Is concerting without asking for payment unethical?

Years ago (my last concert was in 2017) I played without asking to be paid. Organizations were happy. In two cases organization insisted they wanted to pay and I asked them to donate to charity instead.

Then a friend of mine, a professional baroque music singer, reproached me saying it was unethical. He said that doing this way it would become normal and accepted to ask musicians to perform without being paid, just for visibility. This has been and still is a constant behaviour from concert organizations, at least in Italy. Even the Italian government some years ago ran a campaign named “open museums” where the museums stood open all night, and musicians and groups were invited to perform but with no payment nor reimboursement if exepenses at all.

Furthermore, my friend said that an amateur playing free is taking the place of a paid professional, thus being unethical.
I don’t think this can be possibly true, as the difference between an amateur and a professional should be very distinguishable, but who knows, maybe concert organizations think otherways. However what I do know is that I don’t like free-entrance concerts, both as a player and a listener. Then I should refuse to play, if I want to be coherent. I feel confused, I don’t know what to think. Am I truly taking the place of a paid professional? Is all this truly unethical?
Maybe this an all-Italian issue…

Unethical to do things out of the kindness of your heart? Such nonsense people do go on with. A warped attitude. If he is so worried about his job perhaps he should choose an alternate career. Tosh.

I know an organist who is wealthy (married into wealth) and gets
prestigious jobs by underbidding organists who actually need the money.
(The jobs aren’t actually put out for bid, of course, but if someone
shows up and offers to do the job for free, financially strapped
institutions will sometimes accept.)

Years ago I was in a situation where I would willingly have taken a specific church organ job without fee. After all, I had a good day job, and it was God who gave me the talent that got me the job offer, and I should thank him in this way. But, after thought, I realised that the church would get used to having a free organist, and when the time would come for me to move on, and they had to find a replacement, the expected salary would be a shock to them. So I allowed them to pay me and to give me regular increases; BUT I returned the money privately as my gift to the church. This satisfied everyone.

So, to Dom’s quandary, I think that musicians should be paid what they are worth, without expecting them to play for no fee. It is then up to them to return the fee as a donation to the organisation if they see fit to to do so.

In connection with this, Klemperer told the story of being expected to conduct without fee in Israel. The argument put to him was that Koussevitsky, who was a Jew, always conducted there without fee. Klemperer replied: I am a Jew also, But I am too Jewish to do that!


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When I moved back from London to Buenos Aires, once I had my Hubbard kit working, I started to play it in public. Also sometimes for minor continuo work borrowing a low-cost small Sperrhake. I got paid, not handsomely, but paid.
After scarcely a decade, harpsichords (many of them awful replicas, but a few good Italian things) became very popular, young pianists started playing them, and the offer for harpsichordists was so impressive that, within an ensemble, the harpsichordist was NOT paid! Why pay if they were available for free?

I never accepted such a thing, and often I got paid and told “do not say we paid you, most people do not get pay for playing the harpsichord!”.

Yes, I believe it is unethical to play for free in a venue where musicians should be played. Being an amateur is no excuse: you get to play not because you play good or bad, but because you play for free, taking away work from professionals.

Well, it is not open and shut but you can ask two things …

  • Is the person or organisation putting on the concert willing to pay? If so, taking the money or diverting it to charity is fine, you are not ‘undercutting’ anyone.

  • Whom does the event primarily benefit? If it’s just for the musicians’ benefit in the first place, the musicians can decide if they want payment (financial benefit) or not (intangible/moral benefit). If it’s for another organisation then you have to think more carefully. What people want but do not pay for, they may not value.

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Yes, I should have told you these other details:

  • The concert is free-entrance, so the organization is not making any money from there.
  • I don’t know if the organization gets any public funding for this particular concert or for the whole concert series.

I agree wholeheartedly with your last sentence, and this is why I think public should pay to attend the concerts, even a small sum.
In this particular case I’d say the benefit is all of intangible/moral nature, both to the players and the organizator, who is a player himself.

Claudio’s thinking coincide with the thinking of my friend. After all your precious contributions, I still don’t know what to think. Some days I feel I agree with Andrew, some days I feel I agree with Claudio.
David’s case is particular, once or twice I did the same and of course I agree with him, when that case arises.

What about open source software? It’s free. This whole site runs on Linux and open source exclusively. Should I start charging fees? Has Linux put Apple and Microsoft out of business?

There are many things people do out of kindness and generosity.

If a commercial organisation is not prepared to pay a musician for their time and skill then one would have to question the motivation of the organisation.

I can’t see how an act of pure generosity - playing for nothing - can be considered ‘unethical’. You are not doing it to undercut others in a desperate attempt to get exposure, or with intent to harm. It’s not your fault if this sets expectations that all performers will play for free.

Mr. Dent has uttered a great truth here: “What people want but do not pay for, they may not value.” I would slightly amend that from “may not” to “will not.”

From 2000 to 2006 I lived in Port Huron Michigan, a town on the other side of the St Clair River from Sarnia, Ontario, that had seen better days. During that period, pretty much the only “classical music” concerts were organised by the same small group of people:

the community college wind band, which I conducted,

the children of the School for Strings, where I taught double bass.

the small ensemble of three or four teachers from the School for Strings, for which I chose the repertoire, editing the same in Sibelius, and played continuo with one harpsichord solo per concert. (We gave many local premières of works by 17th and 18th century composers.)

The last two categories solved the financial problem by having a retiring collection for a local charity. I always made a little speech about this before the last piece, asking for folding money.

In those circumstances, nobody was taken advantage of.

As far as printing out the music was concerned, I learned the hard way not to begin two consecutive lines of music with the same notes, when we came hilariously adrift in 'Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring*, on account of one of the players repeating a line. The others, trying hard to suppress mirth, were unable to escape the chaos until I eventually made a big gesture to indicate the chorale section. The audience thoroughly enjoyed this escapade.