“Working Musicians,” by Alpha Unit

One of the most recognized and beloved mandolin solos in popular music is in the final minute-and-a-half of the song that propelled Rod Stewart to fame as a solo artist – “Maggie May.” The mandolin part adds a touch of charm to a song about lust, love, and regret. But the musician who played it didn’t even get a proper credit in the notes on the album cover. Stewart had written:

The mandolin was played by the mandolin player in Lindisfarne. The name slips my mind.

His name is Ray Jackson. Stewart had asked him for a creative contribution to the song, and Jackson crafted the part on his Columbus acoustic-electric mandolin. He was paid £15 for his work, the standard Musicians’ Union session fee at the time. The song, and Rod Stewart, went on to make rock music history.

The standard session fee for a non-classical recording today is £120, a standard session running three hours. For 15 minutes of overtime, a musician is paid an additional £30.

Over here in the United States, a side musician gets $397 for a standard three-hour recording session. For 15 minutes of overtime, he or she gets an additional $66.

Naturally we think of musicians as artists, as do many musicians themselves. But musicians are very practical people. Since the late 19th century especially, musicians have made it known that they are ordinary working people with some of the same concerns as any other group of laborers.

Angèle David-Guillou writes of a seminal event in the history of musicians’ unions. It took place in 1893 in New York. A dispute had arisen between the conductor Walter Damrosch and the American National League of Musicians, which had been founded seven years earlier.

Against the union’s persistent demands, the conductor was employing a non-unionist Danish cellist in his orchestra. Damrosch was himself a member of the union and knew its rules all too well, as he had already been fined for a similar offense.

Spectacularly, during a representation at Carnegie Hall on the seventeenth of December 1893, as Damrosch raised his baton to signal the start of the concert, not one musician moved, leaving the room filled with an uncomfortable silence.

That was all the entertainment the audience got that night, as the concert was effectively canceled. The conductor was fined ultimately, and the Danish musician was dismissed. The power of the union had been established.

Whether it was praised or criticized, this act of resistance on the part of American artists had a resounding effect on professional musicians around the world. After all, it was the first time that musicians had so publicly stepped out of their artistic roles to become for a moment simple workers.

Historically, says David-Guillou, music didn’t have a commercial value. Court musicians would receive a pension to allow them to create freely. There was never a payment in exchange for production. “Only the vulgar street musician was paid for his song,” she writes. It was the industrialization of music that shook those conventions and forced musicians not only to put a value on their work but to fight for it.

The life of a musician had always been marked by struggle – and sometimes destitution. Competition only got worse as popular music grew more successful. Previously, traditional musical associations were able to control access to the profession. But amateurs now saw musicianship as an easy way to make money in a booming industry.

The entry of unqualified newcomers created competition between skilled and unskilled musicians, and wages, predictably, went down. Tavern owners figured that they could increase their clientele by providing music and other types of entertainment. But the welfare of their employees wasn’t a priority. As David-Guillou writes:

Musicians who were absent through illness often returned to work to find that someone else had replaced them for good. Amongst other things, rehearsals, which took several hours of the day, went for a long time unpaid. Of course, if musicians dared to protest against their treatment they were happily shown the door where many anxious candidates were waiting to replace them.

Because of their meager salaries, musicians would often have multiple simultaneous contracts inside and outside the trade. Engagements were mostly short-term, ranging from weekly to seasonal. Musicians were perpetually unemployed, and those who registered with agencies could end up owing the agent up to 25 percent of their earnings.

It was in this context that travel became an essential feature of a musician’s life. As they changed employers and colleagues on a regular basis, musicians saw that others were going through the same difficulties. This helped spread the unionist word.

Whether in Europe or the United States, musicians faced similar problems: the absence of a minimum wage, the way agencies operated, the absence of a standard contract, the difficult relationship with conductors and theater directors, competition from foreign musicians, and the treatment of “amateur” musicians. The concern about amateurs was especially divisive.

Untrained musicians were flooding the music market, which the most highly qualified musicians objected to. Some of their fellow unionists felt that the best solution was to include amateurs and semi-professionals, which would increase membership and actually enforce the establishment of a minimum wage, one of the principal demands of unions. The Amalgamated Musicians’ Union in Britain was the first union to specify clearly that “anyone practicing the art of music” could join, its General Secretary stating, “Good music does not mean classical music.” The Fédération des Artistes Musiciens followed suit.

American unionists had long seen musicians primarily as workers. The formation of the American Federation of Musicians in 1896 settled the issue of whether or not musicians should be able to go on strike. The 1893 Damrosch incident had been the turning point.

The American Federation of Musicians is the largest union of musicians in the world, with 80,000 members in the United States and Canada. Wherever music is performed, you’ll find their members. They work in orchestras and bands. They perform at clubs and festivals and in theater, whether on Broadway or on tour. You hear them on movie soundtracks, TV shows, and commercials. Of course they make a lot of the music we purchase or otherwise listen to.

The AFM’s Sound Recording Agreement sets minimum wages and working conditions for musicians who work on audio recordings both in the studio and in live performances that are recorded. Musicians also receive “new use” payments when their product is used in another medium – for example, when recordings are later used in films, TV, or commercials.

The AFM still has plenty of work to do to secure the rights of musicians to be compensated for their work. The union is deeply concerned about what it calls greed and profiteering in the music industry, which comes at the expense of those who create music. There are ongoing disputes over licensing agreements between record labels and streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, where everyone seems to be making money except musicians.

In Austin, Texas, the music industry generates almost $2 billion a year for the local economy, according to Veronica Zaragovia, but some musicians say they’re lucky if they leave a gig with $5 in their pockets. Local musicians are going without necessities like health insurance and are wondering how Austin will keep musicians in town if they can’t afford basic expenses.

Kalu James has been working as a musician in Austin for several years now and says that when he’s not at the club, he’s hustling to pay his bills. As he said:

Being a full-time musician means you have three other side jobs.

That’s one thing about the business that hasn’t changed.


David-Guillou, Angèle. 2009. Early Musicians’ Unions in Britain, France, and the United States: On the Possibilities and Impossibilities of Transnational Militant Transfers in an International Industry. Labour History Review, 74 (3). pp. 288-304.


Filed under Alpha Unit, Britain, Canada, Europe, France, Guest Posts, History, Labor, Left, Modern, Music, North America, Regional, Rock, Texas, USA, West

10 responses to ““Working Musicians,” by Alpha Unit

  1. Jason Y

    Being a starving artist is always a probable downside of choosing the profession. Who can count the hippie musicians in say NYC, Asheville NC, San Francisco or Austin Texas who roam around, waiting for the next big break that never comes…

    However, there are other ways to make a difference in music. Something that will at least make you feel like you’ve accomplished something meaningful.

  2. Jason Y

    Honestly speaking though, I think a lot of the crap that has, made it, is vastly inferior to some street stuff that didn’t make it..

    As Robert pointed out in other posts, Where are The Cranberries? Where is the real music out there? Where did it go? It’s more lost than the City of Atlantis…

    • TRASH

      Whites do not listen to European music anymore, sadly. COLLECTIVE SOUL, WHEEZER and even the BEASTIE BOYS could never be popular today much less LED ZEPPELIN.

      • Jason Y

        Actually whites not only don’t listen to white music, they don’t even listen to good black music. Where are the Staple Singers or Motown? You just got generic rap crap.

        • TRASH

          Blacks have not listened to Whitney Houston in 30 years and Motown in 50 years. Anything previous to Snoop Dogg is unknown to them.

          They are the first to ignore old black music like Miles Davis.

          I’m not even sure they remember Sugar Hill or early rap artists.

        • Alpha Unit

          Some of us are actually previous to Snoop Dogg.🙂

        • Jason Y

          Blacks have not listened to Whitney Houston in 30 years and Motown in 50 years. Anything previous to Snoop Dogg is unknown to them.

          They are the first to ignore old black music like Miles Davis.

          I’m not even sure they remember Sugar Hill or early rap artists.

          OK that explains all thier problems, not genetics or the environment.

  3. TRASH

    Anybody who lives in Los Angeles sees what happens to most aspiring musicians.

    • Jason Y

      Remember that scene on “Falling Down” where the bum asks Michael Douglas for money to get lunch, but then he gives him real food and the bum gets angry and throws it at him..? 😆 Funny.

  4. Pingback: Austin Texas Music Industry Jobs

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