The former federal secretary of the Musicians’ Union, Terry Noone, recently penned an article arguing that musicians have been the canaries in the coalmine when it comes to the degradation of workers’ rights.
Fantasia for two espresso machines and flute, by Hans Orff.
The gist of his contention is that a basic outline of workers’ rights in Australia were established in 1907 in what is called the Harvester case. Justice Higgins made the point that wages should be sufficient to maintain workers and their families in “frugal comfort”. It was an idea derived directly from Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum.
Noone went on to argue that such “frugal comfort” has been progressively denied to musicians. Once protected by basic labour protections, musicians are now preyed upon by employers who pay them nothing (and sometimes insist they actually pay for the PA), while pretending to be doing them a favour by providing them with exposure.
We see the same kind of predatory behaviour with so-called talent shows in which aspiring musicians are assured that if they dig deep enough into their wellspring of deep emotion and unbending determination, then they can “make it”. It is all rubbish of course. The purpose of the spectacle is cruelty; a kind of modern, sanitised version of feeding victims to the lions.
Noone’s dreary observations, made on the Eureka Street website, are not new. But what is interesting is to observe some of the responses.
The first was to deride the idea of music being a job: “Music ain’t a job! I remember when musos, like cricketers and footballers, played because they loved their music and their sports and worked in ‘proper’ jobs for their sustenance. Then the exploiters arrived, making money out of the amateurs’ talents.”
This is not true. Music has been a job since Bach was paid by the Lutheran Church to produce his marvels. It has also been part of cultural life, and that is not necessarily attached to remuneration. Had it not been a job, we would not have the glories of Beethoven or Mozart.
The next telling response was to say that the discounting of the “job” is sophistry: “There was a time when farming wasn’t a job, nor making spears. People can have hobbies like sport and music, but when businesses make money from the activity, and the athletes and artists give up valuable time in order to perform to a high standard, give me a good reason why they shouldn’t be paid for their abilities and performance.”
And this is the point that Noone is making. When money is being made, then music should be treated as a job worthy of reward, like any other activity that goes into making the business happen. Anything else is exploitation.
Then we have this response: “In my experience, musos perform because they love to perform, just like people write barely read novels or opinion pieces. In most cases, if music venues had to pay award rates they wouldn’t exist and therefore wouldn’t provide a stage for musos or writers to perform. Would you be happier with that?”
This is rubbish. The reality is that working musicians – those who have actually worked in places like pubs and restaurants (such as myself) – often do not enjoy themselves at all. In fact, it can be quite a miserable experience: being talked over, being drowned out by the espresso machine, being the subject of abuse, or, in one situation I found myself in, having a chair thrown at me.
The unfortunate fact is that there is a tendency to sentimentalise music, or to treat the experience of the vanishingly small number of people who actually do well out of it as somehow typical.
And even if musicians do enjoy themselves – and many of them do love the music, if not the situations in which they find themselves – so what? Imagine if cleaners said they really enjoyed their job. Would that be a reason not to pay them? Or a lawyer who feels a sense of worth from what he does?
As outlined by Justice Higgins, musicians do have a right to get paid something: to live in “frugal comfort”. If the business cannot afford to pay them, then don’t have them. That musicians are nearly always denied this right by smug proprietors deluding themselves that they are somehow doing the exploited a favour, is a complete disgrace.