When’s it OK to ask musicians to work for free?

For sure it’s not when the person asking has raised $1.2 million for her new album but doesn’t want to pay back-up musicians on the road. Fortunately for all concerned, she (very grudgingly) changed her mind after considerable public outcry.

Many AFM locals had a prohibition in their bylaws about members working for free, at least without the approval of the Local. The intent was both to prevent pressure from being put on musicians to work for free and to make sure that the principle that performing music should be paid work was upheld. And, when most performers were members of the AFM, that was a principle that could be enforced.

But fundamentally it’s a moral issue and not an economic one. My own view is that the only time it’s appropriate for someone to be asking for free services from musicians is when everyone involved is being treated equally; ie not being paid. That would include anyone working as staff or stagehands or anything else. I’ve asked colleagues to perform with me on a benefit for a non-profit; in that case, the only financial benefit was to the non-profit. But if one or more participants is/are seeing either a financial benefit or a career boost that other participants aren’t seeing, it seems unfair to me that the rest should be asked to subsidize that benefit by their free labor.

I’ve often suspected that the reason that the people who become conductors actually get to develop their skills at the beginning is because they’re ones with the chutzpah to ask their friends to become a practice tool for no pay. That would explain a lot about some conductors I’ve known, including why some of them aren’t very good. Conductors are a self-selected population, and that selection process requires some character traits that have no connection at all with talent or musicianship. I wonder just how much conducting talent lurks unrecognized in our field because those in who the talent resides aren’t pushy enough to get experience.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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