American Freelance Musicians on Surviving the Pandemic
One chapter in Virgil Thomson’s 1939 book, The State of Music, is titled “How Composers Eat, or Who Does What to Whom and Who Gets Paid.” Thomson identified the subsequent means both clearly and derisively: “A surprisingly large number of composers are men of private fortune… the number of those who have married their money is not small.”
Notwithstanding his glibness, Thomson saw the industry around him, and the fates of the musicians who work within it, in an all-too familiar way. “They have engagements or they don’t,” he wrote. “If they don’t, they take pupils. If they can’t get pupils they starve. If they get tired of starving they can go on relief. Unemployed musicians of high ability and experience are shockingly numerous in America.”
Ah Virgil, if you only knew. America in 2020 is awash in an unprecedented number of unemployed musicians. Live performances are cancelled and concert halls temporarily shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. These events won’t be allowed until sometime in 2021—if not later. Playing in one, or several, ensembles and/or giving regular solo performances is how most musicians make most of their money (a truth in both the mainstream of standard classical repertoire and ensembles and in the more nimble world of new music). There are very few salaried union positions in the country, and even many of those are not currently paying their staff. As most musicians are freelancers, they are trying to solve for the present while also imagining the future without concerts. It’s the eternal question: How to eat?
One such musician is the cellist and composer Zoë Keating. She plays solo or guests with such artists as Imogen Heap and Amanda Palmer, and has released a half dozen albums and EPs. She has also composed for films, television shows, and commercials. Keating is unusually outspoken about how she earns money as a musician, especially the rates that streaming services like Spotify pay artists. Live concerts are the bedrock of her career.
“I always kept track of where my income was coming from, really analyzed to see how much of it was live—live music was the bulk of my income,” she says on the phone from her home in Vermont. “In 2019, live music was 50 percent of my gross income, composing 20 percent, royalties and streaming made up rest.” She’s only just now getting syndication payments from work she did the previous season for European television.
Half of Keating’s income has disappeared: All of her concerts for 2020 are cancelled. Events have been postponed as far ahead as a year. Deals are being restructured. How that might turn out is a mystery. “I prefer to play at independent venues,” she says. “It was devastating when the Great American Music Hall was sold; [it’s] exerting downward pressure on contracts.” (In early 2019, a company called Goldenvoice took over booking at the historic San Francisco venue. Goldenvoice promotes commercial events like the Coachella Valley Music Festival and is owned by the AEG media conglomerate).
Keating tries to be as independent as possible in her career. She explains what that means for live bookings: “If you are an artist with a track record, you can get a guarantee. There’s a trade-off between that and an excess on sales, then it’s on the promoter to fill the room. If you’re willing to take some risks, you should get a higher percentage in the end, so I like to take a percentage deal.”
She’s not confident that will work as well in the future, though: “I think artists are going to be asked to take percentage deals in 2021 with no guarantees, and it’s going to come off the promoters net, so the artist will be taking all the risk, and not getting all that much. Suddenly, I’m going to be making many thousands less. And the promoters and venues are going to collude,” she continues, “so there won’t be any negotiating. And so many venues are going to close. Will there ever be a vaccine? We’re all just waiting it out.”
Keating has been composing, but she’s also raising a son by herself. “I’m a little dead in the water until school gets sorted out,” she says. That, like concerts, is likely to also depend on a vaccine. In the meantime, she’s trying to figure out what she can do. “My concerts are the equivalent of church,” she explains. “It’s hard to think of going a whole year without playing live. And the live-streaming is not doing it for me. I think doing micro-streams might work, playing a couple songs for a few people and connecting with them. It’s the idea of house concerts on the internet. Income—we’ll see. The main thing is just to have the event.”
She adds, “I’m used to things not working. Every door is always closed, so I’m always trying things.”
Another cellist trying to figure out the present and the future is Chicago-based Seth Woods. He has been a featured player and soloist with ensembles across the world, including the Ictus Ensemble, the Basel Sinfonietta, and the Seattle Symphony. He also teaches part-time on the performance faculty at the University of Chicago. That position has been a vital backstop for him. When the coronavirus hit, “everything else quickly evaporated,” he says.
Unsurprisingly, the “bulk of my income comes from live [playing], so that took a lot [away], I have to be careful with things,” he tells me. Especially so since, with his academic position, he’s not eligible for unemployment insurance for the freelance gigs he lost.
“Most things have been postponed until next year, which will be interesting. Some places are still paying partial fees,” he says, on contracts for events that have been postponed.
Woods was Artist-in-Residence with Seattle Symphony through June. His guest appearances counted as freelance gigs; he’s not a member of any permanent ensemble. Even though the university is closed, “private lessons have continued, individual instruction has continued on Zoom or Skype,” he says. “Chamber music coaching has been more difficult, but I had a few duos that were quarantined together.” That meant they were available for virtual playing and coaching.
But he’s not confident that will continue.
“Disparities were made apparent because of [COVID-19],” he points out. “Just because everyone has a smartphone doesn’t mean they have the same access and resources. What about students who went home and have siblings and parents? Roommates? Not everyone has a laptop.”
Woods is exploring new modes of performance, without audiences. The university connection is vital. “Lots of presenters are looking for ways to perform, the university is turning a space into a way to document, edit and present performances, so that it becomes a new experience,” something live but different than sitting in a concert hall, he tells me.
Like Keating, Woods is thinking about what it means to be a solo performer who has to literally play alone. He acknowledges the good fortune he has in being able to access university resources. He has the financial space to wonder, “Which things are right for me?”
Zach Finkelstein is a tenor and the creator of the blog The Middleclass Artist. Through that, he has been a visible and vocal agitator for the economic rights of freelance musicians—especially those who lost gigs and contracts due to coronavirus shutdowns. Several of his posts, driven by independent research, have been crucial in bringing to light and fighting against the force majeure provisions of many freelance contracts, which allow cancellation without remuneration for unusual circumstances.
“This spring I had 11 contracts,” Finkelstein says, adding that those contracts are usually prospecting opportunities as well—opportunities to network and drum up new gigs. “All cancelled,” he says. “Calgary Philharmonic furloughed 84* employees. How can you fly me out as a soloist when you don’t even have an orchestra?”
For Finkelstein, live music is the bulk of his musical livelihood. He also holds down a day job as a senior market research manager. He has been singing professionally for nine years, in ensembles and as soloist in pieces like Handel’s “Messiah.”
“I also have my second album in my hand; it was ready in April,” he says. He was planning on raising money to distribute it. But, after COVID-19, he explains, “I just didn’t have the heart to start a Kickstarter campaign when everybody was losing work.”
As in Virgil Thomson’s time, many musicians are on their own. MiddleclassArtist heard from less than 100 opera companies in North America, saying they are paying out partial fees for contracts—that’s out of a possible total of 1800.* “Some churches kept on staff singers, but contracts are so lopsided against the artist, it’s really up to the presenter,” Finkelstein explains. Some musician-led advocacy did lead to better conditions for artists. But, he adds, “the case is if you want to not pay people, you’re going to get away with it.”
Like most artists, Finkelstein is also facing the limits of streaming media. “There’s so much going on all the time. We’re all releasing content at the same time,” he says. “It’s a real challenge to make a name online, and to break through the soundscape of all these great artists putting out free content.”
Still, Finkelstein is also considering solutions. “I think people need to create their own platforms away from the existing concert presenters,” he says. “We definitely have to fix our contracts, but that’s really up to the gatekeepers, the administrators and union representatives. I’m trying to get people paid for the work they’ve done.”
He points out a key and often invisible feature of the life of freelance musicians: the sunk costs of preparing and rehearsing. “I don’t think people realize how much work goes into preparation, and [that] rehearsals are not paid. If something gets cancelled, pay the artist some percentage of the contract,” he says. After all, they’ve already given part of their labor.
But ultimately, as Finkelstein points out, the survival of North American companies isn’t up to him or like-minded artists. “Policy and people, we’re not working together,” he says. “I really fear for classical music in America. We’re a slow-moving art form, not particularly able to adapt to change.”
Speaking from Berlin, the American reed player and composer Ken Thomson was both more fatalistic and more sanguine. Another freelancer, Thomson plays in some of the leading new music ensembles, directs his own jazz group, and writes music for himself and for other bands. His income consists of three streams as clarinetist, saxophonist, and composer, in both the worlds of new music and jazz. All freelance. “The only thing left right now is composing,” he says.
He usually doesn’t teach, because he’s been too busy as a member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars and a regular guest with ICE, Alarm Will Sound, Ensemble Signal, and Trinity Wall Street (80 percent of his income was live gigs, many with the ever-busy All-Stars). Those gigs were cancelled, as well as those for Thomson’s own ensemble and a recording session.
That Thomson is in Berlin during his hiatus had to do with family: His wife is German, and they decided to raise their kids in a new environment for a year or two. What will come next is unclear.
“I’m hoping musicians will have careers again. Maybe in a couple years we’ll be able to right the ship,” he says. “At the beginning I was optimistic, but now we’re starting to see a lot of clubs closing.” He points out a Kickstarter for basement venue (Le) Poisson Rouge, a linchpin of the vibrant new music scene in New York. They raised $54,000, which is less than one month’s rent. “Unless someone comes in from an institution and saves the day,” he adds, “we’re going to have to start from scratch.”
Unlike many musicians, Thomson has still been performing, playing at First Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn Heights, which has been paying musicians to create content for their online services. “They’re actually getting subscribers. It shows that something can work. If a few more things like that can come through, maybe I can pull something together.” But he’s also quick to point out that unemployment insurance is finite and PPP loans will need to be repaid.
All this uncertainty leaves Thomson questioning his own purpose: “I like ensembles and bands,” he says. “What am I going to do, write solo pieces? We’re all in this pause; we don’t know what to do with our projects. We’re just sitting around, maybe [until] 2022. We’re so performance driven.”
Thomson sees this as a wake-up call for composers to change their approach, and look to electronic artists for inspiration. “The kind [of performer] who can realize their work immediately probably feel right at home,” he explains. “If they’re been criticized for not doing live performances, now they’re in the right situation.”
It seems like the entire edifice is teetering. If you can’t pay musicians, you can’t get live music. And, as Thomson points out, culture, while a major economic sector, will likely be one of the last to restart after the shutdown.
Which brings us back to Virgil Thomson. As a composer in the middle of the Great Depression, Thomson scored two Works Progress Administration-funded films, “The River” and “The Plow That Broke the Plains.” During a period of massive economic hardship, the American government directly supported the cultural economy. Ah, Virgil, if only you knew. ¶
*Corrections 2/8/2020: An earlier version of this article misstated the size of the Calgary Philharmonic: it has 84 players, not 100. A statement by Finkelstein on opera companies in North America paying out partial contracts was updated to clarify that less than 100 companies responded affirmatively to his inquiries.