Needs Improvement is a weekly series pointing out something that is crappy.

Did you guys catch this interesting post from a jazz musician living in Los Angeles? He wrote a nice takedown of club owners in L.A. who expect musicians not only to play at their bars/clubs for very little money, but also to pack the house with their own fans.

This reminded me of a phenomenon in our little corner of the music world: the Offer of Unpaid Work, or OUW. (Pronounced like a sharp cry of pain, or a moan of exasperation.)

The quartet has received several OUWs this season — and if you’re a performer, I’m sure you have, too. They usually come from great people (composers, producers, etc.) and great organizations who haven’t budgeted or fundraised to pay performers, but still want performers. Recently, we were discussing a OUW which, while tempting, we simply couldn’t fit into our calendar. “I wouldn’t worry,” I said to the ladies. “Another opportunity like this will come up again!”

“Another chance to work for free?” Kate said. “Yup, it sure will.”

(He is sad you don't value his labor.)

OUWs always seen to come with (possibly) compelling reasons to say yes … and exactly zero dollars.

  • Yes, you’d have to travel two hours to get here, learn several new pieces you’d be unlikely to program again, and lose your other income. But this would look great on your resume! (Offered: $0.)
  • Sure, it would take twelve hours of rehearsal time, and you DO have four masters degrees and a doctorate among you. But there might be some people with money there! (Offered: $0.)
  • You’d have to reschedule half your private students, and your health insurance premium just went up. But don’t you support the mission of this organization? You didn’t get into music for the money, did you? (Offered: $0.)

Cue wailing, gnashing of teeth, pulling-out of hair.

Somebody once tried to tell me that this is just how it is in new music. Happily, this isn’t the case, and I’m not just talking about perpetually-funded powerhouses like MusicNow. Local badass collective ensemble dal niente pays their musicians for concerts. Fabulous composer/performer hub Access Contemporary Music does, too. When the quartet was approached to work on projects with composers and friends such as Seth Boustead, Amy Wurtz, and Matt Pakulski, it was always a given that we’d be compensated. It was never a lot of money, but it demonstrated respect, and we deeply appreciated it.

I’m also proud to say that Chicago Q Ensemble is committed to paying the people who work for us. For our last self-produced concert, we compensated a videographer, graphic designer, and actor before we compensated ourselves. In fact, we didn’t really compensate ourselves.

(I can't believe those jerks who planned this concert didn't pay us! .... wait ...)

That’s right — we worked for free. The whole concert was an OUW! Wait a minute. Why did we put up with that?

Because we have a long-term investment in the success of our ensemble. While it’s not ideal to make so little money right now, as the quartet grows artistically, we are the ones who will benefit. It makes sense for us to sacrifice and invest in the quartet. But it would make very little sense indeed for a graphic designer, or an actor, to donate their valuable time so that our quartet can reap the long-term benefits without them.

Are we in it for the money? Of course not. Performers constantly work for free (in my case, fifteen to twenty hours a week for the quartet) for our own self-produced projects and for collaborative projects we care about. But when we’re working for ourselves, we enjoy a huge amount of artistic autonomy. We choose the music, the collaborators, the venue. We steer the ship artistically.

When we get “hired” to execute a certain task, we aren’t afforded those creative luxuries — we’re helping someone else execute their creative vision. We’re putting in hours on behalf of someone else. And that, friends, is where the money comes in!

Becoming an organization that can pay musicians is really, REALLY hard. Believe me, I’m learning that in my own organization. But there are grants to apply for, donors to ask, tickets to sell, and budgets to set up. It is almost always possible to pay performers something for their work. And when I say something, you know perfectly well that I might be talking about fifty bucks.

We are in a time of profound austerity for composers and performers. I understand that composers, presenters, and festivals often have very little money to work with. It’s a screwed-up environment that often leaves us scraping the bottom of our bank accounts in order to create art we care about. But I think something has gone wrong when the most highly skilled, most essential workers for a concert … are the workers you think you can get for free.

This is just how an OUW feels from a performer’s point of view. What do you think? I’m particularly interested in how composers feel, because if anyone makes less money than performers, it’s composers. Have at it in the comments, folks. And happy Thursday.