How many business op-eds have you read lately that talk about doing what you love? It doesn’t feel like work if you really care about it you know; just find your inner passion and really unleash it on a hungry business market and all things will flow from there.
It’s Labour Day. And on this day, I think it’s worth pointing out that the people who share this ‘advice’ are often people who have the exceptional privilege of doing so. Yes many of them ‘started from nothing’ and business people are certainly not the only ones to share this enthusiasm for ‘doing what you love.’ You might hear it from activists, artists, people who can claim some kind of higher calling for the work that they do.
What interests me though, is what these messages do to our perception of work and of value. There is a sense that because you like to do what you do, you don’t need to be compensated as much because it’s somehow a reward in itself.
No entrepreneur worth their salt would ever accept your haggling down the price of their product or service just because it’s what they’ve committed their whole life to doing. In fact the very opposite is true – they become expert at doing something they care about, and so they can charge more than those who are just putting in the time, because their product is better.
Why then, is it okay to haggle with musicians over the cost of their labour? Is it because music is fun? Is it because you can easily get some part-timer who practices perhaps once a week? Or is it because we all agree that no-one would pursue music unless they wanted a fun and easy ride? At an average income of 8K a year (yes, eight thousand a year, on a good year) this does not wash.
Oh, well it’s about talent.
Yes, the question of talent, a silly notion propelled by our addiction to biological determinism that suggests some inherent, foundational explanation for the ‘calling.’ Whether or not anyone is more adept than someone else at a certain task has no bearing on what you ought to pay them. None.
I’m just going to repeat that because we apparently live in a meritocracy (news: we don’t) and lots of people seem to think that pay scale should be related to talent. In fact, pay scale should be related to the amount of investment that goes in to a product. It is likely that someone with talent will still need decades of training to actually do anything with their skills. Musicians aren’t born knowing chord progressions, nor do they Socratically understand how to hand-make a reed (shout out to my Oboe pals!) it’s possible that they learn slightly faster than others, but ultimately, ‘talent’ helps guide life choices, such as which school to go to or what to do for a living far more than it predetermines success.
If a surgeon expressed a natural aptitude for dissection and anatomy (I leave to your imagination the grizzly details of how such an aptitude would be discovered) would you be more or less likely to pay that person for surgery, knowing that they practiced with their friends, every once in a while. Less? But this person is a genius! a Maestro! still squeamish? Good. We pay for experience, training and confirmation of excellence from peers.
Musicians who make a living at music study fucking hard. They work their asses off on weird schedules. They play until 1am and then drive all night to run music camps for your kids at 9am. The happy go lucky lifestyle you imagine comes much closer to opening a bakery at 4am and then leaving to serve cakes at a wedding – suit, tie after sweating all day near hot ovens – until 9 or 10 at night.
“Well my kids’ music teacher told me once,”
Don’t even continue that sentence. When I tell work stories, I share the funnest ones. The time I got to tour a place that manufactures Cyclotrons (they make pharmaceutical isotopes without nuclear waste) was a cool, fun day. It was also a really long, hard work day. It would bore you to tears to hear about my sitting at my computer or in meetings and then the traffic in getting there, it’s exhausting for me, so I don’t tell you that. Instead, I focus on the accomplishments, the fun stuff and it’s assumed the hard work comes with it.
On this day, take a moment to consider what goes in to a Master’s Degree in anything, let alone a specialized activity that requires it’s own muscle-memory, notation and ear-training. If you absolutely NEED a non-fiction proof-text, go with Gladwell’s Outliers. Think about what you’re paying for, and if you’re really reflexive, try thinking about the damage done by an industry that tells you a pop song is worth 99c or less, and that a whole album should only cost you less than ten dollars. Comparing that valuation with live music is definitely a mixed message, but it’s not up to the artists to bear the brunt of our sick way of valueing the arts.
Go to a show tonight. Pay for the music. If the club is passing a hat, put money in and then tell the manager to pay the musicians. If they’re not passing a hat, buy a few drinks and put your money where your mouth is.
We all deserve to be paid to do what we love.
Even musicians. (and writers)