Tuesday, February 16, 2010

More on Exploiting Musicians

My recent post "Using The Poor Economy To Exploit Musicians," has attracted a lot of interest. In addition to the positive comments on the bandstand at this weekend's gigs, I've received a number of emails (both on and off the record) and a number of bloggers/facebookers/twitterers have posted links.

I'd like to address some of the emails and comments I've seen or heard.

Rachel emails:
I just wanted to let you know that your concerns extend far beyond the musical community. I have had so many requests from people to do work for less than the cost of the materials. When I explain to them (politely) why this is not going to work, I get told that I should be happy to be making money without "working". Um, excuse me? Just because I work from a home studio does not mean that I do not have expenses or further that I am not working! I put in regular workweeks just like anyone else.

What you are coming up against is more than people not appreciating that you need to pay your staff (or I need to pay for materials and overhead). It is people betraying the fact that they think your skills are not worth paying for. My general policy has been that if people view my labour as worthless, they are not people that it is worth taking on as clients. And this is aside from customers who agree to a price and then do not pay up when the times comes. I now hesitate to do seminars for "Torah" institutions if I will not be paid on the spot as I have been known to wait months until contracts are even looked at and emails returned never mind paid in full.

Good luck in figuring out a way to respectfully deal with clients and customers who do not want to pay. I know that I can, for the most part, keep things in check and *most of the time* will get my money- but I go in to pretty much every transaction with my heart in my throat.
Rachel makes two points that I think are worth highlighting here. The first is that sadly all too often "Torah institutions" do not live by Torah rules. This has been an ongoing Chilul Hashem that I have yet to see the leadership address in a meaningful way. There ought to be an institutional culture within these institutions that emphasizes this. Yet, I could compile a list of Torah institutions that have either screwed me outright, taken advantage of me (or tried to) in the name of Torah and/or Tzedaka. None of this is recent, BTW. Years ago, I learned that when I deal with these types of orgs. I have to be exceedingly careful.

The other point is that people don't seem to value labor in the sense that they don't seem to appreciate the amount of work it takes to create something, be it art, music, jewlry, whatever. When a jewelry artisan presents her work for sale, that jewelry represents many hours of labor that went into creating the piece, not including the additional hours/days/years of planning and preparing, and all the ancillary expenses.

Similarly, when any good band shows up to play an event, there are many hours of prep that have gone into making the job successful. I'm not even talking about the years of practicing etc. The events' needs might have included learning and transcribing new music, a logistics run-through at the venue, a meeting with the caterer, multiple meetings with the family, etc.

Devo K emailed:
Your post reminds me of the following scene from Fiddler on the Roof:

(Tevye) "And Nahum, the beggar..."

(Beggar) "Alms for the poor, alms for the poor..."

(Lazar) "Here, Reb Nahum, is one kopek."

(Beggar) "One kopek? Last week you geve me two kopeks."

(Lazar) "I had a bad week."

(Beggar) "So, if you had a bad week, why should I suffer?"
Devo does not appear to have understood the post. Get me rewrite!

(Tevye) "And Nahum, the beggar..."

(Beggar) "Alms for the poor, alms for the poor..."

(Lazar) "Here, Reb Nahum, is one kopek."

(Lazar) "On second thought, Reb Nahum, I'm going to give that kopek to Yankel the Thief. He always tells me he can get people to do any work I might need. And even though he doesn't pay them the money he's promised them (and I know you still haven't been paid for some work you did for me last year that he sub-contracted you on, and in fact, that default has contributed to why you are now begging) I'm still going to give him the money."

(Beggar) Bangs head against wall.

Another reader who asked me not to publish his email, wrote about how he bought a new Torah from a sofer who offered it at a very low price due to his distress at the current financial climate and his desperate need for cash. I do not think the situations are analogous. Firstly, he was offered the Torah at that price. When it was offered, he recognized the situation for what it was and accepted. He didn't offer $100-$250 less, even though no sofer in dire financial straits would walk away from the deal over that amount. And that’s my point. Musicians are being very flexible, and that’s on top of the traditional institutional discount many of us always offer. There comes a point at which the negotiation tactics and pay offered is just insulting.

Another reader emails:
I do not believe it is an open secret that XXXX is a half year or more behind in paying many musicians. If they are aware of it at [institutions redacted] then there is a simple solution which is for the musician or a representative to demand of the Rabbinical leadership (yeah, I know, an oxymoron) that they employ a Shibuda D'Rabi Noson and have the organizations pay the musicians directly, starting with the longest owed.
The hitch with this approach is that it ensures that the musicians playing the gig get screwed in favor of paying other musicians. It just shuffles the cards. It doesn't solve the problem.

Then there were some comments about unions like:

The other comments I had to say was UNION RATES in many situations are higher then the market rate sad to say and this leads to a unrealisitic cycle those who think UNION RATES are market rates. Union's certainlly don't behave in a mentch type way for the most part.
I was with the post in terms of just lowballing for the sake of lowballing but when someone just wants to get paid to support his family (when due to the recession many people have less funds) and thinks union wages are standard then I think that person is being a little bit unrealistic on his side.
If union wages are indeed "fair", then why does the union need to set the pay scale at all? Let the market dictate what it can support. If a job doesn't pay enough, don't take it....
Firstly, nowhere in that piece or the linked post did I state my own perspective on the musician's union. The commentor's assumptions on that score are off base. Secondly, the musicians union is quite weak, and in my opinion irrelevant to most frum Jewish musicians (outside of those working on Broadway.) In fact, I believe that scale is too low, relative to the market demand, and this is reflected in "real" street prices. Just one example, try hiring a one-man-band at scale to play your wedding. None of the popular "heimish" one-man-bands play those gigs for scale. It's too low. They all charge significantly more. And these are not union musicians either.

Another point, that needs to be stressed, is that "scale" is a misleading term, as it's being used in this context. When a union band pays "scale" to the musician for a gig, they also are supposed to make an additional payment (per gig) into that musicians health and pension plan with the union. When musicians complain about being offered less than scale, it means less than the base pay they receive AND they are also not having the money paid towards their health insurance/pension either.

My personal beliefs on the musicians union are a topic for another post sometime, perhaps. I think it's fair at this point to say that when musicians want to be paid scale, in the context of this particular conversation, they are not asking to be paid above reasonable market rates.