It's been one thing after another today. I just had a crying fit all over my poor boyfriend, who had just dropped by for a quick coffee, because I've decided to accept an out-of-town gig for two months this summer. On the plus side: the job sounds tailor-made for me (music directing and getting to perform, which is all too rare); making a connection with a talented Vancouver director (a BIG plus); getting to travel to a place I've never been. On the minus side: having to leave town for 2 months- granted it's better than the 5 months I'm usually away and it could lead to more work here in Vancouver, but I have to leave my band, my home and my guy, and with his erratic work schedule there's no guarantee he'll be able to make it out for a visit, much as he wants to. I can't shake the nagging feeling that I've failed in my commitment to stay in town, but the truth is... there's just not enough work here right now. I've put down some roots, made some connections, and I can truly say that my entrepreneurial side has blossomed since I've been back, but still. Not enough work.
Paid work, that is. A director called me up today, wanting me to do some work with the cast of a musical she's directing. She's been trying to pin me down for a while but it was a seven-week rehearsal period, which should've been my first clue... "I do have to mention that it's a volunteer position," she said matter-of-factly. "I mean, I'm not even getting paid."
"I've seen the stuff you guys do and I love your work," I answered, "but I can't commit to another project where I don't get paid right now. I'm freelancing to make a living and I'm struggling. I just can't." This would have been seven weeks of unpaid rehearsals on Sundays and Wednesdays for me; god knows how many hours that director is going to be putting in.
Tonight I close a show that I've been working on- as a performer and music director- since before Christmas. Almost three months since we started, and my total pay was less than a professional stage performer typically makes in one week. It's a quirky young company which is trying very hard to rise above its non-pro status and do some good shows... and against all odds, with a skeleton budget and a can-do spirit, they are doing good work. Most of the performers are a good bit younger than me, but not all of them. They work hard at their day jobs and then they come and do this show for the love of it and for a small honorarium. For most of them, it's a small bonus on top of their regular work; for me it's my rent money. I'm glad I worked for them and I'd do it again, but I simply can't afford to very often.
In contrast: Last week I was in Whitehorse, staying at the Best Western Hotel with a room (and two beds!) all to myself while my friend Russell had the room (and two beds!) next door. A friend and bandmate of ours had gotten a grant to fly us up there, put us up, pay us a per diem, pay her mother a fee to look after her toddler... all so we could rehearse and workshop some pieces of music she'd composed. It was glorious. No big report to fill out, no performance necessary (although we did two shows for the fun of it); seven days to make music and live comfortably while we did it. All thanks to my friend's initiative, and the Yukon government, bless them for nurturing their local talent. The luxury of getting up every day of that week knowing that I was being paid to do the thing I love most! Of being able to concentrate on one job and one job only instead of doing the usual job-juggling!
While we were up there I had a message from a musician I've worked with a lot over the years, a lovely man who pays a fair rate for all the recording sessions and concerts I've done with him. So-and-so wants me to play at an event to raise awareness for a bunch of social justice issues. Would you be available to play this gig with me? It's a voluntary thing but I can pay you twenty bucks. I took a deep breath and wrote back: I think I'll respectfully decline. I have a bit of an issue with social justice groups who can't pay performers. It's not just me who thinks this is wrong; I've had this conversation with some friends of mine who are far more left-wing and socially aware than me and they say the same thing: how can you be part of a left-wing organization and not see the irony in asking performers to volunteer their time and talents?
I could make the list longer: The singer who didn't pay me anything for hours of session work; the restaurants (and they are legion) who get bands to "pass the hat" for money and don't even give you a free meal; filmmakers who "have no budget" for music (but hey! It'll look great on your resume!)... But I also want to acknowledge the people who tried really hard to be fair: the singer who paid me my hourly rate for doing session work on his album, even though he's clearly struggling to scrape enough money together to get it finished; the radio personality who always pays generously for the session work I do for him; the small theatre company who only had "an honorarium" to pay me... an honorarium that turned out to be more than generous; every struggling restaurant and musician and theatre company who paid something, even if it wasn't much, because they know how hard it is.
I love what I do. I love playing for theatre companies, seniors' homes, and other musicians. I love writing songs, I love recording, and I love performing. I'm learning how to better exploit my skills to make money, whether it's teaching accordion privately, getting work at a music school or developing a custom-songwriting business (stay tuned for how that works out!). But let's get this straight: it IS work. And when I give you my time and my skill-set, you need to pay me. I can't say no more freebies, because every once in a while there's something that's impossible to resist, either because it'll pay off in the future, or because it's so fun/interesting/unique that it's worth doing. But in general I will no longer do work for nothing, and I will be very careful with how much time I give you if you can't pay much. We are all struggling, I get that. But your show/movie/album is not so important that it's worth exploiting me for.
The company I'm going to be working for this summer in the prairies contacted me tonight to work out contract details: without even having to negotiate I got a reasonable paycheque, a return flight, free accommodation and an assurance that there would be room for my guy to stay, should he want to visit. Although I'm still sad about leaving town I'm relieved that I'll be earning a decent living doing what I love.
Too bad there are so many people who seem to think that artists should be happy to create things for love, but not for money. Too bad that we artists are often the ones most guilty of perpetuating that idea.