Exposure or Fee? Just Pay Me Please.

It’s been a bit of a trying week.  Being stuck at home, reading the latest Covid updates, and talking to friends who are having a tough time during this Pandemic is making it challenging to stay positive, particularly during my least favourite month, February. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a musician during these  preposterous times.  I find myself wondering how musicians are surviving, now that live concerts are no longer on the table at the moment.  This is the best way musicians can make a decent fee, and have artistic control of their product.  Almost one year into this Pandemic, they are now at the mercy of streaming platforms like Spotify, Youtube and FB, and let me tell you, trying to make a living this way is like trying to milk an angry and stubborn cow: the milk ain’t flowing so well. 

To clarify, the performing musician is the one who courageously gets up on stage, knows her instrument like the back of her hand (10,000 hours minimum of work and practice), creates a one of a kind musical experience in that moment, and brings you, the listener, JOY.  In one of the hundreds of Netflix offerings I have watched, the cutting and perceptive New York based writer, Fran Lebowitz says musicians and chefs are unique to the world in that they bring JOY to Humanity in the moment, and that she does not know of any other professions that do this in such a direct and immediate way.  I ask myself, “Is this not worth something? Why do people take this for granted a lot of the time?  Where does the attitude originate that musicians are not really workers, that they are doing what they love, so paying them a professional fee (or at all) is not really necessary?”   Echoes of Mozart’s pauper existence still haunt us, even in the 21st century it seems. 

I found myself in a sticky situation last week, where I was offered “exposure” in lieu of a fee.  Everyone else involved was receiving a fee EXCEPT me.  Sure, we all need exposure when it comes to getting the word out to “sell the product”.  However, you would never ask a chiropractor for free treatments, or a chef for a free meal, or an experienced videographer for free footage in exchange for exposure.   Why are musicians often asked to donate their services for free?? 

This experience left me a) very angry, and b) extremely depressed, for let me be very clear, in NO other profession would this happen.  It certainly hammered home that what I did that afternoon had very little value, and it was clear that no thought had been given to the musician budget for this project.  I could not let this go and subsequently spent hours e-mailing, and talking on the phone with the parties involved, arguing my point that it made no sense for me not to be receiving a fee, and that ultimately this situation was insulting. 

As the saying goes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and we are working on resolving this situation.  There are also other musicians involved, so I hope we can come to an agreeable conclusion.  My point is this: if you are engaging musicians for your project or event (and it does not matter what kind of musician you are hiring either) PLEASE put their FEES in your BUDGET.  Don’t try and balance your budget by squirming your way out of paying the musicians, or paying them an insulting fee.  The musicians’ fee is often MINIMAL in comparison to other things you have to pay for in your budget, so just PAY IT. 

In the Maritime Canada where I live, there is a lot of “Well, we can’t afford that, just who do you think you are?”, or “We didn’t budget for that” or “What is your real job?”  So I must continue to stand up for myself, even at the age of 51, with over 30 years of professional experience.  And here is my message for the younger generation out there, who are starting to get opportunities: if you sell yourself to the lowest bidder, you will have a hard time digging out of that hole.  You need to set firm boundaries on how you want to be treated and compensated at the beginning of your career.  If younger musicians continue to work for poor fees or no fees,  they are doing the profession and their colleagues a GREAT disservice!!