Thursday, February 11, 2010

Using The Poor Economy To Exploit Musicians

Just got off the phone with a youth director for one of the wealthiest shuls in the Tri-state area. He was looking for a musician to play an event Purim evening (Sat. night). His budget? About as low as any self-respecting musician would consider going out for on a non-popular night, let alone Purim eve. (I'm not available in any event.) In other words, not reasonable.

It's very interesting to me to see how people are attempting to use the state of the economy to take advantage of musicians who might be feeling desperate. Obviously, one episode does not represent a pattern. However, I've been hearing about/seeing this happen more and more frequently.

Another example. Also Purim related. I have a steady Purim gig for Megillah night. There really isn't much time for me to accept an earlier gig. (I can possibly make a late night one.) A number of years ago, an organization hired me to play an event earlier that evening, which was held in the same room as my later gig. In other words, two gigs back to back in the same room. Naturally, I charged them a VERY fair price to play their party. Last year, they called and asked me to do it again. Except this time the two gigs were in different venues a few blocks apart. So, a lot more work with setup, breakdown, and transporting the gear from one venue to another. Since the economy was already bad, I decided not to raise my rate significantly despite the extra work. To my surprise, the person from the org demanded that I play the job for less then in the past. The amount they offered me was simply embarrassing. When they made the offer, I pointed that out to them. The response? You may be right, but the chairman knows that you can't take another gig, so it's this or nothing. For the record, after negotiating back and forth, I wound up taking the gig for $25 less then the previous times, but I regret having done so and will not be doing that again. The $25 is simply not material to their budget, but goes a long way towards increasing the respect said chairman will show towards whoever does play the gig.

So why am I writing about this?

It's simple, really. It's because I don't believe the state of the economy warrants people treating others -- musicians or non-- in condescending or exploitative ways, and I've been hearing lots of anecdotal stories of this happening. Simply, there is no mitzvah to take advantage of someone just because you can. And when said actions are done in the name of protecting tzedakah, it makes it all the worse.

To be clear. There is nothing wrong with an organization deciding to eliminate music from an event at which they usually would have live music, due to budget considerations. There is something wrong with exploiting others financial need by offering a less than living wage to them for their work, just because they can. Obviously, for someone who is struggling to put food on the table, and many musicians are, some money is better than no income. But offering to pay rates that will ensure a worker (any worker, not just musicians) won't be able to support themselves or their families, is wrong.

There are situations where there might not be a reasonable budget for an event, but the organizers still might wish for there to be live music. And, in some cases, there might be a musician for whom that specific gig makes sense, whether it be from a promotional aspect, or because he/she supports that organization's work, etc. In those cases, I think the organization needs to be honest and transparent about what their budget is when they approach the musician. And, it cannot be that everyone else, caterer, printer, production team, etc. are all getting paid full price.

I'm an economist by training. I well understand supply and demand. That said, there's also mentshlekhkeit.

There is another factor that I should mention here.

A while back, I posted an email from a reader complaining about an office asking him to work for less then union scale, which is relevant here. In addition to my comments there, I think there's another point that needs to be raised. That issue is directly affected by organizations not being honest with musicians about their budgets, and their willingness to place marginal savings above human dignity.

There is a huge problem in my community, wherein one local band office is seriously delinquent in payment to many musicians. In my estimation, there is simply no way it is possible for this bandleader to pay all of his outstanding debts, and he is running a Ponzi scheme at this point, wherein a lot of musicians are going to wind up cheated at the end. (In fact, last night I came across one non-Jewish musicians facebook profile, where under activities, he lists "Trying to get paid for a gig I did last Aug. for XXXX [name redacted] If he has any friends left, please tell him I would like to get paid!' How's that for a Kiddush Hashem?)

Yet, this musician regularly books organizational work (and non-org work too) at below fair market rates. The only way he is able to do that is by not paying some of his musicians for playing those (and/or other) jobs. I have gone up against this office bidding for gigs a number of times. Whenever the client's concern has been musical, I've booked the job. 100% of the time. (I'm aware that that ratio won't necessarily last, but it is relevant, I believe, to what were talking about.) However, whenever the buyer is solely concerned about price, I lose the gig, for the simple reason that I can't lower my rates as much as him, because I always pay all of my musicians for playing the gig, and because I will never substitute sub-par or unprofessional musicians. So when organizations eschew hiring other local musicians, and there are a number of us in town, based solely on price, without pausing to ask how those low rates are possible they contribute to an abusive business practice that results in many musicians losing work they are fully qualified and available to do, because they can't compete with a thief.

If organizations would decide on their budget for a given event, and approach musicians/bands with that amount on the table it would eliminate the need for musicians to compete in this way. A band/musician could simply decide if the offered amount was worth their while or not. However, when organizations play the game of having bands compete against each other, and they include dishonest offices in the mix, it makes it impossible for honest people to compete. So, while they may achieve their goal of saving still more money for their organization, it comes at the expense of exploiting musicians, and preventing the honest musicians from getting a fair hearing.

The reality is that all I've written above holds true for individual music consumers as well. I believe though, that community institutions have an extra obligation to do the right thing, and pursue policies based on yashrus. Unfortunately, it seems as though many of the people in charge at our institutions aren't concerned about these topics at all. That's a shame!

NB: I've chosen not to name the band/musician I'm referring to here, but it's an open secret in the local community and in the music community-at-large. I know of several people at local organizations who are aware of this and still turn to him, allowing him to undercut the honest musicians in the community.

The sum of all of this? I think people need to be aware that saving a relatively inconsequential amount should not trump mentshlekhkeit. (Neither should saving a large amount, for that matter.) Pursuing policies that are exploitative, even if you're one step removed from said exploitation, is wrong!

In these difficult economic times, most musicians/bands are willing to be very accommodating of financial circumstances. There is simply no reason why our community institutions shouldn't work with local musicians in a mutually beneficial way that both preserves the dignity of musicians and is careful with tzedaka expenditures.