What’s a Musician Worth?

Amanda Palmer(Photo: Desi)
Amanda Palmer(Photo: Desi)

Every day, there seems to be some new story about a struggling orchestra.  Based on recent reports, no one is exempt.  Minnesota Orchestra, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Indianapolis, Chicago…all have had their round of troubles.

What it seems to boil down to is, what is a musician worth?  Chicago Symphony double-bassist Stephen Lester put it this way…

“Our product is our artistic quality. Reducing costs by lowering musician salaries beyond a certain level could result in a flight of quality to other orchestras …. It would be tantamount to the Art Institute’s selling its Picassos and Monets to buy lower quality works that are less expensive to maintain. Unlike a business corporation, a cultural organization like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra cannot save its way to success.”

Recently, indie musician Amanda Palmer raised $1,000,000 in a Kickstarter campaign…money we presume to kick her career to another level.  Then she set about, consciously or otherwise, to devalue musicians everywhere.  She put out a call for musicians to come perform with her at various venues.  The catch?  She wasn’t going to pay them.  In the Culture Desk section of New Yorker magazine, Joshua Clover wrote…

Supposedly, Palmer had spent it all on producing her album, along with things like airfare, mailing costs, and personal debt, and so couldn’t afford to pay anyone else. She promised instead to “feed you beer, hug/high-five you up and down (pick your poison), give you merch, and thank you mightily.” This is a compensation package which, honestly, might be worse than nothing. Depends on the beer.

On the surface, the musician’s life is a glamorous one.  Performing on stage, touring, maybe spending a summer at the Aspen Music Festival, Tanglewood, or in a foreign country.  Unfortunately, most of us never see what it takes to be able to produce those moments.  The hours of daily practice to achieve that level of musicianship, followed by the hours of practice to MAINTAIN that level of musicianship.

The old saying is probably not far off…If I skip one day of practice, I notice it…skip two days of practice, the other musicians notice it…skip three days of practice, the audience notices it.

So the next time you attend a concert, think about what you DON’T see, while you enjoy the performance.

Read What’s a Musician Worth? (New Music Box)

Letting the Audience Get In on the Act

For many years, I attended a music conference which always featured performances by young up-and-coming musicians, musicians plugging a new recording, and lots and lots of CDs to put in the radio station library.  Two experiences in particular, however, have stuck in my mind.  One is an entire room full of public radio music announcers, producers, and programmers singing along with Bobby McFerrin.  While many assume public radio announcers must come to work in a tuxedo and only clap in the right spots at concerts, when Bobby McFerrin took the stage, we were putty in his hands.

Another great experience was having Dennis James, a name familiar to many Central Ohio music lovers, performing at our closing banquet.  James loves digging up and playing musical instruments many of us never knew existed.  One most HAVE heard of is the Glass Armonica.  Benjamin Franklin’s marvelous invention sets crystal glasses spinning, allowing the player to make ethereal music with dampened fingers.  James’ performances are appropriately dubbed Musica Curiosa.

Before dinner, James had distributed crystal glasses to each table, complete with color coding, so that the audience could play along as James directed.  What a blast!

In a recent article, writer and new-music booster Frank J. Oteri wrote that getting the audience in on the act has been a dream of his.  Rather than have the audience sit passively during a performance, then applaud, he wants the applause, and more, to be part of the performance.

Read Playing With the Audience (New Music Box)

Watch Dennis James demonstrate the Glass Armonica

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