The NFL jumps the shark

While this story doesn’t have an exact analogy in our business, it’s nonetheless revealing of a phenomenon that has begun to appear in our field:

The NFL reportedly asked Katy Perry, Rihanna and Coldplay, their top choices to play the 2015 Super Bowl Halftime Show, if they would be willing to pay the league in order to secure one of the biggest gigs in the world, according to The Wall Street Journal.

When reaching out to artists, league representatives asked some acts if they would exchange a headlining slot for a portion of their post-Super Bowl tour earnings, or make another type of financial contribution to the NFL. Sources told the Journal that the suggestion, perhaps unsurprisingly, “got a chilly reception from the candidates’ representatives.”

It’s fair to note at the outset that all of the people involved in this story are rich beyond the dreams of avaricious orchestra musicians: all of the musicians have net worths credibly reported to be over $100 million, the NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, is paid $30 million annually, and virtually every NFL team makes annual profits of tens of millions. Having said that…

This is not a story about musicians being underpaid; headlines performers at the SuperBowl half-time show aren’t paid at all (although it does appear that travel and production expenses are covered by the league, and these are not insubstantial). They do it for the exposure. That’s normally a bad argument for musicians to work for free, but it could well be a rational choice for headliners in this particular stratosphere.

What I found disturbing was that the NFL, a phenomenally profitable enterprise (and one that doesn’t pay taxes, due to its 501(c)(6) status) was trying to sweep in even more profit by asking people not only to work for free but also to share the benefits of the resulting exposure. Isn’t working for free enough? Aren’t phenomenal profits enough? Apparently not. In words that most orchestra musicians will find familiar:

It is the same spirit that says, ‘You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.’ No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.

…even it’s from the mouthpiece of one group of rich people as an apology for exploiting another group of rich people.

There’s an old-fashioned word for this kind of behavior; it’s “unseemly.” I find it hard to imagine that any large enterprise in the public eye would have even thought of trying this 30 years ago. It’s yet another example of how norms that used to limit behavior that “just wasn’t done” are falling apart.

I think the erosion of such norms largely explains what happened in Minnesota in 2012 and 2013; locking out musicians is something that would have been beyond the pale before the dawn of the new century. I wonder if the idea that wealthy people are supposed to give back to the community is a norm that’s fading as well, especially as wealth is increasingly accumulated at the very top of the economic scale and passed on to heirs. That would not be good for orchestras, or indeed much of the rest of the social infrastructure that mitigates the excesses of unbridled capitalism. Norms are not laws, but they’re just as important in terms of holding societies together. Most human relations, and most institutions, are predicated on people behaving better than they are legally required to do.

On the other hand, I wonder if the NFL is interested in a solo viola recital for half-time? I’m sure I could be transported and housed for less than Coldplay (although I would want a bowl of M&Ms with alto clefs printed on them in my dressing room), and I’d happily share the proceeds of any follow-on tour with the NFL. We could split the net on any resulting sales of Hindemith bobblehead dolls as well; that would only be fair.

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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  • “This is not a story about musicians being underpaid; headlines performers at the SuperBowl half-time show aren’t paid at all”

    It is in part methinks. While the headliners were balking at this “pay to perform” attitude on the part of the NFL, the musicians who back-up these headliners don’t have 100 mil net worths and often times they receive little or nothing for these shows. Many times it is the “price of admission” to be in someone’s touring band to then do “pre-records” for a Super Bowl and not be paid or paid far less than scale…. and certainly most never are covered by Pension or Health Care benefits by way of a contract.
    After all, if Katy Perry is receiving nothing, why should you? Maybe the artists will start sharing their concert revenue with their bands…though seemingly the NFL is more entitled?

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