Toward a Working Musician’s Bill of Rights (part 1)

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I am a French hornist with two degrees in music performance. My career has gone from playing in orchestras, opera companies, and Broadway shows to arts administration and labor advocacy.

In these many roles, I’ve often been called to help musicians out of various problem situations. Sometimes I will shake my head hearing a musician’s nightmare gig story, because it reveals a troubling gap between what I think or assume they should know (or should have known), and what they actually know (or don’t know).

While it is unthinkable to encounter, say, a business school graduate who knows nothing about accounting or statistics, it is totally common to find a recent performing arts graduate who has been taught nothing about what their work is worth, what fair standards are, or what a contract is or means.

So this Working Musicians’ Bill of Rights is my attempt to create the most basic floor of expectations for emerging professional musicians. It is by no means definitive or complete, but is meant to start a conversation on basic treatment and expectations that all working musicians should look for and expect when evaluating opportunities to work in their field.

While some of these rights may seem obvious, my long career has taught me that some are not. Are they enforceable, can we magically demand they be agreed to by all musicians and employers? No we cannot — not in the field of music or many other workplaces. This is one reason unions exist (and more more on that in another article).

Also, must we insist on them? Or are there times when we may elect to waive some of these? Yes, we may elect to waive them if it makes sense for us to do so. As one example, I enjoy performing with a local wind ensemble for a fee of nothing; I donate my work. But this is a non-profit with no budget to speak of, which is spending what little income it takes in fulfilling a worthy mission. But I won’t donate my work — or more likely, play for a too-low wage — to play in an arena for an artist who is charging $200 a ticket, because someone else is making money on my work, in a for-profit marketplace.

It’s more about knowing that we have rights, and collectively considering what they should be. The greater work of making them a reality will follow, but acknowledging we have rights is a first crucial step.

So what should ‘normal’ look like, when musicians are respected for their work? Here’s my draft:

The Working Musician’s Bill of Rights (A Work in Progress)

  1. You have the right to be a working musician — even as you embrace your roles as a performer, healer, artist, creator, and entertainer.
  2. As a working musician, you have the right to be paid for your work.
  3. You have the right to know how much you will be paid, and for what work, before you accept a job.
  4. You have the right to know who you are working for.
  5. You have the right to be treated as an employee, when you are working as an employee.
  6. You have the right to meals, transportation, and lodging, when scheduling and location make them appropriate/necessary.
  7. You have the right to a safe, respectful, and harassment-free workplace.
  8. You have the right to breaks, defined work calls, and overtime.
  9. You have the right to ownership of your recorded work, and to consenting to your work being recorded.
  10. You have the right to say “no” to work offers which are not in alignment with your basic rights.

In part 2, I’ll go into more detail on why these are here, and what they mean. Until then, remember that while you are a player, an artist, a creator, a healer, a jammer and entertainer, you are also — first and foremost — a worker.

Michael Manley is a musician, writer, labor organizer and arts advocate based in Las Vegas, Nevada. His mission is to create a world of harmony and artistic transformation by educating and empowering musicians.

Connect with Michael on LinkedIn or joining the Empowering Musicians Facebook Group.