The Roar of the Crowd: Freelance Musicians Speak Out on Non-Payment

beethovenfest_love

Last week, NewMusicBox Regional Editor Ellen McSweeney launched a discussion surrounding non-payment and musician vulnerability in Chicago (“The Deafening Silence of the Beethoven Festival Musicians,” 6/24/14).

Though the issue at the heart of her story related to the Beethoven Festival’s ongoing failure to fulfill its financial obligation to freelance musicians after the 2013 event (even while contracting for the 2014 festival), McSweeney’s nuanced post provoked an intelligent and lively debate about both the incident at hand and the broader problems faced by freelancers negotiating work without much of a safety net beyond trust. (As McSweeney noted in her article, “Much of the most artistically adventurous work in Chicago isn’t unionized, and we take a leap of faith every time we work for each other.”)

Commenter Ethan Wickman took the point further with this anecdote:

Several years ago I received a grant/commission from a prominent organization. Upon completing the piece, and hence fulfilling my contractual obligation to the commissioning organization, it seemed like I waited weeks to receive the final installment of my commission. I finally called the office and was greeted by a younger employee who, when I asked when the check was going to be sent, snarkily offered to airlift some food to my house, if necessary.

I think that as artists we sometimes have a kind of guilt about money–like we should be above wanting it, needing it, or feeling motivated by its acquisition. The fact is, money liberates us to be able to do our best work in the most unrestricted way. Intense financial pressures can absolutely crush a creative will–as lofty, artistic ambitions plummet into panicked survival mode.

The discussion also underscored that the Beethoven Festival situation was in no way an isolated incident and further illustrated how discomfort and unspoken ideas about what is “appropriate” when nailing down financial parameters set up additional roadblocks. The topic inspired additional posts and social media commentary around our corner of the internet.

Silent Chicago Musicians

The musicians of Chicago may have kept silent on this issue for nine months, but the community is definitely talking now! McSweeney’s post was NMBx’s most widely read and shared of the year so far.

And though this festival was not a union gig, the conversation reached such a pitch that the Chicago Federation of Musicians issued letters to both Festival President and Artistic Director George Lepauw and the Chicago Community of Musicians over the weekend, “urging all musicians to decline employment with the 2014 Festival, or, if they have already accepted employment, to withdraw. The CFM will also be calling for the public to boycott the Festival until last year’s musicians are paid.”

Beyond the serious financial plight of the unpaid 2013 Beethoven Festival musicians, the larger conversation drives home that both performing artists and their employers need to be educated and held accountable by the community at large, and there is some serious work to do on that score. Trust, care, and respect are vital to creative endeavors, but that stream of support must truly flow both ways. It doesn’t muddy the music to be clear about money matters upfront.

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