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The Self-Employed Artist Trying to Survive in the Free Market

02/03/2016 05:42 pm ET | Updated Feb 03, 2016

An article I wrote last year entitled "What Do Opera Singers Actually Get Paid" has been making the rounds again on social media lately. The questions and problems posed by this article are ongoing, so seeing the article resurface gave me the impetus to want to continue the discussion. That, and the fact that I just re-binge-watched Mozart in the Jungle after it won big at the Golden Globes. Having lived for years in the artist filled apartment building featured prominently in the memoir by the oboist and author Blair Tindall on which the series was based, I had always been fascinated with both the book and the series. In re-watching, I was particularly appreciative of the fact that the series creators chose to focus on the huge challenges of donors and arts funding (they even frequently feature the ubiquitous donor parties and dinners), versus the amount of dedication and the sheer practice hours musicians spend on their craft.

I am always happy when these issues are brought to the attention of the general public, because I spend a lot of time trying to imagine solutions to a problem that feels like an impossible mathematical equation: How do we balance the amount of talent in the world of the arts in this country (specifically classical music and opera) with the seeming dearth of opportunities, the lack of funding for the arts, and the challenges all non-profit music organizations face in raising the funds to do their best work without either sacrificing their artistic integrity or going bankrupt? This ongoing problem is the reason I took a job at the Center for Contemporary Opera (I wanted to help make more operas happen), why I write these articles, and why I continue to sing and work with young singers. Well, the singing also pays my bills -- most of them anyway (more on that later).

One seemingly obvious answer would be to turn out fewer singers and musicians -- we now have a huge number of colleges and conservatories who graduate a lot of classically trained musicians who are very talented, capable and dedicated. But the problem with just slashing the number of voice or violin majors is two-fold: First of all; studying classical music in college actually creates people who are self motivated, hard working, disciplined, creative, and well rounded, and sending people with skills like that into society makes it a better place whether they make their living in the arts or not. Young people who train as artists are actually well suited to work in many varied industries because of the intense requirements from their training. And second, in a society where we value the arts less and less, we need as many people as possible who are ambassadors and appreciators of these art forms to help keep them vibrant, both as creators and as audience members and supporters.

But in the opera world especially, we have a system which poses extreme challenges to the many talented young singers who attempt to make it their profession. Instrumentalists, dancers and many actors can earn a weekly salary by either becoming a part of a company or working for several different companies each year that hire them as employees. The weekly salary means that instead of independent contractors, performers and musicians are considered employees for the short or long term, and this allows them access to things like health insurance and unemployment. It's true that many of these artists (ballet dancers and actors in regional companies for example) earn rather small weekly salaries, but the system itself definitely allows for more overall security. I know for me, when I was earning a weekly salary at the now defunct New York City Opera, even though it wasn't a huge amount, the regularity of the paychecks combined with the ability to qualify for health insurance and unemployment insurance made me feel so much more able to deal with financial hurdles, and made my tax returns a breeze.

A couple of months ago I was driving home from a rehearsal while on a gig, and was listening to NPR on the radio. There was an interview in progress with someone from Uber about an impending lawsuit brought on by a couple of their drivers who were suing because they felt that with the number of hours they worked, Uber should make them employees, not force them to be independent contractors. The gentleman representing Uber said that they were not worried about the lawsuit because most of the Uber drivers liked the flexibility of making their own hours and choosing how much or how little to work, but the interviewer pressed him with the question: "But what do you think this means for the future of the self-employed? I mean -- if employers aren't going to provide benefits to these hard working employees who work as many hours as full time employees, what will they do? How will they afford insurance? What about their retirement??" I had to laugh a little at her indignation only because I had just been sweating it out over trying to choose a health insurance plan for myself and my son that was decent out of the ones available to me on the marketplace, and was turned away from a specific pediatricians office near where we live because they don't accept any non-employer based insurance plans. I have found, despite success in the field, that saving for a retirement is a large challenge when you're always trying to play catch up with the expenses, both expected and not expected that one is faced with in this self-employed life: everything from housing on the road to traveling to auditions to the cost of learning a role with a teacher or coach to unexpected health problems that aren't covered or are out of network. I racked up some credit card debt the year I was contracted to sing an opera with a company who suddenly filed for bankruptcy before the start of rehearsals, watching my planned-for income vanish overnight, not to mention the time I took off to have my son -- no maternity leave, of course.

These financial issues all come into sharp focus when artists discover that while one moment they are expendable (how often do we hear "there are so many artists -- you could be replaced instantly!") while the next moment they are under scrutiny if they are deemed disloyal or "only looking out for themselves". Artists are naturally chastised and discouraged from canceling one contract when a more lucrative one comes along, even though the expenses of this career can often mean working at a very high level company for a month, followed by working a "day job" just to make ends meet, all while putting their rent, food, and even their singing lessons on their credit cards. Have you ever paid a coach or teacher with the Venmo App using your credit card? I have. However, producers certainly aren't getting rich either, and they usually pour their blood sweat and tears into making projects happen because they believe in them. Not to mention the fact that often, the most artistically interesting projects are not always the most lucrative ones.

What is the solution to this ongoing conundrum?

One idea is to make all contracts for artists weekly contracts, and to be able to have the contracts piece together to qualify for unemployment and health insurance, but this would be an enormous change in the opera world, and one which would require industry wide reform involving artist unions and companies, and would probably take a long time to enact. Also, there are perks for some of the highest earners to being an independent contractor, and not everyone would benefit from this model.

Another idea would be for the non-profit companies to partner with the universities and conservatories to find programs that are mutually beneficial. The schools with significant funding could assist in supporting the non-profit organizations in their communities, and in turn the companies could provide more community outreach and excellent opportunities for the students to gain professional experience, and to work with the professionals the companies employ. If schools and opera companies worked together, every community could have a stable of teaching artists going into the elementary, middle and high schools, exposing and educating the young people in the community to opera and preparing them for the performances they could then attend (Both schools and companies often have teaching artists, but imagine the possibilities if they combined forces).

I firmly believe that the creation of new operas is a very important component in keeping opera alive and viable and relevant. However, the contemporary opera projects are not always the best funded projects because they don't immediately appeal to the more typical opera audiences and donor bases. Thankfully there are companies and festivals working to shatter the misconception that opera must be somehow traditional to succeed, and I would love to see "Opera Labs" at every opera company that develop and produce new works side by side with the traditional repertoire, as we're seeing done successfully at companies like Fort Worth Opera Festival and Opera Philadelphia.

And finally, we should train our students to be both arts advocates and entrepreneurs. Students should learn how to bring arts awareness to their communities on their own, and should discover ways to create their own opportunities. If we are graduating students who are not only disciplined, well trained and creative, but also have the tools to share these skills with the broadest number of people, we will build a society, brick by brick, that values the arts and chooses to support them more fully.

We don't need fewer trained artists. We need to create more opportunities for them that allow them to earn a living. The fact that so many young people are interested in studying the arts despite all the challenges they face is something that should give us great hope, and something we should encourage, support and capitalize upon.

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