A couple of years ago I received an email signed by a dozen or so Eastman students. It was sent to Eastman School jazz students and faculty. This group had met out of frustration. It seems that within the student jazz community at Eastman, there hadn’t been much discussion or communication between them about how to contract gigs, or for that matter how much to charge. This had resulted in a wide range of prices charged for the same type of work, and as a result there had been a considerable amount of unintentional undercutting going on. Some bands were not rehired to play at certain clubs because another group would play for less. The musicians who met and drafted the email proposed several minimum wage scales. It occurred to me that they were, in effect, forming a union.

This is what unions do. They establish minimum pay rates and working conditions. They help organize and protect the musicians. They have standardized contracts, and if an employer tries to renege on paying, the union will stand behind the musicians. The other major function of a union is to gain legal representation on behalf of a group of workers (read: employees), and then negotiate directly with the employer on their behalf. Examples of this are orchestra contracts, contracts with specific performance venues, and various recording agreements such as: Sound Recordings, Industrial Films, Theatrical Motion Picture, Television Film, Basic Cable Television, Commercial Announcements and National Public Radio

Unions help take the “Wild West,” every man for himself, mind-set out of the mix. One often hears the comment, “What has the union done for me? They haven’t given me any work.” That could be true, but the union’s job is not to hand out work. It is to protect its members from what I just described.

Now, there can be great variation between locals in their effectiveness and service to the rank and file, but in general, I think unions are good. I have a nice little pension due to the recording work I have done, and I have good working conditions in the orchestra in which I play. For a professional musician, unless you are a soloist, most of the “good work” is union work.


Theresa · January 27, 2011 at 10:46 am

Thanks for your cogent defense of unions. The labor union has been so thoroughly dismantled and undermined by business interests that we are actually returning to the conditions that made unions necessary in the first place.

Nicole · January 27, 2011 at 1:12 pm

The Hartt School, where I earned my Master’s, does not see this problem much because there is a dedicated office – the Gigline – which sets the rates, handles the paperwork, tries to ensure quality control by setting standard professional expectations, and takes a commission. Not do students get gigs, but it is a real asset to the school in becoming indispensible in the community. It never occurred to me to think of it as a union; I always saw it as a contracting service. This may have been a good learning experience for the students, but after having gotten accustomed to the Gigline, I feel kind of appalled that any music school would a) allow students to blindly fend for themselves, and b) not take advantage of the easy community- and image-building.

Ramon Ricker · January 27, 2011 at 3:38 pm

Nicole–At Eastman we also have a gig service and it serves the Rochester community and the students very well. It also has a set of policies and guidlines. But students, of course, are free to find work wherever they please, and to charge what they want. This is where the undercutting can come in.

Cindy Baker · January 28, 2011 at 12:54 am

A similar phenomenon was happening amongst players here in the actual Wild West (Phoenix, AZ); I think it was on Craig’s List. Players were bummed about how they were being treated and were talking about forming an association. I think one of our local’s board members joined the conversation and told them about the union.

I would be interested in thoughts about these school gig services, though.
We have had some serious issues with the line between them being a service to students vs. competing with, and undercutting- thereby depriving of livelihood- the professional musicians in the area. Wouldn’t it be better all around for students to take advantage of the special student rates for membership and join the AFM early on? Would a school seriously spend precious resources to go after a purchaser who tried to welch on payment or ask the students to work overtime for free, play in poor conditions, etc.?

Paul Judy · January 28, 2011 at 12:31 pm

I would think that a group of music students providing musical services would wish and prefer to be free to charge whatever fee they believed served their time, talents, costs, and objectives. The fee of one group might differ from that of another, and why not? Different customers have different ideas as what they want and what they value. If a prospect for services is making a selection solely on price, then maybe that is not someone one wants to serve, particularly over the longer term. On the other hand, I might be willing to take a lower price to build my relationships and experience, or because I had lower costs, or for any other reason. I don’t know why I would want to surrender the freedom to price my services as I see fit as opposed to being governed by some central agreement and amorphous group.

Ramon Ricker · January 28, 2011 at 2:45 pm

Thanks for your post, Cindy. Let me be clear about the Gig Service at ESM. It is only a service that helps connect ESM students with persons who want to hire a musician. It is not a contracting agency. The students are free to charge whatever they want, and I agree with you that there is too much work to be done use school resources to look after student gigs.

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