I have been giving this issue a lot of thought during the holiday season, a time when musicians head out in the snow for the holiday gig season adding merriment to the times – and for me with a newborn in the house, even more poignant…
Once upon a time there was a department store chain in Chicago – we’ll use the fictional name ‘Gimball’s’ (alla the classic holiday film ‘Miracle on 32nd Street’). This department store thought for a big anniversary; let’s have some musicians perform all day in their store to celebrate. These musicians would be performing for patrons indulging in the usual department store materialism – sales of jewelry, fragrances, clothing, etc. ‘Gimball’s’ contacted…we’ll call the institution the ‘City Music School,’ a local community music school.
Okay, we have some of the players, but a few more to go. ‘Gimball’s’ asked this school for no student musicians – just professionals. Okay – seems like a good idea. Celebrate with some good professional musicians playing high-quality literature. Great idea…or so I thought. I am a self-promoter as a freelancer, but here’s where the champagne goes flat. When the ‘City Music School’ had their faculty to contact a coordinator at ‘Gimball’s’ to setup the gig…wait…you mean you aren’t going to pay? You mean that I, faculty for a not-for-profit institution DONATE my work to a for-profit corporation. There’s injury No.1. So okay, if I were to hypothetically come & play for an hour or two, parking validation right? NOPE. Injury No.2…Insult No.2? So I would have to drive 40 miles into town, spend $20-30 on parking & no food either. Well, I’m not juggling that gig into my schedule.
So what’s the problem here? A few of the faculty at the ‘City Music School’ spoke up to the administration of the school. With complaints about contacting the union local, suggestions of using students instead, my feeling is that the true issue is about the value of the work we do. It has as much to do about the value of music and/ or the perceived value:
It is vastly different, when I (the performer) offer a pro bono workshop or performance – I am offering work I believe has value for no cost. When someone asks me to play for them for free, it suggests that this individual doesn’t value the work I do. Here’s a scenario:
I go to a dinner get together with various people and they ask me what I do for a living. I mention that I am a professional musician and teacher. They ask -“play me something.” If I am in the company of friends, or colleagues, I might just to prove to them what I do is at a certain level.
When a complete stranger does that, I ask – “what do you do for a living?”
“I’m a lawyer.”
“Oh, would you write me a free will or give me free legal advice?”
“Then don’t ask for free work from me.”
It’s not that I think everyone has to pay for music. I do not think that ‘class warfare’ is the name of the game. Apologies by the way to a student of mine who IS a lawyer – I’m just using another ‘professional’ as a player in this discussion. The issue is this attitude in our American culture.
The poor urban areas deserve outreach efforts (that’s the work I do in schools) – but why should those who can afford to pay for quality art not subsidize works of art?
Oh…you said the a-word. What word? ART.
Art is often a bad word nowadays. There is such a focus on materialism and sports – remember what the ancient Romans did? Give them bread and circuses! No need to educate the masses right? Let’s give them Guitar Hero or Rock Band…no need for them to even learn how to do what we do.
Ever notice that primary schools are cranking out more students in choirs, orchestras & bands every year, many of which do NOT continue in music. Culturally in the United States, the majority of youth who are involved in sports become avid sports enthusiasts later in life. I don’t usually see the same happen with music students. I think the cultural ‘dummying down’ of what our musical art is about by seeing the popularity of games such as Guitar Hero exemplifies that music has been turned into a commodity. It’s got to have a dollar-value right? No. It’s more complicated than that. More people are being exposed to art music than ever before due to the success of Apple’s iPod & other MP3 players. On the other hand, ensembles still are struggling to get audiences to come & see live music. We’ll see how that trend plays out, but time for the rest of us to move and take advantage of new media.
The value of art & music is a big issue that in an era where media exposure to content, music or otherwise, can be grabbed up sometimes for nothing. This is something I think about a lot. What we do as musicians has value, but with everything being turned into a commodity in our consumerist culture how do we explain the value of music?
I had a college professor who referred to individuals as “musicians” versus musicians. One is an amateur – any person can, through some effort, achieve some proficiency on an instrument (or their voice) can label themselves a “musician.” How does that differentiate from someone who has spent years mastering their craft? Well, I’ll leave that up to you to think about.
So in the end, what is the value of music? I love what I do, but I often have to balance monetary concerns with artistic ones. All of us do at some point. Before you decide what you are willing to do, free or not, consider the value of the musical product you are producing, who is the audience for your work, and how much effort you can afford to put in. Let’s do what we can to bring music to wider audiences, while still remembering that we can’t do everything for free.
Remember the spirit of giving this holiday season, and happy holidays from the bass blog!
These opinions are strictly the opinion of the author, Phillip Serna, and not necessarily of the Double Bass Blog.