chamber music labor issues recordings the orchestra world

autonomy, money, then what?

[Warning: this is a rambling post, but not a rant. Do not read expecting logical cohesion. That is all.]

I have been puzzling over this question for the past few days. What do we musicians want? I suppose I should clarify by what I mean by the musician label. We are, after all, not a monolithic bloc. I suppose that my question should be more appropriately phrases as “what do unionized musicians want?” Because I really have not so much of a clue anymore. Why? Well, I’m not entirely sure myself, but let me just put out there some of the inconsistencies that swirl around many conversations about organized musicians and the organizations to which they belong.

First on any list would probably be artistic satisfaction. I know, the more cynical among you are thinking that money should’ve been first. But let’s give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, shall we? Artistic satisfaction is so hard to come by for a couple of reasons. First, most of the time, as a musician in an orchestra, you have very little control over the overall artistic outcome (and yes, I am avoiding the deeply unfortunate term being used these days to describe artistic output: product). You can control how you yourself play your part – and if you have a major solo wind part, for example, you then have a pretty big effect on the overall sound of the piece – but if you’re a galley slave (i.e., string player) then you are lumped into a great herd of other string players, and you cannot control how they play, just yourself (if you’re lucky). Second, we don’t pick what we play. We might love a particular piece, but never get to play it due to the budget constraints of the organization, the musical tastes of the music director (or the shadowy figure who pulls lots of behind-the-scenes repertoire strings, the artistic administrator), and the tastes of the patrons on whom the whole shooting match depends.

Second on the list is money. We are professionals, which means that we get paid to perform. But there is this seemingly endless pursuit of monetizing everything and anything to do with playing our instrument, especially as regards media streams. Basically, the argument boils down to this: if anyone can conceivably profit from a sound or video/sound going out onto the airwaves or digital distribution channels, then the musician(s) is/are owed some sort of recompense. I understand where this comes from. As the age of recording dawned, orchestras were amongst the first groups to take advantage of the new medium. As the profits (yes, they made profits on recordings back then) grew, the musicians grew concerned that they were not seeing any return on their hard work, even as albums were reissued and reused. As the union grew stronger, those musicians in the leading orchestras developed contracts between the union, the orchestra managements, and the record companies (and film studios) that governed how the musicians would be compensated for each use of their recorded material. So, if an orchestra recorded Barber’s Adagio for Strings, they would be paid fees for the actual recording of the work, and would receive subsequent royalties for reuse of the work in different forms, as well as for the sales of the original use. That way, when the movie Platoon came out, they would see some of the action from the wildly successful soundtrack (assuming that theirs was the recording used for the soundtrack).

But now the recording landscape is vastly different. Most non-classical acts don’t make much money off the recordings they make, and most, if not all, orchestras must find angel donors to subsidize the costs of the recordings they make these days. Considering that a best-selling classical album on the Billboard charts can sell as few as 500 copies to make it there, this is no surprise. Recognizing this, the AFM and the record companies developed new language that would make it possible to record albums under a certain set of conditions that would control costs and ensure that recordings weren’t just a giant black hole vanity projects. However, there still seems to be the notion that there is secret money to be made via recording that management isn’t telling the musicians about, and that even if they aren’t making actual money, the publicity has to be worth something, and therefore the musicians must be paid. I suppose the fact that we all profit – pardon the expression – from marketing and publicity doesn’t really count. Just give us our money, please.

So, we have money and artistic autonomy (or we don’t, that’s the point). What do we do to remedy this? Two words: chamber music.

No, we don’t form a chamber music series as part of our orchestral CBA. That would link directly to autonomy and money. Instead, form a chamber group and play a concert. Plan your own repertoire, book your own venue, sell your own tickets (or do a free concert). This is valuable for several reasons. First, see my post on playing string quartets. Second, it shows one how difficult it is to pick repertoire, book an appropriate venue, and then convince patrons to buy your tickets. And third, assuming you make your event(s) admission free, or affordable to most everyone (under $10), it shows that you aren’t greedy, money-grubbing, elitist, musicians. You’re giving back to the community that has supported your organization through the times good and bad. Finally, it gives you the opportunity to play music that is nearest and dearest to your heart, with people that are likewise important to you, and for those patrons that fulfill those requirements as well. It’s a win-win-win situation.