Text by Dawoud Kringle
On Monday, 1/25/16, I attended the second public meeting of Musicians for Musicians (MFM). The regular DBDBD reader will recall my article about the first meeting wherein I mentioned that, as a milestone in the fledgling organization’s humble beginning, it was a successful first step. Now, MFM takes its second step.
MFM founder and president Sohrab Saadat Ladjavardi held court once again for the second meeting. The tradition of a musical interlude, started by Saadat at the first meeting, was led by Zikrayat leader Sami Abu Shumays. He led the participants in a vocal call and response that allowed the participants to experience firsthand the nuances of maqam based melodies.
There were a lot of new faces in the meeting. Among them was legendary musician Jimmy Owens (who’d played with Max Roach, Duke Ellington, Billy Taylor, Charles Mingus, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Hank Crawford and others). Additionally, I’d spoken to a few attendees of last month’s meeting who were unable to come, but asked me for a progress report.
Clearly, interest in MFM is building.
This meeting took the subject matter of the first meeting to inevitable depths of discourse. The prime issue that inexorably rose to the top of the discussion again and again was how to get past the simplistic idea that “making music is a profession” and how to actually tackle (or, in many cases, correctly diagnose) the problems facing musicians.
Musicians are all too often the victim of scams and dishonest business practices. Nobody in their right mind will argue this, and it’s almost too obvious to bear mentioning. This is often exacerbated by the fact that musical creativity is often accompanied by impractical business sense. It’s a problem musicians must learn to overcome. And of course, musicians will often simply play for pocket change, or for free just to play (not to mention the increasing locust swarm of “hobbyists;” i.e. doctors, stock brokers, and the like who take gigs from real musicians so they can pretend to be a rock star for a night or two). They sell themselves short and accept a devaluation of their work.
This has been a major point of contention for Saadat. He has been very outspoken about the need for musicians to realize that their work has monetary value and that they must insist upon getting their price.
This is all a perfectly admissible argument. The thing that happened at this meeting, however, was the utter redundancy of attempting to sell these people the base concept behind MFM (i.e. #MakingMusicIsAProfession) to people who have been professional musicians for decades. There was absolutely no need to convince anyone in attendance that they (or any other working musicians) are professionals. And beyond the simple mention of the fact of the existence of musicians whose work is undervalued by choice and consent, there was no real need to reiterate the point over and over. The attendees were too sophisticated and experienced to dwell on such redundancies.
The question of where to go from there was, thus, impossible to evade. And while no clear answer was arrived at, the question itself was examined in considerable detail, and with brutal honesty.
I couldn’t help but notice that there were no young musicians in attendance. This could simply be remedied by the passage of time, when MFM’s reputation reaches the young and up and coming musicians, and they find within MFM an incentive to participate. But it will prove, I believe, to be of supreme importance. The young ones often need to learn (without being lectured to; as this WILL drive them away) not to sell themselves short. But they are often the ones with the boldest and most innovative business ideas, and the strength and energy to make them work. Those of us who are older can learn from them, and vice versa – if we forego our own inflexability.
The presence of Stefan Andemicael (DJ and creative director of Meridian 23, the only non-musician in attendance) brought up many factors that musicians tend to ignore. While musicians are having a difficult time of things, so are the venues. The details of how venues make their money, and the present state of affairs wherein they are simply not making as much money as they had been from previously dependable income sources, must be factored into the equation.
This, combined with rising operating costs and rents, venues are forced to either accept whatever will bring in money, or cut out what they will see as superfluous or disposable services; such as live music. They are faced with less and less people going out to hear live music, and this means less revenue from music, and, by default, less money to pay musicians.
This is the other side of the game: the question of where do venues find the income to justify the cost of live music, and how much responsibility do the musicians have in making this happen. It’s clear that being a talented and skilled musician is not enough; one must be able to attract an audience who is willing to pay to hear them. And if the venues go out of business, for whatever reason (some of which have nothing to do with musicians), where do the musicians go to play their trade?
In other words, while a musician’s work has value, how does this value translate into the incentive for people with disposable income to purchase our musical services / products? A venue MUST derive profit from the live music they present, or they will have no money to pay the band, or even cover their own increasing operating costs (the question of greed or dishonest business practices among club owners is another matter entirely).
Consider also the difficulty of a young up and coming musician attempting to get paid in a market wherein there is a surplus of good (or at least competent) musicians; many of whom are willing to work for free, or for tips.
These are big problems. If MFM is lecturing that “making music is a profession,” then MFM has, by default, assumed the moral obligation to go a step further by not only teaching musicians HOW to get paid, but also to work towards creating a business model that enables this to happen. These are all issues that are as difficult to answer as they are inescapable. MFM’s greatest weakness at this time is that it has not yet done so, and has only an outline of a plan on how to do it.
One early point of contention among the MFM board was whether musicians are employees or independent contractors. In other words, there was (and remains) some ambiguity concerning how MFM defines musicians as professionals. The Local 802 Musicians Union concentrates its services towards orchestra and Broadway musicians. And this unionized situation has worked for them for decades, simply because they are employees. A violinist with the New York Philharmonic or a trombone player in the pit with The Lion King are employees. This definition, however, is not applicable to the improv saxophone player whose band is playing the 10pm spot a week from Tuesday at Nublu or the sarod player headlining at the Brooklyn Raga Massive weekly residency.
MFM’s position is that most musicians outside the union are classified as “independent contractors,” and are not protected by the same legal rights as employees. This is a perfectly admissible argument. They want musicians to have these rights when engaged to perform at a venue. This, however, could potentially disempower musicians because 1. their own creativity would be subject to the dictates of the venue, because they are employees, 2. it presupposes the idea that the musicians are performing for the venue, and not for the audience, and 3. it offers musicians absolutely no incentive to work toward building an audience and achieving the power that autonomy offers (not to mention the creative innovations that drive independent and autonomous artists). Furthermore, how could independent and up and coming bandleaders pay their band members wages under a model similar to that of the union, and expect to survive? How does the power and autonomy of the bandleader who must function as an independent contractor (a business model inescapable and impossible to eliminate) survive under the centralized authority MFM is proposing? One is forced to question how MFM advocates for, and works to insure legal protection to, musicians as independent contractors.
None of this even begins to address other variables, such as the different kinds of venues (i.e. clubs, theaters, festivals, universities, house concerts, etc.), recordings, streaming, downloading, music licensing, merchandising, travel and lodging for touring musicians, insurance, and other potential revenue streams for musicians. There are a lot of variables, and no easy answers to any of this.
Another point that was brought up at the meeting was that individual musicians are often adept at setting up workable and profitable business models for themselves. Many musicians are capable of building their own autonomous fiefdoms wherein they are holding down their own territory against the corporate hordes seeking to plunder them or force them into irrelevancy and extinction. A great many musicians are experimenting with different and unusual (or at least solidly and cautiously practical) business models that are showing signs of success.
Which of course, brings up the inevitable question that all musicians must ask: “what’s in it for me?” There’s no way around it; musicians want, and need, to fill their pockets just like anyone else.
MFM’s website (musiciansformusicians.org) mentions some services it plans on availing to musicians: advocacy for members, online networking and music resource directory, festivals, workshops, access to local venues, discounted services for members, etc. Very little of this was mentioned at the meeting. Nor was it explained in a way that was at all attractive to the attendees.
One of the perks of membership that MFM made is a networking and referral service. This itself is a great idea, and one that can work as a centralized database accessible to everyone. The problem is, it does not exist. And it is the members themselves who are expected to actually create the database. If I misinterpreted the situation, I owe MFM an apology; but this is how the situation presents itself.
There is also the question of what incentive MFM has to offer to musicians whose business model is working for them. The alternative MFM offers to isolated individuals and groups here and there for what is working (and paying the rent and bills) is, at this point, ambiguous at best. Their reaction should surprise no one.
The music business is in a disastrous condition. What worked three years ago does not work now. There seems no clear direction for any of this to go. It’s a free for all wherein chaos reigns supreme. All the pieces are in random access, waiting for someone to organize it and show how to grab your own piece of a pie that’s still baking in the oven—and nobody seems to know what kind of pie it is! The business end of music now almost requires more creativity, innovation, and improvisational skill than the music itself.
So, what to do?
Developing a set of business models that have no precedent may be our only hope for survival. And it is a set; an aggregate of different models and processes that do not resemble each other. From a historical perspective, the most successful music business models have been from the rule breakers, the ones who broke away from the collective and rewrote the rules to their own liking.
MFM is, theoretically, attempting to unite them as a collective. While there may be some theoretical advantages to this, there is yet no clear plan on how to do this. And beyond the general idea of strength in numbers, MFM has failed to offer a clearly defined reason as to why musicians should surrender their own autonomy to what appears to be (and insinuates the behavior of) a centralized authority. If an aggregate of business models of varying degrees of workability that do not resemble each other and whose methods of operation are incompatible with each other are all struggling for survival in a chaotic and unpredictable environment, how will a centralized collective provide them with the promise of the return on their investments?
And how does one convince musicians to work under this socialistic model in a neo-capitalist economy with diminishing returns on investments wherein the only measurable incentive is entirely idealistic?
In the past, the corporate power brokers almost always succeeded in uniting (or, perhaps assimilating is a better word) the aforementioned renegades by either seducing or forcing them to abandon their idealism in exchange for financial expediency. It works both ways. It is arguable that, looking at a long term prognostication, MFM may one day be faced with the choice of adjusting its own idealistic principles to achieve its economic and political objectives.
This writer has difficulty describing the Herculean nature of the task Saadat has, with the noblest of ideals and intentions, taken upon himself. He is standing, practically alone and with few resources, against both a terrible injustice and pitiful social mindset by founding what could potentially be a great organization. However, at this point, while MFM has begun the jihad of breaking up an ingrained and self destructive zeitgeist among a great many musicians, it has a somewhat abstract idea about what to replace it with. At this early stage of its existence, things are at a turning point: the musician contemplating potential membership in MFM is looking for nothing less than a concrete and detailed set of objectives, and a workable plan by which these objectives may be achieved – with some real guarantees of tangible remuneration. If anything was achieved at this meeting, it was the revealing of this inevitable fact.
If MFM fails or refuses to evolve beyond the politically emotional and intellectually indefinable confines of the slogan #MakingMusicIsAProfession, the total collapse of the MFM project may be inevitable. This would be a tragedy, and a loss for the whole New York City music scene.