music, technology & life in pasadena, california

What’s A Musician Worth?

Let’s face it. Most musicians love what they do. Like other artists, they get infected with their work, obsessed in pursuing it, always trying to make it better. And, unfortunately like many freelance artists, tend to underestimate their worth.

Freelancers are always looking out for that next job. They know the value of hustling and self-promotion; they need that knowledge just to survive. Making connections that lead to more connections, networking at every chance, all in an effort to land a paying gig where they can show off what they have to offer to a bandleader, composer or other players.

If they’re successful in their efforts, and they are indeed a good player, because let’s face it, being a good player is the bottom line here, they’ll eventually get more notice as word of mouth spreads.

In Los Angeles or in any other decent-sized city, if you’re serious about working in the music business, you join the musician’s union. The union ensures that when you get a call to work on a record, movie, TV show or concert, you’ll be paid an employer-agreed upon wage that includes health insurance benefits, contributions to a pension and if applicable to your particular gig, any extra payments that have to do with a reuse or a broadcast of your performance.

In other words, instead of being alone out in the cold world of the music business, you have the union as your way post to help make the journey just a little bit friendlier.

Not that said union is perfect. But it’s a way for a freelancer to experience the benefits that most other professionals share as a given in their working lives. Health insurance, retirement benefits, profit sharing and a good wage. Think about it. Those are things that legitimize what we do. The public likes to scoff and ridicule musicians based on the relentless stereotypes they’ve seen served up through the years. The union provides the basis for the individual musician’s dignity by equating what they do with the rest of the professional world: health insurance, retirement benefits and a good wage.

In the last few months, there’s been a movement of players, unsatisfied with the current situation, who have been lured by the possibility of studio work paying less than the prevailing rates and benefits. They feel that the current status-quo isolates them from moving into the system, and that this is the way to get ahead. Like it or not, studio work has always been the domain of a relatively small network of great players, but not because of any conspiracy by a particular group. When a player does a great job for someone, that player is usually rewarded with loyalty, as long as that player continues to produce what’s needed for the employer. It’s a positive feedback cycle.

By bypassing the contracts that union members have worked hard to secure, these players, while landing immediate work, are positioning themselves as a second tier product. One of the main tenets of self-promotion and marketing experts is that you position yourself in the marketplace via your pricing. If you’re a great player and you work under union contracts, you’re accorded a “pride of place” both in the minds of fellow players and employers. If you’re a great player and you choose to work under sub-par agreements, well, you might be able to get more work in the short run and some quick money in your pocket, but in the end, you risk the chance of being viewed and associated with the budget group; the B group, if you will.

And that’s just not smart marketing.

August 30, 2007 | Link to this entry


Paul Viapiano is a guitarist working in film, television and live performance based in sunny Pasadena, California.

You can email me here.

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