When Classical Music feels like the Wild West


Happy Blogiversary! This article marks two years since the launch of “Who’s Your Audience?”.

It’s been an interesting way to put my thoughts to paper…er, computer screen. There have been a variety of issues covered, and my approach has evolved too. At first, I felt compelled to write in “term paper” mode. Now, I feel a bit more conversational with you.

Or at least, informal.

Like using one-sentence paragraphs.

In fact, that wasn’t even a sentence.

Anyways, I imagine many anniversary posts are often upbeat, optimistic, having some big announcement, and maybe some fireworks too. But the truth is, I come to you today from a bit of a concerned place. This stems from two recent events.

First, a couple weeks ago, a dear friend of mine posted something on social media that caught my attention.

She has been a full-time musician and out of school for about eight years now. She plays her instruments at a very high level. She’s extremely devoted to the art-form. She has what some refer to as a “portfolio” career, meaning her work is comprised of many different facets without primarily centering around a particular institution.

She teaches. She’s a member of several different types of ensembles. She plays with orchestras as a substitute/extra musician. But none of these things is a singular focus of her musical life.

My friend was expressing her worries for the longevity of this type of self-made career.

Where will it take her?
Will she be able to weather the financial storms that come her way?
What is her “end game”?
How does she know if she’s attained success or not?

Very real concerns. And frankly, exploring each could be blog posts in and of themselves.

Now, for the second item that caught my attention. There have been recent additions to the American Federation of Musician’s Unfair List. In other words, the Musicians’ Union has added to its ongoing list of employers and contractors with which union members have very serious, unresolved disputes.

Two of the new names on the Unfair List were due to instances that included hiring musicians right here in Washington, DC.

I don’t know how much more detailed I can be without saying something I shouldn’t. So this post won’t be a place where you can get some juicy gossip. (And if you’re trying to figure out who I’m talking about based on the work I do, I’ll say upfront that I’m not referring to any of my current employers at any point in this post.) But suffice it to say that hard-working, highly accomplished, incredibly deserving musicians–like the friend I just discussed—are owed money.

(Just to be clear, I’m not accusing my friend of taking this kind of work. It was merely the juxtaposition of her post and the Unfair List update that prompted this article.)

(See what I mean about the informal writing? I’m sure all these parentheses would be a big “no-no” if this were a term paper.)

So what do we do?

I’m not here to spread leftist hippy kumbaya crunchy-granola propaganda, but there are some simple things that would make a huge difference.

First of all, when we’re the ones doing the hiring, let’s not make promises that we can’t keep. Many of us remember the fiasco that was last September’s Newport Contemporary Music Series, where someone who wanted to create a star-studded, pull-out-all-the-stops music festival couldn’t pay his roster of 100+ performers and composers. Certainly, not every example of failed payments is a disaster of these proportions; but fundamentally, it’s exactly the same thing.

So if we want to hire musicians, let’s make sure we have the money first. All of it.

Second, let’s not deceive people.

Paying people late. Paying people less than they are owed. Failing to make pension contributions. Hiring people for a gig that goes overtime and neglecting to pay them for that extra time. The list goes on and on… I’m not saying every contractor who breaks a rule is scum, genuine mistakes happen. I’m referring to the people and organizations who routinely and knowingly commit these transgressions. You know, the ones who make you wonder, “Is the Golden Rule really that hard to follow?!”

Finally, at what point do we decide that someone who is offering us work isn’t worth working for? And I’m not even talking about taking a stand for union solidarity–although there’s that too–I’m talking about self-respect and self-worth. We have bills to pay. Not just rent and utilities but also bills from the very degrees we earned to become musicians in the first place. We have instruments to buy and maintain. Reeds. Valve oil. Rosin. Drumheads. Concert clothes. Car payments–or, public transit cards.

And oh yeah, we have to make time to prepare for the music we’re being paid to play.

We didn’t get this far in our careers by accepting mediocrity in ourselves. Why should we accept failure from the people who hire us? And by the way, this AFM Unfair List is hardly a comprehensive list of offenders, I’m sure every musician knows at least a couple employers in his/her city who are known for their shenanigans.

There’s so much more that needs to be said and done about this dirty truth of the industry, but I’m afraid I run the risk of being unproductively preachy if I continue venting here. So I’ll be cute and leave you with a visual. When Classical Music feels like the Wild West, who do we choose to be?

A cowboy wearing jeans and brown boots has fallen off a brown horse. The front legs of the horse are in the air, and the cowboy is to the right of the horse. This is happening on a dirt field with metal fences. There is another cowboy behind the fence wearing something similar and a white cowboy hat.

About Doug Rosenthal

No one told Douglas Rosenthal to give up playing music. Not even his patient siblings, who endured many early-morning practice sessions; even they encouraged their brother to follow his passion. As the years passed, that passion evolved from simply playing music to advocating for music, musicians, and music-lovers. Douglas is based in Washington, DC. He is the Assistant Principal Trombonist of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra/Washington National Opera Orchestra. He currently makes his home on Capitol Hill in DC with a pug named Jake, who serves as a constant reminder to relax, eat well, and sleep plentifully.

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4 thoughts on “When Classical Music feels like the Wild West”

  1. Happy Blogoversary! I enjoy reading your blog, Doug, because I support musicians as well as my fellow writers in their endeavors. The issues that you bring up in this post can apply to writers also, and especially with respect to accepting a content provider job for an internet company or website. It’s like the Wild West out there sometimes. I’m happy to do the work, but I also want to be paid for it. It’s been a long time since I’ve happily done work gratis to get clips or establish my bona fides. I think it’s really important to check out any prospective employer to insure that they can pay and they are who they say they are. Thanks for bringing up the issues you do, and keep up the good work!

    • What a very kind note! Thanks so much. I’m really honored to have your readership, and I must say I admire Anatomy of Perceval, too. Interesting to hear the same issues in different fields, as you said. I hope things are going alright for you–solidarity from DC!

  2. I arrived here from Linkedin after clicking on a link. Not sure what you’re point of view s in writing this. You aren’t taking a position on the issues and topics you seem to address (at least that I can tell). I can’t have any sympathy for a professional musician who takes a non union job, gets stiffed, and then complains about not getting paid. That is what unions are for: To protect the rights of musicians especially those who are like me and your protagonist using musical income as part of several income streams to create a fulfilling but precarious living. In this era of excess supply of musical labor and limited demand by the general public, musicians will have to decide what their time is worth and what they expect for their work after training for years, practicing, buying their instruments, etc. (You do address this). But I know here in Chicago, many union musicians took on non union gigs in the past few months at some of the larger theaters and when they get stiffed (which could easily happen), they will expect some sort of recourse and help to recoup the money. And they should have known better when they accepted the gig. As far as the summer festivals, it always seemed to me that they operate on their own rules. Musicians will put up with a good deal more BS when you give them a free trip, room and board and put it in a nice location. The CBA rules that they expect from their employer at home don’t seem to apply in these beautiful settings. Not sure why they are willing to put up with a different set of rules out in the countryside. So when signing up for a festival in Beautiful,USA, you just may have to buy your ticket home especially if it is a start up festival.

    • Thanks for reading and for leaving this comment. You’re right, this is post is less a persuasive essay and more a list of observations. I wasn’t trying to change the world, but rather I just wanted express what was on my mind. (Although I’m surprised you don’t see my point of view.) Are you involved with the Chicago Federation of Musicians? CFM was the first Local I ever joined. 🙂 Best wishes to you.


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