking down Michigan Ave. and seen you guys in THERE working for nothing…

  3. Ellen

    Joelle, I totally agree. She has an awesome ethic that has inspired a lot of creativity and I think it’s clear she’s a really cool artist. That made it even more of a bummer! I am glad she changed her mind just in time for you to enjoy the show. =)

    Brighton, you make a really good point. What the “market demands” is often used as an excuse for low compensation but obviously, we need to support great music with more than “the market”. The market has rarely been friendly to truly adventurous stuff.

  4. Gregory Klug

    Perhaps the long term solution to broad-scale lack of demand would be to encourage music education from a young age. People need exposure to music (and art in general) with depth and subtlty to appreciate it. Only then well market demand change. Again, in the long term. But achieving solid emphasis on primary school (and onward) music education would be an arduous battle. Rather than become a lobbyist, I’ve decided to teach my own children. But separately, I sense that unless symphony orchestras reinvent themselves somehow, they will go extinct within fifty years. Demand is frankly too weak and union wages too high. However lamentable, this is unavoidable. I have some ideas, but it will take more than my thoughts!

    1. Ellen

      Gregory, I agree with you that excellent, universal music education would absolutely stimulate demand. It’s an important long-term solution to advocate for!

  5. dB

    I saw the whole Amanda Palmer thing as a very casual engagement — less a “gig,” and more of an opportunity to get on stage with a performer you like. Anybody who wanted to get paid was welcome to find a paying gig, but I like to think we live in a world where musicians who can “actually, really play” don’t only do so for money. I know a number of fantastic musicians who are happy to pull their instruments out at parties, and I was under the impression that that was the atmosphere Palmer was aiming for. I don’t see it as inherently insulting, and I certainly don’t see it damaging to musicians at large. There have always been artists willing to give away their services for free (at least occasionally), and I hope there always will be.

    1. Ellen

      I can definitely see where you’re coming from. I play for free from time to time, on projects that are valuable to me, or “for a good cause,” etc. I’m just not sure that somebody else’s tour, whose budget is significant, counts as one of those projects. For me, that’s a strictly “for hire” job. But I’m not a diehard Palmer fan; you’re right that for another person, the decision might be different. But then again, the Apple Store just asked my quartet to play for free — and to me, they absolutely don’t count as a “charity case.” What are the cultural attitudes that lead them, one of the richest corporations in the world, to try to get this service for free? I still think the trend towards not paying musicians for their time is a dangerous one.

      1. dB

        I don’t think it represents any trend other than that people like to get things for free whenever possible, which has always been the case. Our power as musicians to accept or reject offers based on the pay is how we set the market value of our services — and is precisely why unionizing was a good idea. Still, there are things beyond payment to consider. For example, I could imagine job offers coming out of playing at the Apple Store, and the prospect of those offers may be more valuable to a newer, less established quartet than they would be for yours. I don’t have a great metric for evaluating that kind of publicity value, but I trust musicians to reject offers that aren’t worth it (which sends a message to those making the offers, and hopefully improves those offers).

  6. Elaine

    What you say about staying in shape is a serious problem. Some of us stay in shape simply because we cannot stand it if we are playing badly, so that daily commitment becomes more like a physical health regime than a way of keeping up our professional standards, in the off chance that we might get called to play somewhere.

    Mostly it seems that those of us who practice are either all dressed up with no place to go or are over preparing for the next recital (organized by ourselves for no remuneration) or orchestral job. Thanks to faux representation sites (the ones that take your money to be listed and then expect you to bid for jobs), most of the wedding work now goes to the lowest bidder. The lowest bidder is usually not the group with the highest level of professionalism, but some people can’t really tell the difference between adequate playing and high-quality professional playing when it comes to wedding music.

    Music is the only “thing” I can think of that has changed, thanks to the technologies that have helped it become better, from a “service business” into a “product business,” so its relationship to money and a person’s possible livelihood has shifted permanently. There is no way of going back.

    I don’t know if the amateur musician will go into extinction because there are still people who love music and aspire to be able to play it well. There are probably better teachers than there ever have been (or at least more good ones), and successful music programs do produce remarkable results. High school kids are able to play the repertoire that only professionals used to be able to play. The IMSLP makes all kinds of materials available to anyone, and excellent recordings of just about anything imaginable are either available or will soon be available to buy on line.

    1. Ellen

      You’re right Elaine — and the “lowest bidder” stuff is so annoying; like you, I know this from experience. I think to say that amateur musicians will go extinct is probably not true, but I don’t think it’s too farfetched to say that the quality and viability of musicians and music careers may decline because it’s simply too difficult to make it work.

  7. Richard Kessler

    “The collapse of music education has shrunk the pool of competent amateurs, and low wages will strangle the professionals. At this rate, in twenty years there will be very few people who are able–or want–to read her charts.”

    Unfortunately, music education hasn’t collapsed. It’s a nice sound bite, but its alive and well in suburban districts and private schools. True, urban school districts experienced a serious decline years ago and have never recovered, but that’s simply not the case for all students.

    1. Bob Morrison

      Richard took the words right out of my… keyboard. There has been know collapse to music education. Efforts to turn around the problems in our urban districts are gaining steam (see Boston, LA, Chicago)

      1. John Lynd

        I don’t know where you guys live… but I have to completely disagree.. Over the course of the last 5 years, music departments in the schools where we live have gone from thriving well-reckognized programs to barely surviving. Our schools have gone from having 13 full time music teachers to just 5.5 And it seems every year that number gets smaller. To say that music education is not in trouble just seems a little too naive for me…

      2. Ellen

        Bob and Richard, you’re right, there are some awesome urban music education initiatives having great success right now. But, as John points out below, it seems to me that the general trend has been to cut music and art programs, particularly during these recession years we’re going through.

  8. Ron Davis

    Terrific piece Ellen. Spot on. Thank you.

    The arts in general, and music in particular, are the only professions I know in which one has not only to endure the difficulties of making money, but also has to justify WHY one should be making money.

    I published a piece on this topic in the Aug./09 edition of Canadian Musician, entitled ‘The Worth of a Musician’.

    I stand by the conclusion I drew in the article:

    Make no mistake: this is not about money. It’s about value. And values. It’s about our value as musicians, and the cultural values of our society. Remember, culture has an $84.6 billion annual impact on the economy, according to the Conference Board of Canada. That’s 7.4% of GDP. We’re contributing mightily to the economy. How about giving back some of it to us?

    No one demands wealth as a right. But we are right to ask to live without privation, and raise families if we wish. Money is not the value of a musician. But the value of a musician is reflected by the money one pays for the music. Besides, we’re not exempt from paying rent, utilities and grocery bills.

    What struck me in the reaction to the piece was the frequency of the view you refer to: “What you’re doing is fun, so money ought not to be a concern.” I heard this from musicians as well as non-musicians.

    I fear that, until we are able to instil in society at large an axiomatic association between music and value, the struggle to earn a living as a musician will continue.

  9. Manuel Labor

    I happen to totally dislike the way most musicians are mistreated regarding salary, and wages, in general. It is pathetic. The wages and salaries are a pittance compared to other professionals. For example, in general, there is quite a disparity between singers and instrumentalists in the world of church music, and in the world of singer and collaborative pianist/organist/harpsichordist/keyboardist. To the point, for a wedding, or for a funeral, the SOLOIST (usually a singer) receives a check in the amount of N dollars for singing one, or sometimes two “songs”. The organist or pianist gets that EXACT SAME AMOUNT of N DOLLARS. Is this fair? For a wedding, the organist or pianist first consults with the Bride and her Mommy, and sometimes the Groom’s mommy, he/she attends the wedding rehearsal, where it is usually difficult to hear what is being said there in the church, and 2) the organist seldom knows for sure when he/she can officially leave the rehearsal, and3) the rehearsal usually goes on WAY TOO LONG. He/she, at the wedding itself first plays seating music (which also involves trying to guess when the Bridal Party is READY to Process), he/she then finally plays processional music for the Mothers (sometimes), the Bridesmaids and the Bride, who seldom seems to be ready to process). The organist often also plays incidental interludes, and of course accompanies the singer, then usually plays more incidental music, and plays the Recessional, and a Postlude, which MUST be played until the entire church is almost empty.

    Funerals/and Memorials are a bit easier, but the organist usually receives much less money, even though the soloist gets as much or MORE than the organist, even though the singer is only singing one or two songs, or hymns. In addition to playing the Prelude & Postlude, and playing for 2 or 3 congregational hymns, and playing for the singer, he or she usually has an unpaid rehearsal with the singer. Now, the point is that the singer sings one to three songs, and the organist plays EVERY OTHER NEEDED PIECE OF MUSIC, buts gets paid NO MORE than the singer. On TOP of this INJUSTICE, the organist sometimes has to play REQUESTED music, as in show tunes, Rock and Roll, Pop, Country-Western, and even worse. Is ANY OF THIS FAIR??? I DON’T THINK SO.

  10. Elaine Fine

    Playing music on a professional level is hard work, particularly if you are an orchestral player. First of all you have to spend hours and hours outside of the “workplace” learning your part (not to mention years and years of building up the technical ability to play your part), then you have to spend time in the “workplace” (i.e. in rehearsal) making sure that you play your part correctly and together with other people. You also have to express the musical wishes of the leader, and leave much of your musical personality in check so that what comes out of your instrument is not at odds with the people you are playing with.

    Sometimes, in the case of a Bruckner Symphony, for example, the physical work is very hard, but other than stretching your muscles during rehearsal breaks, you stay mum and soldier on. Sometimes the music making is fun, and sometimes the music making is torture, but in spite of who might be conducting the orchestra, you always play your best. When the conductor is less than adequate (for any number of reasons), you, as an orchestral player, have to work twice as hard, because nobody hears the conductor, but the audience hears you. They paid to hear your performance, and your soul purpose when playing for them is to give the best you can give. They set aside the time, and are sitting quietly in the dark. Your sacred obligation is to make their collective experience of listening to the music as satisfying as possible.

    This kind of thing doesn’t really work as a “pay as you go” kind of contract. There is far too much involved (contracting musicians, maintaining organizational infrastructure, facilities, music rental, public relations and advertising, ticket sales) in even offering the possibility that a person should be able to go to a high quality concert in his or her town. I believe that there should be a societal obligation to keep musical institutions functioning at a high level, just as I believe that roads should be maintained in cities even though they may not be the ones that I drive on during my long drive home late at night after playing a concert.

    1. Ellen

      Elaine, you make a great point. The “per-service” fee structure isn’t a very good one for sustaining the kind of ongoing work that you describe (and the practicing/staying in shape I describe in my piece). Among my freelancing colleagues, the only solution to this seems to be: schedule a hell of a lot of services. But even if you’re lucky enough to book that much work, you’re dealing with overwork and potential muscle overuse. It’s a tough situation.

  11. Andy Buelow

    This is the best piece I’ve ever read on this topic. I manage a per-service symphony orchestra and one of the things I try to incorporate into our fund raising “case statement” is the value of having professional musicians who are able to make a living doing their art. I am amazed that so few other orchestras do this. We are on the small end of part-time professional orchestras, and many of our musicians play in 5 or 6 or more other ensembles in the region; others teach; others have day jobs; but all are professionals who are dedicated to music. I’m incredibly proud of them.

    Over the span of my career as an orchestra manager, I have frequently encountered the attitudes mentioned in your article and in many of the reader comments. In a previous community I worked in, a big film festival was started, and all the musicians participating in the live entertainment surrounding the screenings were expected to donate. In another city a big convention center was opening and the city wanted to hire the orchestra, but balked at the fee (which covered the musicians’ pay and nothing above and beyond), and ended up hiring the local youth symphony basically for free. This kind of thing is not only a disservice to the musicians, it is exploitive of the young musicians.

    1. Ellen

      Thanks Andy. Your perspective as a regional orchestra manager is such an important one. I love the idea of including this idea in fundraising efforts. I’m so glad to know that the musicians in your group have such a respectful advocate!

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