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Catherine Manoukian

On the Exploitation of Classical Musicians

September 5, 2013 at 6:31 PM

A few of days ago,Valentina Lisitsa posted an explanation on her Facebook page of why she had withdrawn from a scheduled appearance at a music festival in Sicily (the Palermo Classica Festival).

Here’s the short version: the festival in question is apparently a couple of seasons behind in paying the musicians who have performed for them, and, upon discovering this, Ms. Lisitsa informed this festival that, unless her colleagues were compensated immediately for their work, she would cancel her own appearance there in protest. Her condition was evidently not met, with excuses of “strained finances” being offered instead, and the event was cancelled. The festival then attributed the cancellation to “difficulties in arranging travel” (attempting to present her as a frivolous canceller), so, in order to bring this fiasco to the public attention it deserves, Ms. Lisitsa provided a copy of the full exchange between herself and the organizers of the festival.

A brief look through the comments on the original post and many of the shares reveals that, apparently, this sort of thing happens somewhat commonly in the world of Classical Music. The tragedy is that, while everyone is shocked, not all that many are surprised. And yet, were I to post a comparable story about dentists or chefs or tax accountants or truck drivers or receptionists or gardeners or doctors or plumbers or theoretical physicists or pretty much anyone other than sweatshop employees not being paid for their services for two years (and possibly never), everyone would be surprised. I think it’s time to have a conversation about why that may be the case.

During the painful, early days of the Industrial Revolution, when a young capitalism ran unfettered, the biggest losers in the whole process of production were the workers whose labour was THE most vital to it all – the ones who operated the machinery or hacked at the coal or did any number of other menial and repetitive jobs. Their plight was the result of this: there were more of them than there was available work, they (as individuals) were completely replaceable (since the time it took to acquire their skill-set was almost none), and, as a result of these facts, there would always be countless more desperate workers willing to step in under worse conditions should anyone complain about the existing ones. The worker, as a result, had zero power, and the employer had every last bit of it.

But time passed and things improved, sometimes through brave action, sometimes through violence, and sometimes through simple, natural evolution. Unions formed, workers acquired rights, standards were imposed, and, though things aren’t perfect, at least the days of “oh thank you, Sir, for my fortnightly sixpence, now Tiny Tim won’t die of a chill” seem to be behind us (well, at least in some parts of the world).

Musicians are also unionized, by the way, because, although we’re dealing in a way with individuals who are the very opposites of the Industrial Revolution era worker (that is to say, with a group of people with a highly specialized skill set that it takes years upon years to acquire), how a worker - any worker - is treated has everything to do with how many of them there are and how much demand there is for their services.

Since Classical Music has apparently been languishing from the illness known as “lack of demand” for something like the past 200 years, the problem of “oversupply” is one that we intensely feel. Our unions are supposed to (and usually do) ensure that there are at least standard rates of pay, stipulated by contract, and that musicians are treated fairly, and not, for example, kept longer than for the agreed-upon hours, or cheated of a rest period, and so on. So how, with such safeguards in place, can appalling scenarios like the one made public by Valentina Lisitsa occur?

The first problem is that, unfortunately, the safeguards we have in place cover only some contingencies, and then only for certain kinds of musical work. So, for example, while orchestral players, in general, fare quite decently, the freelancer is in the worst possible position. The reason this has happened is because, while we all had the conversations about decent hours for orchestral musicians or about retirement packages for theory professors as ones about social matters (and correctly so), every conversation we ever have about freelancing classical musicians is always presented as one about cultural or artistic matters. And that clouds the issue with an utterly out-of-place aura of loftiness, when this is not at all a lofty issue, nor even remotely one about art. It’s a regular, old social issue: you cannot extract labour (a performance) from a worker (say, a pianist) and not pay them. You cannot even pay them two years late. Or even a year late. Or six months. That’s unacceptable under any circumstance. End of story.

The most common lines of “explanation” when these injustices occur are the following:

(1) The “Apology” (offered after the performance has come and gone without pay): “we would love to pay you what we agreed upon, but we do not have funds right now, because (the government sucks, our sponsor pulled out, tickets sold badly, or whatever)”. They then hope you’ll just forget about it.

(2) The “Put-Down” (used to lower your fee in advance of the performance): “since we’re taking a huge risk hiring you, because, you know, you’re not a known quantity on Vulcan, though you may be on Romulus, we can’t pay you more than a quarter of your normal fee here, because that would literally, like, bankrupt us. But you’re welcome for the opportunity!”

Of course, the freelancer has to be partly complicit in The Put-Down – you have to agree to the lower fee. But, you see, it’s never really a choice, because of that old problem of (perceived) oversupply. The freelancer is constantly told: “you can easily be replaced at a moment’s notice, because literally thousands of people would not only do this for free, but they’d sell their own non-vital organs to have the chance that you’re so impertinently protesting against.”

The Put-Down operates on fear. Sound familiar? Yeah, I’m also thinking of Tiny Tim’s dad. Furthermore, while The Put-Down is much more common than The Apology, they’re both built on exactly the same, dangerous premise - that financial compensation, for the freelancing musician, is a bonus not a right.

Suppose, now, that I went to a dentist and said, “I’m going to give you the honour of cleaning my teeth, so, of course, you’ll be happy with a quarter of your fee, right?” Or, I walked into a hairdresser’s and said, “you can cut my hair. But only if you do it for free, and know what a great opportunity I’m giving you.” I’m not certain whether I’d be met with gaping mouths, or hysterical laughter, or some combination thereof (might be fun to try sometime).

Pluck a lovely, unknown young pianist from a conservatory, however, and send them to a major venue and instruct them to say, “Hi, I’m [insert name], I play the piano, I have a repertoire of 25 concertos, and I’d like to play at your venue,” and, obviously, the laughter would come this time from the representatives of the venue. Or at least the gaping mouths. You must notice, though, that, since the pianist is offering a service, and the venue is the would-be recipient of the service, it should be the other way around. In theory, the pianist is on par with the dentist and the hairdresser, and the venue with the individual in need of a fluoride treatment or a pixie cut.

At this point, The Cynic offers an interjection: “Ah, but you’re forgetting an important fact, that dentists and hairdressers are useful and important, but there’s so little demand for classical music, and so, so many of you out there, that it’s your own fault for having chosen a dying profession.” I won’t even bother telling The Cynic that, for most of us, becoming musicians wasn’t a random, arbitrary decision, like picking out socks in the morning, but rather, in a way, a “calling”, because, true as it may be, it’s exactly the sort of conversation we must absolutely avoid having about this issue: it masks what is actually at stake - the socio-economic (and by extension, psychological and emotional) well-being of a sizeable group of human beings. (And, furthermore, it doesn’t have to be a dying profession. But that’s a conversation for another time.)

Let’s look at the particulars. You have a product, the Music. You have a labourer that produces the product, the Musician. You have a consumer, the Audience. And you have a two-step bridge that shuttles the Music between the Musician and the Audience, and that’s comprised of the Musician-Representatives and the Presenters. These last are the functional equivalents of everything from factory owners to marketing strategists and think tanks and all sorts of other elements – they’re part of an amorphous and complex area of activity. There are obviously wonderful, capable, and brilliant individuals at this point in the process. But it’s also the one where the idea that Musicians are in oversupply, easily replaceable, and individually expendable, has its absolute strongest hold. This, in turn, is partly because the Musician-Representatives and the Presenters think that what they’re doing is fighting to preserve the very existence of Classical Music, from an insidious assault by their mortal enemy, the…um…I actually have no idea who (or what?). The consequence, however, is a very dangerous one, in the form of the belief that Musicians should, seriously, “just get over it” and “learn to take care of themselves”.

The dual catastrophe here is that, while there’s clearly an underwhelming concern for Musicians qua human beings at this level, there is a bizarrely overwhelming concern for safeguarding random traditions and for doing things just as they’ve always been done: “We can sell x! She’s seven years old!” or “We can sell y! He won a competition!” But, obviously, audiences are TIRED of these old, exhausted strategies. And the ones paying for their ineffectiveness are the Musicians. If oversupply is the Musician’s natural burden, lack of interest should be that of the Musician-Representatives and the Presenters. The sad fact, however, is that both burdens keep ending up with the Musician anyway. “But we’re barely making ends meet!”, the Presenters protest. Or: “You know, we JUST broke even this year?” That is terribly sad, and I realize it isn’t always (or even often) a win for these people. But, on the Musician side, there’s all too often a complete and total loss – a loss that is felt in the form of an inability to pay rent or to sustain a reasonable standard of living. Basic things. Losses are skewed much too much towards this side.

So what can we do? Let me propose a very simple start. Let’s all agree that no musician is “easily replaceable.” No musician is “individually expendable.” No musician should be expected to grovel and beg for the “great honour” or the “opportunity” to work for free or for a pittance. It’s not much, but it’s a start and, most importantly, it may be the vital shift in attitude that makes a difference in the end. We can hope.

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