Working for Free?

A friend suggests that I re-post, on Dial M, this commentary, which I originally posted on AMS-L (the American Musicological Society listserv). I will, and I’ll take the opportunity to edit and expand a bit; it was originally part of a thread on performing and lecturing for free: if it is ever OK, how it affects those trying to make a living, if a free pre-concert lecture is the same as an unpaid performance, etc. Based on my experience and observations, it seems to me that the right choices are far more situational than we’re willing to admit. Schools differ, funding differs, people administering funding differ, performers’ needs differ. It is all too easy for those of us who are somewhat beyond our years of poverty to remember how complicated things can get.

For example, on the subject of working for free: if I feel, deep down in my heart, that working for free will result in some other benefit (another gig, sending a certain message, brownie points with someone, whatever), then I believe I have the right to do it and regard it the way I might an audition. No audition? No gig. I’ve heard of paid auditions but certainly never participated in one. Or, I might consider such a performance to be practice; it is common to play free at retirement homes, Jewish Community Centers, and so on; people with fewer gigs than—er—they’d like often do this for the practice, like scrimmages in sports. Literally, this is working for free, but in a deeper way it’s working for yourself, or investing in yourself. The individual takes the risk and responsibility, the venue has to weigh whether they’re going to get what they pay for with a free performance, etc.

Here’s a more complex situation: I was, early in my doctoral career, asked to provide background piano at a Stanford Music Department-type party. On the one hand, no money was offered; they couldn’t pay their own students. On the other, I was getting three years of full-ride doctoral education at Stanford University, and not only were my TA duties relatively slight, but the departmental administrator and certain faculty had absolutely no qualms about minimizing them further. Of course, I did it, with trepidation (my God! The musicologists are going to be listening to me thrash around!), and—in fact—a certain amount of panicked practicing so I wouldn’t make too much of an idiot out of myself. Funny postscript, though:

People, often people with some kind of Stanford connection, would call the music department asking for holiday entertainment. As I recall, people who thought a pianist ought to be provided for free (there are such) were screened out, then—once it was established that there would be a decent offer—a name was provided. When I was there, and this may have been after the aforementioned music department gig, it seemed that my name was always given. I did, I must say, a very nice Xmas gig: a free mix of light classical music (Schubert impromptus, Beethoven Op. 49s, Chopin etc.) and Xmas carol and Praetorius Terpsichore improvisations using everything I’d culled from my ballet pianist career. Yes, there were specific return engagements in succeeding years, and the fees were not skimpy—I remember getting $300 for one evening’s work playing a grand piano, refusing drinks and food, and chatting with musically inclined, well-educated guests. In the late 1980s, a check for $300 was quite an addition to a graduate student’s December income.

Those recommendations could well have come from my “free” work at the departmental gig. Summary: my instinct would be to refuse to take any vows on the Working for Free issue: Dealer’s Choice.

Where do we put add-on duties? In the mid-1980s, when my wife and I had a semi-active piano four-hand gig going, we had an engagement that involved accompanying a choreographed piece for an independent dance studio in SF, which was ultimately performed in the SF Opera House. We were paid for our work, but if we arrived early for rehearsal, it was Jonathan, gee, would you care to just warm up your hands while the dancers warm up at the barre…play a class for free, in other words. Sometimes I did it, and sometimes I didn’t. The dancers warmed up to silence otherwise—not the proper way for them to get in the mood—and I had to decide how much it would take out of me, etc.

Speaking of my past life as a…well, a never-was (as opposed to wannabe) performer: I was never a member of the musician’s union. It cost money I didn’t have, when I was a struggling pianist, and it would have disqualified me for the gig I did have, which was a poorly-paid hourly position BUT WITH MEDICAL AND DENTAL BENEFITS at the San Francisco Ballet (School primarily, Company occasionally). Important, here, is the fact that this particular gig enabled me to improvise for a living (or play rehearsals for which I could usually prepare), while union gigs require hot sight-reading and lead-sheet skills. I am, I’m sure, the very worst sight-reader on earth, so what I was looking at was the difference between employment and unemployment. I did catch some muttered flak from the better-paid union musicians for this, but my feeling at the time was strikingly like a feeling I had later when I was a part-time or year-to-year employee and the tenure-protected people were telling me about what petitions to sign and which stands to take and so on: when I and my loved ones are in a financially precarious position, I will not accept moral or ethical instruction from those better off who enjoy privileges and protections I do not. We weigh our options and proceed as we need to. 

For academic kinds of gigs such as program notes and pre-concert talks, my observations suggest that 1) if your work merits respect and 2) you are personally willing to demand respect, you’ll get paid. Today, even in my dismally underfunded state arts economy, I’m paid when I do things. A recent guest-lecture gig downtown with some faculty colleagues saw us all getting paid equally—the benefit for the presenters being that I felt a certain amount of pressure to do something entertaining, enlightening, worthwhile, performative, artistic, etc.—and devoted a hell of a lot of time to preparation. Again, it’s the “you get what you pay for” phenomenon. My administrators and colleagues are professionals, though, and they’re artists. Not all university situations are the same, I know, and not all administrators have the same professional disdain for squeezing faculty for free work. Ultimately, we have to remember that our situations differ, and that the deal I am prepared to make or reject—as a tenured faculty member who has had his last promotion and who never has enough time to do his own work—is NOT the same deal that someone angling for tenure, a tenure-track slot, a full-time gig of any kind, or anything else might be prepared to make. Perhaps that young, hungry one might just want a single chance, just one crack at demonstrating that he or she can do far better than Bellman for whatever this gig is, and similar future gigs. I am in no position to dictate terms to such people.

The rules are cannot be the same for all of us at all times, in other words. Strongly doctrinaire, party-line positions tend to overlook the real subtleties of the situation, and (paradoxically) to favor those who have more stability and flexibility. Berthold Brecht’s immortal phrase (thanks for the ID, Ralph) is apposite here: “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral.” (As translated by Marc Blitzstein: “First feed the face, then preach right and wrong.”) I feel the same way about certain supposedly principled stands–I am not convinced that it would be right for me to browbeat someone who is trying to eke out a toehold about what one should or should not do, from my position of much greater stability and comfort.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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