Threadspotting – Working For Free?

I recently came across an old thread on the official Finale forum that I found interesting.  A successful professional composer asked for a little help.

I am looking for someone knowledgeable enough with Finale who would be looking for a class project. It would involved taking my midi files, already quantized in most part, except for a cello cadenza section, and printing a nice orchestral score. In return I can advertise the person’s name on my website . . .  and on forums, and give him a recording of the live performance of the work as soon as it is performed.

It raises an important question.  Since copywork like this takes a huge amount of time and effort, is this composer taking advantage of a student by asking him or her to work for free like this?  Many professionals reading the thread took issue.  One commented,

From my point of view, it would be equally valid for me to say, “Hey, I’m a great notator. Could one of you composer folk put some notes together for me to get on paper?”

Is your talent so much more valuable than mine?

It’s a good point and I have to agree in this particular case.  The MIDI realization the composer posted is a nice piece, but it’s over 8 minutes long.  Union scale for something like this would probably run into the thousands of dollars to hire a professional to do this notation.  While I don’t have a problem with a student engraver working for less, it seems as if this composer is asking a little too much for too little compensation.  A professional with experience doing this sort of work already knows the effort it will take to complete this project, a student really doesn’t have any idea what he or she would be getting into yet.  I don’t think a mention on a web site and a free recording is anywhere near fair compensation for the probably hundreds of or even thousand hours of work it would take.  Professionals who work with Finale regularly are much faster than someone just learning the software, so a student copyist would likely require a lot more time to complete it.

But beyond this particular situation, it is an interesting question to ask ourselves.  At what point do you say “no” to doing work for free?  The answer obviously depends on your current level of experience and such (professional, semi-professional, student training to be a professional, amateur).  The amount of work and the pleasure you can get out of also comes into play.

I must admit to working for free all the time.  In some cases, I do it purely for the fun of making music.  I think it was comedian Richard Belzer who made the point that jazz musician is one of the few professions around where someone will finish work and then willingly go someplace else and work for free.  I not only enjoy going to jam sessions, but I also sometimes perform with community groups or sit in with professional musicians simply for a little exposure or to give potential employers a sample of my abilities.  This is probably not uncommon for professionals.

But there does come a point of where the payoff (building a reputation, making new contacts) isn’t worth the effort, even for students.  It’s not uncommon for me to get contacted by people asking me if I can help them get a student ensemble to play at their event for “performance experience.”  Under certain circumstances (charity event, official university event, etc.) I might try to help, but most of the time I have to explain that music schools are in the business of training professional musicians and part of that training involves negotiating for fair compensation.  Many people seem to think that there is a coral of dressed up musicians just waiting for the opportunity to work for free.

Would you expect students in culinary school to cater your event without compensation for the “cooking experience?”  Should student musicians be any different?

Paul T.

Nice post, Dave.

There are a few interesting issues here that might also be worth mentioning:

1. People who “work for free” after a gig, like a musician going to a jam session, aren’t really analogous to, say, a plumber going to fix leaky faucets after a day at work. When you enjoy the work you do, you always cherish the time to engage with your work in a way that interests you and leads you to grow: any artist or creative craftsman (like an architect or a woodworker) reaps great benefits from engaging in their profession as a personal hobby as well as “for pay”.

We cherish the time to do what we want to do, on our terms, as opposed to doing the bidding of another person. Usually on a gig you don’t get to play the music you want to play: you’re playing what someone else wants to hear.

In the same way, an architect or a woodworker who is interesting in growing, learning, expanding their boundaries, etc, almost certainly has some of their own projects that they work when they aren’t fulfilling contracts for their clients.

2. There is also the issue of “work” that is paid for, but clearly offered by people who have no clue of the demands involved. Sometimes employers don’t seem to realize that what they’re offering is no better than unpaid.

For example, I spoke to a trumpet player (an established professional, and a professor) today who was asked to deliver a lecture to the local Duke Ellington Society. They asked him to come and present for two-three hours on all the trumpet players who played with Duke Ellington, including their histories and their musical styles. They also wanted him to demonstrate all these styles during the lecture.

They offered him $50 as pay.

How long do you think it would take someone to learn about every trumpet player who ever played with Duke Ellington, and then to learn to be able to distinguishably imitate, say, Bubber Miley versus Rex Stewart versus Cat Anderson?

Sometimes in my work I’m tempted to spend a lot more time than I should explaining to employers what demands certain types of work place on our shoulders.


“If we don’t place a value on our time and what we do, who will?” Is great statement but needs balance. Most of my gigs these days are “club dates” (I have not done a “society gig” in quite some time-they have seemed to dry up in my area). The club owners are struggeling to make ends meet. You have to work with them if you want to get your music out there. I went through a period of “no club dates, the club owners want to rip you off”. But people have so many other entertainment options out there these days. I try not to get taken advantage of, but we also have to look at what they can afford. Are we drawing people in? What can we do to bring more paying customers in etc. Now days, you can’t just show up, blow your sets, and expect to be paid when the joint is empty…

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